The Iran Deal: Power to the People

Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

Since the beginning there was opposition to the Iran Deal from members of Congress, television ads, and even commentary from the former Bush administration. On Thursday, however, it was casted aside when lawmakers stopped it in its tracks through a procedural vote of 58-42 that was unable to break the Senate Democrats filibuster. While the fate of the nuclear deal is sealed, there still continues to be some concern with the capabilities of the Iranian government.

Opponents in Congress continuously point to the chants of "death to America" by the vocal minority, argue the deal empowers the Iranian government's involvement in countries like Syria and Iraq, and will increase funding of Hezbollah and Hamas, amongst other things. However, there is a bigger picture analysts and politicians alike are not seeing or at least choosing to ignore: the Iranian people.

When the July 14 deal was announced, thousands took to the streets to celebrate a new chapter in Iran's relations with the world. Chants of "death to no one" were heard and Iranians held photos not of the country's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, but of their new hero: Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif with an American pedigree. Naturally, Iranian flags fluttered in the night air along with the stars and stripes, held by hands sporting green armbands, symbolic of the 2009 post-election protests known as Green Movement.

Their subtle presence was a reminder that the movement was alive and well six years later. These actions were mimicked in 2013 when Hassan Rouhani was elected president sans the American flags and included chanting slogans that echoed the names of Green Movement martyrs. One of the many demands of the Green Movement was for Iran to improve its relations with the west, an election promise President Rouhani heeded with the nuclear deal.

The Iranians who demonstrated in the streets during the 1979 revolution are not the same Iranians today. They come from all political and religious spectrums and cannot be confined to a monolithic radical Islamist entity some continue to paint them as. The dogmatic voice of the Iranian government, captured by the western media, does not reflect the reality on the ground.

The majority of Iran's population is under the age of 35, are highly educated (65 percent of universities are made up of women), and share an overall 98 percent youth literacy rate. Thanks to globalization, Iranian youth are not much different than anywhere else. Iranians also happen to be the most pro-American people in the Middle East.

Dealing with 35 years of theocratic rule has alienated some of the Iranian people from their government and made them not only politically secular, but also religiously. It is no longer uncommon to find people who quietly become Buddhists, Hindu, Christians, agnostic and even atheists.

After decades of international isolation, the Iranian people long to have some of their dignity back. They no longer want to be automatically put in the red line at the airport at the sight of their burgundy, Islamic Republic of Iran passport; they want to be treated with respect.

The Iranian people no longer want crushing sanctions implemented on their economy that have caused a humanitarian crisis through medicine shortages, impacted travel via airplanes, stunted growth in the field of humanities and sciences, fomented further bad air quality to the Beijing-like pollution levels, the loss of friends and family due to the largest brain drain in the world, and so on. Not to say that all of the Iranian people's woes are a result of western isolation and sanctions. Gross human rights violations are a problem in Iran, but human rights activists and members of Iran's civil society have come out as some of the strongest supporters of the nuclear deal.

While sanctions are meant to target the government, they have a great impact on the general population first and foremost. Some even argue that sanctions actually cause "economic and social hardships equivalent to those caused by war." Sanctions on Iran shrunk the middle class and hurt civil society--the core of democratic opposition. As a result, the Iranian people's priorities turned to survival on a daily basis rather than political organizing, as Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, points out. It's unrealistic to assume Iran will cease human rights violations as countries like China and Burma continue to repress their populations despite liberalization. Nevertheless, as Cuba demonstrates, international isolation doesn't work and can serve counter to the sanctions' objective. Rather than suspending the country's nuclear program, Iran sped it up over the years.

Separating the Iranian people from their government is integral to understanding what the nuclear deal means for the future of Iran. Iran has a democratic activism streak that dates back over one hundred years and while presidential candidates have to be vetted by the Guardian Council, the competitive authoritarian nature of the Velayat-e Faqih create a space for Iranians to vote in relatively free and fair elections in comparison to much of its Arab neighbors and to take control of their destiny--to an extent--by voting for the Assembly of Experts, city councils, president, and Majlis. This is precisely why Hassan Rouhani was elected: the Iranian people didn't want another hardliner president like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Choosing the diplomatic path empowers the Iranian people in a way no bullet or bomb ever could. That's why some of Iran's hardliners are opposed to the nuclear deal, because they know the moderates will marginalize them by pragmatists like President Rouhani and his administration. The revolutionary mindset is slowly dying and becoming irrelevant and with that comes political reforms. Iranians, while accepting of the status quo, quietly long for gradual political change in the form of greater civil liberties as demonstrated with the Green Movement. They already had a bloody revolution in 1979 and after the outcome of the 2011 Arab Uprisings, prefer to avoid the same fate again and take the quieter route of non-violent change.

Having an Iran deal opens the floodgates of economic opportunity, breaths new life into the middle class, and raises the standard of living, which are all vehicles of change. With the passing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the deal has done a lot more for positive transformation in Iran than sanctions ever could.