The Best of Enemies?

Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment looks at the future of Iranian-American relations, Iran's vulnerabilities, and whether we might one day see liberals ruling in Tehran.

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Reason: In Iraq the Iranians have supported Shiite groups involved in sectarian killings. Yet they have also tried to avert a broader conflict in the Middle East with Sunnis, particularly in Lebanon. How worried is Iran about Sunni-Shiite confrontations in Iraq and in the Middle East?

Karim Sadjadpour: The last thing Iran wants is to foment sectarian violence and exacerbate Sunni-Shiite tensions, whether in Iraq or elsewhere in the region. Iran sees itself as the vanguard of the Islamic world, not just the Shiite world, and its leaders are very disturbed that growing Sunni concerns about Shiite ascendancy in the region might provoke a backlash against them. It's true that Iran has ties to radical Shiite elements like Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army, but they also have ties with mainstream Shiites like Ayatollah Ali Sistani and even Ahmad Chalabi. They have ties to mainstream Kurdish groups as well as to radical Kurdish groups, such as Ansar al-Islam; and they even claim to have ties with Sunni insurgents. When it comes to Iraq, Iran is like an investor who holds a diversified fund portfolio.

Reason: Do you think the nuclear issue is as non-negotiable as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has suggested?

Karim Sadjadpour: The regime is not as rigid as is Ahmadinejad, but I think one of the problems with the Islamic Republic is that they have a lot of people who are good at escalating, but few people who are good at de-escalating. I think today the Iranians are less prone to compromise than they were three years ago, and it's not clear whose side time will be on in the future. The major variables are the situation inside Iraq and the price of oil. When oil is at $20 a barrel, Iran sounds conciliatory and talks about a "dialogue of civilizations"; when oil is at $70 a barrel, Iran says that Israel should be wiped off the map and that the Holocaust was a myth.

Reason: Where would you situate Iran's Revolutionary Guards in the current Iranian discussion on America? They were responsible for the abduction of the British sailors and marines recently. Would they do something similar to undermine a U.S.-Iran dialogue?

Karim Sadjadpour: It's difficult to talk about the Revolutionary Guards as a monolith. People are often surprised to hear that three-quarters of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps voted for the reformist President Mohammed Khatami in the 2001 election. There's a misperception that the IRGC is very supportive of Ahmadinejad, but in fact it's Ahmadinejad who has to pander to the IRGC for support. I'm sure there are individuals within the IRGC who would consider Iran's opening up politically and economically as a threat to their own financial interests. But even within the IRGC there are more pragmatic types who experienced the eight-year war with Iraq and want Iran to become a normal country again.

Reason: A lot of focus has been on Ahmadinejad. But real power in Iran is in the hands of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. What is his general outlook on Iran's relations with the outside, and how would he respond to a new opening to the U.S.?

Karim Sadjadpour: Khamenei's 18-year track record depicts a leader who is risk-averse--courting neither confrontation nor accommodation with the West--and paralyzed by mistrust. From a foreign policy perspective, he believes that the U.S. is not interested in changing Iran's external behavior but wants to change the regime itself. In Khamenei's worldview, the U.S. believes Iran's strategic location and energy resources are too valuable to be controlled by an independent-minded Islamic government, hence Washington aspires to go back to the "patron-client" relationship existing at the time of the shah. In this context, whether U.S. officials announce they want to have a dialogue with Iran or to isolate it, Khamenei presumes nefarious intentions. The U.S. refusal to acknowledge or respond to an Iranian overture for normalization in 2003 surely reinforced his negative perceptions. At the same time, Khamenei is equally wary of his domestic rivals and will not take any foreign policy decision that might undermine his own political interests. The Clinton administration's unsuccessful attempt to bypass Khamenei and engage Khatami and the reformists in 2000 is a case in point.

Reason: Who should we watch out for as a rising star in Iran, particularly on the matter of relations with the U.S.?

Karim Sadjadpour: There is a lot of buzz about current Tehran mayor Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf. He ran a flashy presidential campaign in which he finished fourth. However, he managed to get a lot of name recognition. He's a former IRGC commander, but is considered much more pragmatic than Ahmadinejad on foreign policy. After his defeat in the election, for example, he went with his family to France to relax.

Reason: How serious are the ethnic divisions inside Iran and what do they mean for the regime? Is this a real threat?

Karim Sadjadpour: Iran is not a post-Ottoman creation; it's a nation-state with over 2,000 years of history. So I think the sense of Iranian identity, an attachment to the soil of Iran, is very strong and transcends ethnic and religious affiliation. That said, ethnic minorities in Iran have legitimate grievances against the central authority. Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs are economically disenfranchised and feel that the central government doesn't tend to them as it does to Persian Shiites. The reality is that disenfranchisement is nearly universal in Iran, and the Islamic Republic is an equal opportunity oppressor. I don't have any hard statistics to back this up, but I would bet that more Persian Shiites have been imprisoned in Iran over the years than Kurds, Arabs, or Baluchis.

There is a concern among many Iranians--including those opposed to the regime--that the U.S. is flirting with a strategy of fomenting ethnic unrest in Iran. This would be a disastrous step that would offer no strategic gain apart from provoking bloodshed among innocent civilians.

Reason: Is Iranian society as fed up with the clerical regime as some outside the country would like to believe, or is the leadership solidly in place?

Karim Sadjadpour: It sounds contradictory, but I think the answer to both questions is "yes." Discontent is deep and widespread and transcends socio-economic class, age, ethnicity, and religiosity. No matter where you go or to whom you talk, it is extremely rare to find anyone who will say: "I am happy with the state of the country, the mullahs are doing a decent job."

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