Middle East

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.


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.

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."

That said, there is currently no alternative whatsoever to the Islamic Republic. Having experienced a revolution that brought disillusionment, followed by the eight-year war with Iraq, the unmet expectations of the Khatami era, and the horrors of what is currently taking place in Iraq, people are increasingly depoliticized and wary of political agitation.

Reason: Is a liberal Iran possible in the next decade?

Karim Sadjadpour: I think a more liberal Iran is certainly possible, even probable. The most important external factor is U.S.-Iran relations. When and if Iran opens up to the U.S., it will be much more difficult to hold back the tremendous popular will to live in a more liberal society. The Islamic Republic in its current form can only persist in isolation.

Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon.

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