THE BLOG
10/23/2014 05:17 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2014

Tehran. Waiting for Normality

Returning to Tehran a little over a month before the November 24 nuclear negotiations deadline was for me the source of a number of surprises.

In the first place, the city -- judging from its bustling pace and crazy traffic -- does not seem the capital of a country on its knees because of the sanctions and not even, from talking to a number of people in different walks of life, in real trouble. Moreover, one is struck, in comparison with only one year ago, with a significant drop in the tensions that were produced by the possibility that the nuclear controversy might turn into a military attack on the country.

What I also found in Tehran was a widespread belief that the brutal onslaught of the so-called Islamic State will not allow the US to open another military front in the region, while the most optimistic hope that finally Washington will realize that -- as Roger Cohen has recently written in The New York Times -- Iran is "a serious and stable country in an unstable region." The great majority of Iranians, with the only exception of regime radicals, is convinced that normalizing relations with the US is the only way toward normalization of relations of Iran with the world.

This is why, although the fear that a failure of the nuclear negotiation might entail a military attack has sharply decreased, everyone agrees on the great importance of reaching an agreement. Technical aspects are admittedly complex and often controversial, but most people in Tehran are convinced that the outcome will depend on political factors rather than from issues such as the number of centrifuges, the level of uranium enrichment or the length of the "breakout time." The best guarantee that Iran will not break out of an agreement and rush to build a nuclear bomb -- someone told me in Tehran -- is not only that Iran is not North Korea, but that not even the most extremist regime diehards imagine it could afford to be North Korea, with its isolation from the international community.

All Iranians I talked to believe that what is really at stake is the full integration of Iran within the international community, for some a dreaded perspective: certainly for Israel, but also for the Gulf countries, in the first place Saudi Arabia. When Israelis and Saudis exhort President Obama to be intransigent on the nuclear issue it is not because they seriously believe that they might become the target of an Iranian nuclear attack, but because they fear that, if Iran -- freed from what has worked as a true handicap -- is enabled to exert its full international role, this might entail Iranian regional hegemony. A legitimate concern, indeed, but if it is true that Iranian hegemony is not acceptable, Iranian exclusion is not possible, except by accepting -- especially at this critical juncture in the region -- very negative consequences for regional stability.

In Tehran, however, people are explicitly aware of the fact that what is really at stake relates to internal rather than international politics. President Rouhani has certainly put all his political eggs in the nuclear basket, and the outcome of the nuclear negotiations will determine whether the country will embark on a gradual process of a renewal that is not only economic, but will affect both politics and civil society.

Rouhani has obtained from the Supreme Leader the mandate for conducting what has turned out to be serious negotiations, but Ayatollah Khamenei was careful not to appear as giving him a blank check. On the contrary, while not blocking nor undermining the work of the Iranian negotiators (in the first place Foreign Minister Zarif, a true diplomatic "top gun"), he has repeatedly voiced skepticism on Washington's goodwill, thus hedging his bets in the case of a failure. The fact is that the Iranian regime, contrary to what is generally believed, is not as ideological as it sounds, but is rather characterized by the capacity to "shift gears" according to expediency.

So far Rouhani has pushed the "pause" button on what are known to be his plans in other components of a platform that is not explicit but that in Tehran no one considers mysterious: from ending the house arrests of Mousavi and Karroubi to the widening of spaces for civil society, especially the younger generations. However, only a successful conclusion of the nuclear negotiation would allow him to consolidate his hold on the government of the country and address a wider range of political issues. Basically a centrist, he is not a reformist, but few in Tehran doubt that he is a reformer.

It is certainly legitimate for American and European negotiators within the 5+1 framework to demand that Iran give all the guarantees necessary to attain a result that is both substantial and credible. What comes to mind is Reagan's "trust but verify" at the time of strategic negotiations with the Soviets.

One should not forget, however, that a failure of the negotiation would produce a political debacle for Rouhani and put an end to his cautious attempt to move toward attaining the goal, which unites the great majority of Iranians, of becoming a "normal country" -- normal internationally and normal internally. A failure would by the same token give a powerful boost to those currents that, though being a minority (as Rouhani's first-round election has proved), still maintain significant positions of power within the regime and are hoping in the failure of the negotiations in order to go back to the good old times of ideological orthodoxy and militant confrontation with the Great Satan.

Iran is not a nuclear file, it is a country. An important one. What one brings back from conversations in Tehran is the widespread hope that both political realism and an "ethic of responsibility" will prevail on all sides.

A version of this article was published in La Stampa, Turin, on October 12, 2014