Deal or No Deal? Weighing in the Prospect of an Iranian Nuclear Settlement, Exclusive Interview with Karim Sadjadpour

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Today, diplomats from the P5+1 continue to work around the clock, ahead of the March 31st negotiation deadline, in the hopes of what might be a historic deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran to curtail its nascent nuclear program. Despite the unprecedented diplomatic progress made in the past year, several outstanding sticking points remain unsettled. As the New York Times reports, “The main points that the negotiators have been grappling with include the pace of lifting United Nations sanctions, restriction on the research and development of new types of centrifuges, the length of the agreement and even whether it would be detailed in a public document”. Although the technical contours of the deal remain murky, the growing chaos engulfing the Middle East today make a nuclear settlement with Iran all the more imperative.

In this April 2014 interview, Karim Sadjadpour, from Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, shares his thoughts on the likelihood of a final deal. He also discusses whether Iran and the United States can overcome historical differences and forge a strategic partnership to address shared geopolitical concerns in an increasingly unstable region of the world.

This interview was conducted on April 16, 2014.

My first question is, why are we seeing diplomacy now? For thirty years anti-American and anti-West rhetoric has been a linchpin in Iran’s foreign policy, and now we are seeing a sudden change of course. Many have suggested that what we are seeing now [in Iran] is an “alignment of the stars”— where you have a moderate President in power who is uncharacteristically empathetic to the West. When examining President Rouhani’s political trajectory within the Iranian establishment, however, it quickly becomes clear that he is ‘cut from the same piece of cloth’. How would you characterize the recent diplomatic overture?

Well, let me put it this way: a very important taboo has been broken which is direct dialogue between the President of the United States and the President of Iran; so I don’t want to downplay that; that was very significant. But there has been in the past an “alignment of the stars”. If you remember after September 11th, the United States and Iran had overlapping interests in Afghanistan in the removal of the Taliban, and, by all accounts, Iran played a cooperative role there. But for a variety of reasons forward progress was thwarted. So, I think it’s too early to say whether we are on the path of détente or rapprochement, or whether we’ll look back several years from now and say this was a stunted détente—something that looked promising but didn’t come to fruition

Think about [it] like this: if there were to be a rapprochement between United States and Iran tomorrow, it wouldn’t change day-to-day lives of most Americans; it wouldn’t change the economy, it wouldn’t change the Constitution, it wouldn’t change the billboards you see. But for Iran, it would truly be revolutionary if there were to be a normalization of relations. This is because it is a system that for the last thirty-five years has been built upon the idea of resistance towards America, whether that is the billboards you see, the slogans you hear from the leaders, etcetera. So a lot of people have a lot to lose if there were to be a normalization with the United States.

I suppose in a more macro context you could say that, if you look at Iranian society, two-thirds of the population was born after the revolution. They are not interested in resistance, they are interested in reintegration; and they are certainly pushing the regime in that direction. You can also argue it was economic circumstances which compelled the regime to come to the negotiating table. I think it remains to be seen whether this is merely a tactical shift on part of the Iranian government, or whether this is truly strategic—whether they want to fundamentally change their relationship with the United States. So I think a lot of things remain to be seen. There’s also the prerogative of the Untied States. I think you have President Obama, someone who has made more overtures with Iran than any other US President, and if you look at it from the standpoint of the United States, Iran is integral to at least seven major national security challenges: Syria, Iraq, Israel/Palestine, terrorism, energy security, and nuclear proliferation. So I think Obama appreciates the fact that absent a more cooperative US-Iran relation, none of those issues will be ameliorated. There’s also the American public. After a decade of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there’s no appetite to have greater US involvement in the Middle East. So I think that when we look back, and if we continue on this path toward detente, I think it’s very much a byproduct of where US society and US foreign policy is post-Iraq.

That’s actually a great way to weave into my second question. This semester I focused on sanctions as a diplomatic tool, and what I came across in the literature is that there’s strong empirical evidence suggesting that sanctions don’t change the target state’s behaviour. For Iran, the sanctions didn’t cripple the economy, but they certainly made it hard for the economy to prosper. To give to this question a bit more context: Alexander George, in his book Limits to Coercive Diplomacy, wrote that sanctions help the sanctioning community to build a stronger coalition. Considering the American public’s diminished appetite for greater involvement in the Middle East, and the huge dent in American soft power and credibility post-Iraq, do you think sanctions are simply a palliative policy tool to garner sufficient international support to legitimize a possible intervention in the future?

I was someone who was always skeptical about the efficacy of sanctions because I believe that, yes, they could harm Iran’s economy but ultimately this is a regime that has shown a willingness to subject its population to economic hardship rather than to compromise on its ideological goals. They prolonged the war with Iraq for several years for domestic expediency.

But I have to say I think I was proven wrong, the sanctions did play a key role in changing the Iranian government’s calculation. The robustness of the sanctions and the international coalition which was assembled, I think you can credit two people for that: one is Barack Obama, and the other is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who gratuitously alienated so much of the international community with his hostile rhetoric. The lifeboat of the Iranian economy is their oil production and exports; Iran’s oil exports dropped precipitously from 4.2 million barrels a day to 2 million [because of international sanctions]. So, we are talking billions and billions of dollars [of lost revenue] while they are simultaneously spending billions of dollars in Syria to keep Bashar al- Assad in power.

The regime was really hemorrhaging, and that is not to say that Rouhani and Zarif are not interested in a detente with the West; I think they are. But I think for the Supreme Leader in the past, his philosophy, and his modus operandi is that when you’re under pressure never to compromise, compromise projects weakness and it invites more pressure. And so, I think a very significant speech to look at is the speech he evoked this concept of heroic flexibility. If you look at that speech, the metaphor which he used was when you are a wrestler and you are wrestling your opponent: there are times you need to show tactical flexibility to regain your composure and strength, but never forget whom you are wrestling. So that made it sound like the regime as a result of the pressure needed to take a step back temporarily to regroup, to strengthen themselves again. But they are cognizant of whom their opponent is.

There is a debate in Washington [that] says it was the sanctions that led to the interim nuclear deal, and there are some who say it was diplomacy. I don’t see why these are either/or. In my opinion, it was very much both — the deal could not have happened without diplomacy. But I don’t see signs that the regime would’ve be willing compromise absent that pressure. If you look at Obama’s presidency from day one in his inauguration speech, he said “We are willing to outstretch our hand if others are willing to unclench your fists.” From day one, this administration was very intent on reaching some sort of nuclear deal/detente with Iran. But it wasn’t until the regime felt the need to compromise that it did so.

Khamenei has said time and time again that the Iranian economy is pretty elastic and it is insulated from sanctions, but I think we’re seeing that train of thought slowly unravel. The Iranian economy has lost out on a great sum of potential revenue from international sanctions on oil exports, as you mentioned. This is something I would like to touch upon later on, however. You mentioned this idea of issue linkages—how the United States and Iran have shared strategic interests in the region, such as political stability in Afghanistan and Iraq, progress with the Middle East Peace talks. Do you think that Iran and the United States can forge some sort of strategic partnership? This will certainly come at the expense of more traditional allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, but it seems as though the United States and Iran have more geopolitical interests in common than any other two states.

I always quote two quotes from Henry Kissinger — this is a verbatim quote — he said, “There are few nations in the world that the United States has more common cause and interests than Iran.” But he said something else that I think is quite brilliant, “Iran has to decide whether it is a nation or a cause.” And so, I think that is one of the battles that is taking place in Tehran. What should come first? Revolutionary/ideological interests or our national/economic interests? The more pragmatic figures like Zarif and Rouhani would argue it should [be] national/economic. The goal that pragmatists often refer to is China; they have the China model in mind. We will open up our economy in order to strengthen our system, but we will keep the politics for ourselves, we’re not going to open up politically. What Khamenei and the so-called principalists respond with is: “Look at what happened when Gorbachev tried to reform the Soviet Union. Once you start to abandon your principles, that’s when the house can fall down.

So I think that’s absolutely right, there are key overlapping interests between the United States and Iran, and quite frankly, I think Iran’s geopolitical position right now is ahistoric, an anomaly. The United States is one of their key adversaries and Russia is one of their key allies. It really should be the opposite. Russia, both historically and contemporarily, does not have the best interest of Iran in mind, and, as you mentioned, the United Sates and Iran have these key overlapping interests.

But going back to the interest of the leadership in Iran, this cohort of principalists, many people over [the] years, including myself, have argued that if we engage with Iran and we reintegrate it into the international community and into the international economy, that’s going to help facilitate political change in Tehran. I still think that’s a sound argument, but I think we are naive to think that Iran’s leadership is oblivious to that argument, and they would embark on a path that would dilute their hold on power.

There are three options here: either you believe that Khamenei is actually pragmatic and [a] non- ideological guy, saying things he doesn’t believe over the years; or you think he is ideological but he is subject to change; or you think he is this ossified ideologue and we are not going to see any major changes in Iran until he dies or is swept aside. I belong more to the third camp: in a way I am giving him credit for being earnest, he is actually sincere in what he says. But regardless, I think we should continue to test diplomacy. If you ask me when Iran and the US will start to cooperate strategically, not just tactically on smaller issues, [it] seems to me [it will not be until] you have leadership in Iran that will put national interests before ideological interests.

Do you think the American public can overcome historical grievances, such as the Hostage Crisis, in order to forge a strategic partnership with Iran?

I actually think the American public has a short memory. Think about Vietnam, there are tens of thousands of Americans [who] died in Vietnam. But if you think of Vietnam right now, for most people, I don’t think there is much of a visceral reaction to Vietnam even though we were in a very bloody war with them

There is another thing I should mention. One can argue that US policy toward Iran is as much a domestic policy as it is a foreign policy. What Congress feels most passionate about is national security. When you have a country like Iran who rejects the existence of Israel and supports radical groups which are actively opposed to Israel, that really animates Congress, and I think that is very difficult for Congress to change its tune on Iran absent some change on Iran’s part vis-à-vis Israel.

If you ask me what the main impediment, the main source of tension, [it’s] not the American public remembering the Hostage Crisis and it’s not even the nuclear issue, [but the fact that] both Iran and the US have very doctrinaire positions toward Israel. I don’t see in the near future Congress saying to Iran, “We’ll agree to disagree.” It is true there are other countries in the region that don’t recognize Israel, such as Saudi Arabia; but they also don’t actively oppose Israel, or advocate for Israel’s demise. They have come to terms with a two-state solution.

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In 1994, Ukraine relinquished its nuclear stockpile in exchange for a security assurance from Russia (Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances). That offer was breached considering what is happening in Ukraine today. Do you think the recent events in Ukraine inadvertently strengthened Iran’s nuclear calculus, making it even more imperative for the regime to acquire nuclear weapons to fend off existential threats?

That’s a good question. But there is no way for us to know that. These debates within Iran are probably held among a very small group of people, and I am sure that there are those in the Iranian system—perhaps those in the Revolutionary Guards—who argue that the best guarantor of regime stability in Iran is to obtain a nuclear weapon. And I’ve heard this in the past when I was based in Tehran, people saying that the lesson they drew from Pakistan was that after you cross the nuclear threshold and obtain a nuclear weapon, that’s when the outside world is forced to recognize you and deal with you. I don’t necessarily think this is the correct lesson to draw, but it is argued paradoxically after Pakistan obtained a nuclear weapon, [that] their relationship with the United States improved. So I have no doubt [that] there are those in the Iranian system who have that worldview and certainly after the demise of Gadhafi this was a lesson, which Khamenei drew and spoke about it publicly, that Gaddafi’s abdication of his nuclear program made him vulnerable to NATO intervention. The question is whether they can achieve the same security umbrella with just a nuclear weapons capability—if they are just a screw-driver turn away. And this is basically what the nuclear negotiations are about, how far they can keep the Iranians away from having a breakout capacity. It seems to me that the leader for a variety of reasons would much prefer not to cross that threshold and actually test the device, but wants to have that capability. So the rationale, which you mentioned about the example of Ukraine, it already exists because of Pakistan and Libya. But there isn’t evidence yet whether [Crimea] has changed their key calculations

This is a more abstract question for you: Kenneth Waltz came out with a piece a couple of years ago titled “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb,” and, well, he’s coming from the Cold War context, where you have two major powers balancing against one another. His logic is that a bipolar structure is the most stable and conducive to peace. Do you think having a congruent nuclear power balancing against Israel would bring more stability in a region that is plagued by political volatility and conflict?

No, I don’t. I think when you are writing these theoretical treatises from thousands of miles away, these things look much simpler than if you were actually living in the region. So a couple of things: first, I always thought that Iran’s goal was never to have nuclear weapons but to have a breakout capacity. Five years from now, I don’t think they will have nuclear weapons. I think the concern of many is a domino [effect] throughout the region… I don’t think we’ll see that.

Second, I don’t think that… this idea that some have written about that Iran and Israel are strategic adversaries and it’s a battle of hegemony in the Middle East, I think that’s nonsense. I actually think Iran and Israel are probably in fact natural geopolitical allies. Iran and Saudi Arabia are natural geopolitical competitors—there’s an ethnic component, there’s a sectarian component. Let’s play out that hypothetical: if Iran got a nuclear weapon, would the Arab countries now say, “Well, okay now our friend Iran has got a nuclear weapon vis-à-vis Israel so now we feel protected?” No, on the contrary, they are far more threatened by a nuclear Iran than a nuclear-armed Israel. I don’t think the King of Saudi Arabia goes to bed at night worrying about whether Israel is going to nuke Saudi Arabia. They are terrified about Iran getting a nuclear weapon, and not necessarily because they think Iran will launch a nuclear weapon somewhere; but they fear that it will offer Iran this cloak of immunity to continue to double down on its support for the Assad regime, or Hezbollah.

So that idea that Iran and Israel are the chief geopolitical adversaries in the region and once one of them has a nuclear weapon they’ll reach parity is false. On the contrary, I think if Iran were to get a nuclear weapon… Think about it like this, Israel has had nuclear weapons since the 1950s. No Arab country has been compelled to seek a nuclear weapon since then. Now, if Iran got a nuclear weapon, I think that will probably change. You [would] have neighbouring countries, even possibly Turkey, who will feel compelled [to get a nuclear weapon].

Ultimately, if you talk to Israelis about this, they will say to themselves… “We remember a time in which there was useful strategic cooperation between Israel and Iran, at a time when Iran had a leader who was following national interests… So, I don’t think Israelis see this as a zero-sum game for hegemony in the Middle East the same way the Iranian government sees it as that.

That brings us to the final deal. Brookings came out with the Einhorn Report [last year], where Robert Einhorn outlined a couple of requirements that he thinks are imperative for a final nuclear deal. One of those requirements is making sure that Iran’s breakout capability is a couple of years away. Do you think this is achievable given Iran’s security anxieties, and will this be a point of contention for finalizing a deal? And on that note, do you think a final deal will actually come into fruition?

I’ll tell you why I am not terribly optimistic about a final deal. I think that in order for Iran to make the major and relatively long term compromises that the US seeks, they will expect the blanket lifting of all sanctions. And my sense is that, going back to what I said earlier, what animates the US Congress about Iran is not the nuclear program as much as it is their regional behaviour, namely their hostility toward Israel. Seems to me, you will have members of Congress saying, “We have this country by the throat right now, and we don’t trust [that] their nuclear compromises are sincere, which just seems tactical until sanctions are lifted and their economy is strengthened, and they will put their foot on the accelerator again.” That is the mind-set of Congress right now. So, why should we lift this pressure when we haven’t really seen a sincere change in their behaviour? So they will try to get as much as possible without giving as much as possible. That will also be the Iranian mind-set as well.

One of the things that is being talked about in the context of a comprehensive deal is that Iran must agree to these limits for ten to fifteen years, and I just find it very tough to believe that Khamenei is going to sign off on a document that will hold Iran under these compromises even after he’s dead. I have never seen signs of that before. So instead of making this an all-or-nothing gambit, meaning we either reach a comprehensive deal or we tear apart everything we worked on for the last six months and go back to the status-quo […] I think the better option would be if we can meet halfway.

The challenge here isn’t an agreement between John Kerry and Javad Zarif, I think those two can reach an agreement in a few hours or Hassan Rouhani and Barack Obama. It’s how do you come up with a document [that] Ayatollah Khamenei is pleased with and Bibi Netanyahu is pleased with, and John Boehner also agrees to? That’s very tough! And so, what we are working on here is a way of extending the interim deal. To say, okay, if we can’t meet halfway let’s [at least] not throw away what we have worked for. We’ll agree to these additional economic concessions or sanctions relief, and Iran you take these further nuclear steps; and let’s just keep the momentum going.

I think, for Obama, he has two major priorities vis-à-vis Iran: he doesn’t want Iran to get the bomb and he doesn’t want to bomb Iran. And so, extending the interim deal would check those two boxes. And likewise for Iran’s leadership, I think that if Khamenei’s goal is what I would describe as ‘managed hostility’, you still maintain that hostility; but instead of having it on the path of war or severe economic hardship, it goes back to 2005, it’s managed hostility and its manageable hostility from a domestic point of view. would check those two boxes. And likewise for Iran’s leadership, I think that if Khamenei’s goal is what I would describe as managed hostility, you still maintain that hostility; but instead of having it on the path of war or severe economic hardship, it goes back to 2005, it’s managed hostility and its manageable hostility from a domestic point of view.

(Email for full transcript of interview)