The Carnegie Endowment’s Karim Sadjadpour is one of the best commentators explicating the Iranian Government’s behavior in the business. He recently did and interview with Middle East Progress on the state of play in Iran that I found insightful.
Sadjadpour tilts toward the direction that the Iranian regime’s legitimacy is eroding but that the US has to deal with it. He seems ambivalent about sanctions and their efficacy and pessimistic about the prospects for a breakthrough while the Supreme Leader and the hardliners he has lined up remain in place.
From my perspective, the sanctions path on trying to influence Iran’s behavior has more to do with providing a focus for American frustration and emotion than achieving a successful course correction with Iran. Neither the bill that House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman has been pushing in Congress nor a more watered down sanctions effort from the United Nations Security Council will influence Iran’s calculations at this point.
What the sanctions may do, however, beyond making those angry with Iran’s behavior feel better is help give Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the external provocation to further justify their actions and themselves and permit a further consolidation of power. Sadjadpour seems to suggest that this purge of moderates and pragmatists is mostly done — but I suspect that there is still a great deal of fragility and internal mistrust among Iran’s top elites and even within the sprawling machinery of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
But what is also clear from Sadjadpour’s assessment is that Iran has a rigid, more suspicious-of-its-own-team leadership that has diminished capacity to solve problems and has diminished aura across the broad Middle East.
I will share a clip below of some of Karim Sadjadpour’s views from the Middle Eeast Progress interview, but recommend reading the entire thing.
I think it’s also clear that the US government and allies should be working over time in finding ways to work with Iran’s allies and proxies, who in this time of Iran’s weakness, may be more interested in diversifying their portfolio of relationships. In my view, that means expediting a peace process with Syria — and also in my book would be trying to find a way that ends the isolation of Hamas and Hezbollah.
It’s not possible for the US to be the interlocutors with these two organizations on a lot of political levels — but it may be time to remove the US veto on say, the French — Jean-David Levitte would be my choice — to begin seeing if there is a track that leads to more responsible and potentially internationally acceptable behavior for these two groups.
It’s important not to think that simply talking to these groups changes their DNA or core views — but the process could lead to a distancing at some level between them and Iran.
Sadjadpour’s thoughts follow:
Middle East Progress: The Iranian government has yet to agree to the IAEA proposal for enrichment of Iran’s low enriched uranium in a third country. What do you think are the aims of the government with regards to the proposal?
Karim Sadjadpour: Over the last several years–and especially since last June’s tainted presidential elections–any remaining moderates or pragmatists that were once part of the Iranian government’s decision-making structure have essentially been purged from the system. Today the country is being run by a hardline Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who is surrounded by likeminded ideologues who have two overarching instincts: mistrust and defiance. They generally perceive proposals and overtures that are endorsed by the United States as poison pills. Individuals who were capable of deal-making–like former President Hashemi Rafsanjani–are now on the outside looking
MEP: But what about someone like Speaker of the Parliament Ali Larijani, who seemed willing to make deals when he was Iran’s nuclear negotiator, but is now sounding more strident?
Sadjadpour: Larijani is a good litmus test. While less than a decade ago he was referred to in the Western press as an arch hard-liner, in the current context he’s thought of as a pragmatist. If the color spectrum of the Iranian regime now ranges from pitch black to dark grey, Larijani is dark grey. But given that Larijani’s rise to power has been based on his fealty to Khamenei, he’s not going to say anything out of step with the Leader.
MEP: What do you make of the recent announcement about the ten new uranium enrichment plants?
Sadjadpour: I think it’s mostly bluster. To put it into perspective: it has taken Iran over two decades to complete the enrichment facility at Natanz, and it’s still not fully operational. Creating ten Natanz-size enrichment facilities, at a time when they’re facing more international scrutiny than ever, would take decades, and is certainly not an imminent threat. To the credit of the Obama administration they’ve projected the poise of a superpower and have largely chosen to ignore Iran’s bombast.
MEP: If the IAEA proposal doesn’t lead anywhere, what are the options for next steps for the United States and the international community?
Sadjadpour: I think the door of dialogue and engagement will remain open, but the Obama administration will be forced into policies–sanctions and other punitive measures–they would have liked to avoid.
In contrast to the Bush administration, I think the Europeans, and even the Russians and Chinese, recognize that since Obama’s inauguration last June the United States has made numerous overtures to Iran, made a good-faith diplomatic effort to change the tone and context of the U.S.-Iran relationship, but Tehran was either unable or unwilling to reciprocate. For this reason the Obama administration is in a much better position to attain a robust international sanctions regime than the Bush administration was.
MEP: You spoke a little bit about Russia and China. What is your sense of how far they are willing to go in terms of putting pressure on Iran?
Sadjadpour: Both countries are instinctively opposed to sanctions, but Iranian intransigence has put them in a bind. In the last few years, Russia’s modus operandi has been to endorse sanctions against Iran that they themselves have watered down. This way they can claim to the U.S. and EU that they’re supportive of their position, while privately also reassuring the Iranians that they’re sympathetic to Tehran’s position. U.S. officials feel more confident than ever that Russian patience with Iran is waning, but it remains to be seen what that means in concrete terms.
One of the reasons why Russian support is so important to the U.S. is because China has tended to follow Moscow’s lead on Iran policy. The China-Iran relationship is a more straightforward commercial relationship–China needs Iran’s energy–and I don’t think anyone believes that China will completely sever its economic ties with Iran. That said, though China has signed a lot of seemingly lucrative memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with Tehran, few deals have actually been executed, and because of the headaches of dealing with Iran the Chinese have increasingly sought out energy relationships with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In essence, China will not be willing or able to singlehandedly fill the enormous vacuum left behind by Western companies in Iran.
– Steve Clemons