What exactly is it that the Obama administration thinks has changed about the leadership of Iran? Of all the questions which remain unanswered in the wake of the P5+1 deal with Iran, this one is perhaps the most unanswered of all.
There must, after all, be something that a Western leader sees when an attempt is made to "normalize" relations with a rogue regime -- what Richard Nixon saw in the Chinese Communist Party that persuaded him that an unfreezing of relations was possible, or what Margaret Thatcher saw in the eyes of Mikhail Gorbachev, which persuaded her that here was a counterpart who could finally be trusted.
After all, the outward signs with Iran would seem to remain unpromising. Last Friday in Tehran, just as the P5+1 were wrapping up their deal with the Iranians, the streets of Iran were playing host to "Al-Quds Day." This, in the Iranian calendar, is the day, inaugurated by the late Ayatollah Khomeini, when anti-Israel and anti-American activity come to the fore even more than usual. Encouraged by the regime, tens of thousands of Iranians march in the streets calling for the end of Israel and "Death to America". Not only Israeli and American flags were burned -- British flags were also torched, in a touching reminder that Iran is the only country that still believes Britain runs the world.
The latest in a long line of "moderate" Iranian leaders, President Hassan Rouhani, turned up at one of these parades himself to see the Israeli and American flags being burned. Did he intervene? Did he explain to the crowd that they had got the wrong memo -- that America is now our friend and that they ought at least to concentrate their energies on the mass-burning of Stars of David? No, he took part as usual, and the crowds reacted as usual.
Participants in Tehran's Quds Day rally burn U.S. and Israeli flags, on July 10, 2015. (Image source: ISNA)
It was the same just a few weeks ago, when the Iranian Parliament met to discuss the Vienna deal. On that occasion, after some authorized disputation, the Iranian Parliament broke up, with the representatives chanting "Death to America."
A generous person might say that this is unimportant -- that in Iran, chanting "Death to America" is like throat-clearing. This is just what we are being told -- that these messages are "just for domestic consumption," and don't mean anything.
Putting aside what they say for a moment, what is it about Iran's actions that have changed enough to persuade the U.S. government that the Iranian regime might be a regime in transition?
Internally there has been no let-up in the regime's campaign of oppression against their own Iranian people: hanging people for a range of "crimes," from being gay to being a poet found guilty of "blasphemy," continue.
Iran has hanged more than a thousand of these internal "enemies" in the last eighteen months alone, as negotiators sat in Vienna thrashing out a deal. In the wider region, Iran remains the most voraciously ambitious, and perhaps the only successfully outgoing, regional power. In the years since the "Arab Spring" began, only Iran has been able significantly to extend its reach and grip in the region. It now has a vastly increased presence and influence in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. It continues to arm its terrorist proxies, including Hezbollah, which in turn continues to increase its build-up of rockets and other munitions on the northern border of Israel.
Iran has not released the four American hostages it continues to hold -- Pastor Saeed Abedini, for the crime of converting to Christianity; Washington Post journalist Jason Rezian, on the patently nonsensical charges of espionage; former U.S. Marine Amir Mirza Hekmati, who went to Iran to visit his grandmother; and retired DEA and FBI agent Robert Levinson, who was abducted eight years ago and has not been heard from since early 2013. This, in spite of last-minute requests from Iran to lift a ban on conventional weapons, acceded to by the members of the P5+1, wasting yet another abandoned opportunity actually to get something in return for their total surrender.
From the outside, it would seem that very little has changed in the rhetoric of Iran and very little has changed in the regime's behavior. That is why the mystery of what change the U.S. administration and its partners see in the eyes of the Ayatollahs is so doubly curious.
Because the nature of the deal makes it exceptionally important that there is some change. In the next decade, in exchange for the supposed "managed inspections" of limited Iranian sites, the Ayatollas are going to enjoy a trade explosion with a cash bonanza of $140 billion unfrozen assets, just to start them off. Throughout that same decade, there will be a lifting of restrictions on -- among other things -- the sale and purchase by Iran of conventional arms and munitions. Iran will finally be able to purchase the long-awaited anti-aircraft system that the Russians (also of course present at the table in Vienna) want to sell them. This system -- among the most advanced surface-to-air missile systems -- will be able to shoot down any American, Israeli or other jets that might ever come to destroy Iran's nuclear project. And surely only an uncharitable person would wonder why Iran's rulers are buying the technology they would need to repel any attack on their nuclear project at the same time as they are promising the Americans that they are not developing nuclear weaponry.
And it is even more important that the signs of hope located by the U.S. administration are correct, because after all, barring an internal uprising -- which the Vienna deal makes more unlikely than ever (having strengthened the diplomatic and financial hand of the regime) -- it is safe to say that over the next decade and beyond the Mullahs will remain in charge in Iran.
In the U.S., Germany, France and Britain, by contrast, who knows who will be in charge? In Britain, the Labour party may have romped to victory with, at its head, Jeremy Corbyn MP (currently Labour leadership contender) -- a man who has openly and repeatedly praised Hamas and Hezbollah as his "friends." That would certainly change the dynamics.
But put aside such a potentially unlikely situation and assume that Britain and America simply do politics as usual. In ten years, there will have been four U.S. governments overseeing the implementation of this deal and scrutinizing the inspections-compliance of the Iranian regime.
In the UK, there will have been at least two new governments. Who is to say that all these different governments -- of whatever party or political stripe -- will pay the same attention, know what to look out for, and feel as robust about totally unenforceable "snapback sanctions" and other details of the implementation of this deal as the signatories to the deal appear to expect? Is it possible that the Iranians actually know this?
Perhaps, after all, there is something in the eyes of the Ayatollahs. Maybe US Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama really have looked into the Iranian leaders' eyes and seen a smile. But whether it is for the reason they appear to believe is, of course, quite another matter.