May 12, 2007


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. (Michael Young, May 9, 2007, Reason)

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: 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: 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. [...]

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.

And isolation isn't possible except in the short term.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 12, 2007 12:00 AM

Hence the regime's strategy of destroying personal satellite dishes. The free flow of information is their bane, and on that front they will lose. Not even King Canute could hold back the tide (not that he actually tried).

Posted by: Mikey [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 12, 2007 12:53 PM