Sanctions at the end of the tunnel

Karim Sadjadpour is an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He joined Carnegie after four years as the chief Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group based in Tehran and Washington, D.C. First published in MIDDLE EAST PROGESS.


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?

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.

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?

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.

What do you make of the recent announcement about the ten new uranium enrichment plants?

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.

If the IAEA proposal doesn’t lead anywhere, what are the options for next steps for the United States and the international community?

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.

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?

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.

What do you think is going on with the Ahmadinejad government’s plan to phase out the subsidies? Do you think that’s linked to sanctions?

Phasing out the subsidies has been discussed for years but has always been seen as too risky a move for any Iranian politician. Ahmadinejad’s idea is to discontinue the blanket subsidies on food items and petrol—which cost the government as much $100 billion per annum—and instead dole out some of that money directly to lower income classes that need it most.

There is a great deal of opposition to the plan from across the political spectrum; many lawmakers, including some Ahmadinejad supporters, fear that it will cause rampant inflation and further alienate middle class Iranians whose cost of living will rise dramatically but who will not receive government stipends. At a time when the government is seeking to restore stability, they fear that phasing out the subsidies could provoke further unrest.

It’s unclear how much the timing of the subsidy withdrawal debate is linked to the sanctions debate. I’m sure some elements of the regime believe that if they phase out the subsidies at the same time they’re hit with sanctions, they can blame foreign powers for the economic tumult. They may be playing with fire, however; in my experience living in Iran I always found that people overwhelmingly cited mismanage and corruption as the primary culprits of the country’s economic malaise, not sanctions. Post-June I think the government will get even less benefit of the doubt.

What is your sense of the regional perspective on Iran and what role Iran’s neighbors could play, or are playing?

I think Arab governments were happy to see the Iranian regime get its nose bloodied after last June’s elections, but they are concerned about the prospect of profound change in Tehran for a couple reasons. First, the arrival of a democratic Iran has potentially problematic implications for a predominantly autocratic region. Second, many Arab countries are deeply ambivalent if not down-right opposed to the prospect of Iran—with its vast natural and human resources—finally emerging from its largely self-inflicted isolation and beginning to realize its enormous potential.

With regards to the nuclear issue, in a nutshell, Arab governments don’t want Iran to get the bomb, and they don’t want Iran to get bombed. Their strategy is to essentially let the United States take care of the problem, though in recent weeks I’ve heard Arab officials express concern that the U.S. hasn’t presented them with a clear Iran strategy, and how they fit into that strategy.

Regarding the Arab public, there is an inverse correlation between U.S. and Iranian popularity in the region. Meaning, when the U.S. is most unpopular, Iran’s ideology resonates the loudest. Opinion polls indicate that since Obama’s arrival, Ahmadinejad and Iran’s stock has dropped among people in the region. I suspect that the post-election tumult also dismayed many Arabs who once romanticized Iran as a popular government intent on fighting injustice.

Israel has so far let the United States take the lead in dealing with Iran. What is your sense of their perspective?

The Israelis are impatient; by all accounts Prime Minister Netanyahu genuinely believes that a nuclear-armed Iran poses an existential threat to Israel, so they obviously have a far greater sense of urgency. While U.S. officials take the prospect of an independent Israeli strike against Iran seriously, I think many Israelis understand that the ramifications would likely be calamitous, particularly within Iran. I sincerely believe that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad would welcome an Israeli strike on their nuclear facilities; it is perhaps the only thing that could mend internal political rifts, silence the opposition movement, and entrench the most radical elements of this regime for years to come.

Where do things stand internally in Iran six months after the election?

Both the government and the opposition are in precarious positions. The regime hasn’t recouped its lost legitimacy, and will continue to lose supporters as the economic situation deteriorates. They increasingly resemble a military junta, and there is serious dissent among them; even folks close to Khamenei, like Larijani and Tehran mayor Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf, would like to get rid of Ahmadinejad.

As for the opposition, its leadership and brain trust remains either in prison, under house arrest or unable to freely operate. Though the scale and frequency of popular protests has subsided, the millions who took to the streets post-election have not been pacified or co-opted. Smaller-sized protests, especially at universities around the country, have continued with great intensity, as we witnessed again yesterday.

What do you see happening? Where do you see things heading?

I think the regime’s legitimacy will continue to decay, and they will be forced to rely on repressive measures to keep order. I don’t question their willingness to shed blood to stay in power. Khamenei is unwilling to make any meaningful compromises with the opposition, for he believes it will make him look weak. Whatever they choose to do, history is not on their side.

At the same time, the opposition leadership, partly by design, has not defined a clear game plan or end game, a clear alternative vision for Iran. They’re taking a very deliberate approach, trying to recruit as many people as possible under the tent of the green movement, including disaffected clerics and Revolutionary Guardsmen.

It remains to be seen whether the current opposition leadership—Mousavi, Karoubi, and Khatami—has the will to see this movement through, or whether they will eventually have to hand the baton off to new blood.

Just as nobody predicted that millions would take to the streets post-election, it’s a fool’s errand to try and foretell how this might play out. I think the opposition could remain on simmer for quite some time—years even—but we could reach a tipping point that could change things quite abruptly.

How do you think that the United States and the international community can strike the right balance between moving forwards and dealing with the Iranian government but also being sensitive to what you’re talking about?

I think the United States should be more outspoken about Iran’s inability to adhere to international standards of justice—a word that Iran’s leadership frequently uses—and human rights and President Obama SHould be more outspoken in expressing solidarity with the Iranian people. I know that young people in Iran would like to see President Obama make it more clear that he’s not indifferent to their cause, that he’s rooting for them.

I think there is a way to dialogue with the Iranian government on urgent national security issues—like nuclear proliferation, Afghanistan, and Iraq—without betraying the millions of Iranians who view their government as illegitimate and continue to strive for political change. U.S. dialogue with the Soviet Union during the 1980s is perhaps a useful template

This is an incredibly important time in Iran’s history and we want to be able to look back years from now and say we were on the right side of history. I sometimes fear that we may look back years from now and see that there was a tremendous opportunity to help champion and facilitate the cause of political change in Iran, but rather than taking it seriously we focused all of our attention on the nuclear issue.

Part of the reason that it appears that the U.S. and Iran continue to be unable to communicate with one another is that they don’t trust one another. How then do you balance the fact that in supporting the opposition you would be playing into the exact fears of the Iranian regime while trying to communicate with them?

The short answer to that question is I don’t think the regime, particularly Khamenei, wants to be disabused of their mistrust of the United States. It is politically and ideologically expedient for them to have the U.S. as an adversary, so they have a convenient culprit when, among other things, their population rises up, economic malaise worsens, or ethnic minorities agitate.

President Obama has made more effort than any U.S. president in the last three decades to try and build confidence with Tehran—including writing two private letters to Khamenei—and the U.S. took great pains not to intervene in Iran’s internal affairs at a time, post-election, when they were most vulnerable. I think this is clear to most Iranians, and most European, Russian, and Chinese officials I encounter acknowledge as much.

For many years now, so many of us have argued that if the U.S. can engage Iran and reintegrate it in the international community and open up its economy, this would foment political reform in Tehran. I think people fail to realize that Khamenei understands that argument very well, in fact he probably agrees with it, and for precisely that reason he’s resisted confidence building with the U.S.

Then the question is do you think there is any chance of progress, if accommodation is Khamenei’s ultimate fear?

I’m very skeptical about the prospect of a major diplomatic breakthrough with this Iranian government. I believe the underlying problem we have with Iran has more to do with the character of its regime than its nuclear ambitions. In other words, as long as Khamenei is leader and Ahmadinejad is president, Tehran will not be able or willing to meet us half-way, or even a third Of the way, on our various issues of contention.

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