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A Candid Discussion with Karim Sadjadpour


Karim Sadjadpour on Iran’s Conflicting National
and Ideological Interests

Karim Sadjadpour

Karim Sadjadpour is a leading policy analyst and researcher on Iran at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Previously, he was chief Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group. Mr. Sadjadpour’s views on Iran and the Middle East are Frequently sought by U.S., EU and Asian officials. He has testified before the U.S. Congress, lectured at Harvard, Princeton and Stanford Universities. Throughout his career Mr. Sadjadpour has conducted dozens of interviews with senior Iranian officials and hundreds with Iranian intellectuals, clerics, dissidents, paramilitaries, businessmen, students, activists and youth. His articles and op-ed pieces appear on a regular basis in leading international newspapers and foreign policy publications. 

In 2007 Mr. Sadjadpour was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in Davos. He sat down with Reza Akhlaghi of Foreign Policy Association to discuss Iran’s conflicting  national and ideological interests and the country’s upcoming presidential elections. 


How would you describe Iran’s current geopolitical status in the region?

I think there are three competing paradigms for power and influence in today’s Middle East: resistance Islam (led by Iran), sectarian/Sunni Islam (led by Saudi Arabia), and modern Islam (led by Turkey). Iran’s paradigm resonates most when popular anger and frustration in the region are directed primarily at the U.S. and Israel. In this context I would argue that Iran’s geopolitical status saw its peak in the summer of 2006, when America was deeply mired in Iraq, Israel was bombing Lebanon, and oil prices rose to nearly $140/barrel.

Iran tends to assess its own geopolitical status as a zero-sum game between itself and the United States, i.e., that what is bad for America is good for Iran. For example, the collapse of the Mubarak regime in Egypt is viewed as a victory in Tehran, not because Iran gained an ally, but because America lost an ally.

The Syrian crisis has been very costly to Tehran, not only in terms of the billions of dollars they’ve spent to keep the Assad regime in power, but also because it has heightened sectarian identities and tension throughout the region.

While several years ago many Arabs admired Iran for standing up to American hegemony or Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, now they’re seen by many Sunni Arabs as aiding and abetting the Alawite Assad regime’s brutal assault against their Sunni brethren. This sectarian narrative tends to benefit Saudi Arabia.

Iranian officials commonly complain that the US needs to recognize Iran as an important regional power, if not the regional power. The reality is that if Iran were properly managed, it has the size, human capital, and natural resources to be a rising global power, not just a regional power. It could be part of the G20, like Turkey.  But Iran’s leadership has prioritized fighting the status-quo world order, rather than trying to rise within it.

What are the key dynamics of the upcoming presidential elections in Iran? Do you think in the election discourse restoring or even mending ties with the United States is considered an asset or a liability?

Presidential elections in Iran are a closed competition between carefully pre-selected candidates. Even though the elections are only six weeks away, these candidates (and their respective platforms) are still unclear.

Mending ties with the U.S. is popular with the Iranian public. Before the 2009 election, however, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei explicitly warned Iranians not to vote for candidates who advocated a conciliatory approach toward the U.S. I suspect he will give a similar speech this time around.

Mindful of that, presidential hopefuls must calculate whose vote is most important in the (s)election process: that of the people or that of the Supreme Leader?  While attacking America isn’t going to draw much popular support, speaking favorably of relations with the U.S. won’t earn candidates Khamenei’s backing. For that reason I suspect that much of the electoral discourse and sloganeering will focus on economic deliverance and management, rather than democracy, social freedoms, or relations with the U.S.

Iranian reformists seem to be doing their utmost to drag themselves out of a political deadlock in the upcoming elections. What do you make of their efforts? Do they stand a chance to share power in the upcoming administration?

Reformists have been at an impasse for the last several years. They seem to have concluded that they don’t have the power to reform the system, but they’re opposed to trying to overthrow it.

I think the reformists will continue to dither until they manage to coalesce around some concrete aims and decide what it is that they’re trying to achieve. I doubt, for example, that (m)any of them privately believe that Iran should be ruled by a “Supreme Leader” who purports to represent God’s will , but few if any of them are willing to offer those views publicly. These are fundamental questions which can’t be avoided.

When I read reformists talking about their strategy I’m often reminded of the adage “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”

In a recent report that you and Ali Vaez of the Crisis Group authored on Iran’s nuclear program, you argue that the program’s costs have far outweighed its benefits. Can you elaborate on that? Has the program contributed in any way to the advance of Iran’s strategic interests?

For over a decade the Iranian government has lauded their nuclear program as a beacon of safety, technological advancement, and economic independence. Yet they’ve at the same time prohibited the Iranian media or scholars from scrutinizing these claims, or openly researching and discussing the financial and security logic/illogic of the nuclear program. That’s what we tried to do in the paper, which has also been translated into Persian.

Given the program’s covert nature it’s impossible to know precisely how much money has been spent on it, but in the last several years the opportunity cost of Iran’s nuclear program — measured in lost oil revenue and foreign direct investment — has been well over $100 billion. Nor will the economic costs ever be justified by the benefits of nuclear power. For example Bushehr — which took over four decades to complete, making it one of the most expensive nuclear reactors in history — can provide only two percent of Iran’s electricity needs, while 15 percent of the country’s generated electricity is lost through old and ill-maintained transmission lines.

Regarding the question of whether the nuclear program has, thus far, advanced Iran’s strategic interests, it depends on how these interests are defined. If you define Iran’s strategic interests as defying Western powers and rejecting the status quo, then Iran’s nuclear program has been a success. If you define Iran’s strategic interests as improving the welfare and security of the Iranian people, then the nuclear program has thus far been an enormous failure.

What’s remarkable is how little discussion there has been about defining Iran’s strategic interests. As a result, I think the Islamic Republic’s ideological interests and Iranian national interests are often mistakenly conflated or confused. Henry Kissinger put it best when he said that Iran has to decide whether it’s “a nation or a cause.”

Iraq’s Kurdish region continues to thrive and reap the benefits of foreign investment with a population that enjoys ever greater purchasing power. Moreover, the Kurds in Turkey seem to have reached a milestone with the Turkish leadership, ending a three-decade bloody struggle. Should the Iranian leadership become concerned about these developments? How could these developments impact Iran?

I visited Iraqi Kurdistan last month for the first time, and while it certainly has its challenges, I would argue it’s one of the very few places in the Middle East that is making forward progress, socially, politically and economically. In other words, it’s becoming more politically and socially tolerant, and the quality of life of its inhabitants is noticeably improving given its vast energy reserves and the foreign investment you talked about.

Fifteen years ago Iraqi Kurdistan probably wasn’t a place that many Iranian Kurds looked at with envy.  But if Iraqi Kurdistan continues to prosper and is able to foster an open, tolerant society, while Iranian Kurds continue to feel as if they’re economically and politically disenfranchised, it’s only natural that federalist if not separatist inclinations among Iranian Kurds will grow stronger.