When my American wife and I flew into the Iranian island of Kish in 2007 from the nearby emirate of Dubai, we did so with reservations. The blue mosques of Isfahan had been our original destination, but difficulties acquiring the necessary travel documents had forced us to settle for Kish--the only part of Iran a US citizen could visit without a visa.
Along with being Iran's 'premier' beach resort, Kish also is the place where, a few months before our visit, the CIA subcontractor Robert Levinson 'disappeared' while conducting some ill-advised fieldwork. Exactly what intelligence Levinson was gathering is still unknown, but spending even a modicum of time on Kish would convince any visitor that Iran needs the nuclear talks recommencing in Vienna this week to succeed just as much as anyone else at the table.
Our weekend away in Kish came while I was researching a book on Dubai's rise to prominence as a self-styled Kingdom of Bling. Contrasting Dubai's hyper-globalized economy with Iran's--formerly the region's powerhouse--hammered home not only the true extent of the emirate's transformation, but also how Iran had stagnated due to a decades-long sanctions regime.
On visa-free Kish, the natives were restless. Gripes included petrol rationing--the world's fifth largest oil producer was allocating 26 gallons a month to its citizens--and a crackdown on men and women mingling in seaside cafes. While dining out, a waiter bemoaned a father's decision not to take up citizenship of a Gulf state years ago, a move that would have guaranteed the family's financial security. Even the chelo kebab in the simple Persian restaurants in Dubai's Deira quarter tasted better those in the '5 Star' Kish Shayan Hotel.
This was all a far cry from the Middle Eastern Monte Carlo the late Shah Mohammed Raza Pahlavi had envisioned in the 1970s, when a runway was constructed capable of welcoming both the Concorde and the international jet-set to Kish. While this Persian parvenu clearly suffered from delusions of grandeur, the sight of an Arabian arriviste such as Dubai becoming the regional hotspot, while Iran floundered amid aspirations of regional military might, was not sitting well with the local populace.
While Iran built Shahab 3 missiles, Dubai built Shangri-La.
But the Iranian government has faced varying sanctions since the revolution in the 1979 and survived, so why engage now? Clearly the idea that US sanctions have brought Iran "to its knees" is overblown. Ultimately, internal maneuvering as various actors in Iran defend or seek political power will be driving the agenda. But Iran's willingness to waltz with the US in Vienna suggests its rulers know that isolation, currency scares, subsidies and rationing are not the most effective way to maintain the wilayat al faqih in the long-term.
If Tehran is looking for guidance on how to smother calls for political reform through a globalized economic renaissance, it needs look no farther than Beijing. There, the Communist Party has happily sold its soul to Mammon to stay in power. The ghosts of Tiananmen Square have drowned in a sea of Chanel and Dior. Elsewhere, societies as philosophically disparate as Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Singapore have shown that a citizenry's silence can be bought through a mixture of intimidation and lucre, but Iran needs to keep its side of such 'ruling bargains'.
No doubt some in the Iranian government know that economic prosperity and political support run in tandem, thus the current efforts at a rapprochement. While former president George W. Bush talked an aggressive game on Iran, the Obama administration has made sanctions really bite by convincing the reluctant (India), the half-hearted (France) and others to come on onboard. The more effective strategy was not passing new and tougher sanctions on Capitol Hill, but convincing the rest of the world to apply, even partially, those already on the books.
Now, India pays Iran for some of its oil not in dollars, but in rupees. Meanwhile, oil companies like Shell, TOTAL, ENI have declined to make the vast infrastructure investments Iran needs to avoid imposing irksome restrictions on motorists. While the situation is complex the immediate options for Iran appear simple: accept its pariah status or pursue a gradual rapprochement with the global economy.
If the talks succeed and an accord is reached, the benefits will be both great and small. The US and Iran may take the first steps down a long road to détente; Mr. Levinson could reappear from his long occultation to be reunited with his family; and my wife may finally get to visit Isfahan's famed Masjed-e Jāmé rather than the staid duty-free shops of Kish.
Despite the guarded optimism emanating from some circles, we're not buying tickets just yet.