Reza Aslan Casts Light on Iran Nuclear Deal

With so much confusion and misinformation over the recent interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program, Ploughshares Fund president Joe Cirincione sat down with noted scholar and Middle East commentator Reza Aslan to sort out the facts. Dr. Aslan has been a member of the Ploughshares Fund board of directors since 2006.

Joe Cirincione: Let’s talk about some of the politics swirling around the nuclear deal. Can you give us a sense, Reza, of what’s going on inside Iran?

Reza Aslan: This interim deal has been quite revelatory in Iran. In fact, for many Iranians this is more than just an interim deal. It is seen as a possible historic pivot in the relations between Iran and the West.

The normalization of relations with the West is the topic of every conversation in Iran. It’s created two new political alignments in Iran, the reconciliation camp and the isolationist camp. The deal endorsed by the reconciliation camp, of which President Rouhani is a part, has gotten the blessing of the most senior ayatollahs, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Frankly, he’s the only person whose opinion actually matters.

This has muted the criticism from the isolationists. After all, it’s widely acknowledged that the Supreme Leader supports this deal, at least for now. So not supporting the deal is essentially not supporting the Supreme Leader. And that doesn’t actually happen in Iran, at least not vocally.

Joe: What about the amount of sanctions relief that this deal offers? What does the seven or eight billion dollars in relief actually provide, and how significant is this for Iran?

Reza: Not much. It’s not very significant at all, partly because Iran has about $100 billion dollars or so of its revenue frozen. This deal gives Iran back about $7 billion or so. So it’s not that much. It is not going to have that much of an effect on Iran’s economy because the sanctions have so utterly devastated it. Oil sales have been down about 60%, even from 2011 levels, and the currency plummeted around 80% since these sanctions took place. Following the agreement, the currency has rebounded a little bit, about 3%, but it’s still significantly weaker than it was even a couple of years ago. And the economy is going to continue to shrink. Experts say that it will probably shrink by another 1.5%, despite the small sanctions relief.

Joe: What role do you think President Rouhani sees for Iran in the Middle East? Does he see this nuclear deal as a way to reintegrate and be a regional player?

Reza: All Iranian factions have a sense that Iran is a regional leader, and that it should have widespread influence throughout the Middle East. Of course, this hasn’t always worked out well. There’s been a growing divide since the Islamic Revolution between Iran and the Gulf states. They see themselves on opposite sides of a sectarian divide and as competing for influence over the region.

But even those who were adamantly against Iran’s nuclear program have suddenly warmed to the results of the negotiations – specifically the UAE. Recently, the Foreign Minister of the UAE went to Tehran for a meeting with Rouhani. The Kingdom of Bahrain invited Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to participate in a regional security summit. Even Saudi Arabia, one of the most hard line protestors to the deal, has released a statement welcoming the joint plan of action.

I think all of this is part of Rouhani’s offensive. He wants to roll back Ahmadenijad’s strident conflict with Iran’s neighbors. He wants to create a sense of détente in the region, not just with the West. So far, this deal seems to have assisted him in this goal.

Joe: Lets say six months from now we have a final agreement in which Iran’s nuclear program is capped, has verifiable inspections, and sanctions start to be lifted. What does this mean for the region? Is it just about the nuclear issue or does it have the potential for a much more profound strategic shift in the region?

Reza: Absolutely. There are a lot of reasons for greater cooperation among some of these strident adversaries in the region. The nuclear issue has been the elephant in the room. It’s become impossible to talk about anything else, like the economic, social, political, and security issues that these nations share in common. You just can’t get past the concern that Iran’s nuclear program has instilled in the Gulf. If there is a way to get past this issue, it opens up the possibility for a whole new strategic alliance, one that will be to the benefit of American interests in the region.

These comments are excerpted from a recent Ploughshares Fund President’s Call. President’s Calls are candid, off-the-record dialogs with experts and leaders hosted by Ploughshares Fund President Joe Cirincione. They are offered to select Ploughshares Fund supporters and special guests. This excerpt is released with the permission of the quoted participants. For more information on President’s Calls, please contact Elizabeth Rogers at 415.668.2244 or