I first went to Iran in December 2001. It was pretty strange: a well-educated, middle-class police state. Many women dressed in black chadors in those days. They would not look at, talk to or shake the hand of a stranger. Things were changing, though. I met with a group of young women in a coffeehouse, college students who wore their headscarves back, so their hair could show–a defiant political statement. They were totally hip to American youth culture; their parents all had satellite dishes. At the end, I acknowledged that we couldn’t shake hands, but … “No, we want to shake hands,” said one of the women. And we did. It was very moving.
I went back in 2009, for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rigged re-election, and was chased through the streets by the religious police, the Basij, who were riding on motorbikes and swinging truncheons. I saw pro-democracy mullahs getting their heads cracked open by these thugs. But my strongest memory was, once again, of women–this time, older and more religious women on the south (poorer) side of town. Most of them were still in full chador, but their behavior had changed drastically. They were talking to me, enthusiastically, as they came out of a polling station, dragging their silent husbands along. They were not just shaking my hand, but grabbing my arm to make a point, cracking jokes–the Iranians have a lovely ironic sensibility–guffawing. When the police came over to investigate what I was doing there, the women shooed them away. This was, clearly, an evolving and utterly compelling place.
I tell these stories–and there are many more–because in all the frantic argument bound to come over the Iran nuclear deal, there is a tendency to focus on the hard guys–the Supreme Leader, the Revolutionary Guards, the Hizballah terrorists supported by Iran–and it’s easy to overlook the significant role played by the proud, sophisticated and pro-American Iranian people’s intense desire to rejoin the world. It was their vote that brought the Hassan Rouhani–Mohammad Javad Zarif negotiating team into (limited) power.
Much of the opposition to this deal will come from Benjamin Netanyahu and his neoconservative friends. But Bibi is an unreliable narrator. He tells gullible American visitors, privately, that as soon as the Supreme Leader gets the bomb, he’s going to launch on Israel. “That’s what he tells all the Americans,” a leader of the Israeli intelligence community told me, laughing at the brazen idiocy of it–the idea that the regime would invite the reciprocal incineration of Tehran. But in May, I heard Senator Lindsey Graham use the same line at the Iowa Republican state dinner. I approached him later, and Graham admitted that what he was really worried about was Iran slipping nuclear technology to terrorist groups like Hizballah. That is a real worry–and it would be nice if the coming conversation took place in the realm of real worries.
There are risks to this deal, obviously. If the Iranians haven’t negotiated in good faith, it won’t be hard for them to cheat. Then again, if the Iranians are found to be cheating egregiously, it won’t be hard for the U.S. to do what the Israelis and neoconservatives have wanted us to do all along–obliterate their nuclear facilities.
But those are worst-case scenarios. And while it’s important to be vigilant, it is also important to be realistic. The reality is that the CIA believes that any plans Iran had to build a nuclear weapon were abandoned in 2003, when the regime saw the U.S. overrun Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction and was afraid Iran might be next. The CIA also believes that the Iranian hierarchy is tough but rational, and certainly not suicidal. Iran has behaved in a brutally stupid manner toward its former ally Israel, but it also has real enemies. The growing war between Sunnis and Shi’ites will define the region for the foreseeable future–and Iran has, at this perilous moment, chosen to forgo the most effective deterrent against its Sunni foes, including its unstable Pakistani neighbors, who have a nuclear arsenal and a history of radical coups.
In the coming months, we’ll undoubtedly be hearing a lot more about the risks of this deal than about the potential rewards. That’s both human nature and political-season demagoguery. A sudden alliance with Iran seems unlikely, but we do have common interests, and the U.S. will be stronger strategically because of this deal, no longer at the mercy of Sunni “allies,” who funded al-Qaeda, armed the Taliban and provided safe harbor for Osama bin Laden.
Yes, the Iran deal is risky. But we have been taking all sorts of bellicose risks since Sept. 11, 2001. Almost all of our military ventures have failed. So many lives have been lost. It’s time, finally, to take a risk for peace.
This appears in the July 27, 2015 issue of TIME.
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