Obama is making a huge bet on Iran -- and his biggest foreign-policy experiment is at stake

Barack obama winkREUTERS/Larry DowningU.S. President Barack Obama winks while in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, April 23, 2013.

US President Barack Obama hopes Iran’s future belongs to people like Hafez Safaee.

Safaee, a 21-year-old, recently opened up a coffee shop in Tehran.

He “wants to bring people together through coffee,” revitalizing a culture that purveyed when Iran engaged in more trade with other countries, according to The Wall Street Journal.

People like Safaee are the crux of the biggest bet of Obama’s presidency, one that could define his legacy, as the US and its international partners on Tuesday finally secured a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

There is Saeed Laylaz, who was jailed for a year after speaking out against the government and now is a reform-minded economist. And there is Esmaeil Ghaderi, a tourism professor who was fired in 2005 and recently rehired.

Obama’s bet: In 10 or 15 years, when provisions of the nuclear deal start to expire, Iran will be a more moderate country. It will have used the $US100 billion in sanctions relief to invest in its economy, not to secure regional hegemony. And it will have a better relationship with the West and with the international community as a whole.

“I think there are hard-liners inside of Iran that think it is the right thing to do to oppose us, to seek to destroy Israel, to cause havoc in places like Syria or Yemen or Lebanon,” Obama said during an interview with NPR in April.

“And then I think there are others inside Iran who think that this is counterproductive. And it is possible that if we sign this nuclear deal, we strengthen the hand of those more moderate forces inside of Iran.”

Kerry iran talksREUTERS/Carlos BarriaUS Secretary of State John Kerry with foreign ministers of Germany, France, China, Britain, Russia, and the European Union during the Iran meetings at a hotel in Vienna on Tuesday.

Obama has long made it clear he thinks a deal is a better option, with or without those changes within Iran. He said Tuesday that walking away from a deal, even during its contentious final stages, would have been “irresponsible.”

“And at that, at the end of that period, maybe they have changed, maybe they haven’t,” Obama said in the NPR interview. “If they haven’t changed, we still have the options available to me — or available to a future president that I have available to me right now.”

Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, echoed the president’s sentiments in a recent conversation with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg.

“We believe that an agreement is necessary and has to be good enough to be worth doing even if Iran doesn’t change,” Rhodes said. “If 10 or 15 years from now Iran is the same as it is today, in terms of its government, the deal has to be good enough that it can exist on those merits.”

But critics of the deal point to a red flag in that bet: the likely chance that Iran will take billions of dollars in sanctions relief and dump it into further meddling in the Middle East.

“For example, even if the Iranians got only $US100 billion and used 90% to help the economy, the remaining $US10 billion would have a potentially big impact in places like Syria, Iraq, and Yemen,” Foreign Policy CEO David Rothkopf wrote in May. “Further, no one among the regional experts with whom I have recently spoken felt that the Iranians would use a fraction as low as 10% of the monies in support of their regional policies.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad ZarifReutersIranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gestures as he talks with journalist from a balcony of the Palais Coburg hotel where the Iran nuclear talks meetings are being held in Vienna, Austria July 10, 2015.

The State Department, in a report issued last month, said Iran continued to support “terrorist-related” activities in the region, including support of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah. Iranian proxies have also been a prime driver of conflict and instability in Yemen.

“To permit the Iranian regime over time to have a nuclear-weapons threshold capability with zero breakout before the IAEA certifies this program as peaceful, the Obama administration has to assume that time and money will transform the regime from a terrorism-supporting, human-rights-abusing, regionally aggressive regime to a more moderate and responsible one,” Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Washington-based Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider.

“Otherwise, no one would give these hard men of Iran this deal.”

Ayatollah Ali KhameneiReutersAyatollah Ali Khamenei speaking in Tehran in 2007.

Any moderation in Iran would most likely have to come from a change in leadership. But if Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei dies or steps down, all signs point to his replacement being just as much, if not more, of a hardliner.

Iran’s constitution stipulates that the country’s supreme leader is selected by the Assembly of Experts, a body comprising 86 elected religious leaders. In March, the Assembly of Experts elected the conservative Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi to lead the body.

“It is difficult to prophesy the outcome of Iran’s current power struggle,” analyst Ali Alfoneh wrote in a policy brief for the Foundation for Defence of Democracies. “But given the likely candidates to lead the country, one scenario may be safely ruled out: that Khamenei’s eventual demise will usher in a moderate Islamic Republic at peace with the world.”

Even some Obama administration officials, according to The Daily Beast, worry about Iran’s potential coming cash influx being used to support destabilizing activities in the Middle East, hinting at some doubt about the prospects for change in Iran.

Iraq shia militiaREUTERS/Thaier Al-SudaniA member from Hashid Shaabi (Iraqi Population Mobilization Units) with a picture of Khamenei and Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in Baghdad on March 31.

Basically, the administration isn’t sure, but it’s hoping for the best.

“They will have more money to be bad actors if they choose to be bad actors,” another senior administration official told The Wall Street Journal. “But they will also have more opportunities to be constructive if they choose that route.”

In the end, impartial observers have raised the point that the administration is willing to take that bet — even if it loses.

The reasons? Obama and his team want a foreign-policy win, a legacy item, and a reward for putting in the effort they have. And if the deal falls apart, it will be immensely difficult to maintain the biting levels of sanctions of the past decade, especially given the dispositions of China and Russia. Furthermore, the US is slowly becoming less aligned with Israel and Saudi Arabia while also becoming less dependent on Middle East oil.

Barack obama iran phone callAP/Barack Obama on a historic phone call with Iranian president Rouhani.

And then there’s the prospect of a more open Iran.

That “is the most uncertain of the reasons precisely because it’s destabilizing for the mullahs, and they’re very much aware of that,” geopolitical expert Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, told Business Insider. “But Iran is much more likely to open given an end of sanctions, [foreign direct investment] coming in, the diaspora community travelling, and the rest than if the deal falls apart.

“If it turns out Iran maintains its present orientation in the international environment,” Bremmer said, “all the other reasons supporting a deal still hold.”

Michael B. Kelley contributed to this report.

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