Change has come, or so the Obama administration has been preaching since the election of President Hassan Rouhani, arguing that a deal with Iran has now become possible. Rouhani and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, also jumped on the word "change" and the possibility of a "historic" deal.


Yet in Zarif's version, it is America and the world – not Iran – that have changed. Globalization and other factors, Zarif believes, have made the old world order anachronistic: old rules should be replaced with new ones that give non-Western countries a bigger role in international affairs. And thus, the faster America and the West realize this new reality, the faster "change" can result in a deal, and the faster some pressing Middle Eastern problems can be solved.


The Iranians have not been the only ones to think that the "decline of the West" requires new rules. Russia's Vladimir Putin has similar ideas. Turkey's Recep Erdogan thought he could revive the Ottoman Empire. Brazil gave the West a hard time during its two-year membership in the UN Security Council. Even Egypt's Mohamed Morsi believed that his miserable government and its devastated economy could join the anti-Western bloc led by BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).


But the "rise of the rest" was only good as long as it lasted. Today, even the behemoth China is facing steep declines in economic growth due to structural, rather than cyclical, problems. Russia's economy is contracting, while Turkey can barely defend its lira from devaluation. And when China is wobbly, so are its suppliers of primary sources, like Brazil.


Iran's rentier economy, driven by oil sales, has been in free fall due to US-led international sanctions. A nuclear deal was Iran's best bet to end the sanctions and arrest its decline. Even so, given America's boom in shale fuel and the low prices of oil and gas, despite the Middle East's worst crises, Iran will still face economic turbulence even in the unlikely case that its oil production comes back online.

So it turns out that “the rest” are not as mighty as they seemed a few years ago. The West remains ahead of the race, thus reaffirming the idea that ideals like representative government and human rights remain prerequisites for sustained economic prosperity and international influence.


With the West still on top, the extant world order will live to see another day. Unlike what Zarif said in New York, there is no new paradigm that requires new rules and tools. Iran will have to live with this order, and either end its quest for a nuclear bomb and behave, or live under economic distress.


When President Obama opened a door for Iran, he did so under the mistaken impression that Iran was pragmatic and knew what it wanted. Leaving the back door open for nations like Russia and Iran has been Obama's signature tactic.


The problem is that both Putin and Iran's ayatollahs mistook the hand America extended for a weak one. Instead of saving face and taking Obama's offer, Iran escalated its "right of enrichment" to a right of enrichment on an industrial scale. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself made this announcement, making Iranian backpedaling almost impossible.


Perhaps Iran thinks this is 2009 and America is bruised and retreating. Perhaps Putin's defiance made Tehran think it could follow suit. Perhaps China inviting Iran to an Asian summit and its docking of two Chinese warships at Iran's Bandar Abbas Port gave Tehran the impression that it could get its nukes and crack the sanctions.


America's economy might not be as strong as it was in the 1990s, but it is still out in front of others, and still underwrites an America that is substantially more powerful than Iran and its friends.


The world has changed since 2009, but not in Iran’s favor. America is back in the Middle East. Its newest fighter jet, the F-22, made its debut over Syria while Rouhani and Zarif were lobbying in America, arguing that without their country, the war on terrorism would be futile.


But if the war fails and terrorism persists, Iran might be the first victim. If Tehran tries to break out of the gate and build a nuclear bomb, America will be happy to add more targets to its F-22 itinerary, irrespective of Iran's imagined military might and the monkey it sent to space.


A historic moment has passed – not Rouhani’s election, which changed little in Tehran, but rather Obama’s, which installed in the White House a president willing to go with Iran where none of his predecessors dared to go. Obama misread the change in Iran, but his mistake will not cost the US much. Tehran, in turn, misread the change in America, but its mistake will prove costly. In light of this, Iran should wake up and grab whatever is on the table.



Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Alrainewspaper.