Harry Anastasiou Ph.D.
Harry Anastasiou is cofounder and Director of the Rotarian Action Group for Peace, and professor of International Peace and Conflict Studies in the Conflict Resolution Program at Portland State University.


A Historic Agreement or Historic Failure

On July 15, 2015, following an extended period of crippling economic sanctions on Iran, a historic agreement was reached in the two-year long negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, China, France, Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom, plus Germany and the European Union). The agreement, entitled Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, entails the future of Iran’s controversial nuclear program. According to the substance of accord, in exchange of the lifting of sanctions by the international community, Iran is to reduce its stockpile of low-level enriched uranium by 98 percent, and also reduce its centrifuges by two thirds. On July 20 the UN Security Council endorsed the agreement unanimously.

Throughout the years of negotiations the political leadership and citizenry of the US, Iran and Israel have become polarized between those who support a negotiated agreement and those who oppose it. Since the agreement of July 14, this polarization intensified, especially in the US, in anticipation of the pending decision of Congress to ratify or reject the agreement within sixty days. President Obama, who delivered his arguments on the significance of the agreement, warned that if Congress rejects the agreement he would veto the decision, in which case the rejectionist camp would need two thirds of the votes in Congress to overturn the President’s veto.

The differences in perspective were evident in how spokespersons of each camp described the agreement. While the opponents of the deal characterized the agreement as a historic mistake and a threat to security, supporters of the deal characterized it as a historic agreement and a victory for peace.

The fundamental disagreement over substance hinges on whether or not Iran ought to have a nuclear program at all. The opponents of the agreement argue that Iran should not be permitted to have any nuclear program, and specifically it should not be allowed any uranium enrichment capability. This condition, the rejectionist argue, should be enforced by the US and its allies using all possible means, including military force. Moreover, the perspective of the rejectionist presumes that international law, which permits the civilian use of nuclear power, ought not be a hindrance to America’s unilateral actions against Iran.

By contrast, the supporters of the agreement argue that, while historically sanctions have not deterred Iran from going forward with its nuclear program, the negotiated framework puts a halt to Iran’s nuclear capabilities, preventing it from weaponing, while allowing Iran a restricted and strictly monitored, civilian use of nuclear power, within the framework of international law and the UN Treaty on the non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), of which Iran is a signatory. The perspective of the supporters of the agreement, is also underpinned by the idea that the agreement underscores the imperative for, and success of, multilateral diplomacy over war, while it strengthens international law, respects Iranian legitimate rights, and opens a pathway for Iran toward normalized relations with the international community.

However, this battle between the opponents and advocates of the agreement with Iran entails a much deeper divergence that reflects two competing master narratives. In turn, these narratives chart two very dissimilar paths to the future, with far reaching differences regarding the efficacy of war and peace. The narrative of the rejectionists’ side may be identified as more driven by a bellicose nationalist perspective, while the narrative on the supporters’ side may be identified as more driven by a peace and democracy perspective.

In light of the above, the reflections that follow are not focused on the technical details of the Iran agreement, as each narrative contextualizes and understands the technical details quite differently. Rather, the reflections that follow focus on the more neglected factor. That is, the impact of the contrasting narratives and how differently they are likely to shape future developments in the relationship between the international community and Iran, and more importantly between the US and Iran. Which of the two narratives prevails is therefore critical of how the future unfolds, including the future of the Middle East.

Published in last week’s issue, Part I of the present inquiry, entitled “The Bellicose Nationalist Narrative and its Real-world Implications” focused on the narrative of the opponents of the Iran agreement. (See Part I here.)

Part II of the present inquiry, which immediately follows, centers attention on the narrative of the supporters of the Iran agreement.


Part II

The Peace and Democracy Narrative and its Real-world Implications

 In contrast to the rejectionist camp, the advocates of the Iran agreement premise their approach on the idea that while disagreements between the western powers and Iran persist, and while the American and Iranian perspectives on an array of issues remain divergent, the nuclear agreement, once it takes root, has the capacity to constructively and non-violently launch a historical process that could gradually modify the relationship between the US and Iran, and more generally between the West and Iran. Moreover, while acknowledging that nothing is absolutely certain when it comes to how the complexities of history unfold, the supporters of the deal see the negotiated agreement as a sound and well-grounded framework for engaging Iran in the short and the long term, rather than indefinitely coercing and threatening Iran with crippling sanctions and recourse to deadly military force, in a region already ravaged by war. The multilateral, and often post-nationalist, mindset that drives the advocates of the deal, sees the agreement as a significant steppingstone in addressing vexing security issues through peaceful means, while envisioning a path of further constructive engagements with Iran as incrementally catalytic for positive change.

Even though harsh economic sanctions on Iran preceded the negotiated agreement, some of the most insightful analysts and advisors to the Obama administration stressed that beyond a certain point, having escalating economic sanction indefinitely in place become not only counter productive in terms of the desired end, but would also empower the most hardline nationalists among the Iranian leadership and citizenry. As the negotiated agreement charts a course of phasing out the economic sanctions, supporters argue, the more moderates among the Iranian leadership and citizenry become increasingly empowered.

Through the agreement, moderate Iranians are placed in the advantageous position of arguing that whereas the bellicose nationalism of the Ahmadinejad administration led to damaging economic sanctions and deepening Iran’s alienation from the international community, the more moderate government of Rouhani has succeeded in diffusing these harmful restraints. Moderates may assert that by choosing to negotiate rather than antagonize the West, the Rouhani administration achieved agreement on lifting the sanctions and thus opening a path for Iran to grow its economy under conditions that increasingly normalize Iran’s trade relations with the world, while securing Iran’s legitimate right to have a civilian nuclear program in accordance with international law.


Iranian leaders and citizens who have traditionally worked toward democratic reforms, but were suppressed and overrun by the Iranian hardline leadership, as a result of and throughout the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, may reemerge as vital historical voices. They are likely to do so by pointing to the landmark agreement and asserting that the national interest of Iran can in fact be secured through diplomacy and peaceful means, reducing the prospect of war and heightening the prospect for normalizing Iran’s relationship with the international community, while underscoring the enormous, national economic and security benefits that could result from such eventuality.

This type of process is reflective of a historical dynamic that, as in other cases, has had the demonstrable propensity of positively transforming counties, governments and inter-state relations in incremental, yet stable ways. Once the nuclear agreement takes root as a sustainable framework, and all sides start experiencing not only the relief of conflict de-escalation but also the mutual benefits of this vital first step, albeit on the long road toward normalization, then further possibilities for engagement would emerge as natural, appropriate and desirable for all concerned. It would therefore create the conditions for further constructive dialogue between the US and Iran, as well as between Iran and other western nations. Further treaties and agreements are likely to result in multiple spheres, ranging from trade, to education, to initial tourism, to scientific cooperation, medicine, culture and other areas of common interest and benefits. Within the framework of such a process, the involvement and activation of civil society initiatives in different socioeconomic spheres would open up, thus building further peace bridges of mutual benefit between America and Iran, as well as between other western countries and Iran.

Understandably, there would be objections and resistance to such trends gaining traction. In light of the conditioning of past adversarial history, not everyone would be in favor of such developments. The reference here is to the most radical, hardline nationalist factions within each stake holding country, who for decades had tended to trust militancy, coercion, conflict and even deadly force far more than diplomacy, multilevel engagement, conflict transformation, relationship building, and peace oriented approaches to security. The hardliners would certainly try to obstruct and even reverse any conciliatory progress from going forward. In light of this challenge, the likely success by the newly empowered supporters of the nuclear agreement in pursuing further constructive engagements between Iran and the international community, would be critical in deepening and expanding the efforts towards peace enhancing approaches to the complex relationship between the American-led West and Iran.

Continued multilateral efforts that would build on the nuclear agreement, leading to further agreements, treaties and multilevel engagements that steadily improve relationships, would gradually shift the historical momentum on the side of moderation, of conflict transcending, and peacebuilding processes. In turn such a process would in time slowly delegitimize and even marginalize the more bellicose and militant factions within each of stake holding countries, while gradually legitimize as relevant and appropriate the moderates and peace oriented leaders and constituencies of the respective countries.

Sustained and increased over time, multiple treaties on non-controversial issues would help launch and sustain a process of low-level politics that, as in other cases, has proven to positively transform relationships, setting them on a path of incremental trust building, while increasing transparency, mutual respect and even enhancing more democratic types of interactions in inter-state relations.

Integral to such a process would be the opening up and actualization of intra- and inter-societal economic opportunities and growth, improving and furthering prosperity and wellbeing. Over five to ten years of developments along this path would also create the conditions for Iran’s admission into the UN’s World Trade Organization, one of Iran’s long-standing aims. Through transformative agreements, treaties, mutual benefits and incentives, the gradual but steadfast integration of Iran into the international community is likely to modify Iran’s outlook, beyond its esoteric, religious nationalism and deep suspicion of the West. Sustained over time, such a trend is likely to open up Iran’s political culture to a more moderate, cooperative, multilateral, international and cosmopolitan one, with even a democratic vision for itself and its future. Such a likely shift would be very aligned with, and would build upon, the rising new generation of young and highly educated Iranians who already long for a more open and internationally connected society.

Throughout the years of rapprochement, from the time the nuclear agreement comes into force to a likely subsequent era of building further relations at multiple levels between the US-led West and Iran, civil society and diplomatic interactions across the conflict lines of past decades would gradually increase. Both American and western media, as well as Iranian media would be increasingly covering a likely array of conflict transcending, transformative phenomena, ranging from the joint appearances of high-level diplomats forging new mutually beneficial agreements and treaties, to joint projects, to cross-country investments and business activities, to civil society involvement in cooperative initiatives, etc.

Under such conditions, extreme enemy stereotypes and bellicose nationalist narratives that have hitherto characterized the media content of the respective stake holding countries would likely receded in the background of history, as new media images of “the other” begin to appear in a more moderate, disaggregate, diverse and possibly conciliatory light. With such trends taking root, one would also anticipate the gradual appearing of American and western representatives in Iranian media, communicating directly with leaders and citizens of Iranian society, as well as Iranian representatives appearing in American and western media communicating directly with leaders and citizens of western societies. In light of such likely developments, the Iranian nationalist stereotype of America as “the Great Satan” and the American nationalist stereotype of Iran as “the Axis of Evil,” would appear as less believable. They would increasingly appear as unnecessary and dangerous exaggerations, which traditionally have restricted freedom of choice and freedom of thinking in seeking creative, innovative and constructive approaches to US-Iran relations.

In this likely historical context, the traditional rationale of the Iranian hardline factions, aiming to develop the nation’s nuclear capacity completely unimpeded would appear less and less relevant and more outdated, as national economic and security benefits from conciliatory approaches would be on the rise and therefore more visible.

As relationships between the international community and Iran would improve, through a positive dynamic engagement that would commence with the nuclear agreement, the process, in time, would create more favorable conditions for addressing specific controversial issues, including those pertaining to the complex challenges of the broader region of the Middle East and North Africa. As Iran’s relationship to the international community, and more specifically to the US and the West, would become increasingly normalized, it would likely soften and de-radicalize Iran’s relationship to militant religious nationalist groups, such as Sunni Hamas in Gaza and Shi’a Hezbollah in Lebanon. It is very likely that such unfolding of historical trends would simultaneously decompress the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while empowering the more moderate leaders and citizens among Israelis and Palestinians to assume more daring initiatives for peace. It would also empower moderates in the US leadership and other western nations. In the course of time, as US-Iran relations would become emboldened through evolving normalizing processes, joint US-Iranian efforts towards the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would become a reality. Within five to ten years, the opportunities opened up by the Iran nuclear agreement, with a series of follow-up complimentary engagements between the US-led West and Iran, may, in fact, greatly facilitate and constructively contribute toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

With such eventuality visible on the historical horizon, numerous calls by various international bodies, experts, and Arab states, and now also by Iran, to launch an international process for a nuclear weapons free Middle East would emerge as realistic and tangible. In this context, with the US sustaining leadership throughout the decade following the Iran nuclear agreement, Israel’s security would not be dependent on its arsenal of more that 80 nuclear bombs, with six decades of ambivalence and sustained arms racing dynamic in the region. Rather, Israel’s future would start depending more on security frameworks emanating from an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement on a two-state basis, and from multilateral security agreements and treaties of mutual recognition with the major nations of the Middle East. Economic growth, peace and prosperity would naturally follow in the decades to come from such a scenario, as the Middle East would be on a path of increasing integration and interdependency, rather than on a path of war, violence, dislocation and rising fragmentation.

With US-Iran relations improving, Saudi Arabia, as a traditional US ally, would likely shift toward a more moderate relation to Iran, especially as Iran’s nuclear capacity becomes greatly restricted and monitored, and as Iran begins to emerge through the normalization of relations to the world’s leading nations, while starting to benefit from this process. Under such a scenario, Saudi Arabia would not want to lag behind in its relationship to the US. In this context, Saudi Arabia’s way forward would be to deescalate its rivalry with Iran and reduce its support toward militant Sunni factions across the Middle East, thereby reversing its hitherto approach, including its initial support in the rise of ISIS. (It is noteworthy that Saudi Arabia already has accepted the Iran deal, albeit reluctantly.)

Once the improved US-Iran relations gain historical momentum, they are likely to pull Saudi Arabia-Iran relations in a more moderate direction. Such a trend would likely mark the first steps on a path that could start deescalating the terrible Sunni-Shi’a divide across the Middle East. With improved relations between the US and Iran, and between Iran and the international community, both Iran and Saudi Arabia would have a rising interest in not only halting the deadly Sunni-Shi’a conflict across the region but even in playing a more constructive role building bridges across the Sunni-Shi’a divide throughout the decade ahead. With Saudi Arabia and Iran gradually joining the process that the US, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Germany initiated through the Iran nuclear deal, the conditions may be created for a concerted multilateral effort at forging a diplomatic solution to the catastrophic Syrian war.

Under such conditions, the profoundly disenchanted Sunnis across the region, and especially those who suffered enormously as a result of the civil war in Iraq following the US invasion, and the war in Syria following the Arab Spring, may be offered a historical path away from the extreme religious fundamentalism and authoritarianism of ISIS—the only refuge they have had thus far for security and social order.

As the integration of Iran in the international community would advance, and as prudent moderation would replace conflict escalation and confrontation between leading Shi’a power Iran and leading Sunni power Saudi Arabia, the Sunni populations across the Middle East region would most likely start disengaging from the authoritarian and militant jihadism of ISIS, including the latter’s apocalyptic fantasy of Armageddon and end of days. In the eyes of Sunnis, an alternative to following ISIS may therefore gradually emerge as both realistic and preferable. Sunnis would therefore have an opportunity for integration into a more promising, secure and stable future, as the aforementioned likely developments may prompt them to start associating their need for security and self-determination to more sustainable and grounding narratives of peaceful coexistence, acknowledgement, power sharing, and democratic pluralism, rather than to extreme, religious-militant narratives that have been incubated by a decade and a half of violence and warfare in the post-9/11 era.


The two scenarios emanating from the accepting or rejecting the Iran nuclear agreement (as described in Part I and Part II of the present article) are imaginative projections, based on current realities, of likely historical outcomes and their bearing on war and peace. As such, when compared to the real history a decade from now, they will surely contain many inaccuracies. In some cases they may even be far fetched. However, these imaginary projections are not intended to engage in fortunetelling but rather in heightening our awareness of how different paths to the future may be forged depending on whether we choose to operate from the more bellicose and nationalist narrative, or from the more peace and democracy narrative. In this light, whether as citizens, as leaders, as nations, as civil society groups or movements, we stand at the crossroad of historical decisions, with enormous consequences as to whether our world of tomorrow will be marked by the ravages of war, violence, destruction and insecurity, or conciliation, peacebuilding, security and peace. So let us all choose wisely, not only for our own wellbeing, but more so for the wellbeing of our children and grandchildren, in our own country and in all countries concerned, as our choices today will determine the type of inheritance we will offer them tomorrow.