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What’s Really at Stake in the Iran Deal? Identity Politics.

This article originally appeared in The Washington Post on July 16, 2015.

By Sidra Hamidi

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement on Iran’s nuclear program heralds a new era in U.S.-Iranian relations, but many analysts are misunderstanding what’s important about it. To be sure, the deal’s limits on uranium enrichment, along with the verification mechanisms, are crucial in preventing Iran from building a nuclear weapon. But equally significant is the shift the talks represent in the way that Iran interacts with the international community, and the way the West thinks about Iran.

The current debate centers on whether or not the deal will lead to a wider regional transformation in the Middle East and the domestic challenges, both within the United States and Iran, that could impede its success. A host of different factors will determine the future of the current agreement. But preoccupation with the success of the deal is giving observers tunnel vision and diverting attention from the broader implications in U.S.-Iranian relations.

The swelling media attention to the technical details of the deal undermines the importance of the talks. The deal is historic, but the talks themselves were no less historic than the actual deal. A regional transformation is prioritized over the transformation in Iran’s nuclear status. Many observers have missed the underlying question that drives the debate: What kind of actor is Iran? The tension between Iran and the United States has always been about how each side sees the other and the way they see themselves – that is, about identity politics.

The talks signal a shift in the way that Iran is represented in the global nuclear order. Centrifuges, inspections and enrichment levels are important, but the meaning of these objects depends very much on how the two sides perceive each other. Is Iran an irrational rogue state or a rational, cooperating party? The answer to this question determines the likelihood of transformative change as a result of the deal.

The significance of the Iran deal resembles how relations with India changed for the United States around the signing of the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement in 2008. The anxiety that existed in the lead up to India deal is echoed in the current debate about the Iran deal. Prior to the negotiation of the 2008 agreement, in which the United States and India started a nuclear fuel trade for civilian energy purposes, India was characterized by its status as a nuclear pariah.

The rocky U.S.-India relationship began after Indian independence in 1947 and was compounded by India’s decision to enter the Non-Aligned Movement, which advanced an anti-colonial developmental agenda. India tested its first nuclear device in 1974, a move condemned by the international community for its opposition to the agenda of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). India vehemently opposed the “neo-colonial” agenda of the NPT and was perceived as a problem for the emerging global nuclear order. India’s ensuing nuclear competition with Pakistan further marred the relationship.

The India-U.S. nuclear deal was important not just because it set up a framework for peaceful use of nuclear energy, but also because it resulted in a major identity shift for India. India was able to enter the exclusive club of states whose possession of nuclear weapons is considered legitimate — despite the fact that India is not a signatory to the NPT. India went from being a nuclear pariah to a legitimate nuclear partner. Around the time of the completion of the U.S. agreement, India also signed an agreement with France for peaceful nuclear fuel trade.

While U.S.-India relations do not quite mirror the intensity of U.S.-Iranian relations, India’s example could be an important one for Iran: The India-U.S. deal allowed India to retain its arsenal and its independence on the world stage, while removing its problematic nuclear status as an impediment to foreign relations. Similarly, the current deal signals a steady transformation in the way that Iran sees itself and the way that the world sees Iran.

The symbolism in the Iran nuclear talks is not limited to prestige and face saving. National identity is not the only symbolic function at stake, Iran’s identification in the global nuclear order is also at stake. It seems likely that Iran possesses weapons breakout capacity and the deal was explicitly an attempt to both delay and undermine this capacity. But even without nuclear weapons, Iran had already been “nuclear” in a political sense in that it was identified, both internally and externally, as such. Iran’s interaction with the rest of the world was characterized by its identification as a “nuclear” – and thereby a pariah – state.

Iran was branded — indeed sanctioned — as “nuclear,” but this was a brand that Iran chose to accept. For instance, in 2010 then-President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad declared that Iran was a “nuclear” state — an action that demonstrates the perceived value of this identification. This brand is no longer a viable way to define Iran. For the United States, the rivalry with Iran is outdated and limits American engagement in the Middle East. For Iran, its status as a nuclear pariah does not reflect changing national identity and the resulting image it portrays abroad.

As such, the current talks and the resulting deal are an attempt to change Iranian identity, to define Iran by something other than its nuclear status. The United States and Iran are pursuing this equally, signaling a fundamental change in the way that both sides perceive each other, even outside the bounds of nuclear relations. The identity shift is occurring through a redefinition of the kind of nuclear actor that Iran represents, but also through the kind of global actor Iran represents.

In the United States, those policymakers and analysts who lament the comprehensive agreement with Iran on technical grounds, including many Republicans, seem to overlook that Iran does already have breakout capacity and that this capacity existed prior to the deal. While the debate seems to remain technical, the objections to the deal are rooted in a disdain for the fundamental shifts in U.S.-Iran relations. Those who would like to keep defining Iran through its nuclear status are threatened by this sort of change because it unsettles the way they understand Iran. In a PBS Newshour interview, former CIA director James Woolsey characterized Iran as “theocratic, totalitarian, genocidal imperialists,” a view that necessitates opposition to the comprehensive agreement.

On the other hand, President Obama’s assertion that the deal is based on “verification” rather than trust, is also a misrepresentation of the stakes. Verification cannot be had through negotiation of technical terms alone, it requires a social filter through which different mechanisms of verification become legitimate. This does not mean that verification cannot exist without trust. Rather, verification requires a baseline change in the way that two negotiating parties perceive one another – a shift in their identities.

So as we keep eye on the technical aspects of the current deal in order to inform the prospects for a regional transformation, we should also keep an eye on whether the burgeoning identity shifts signaled by the talks can persist in redefining U.S.-Iran relations. Ultimately, what is at stake is not Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons but the filter with which international actors see Iran’s nuclear status.

- Sidra Hamidi is a doctoral candidate in political science at Northwestern University.

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