Are the United States and Iran heading toward a military confrontation over Tehran's nuclear program, or toward a diplomatic breakthrough? That's the paradoxical question that many foreign policy experts are asking themselves today. To shed light on the dynamics at play, Reason talked to Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington D.C. Before moving to Carnegie, Sadjadpour was chief Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group. A leading researcher on Iran, Sadjadpour is invited regularly to BBC World TV and radio, CNN, National Public Radio, and PBS News Hour with Jim Lehrer. He has also written for the Washington Post, the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, and the New Republic. Sadjadpour, who was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in Davos, received his B.A. from the University of Michigan and his M.A. from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Reason: There is talk that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wants to leave as her legacy an opening of relations with Iran. How far is she hoping to go, and what signs have you seen of an American change on this front?
Karim Sadjadpour: My sense from talking to senior State Department officials is that Rice and her team are genuinely interested in achieving a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran, but their expectations are modest. They would like to calm the nuclear row and get Iran to play a constructive role in Iraq. Given the depth of mutual mistrust and ill-will they're not expecting to exchange ambassadors anytime soon. However, one thing they talk about is the opening of a U.S. interests section in Tehran which would handle consular and visa affairs, similar to the interest section that Iran has in Washington.
Reason: Last week in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt, at a conference on Iraq, Iranian and American officials spoke very briefly. Has the ball of better relations started rolling, or is it still too early to say this?
Karim Sadjadpour: Sharm al-Sheikh didn't achieve anything in terms of furthering U.S.-Iran relations, but I think in the coming weeks there's a possibility that the two sides will get together. What's paradoxical about U.S.-Iran relations is that tensions are high and the mood is as adversarial as it has been in years, yet there is a near consensus position in both countries that they need to deal with each other.
Five years ago you could get imprisoned in Iran for advocating dialogue with the United States; today Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is writing open letters to President George W. Bush and challenging him to debates. Just over a year ago, Bush administration officials likened dialogue to appeasement; now Rice is practically begging the Iranians to come to the table. There is a will to embark on a dialogue. However, overcoming 28 years of mistrust means it's going to be a drawn out affair.
Reason: Is there opposition to a dialogue within Washington, and, if so, how effective has it been?
Karim Sadjadpour: There are still many in Washington opposed to the idea of talking to the Iranians. I'm sure that people like Vice President Dick Cheney and Elliot Abrams of the National Security Council think that talking to Iran is at best an exercise in futility and at worst confers legitimacy on an "evil" regime. The former defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was also in the opposition camp, though I think his successor Robert Gates is generally supportive of the State Department's efforts at diplomacy. The pro-Israel lobby is also concerned that the Bush administration may be easing up on Iran too much. That said, given that President Bush's approach to the Middle East hasn't exactly borne much fruit, he has little choice but to consider new options.
Reason: How much is the situation in Iraq an American motivation here?
Karim Sadjadpour: Iraq is undoubtedly a factor, but I think the U.S. realizes that even if Iran behaved upstandingly in Iraq tomorrow, there would still be an insurgency. If you look at the main foreign policy challenges to the U.S. in the coming years--Iraq, terrorism, non-proliferation, energy security, and Arab-Israeli peace--Iran is at the centerpiece of all of these issues. That's why ignoring Iran is not an option; attempting to contain Iran does not ameliorate any of the aforementioned issues; and confronting Iran militarily would exacerbate the aforementioned concerns. I think many people in Washington have come to the grudging realization that, as Churchill once said about democracy, talking to Iran may be the worst option except for all others.
Reason: What would Iran's interest be in opening a new page with the U.S.? How divided is the Iranian leadership over this?
Karim Sadjadpour: I don't think Iran's leadership itself knows what it wants from the U.S. When asked what they seek from the Americans, Iranian officials usually reply with the word "respect," but seldom if ever have a concrete vision for U.S.-Iran relations or Iran's role in the Middle East. While Ahmadinejad and elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) seem to prefer an alliance with Russia and China against the U.S., the influential head of the Expediency Council, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and other pragmatists have long advocated ties with the U.S. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remains skeptical of all sides. When it comes to the hardliners, and I would put Khamenei in that category, I don't think they're interested in an amicable and expansive relationship with the U.S. per se, but they want to be recognized by Washington as an Islamic republic and a major regional player.
Reason: What are Iran's vulnerabilities as it faces off against the West, both on the nuclear issue and in general?
Karim Sadjadpour: Iran's greatest vulnerability is its economy. The leadership is going to have to make very hard decisions in the coming years regarding the oil industry. At the moment gasoline is heavily subsidized (a liter of gasoline is cheaper than a liter of water) and the country is churning out automobiles, so there is growing consumption and little conservation. At the same time, oil production is gradually decreasing, and given the uncertain political and business climate created by Ahmadinejad, foreign investment hasn't been coming in. If the regime continues at this pace--increased consumption and decreased output--within a decade it's conceivable that Iran could be a net importer of oil, potentially a remarkable occurrence given how dependent it is on oil revenue.
Something has got to give in the coming years. Either the regime is going to curtail gasoline subsidies and encourage conservation--which won't be easy for a president who ran on a populist platform of putting oil money on people's dinner tables; or the leadership is going to have to change its foreign policy approach in order to attract outside investment. Most likely it will need to be a combination of the two. But rest assured it will happen. Oil is Iran's lifeblood; the leadership can't afford to mess around.