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Iran: A Discussion on "Engagement" and The State of the Regime (Sadjadpour and Lucas)

CHESSBOARD GREENWith all the developments of and beyond 16 Azar, we have had to put our analysis of US-Iranian relations on the back burner (especially given that the US Government seems to have taken no official notice of this week's demonstrations). So we thank an EA reader who has brought this dimension back to the forefront by sending us Karim Sadjadpour's analysis, in an interview with Middle East Progress, of the current state of "engagement". Points from the interview that I think merit further discussion:

1) Sadjadpour's portrayal is of a regime that, primarily because the Supreme Leader remains beyond challenge, has successfully ostracised "opposition within" such as Hashemi Rafsanjani, despite the hostility that he notes to President Ahmadinejad.

My own view is that the regime is more fragmented than he portrays. As we have highlighted today, there are moves from within the Establishment against President Ahmadinejad in the name of "national unity", but this is not just a case of removing one political figurehead. Simply placing an unchallenged Supreme Leader on top of this system --- apart from the fact that the Supreme Leader has himself been challenged on occasion "from within" since June --- obscures this fragmentation.

2) So Sadjadpour is on the mark that the prospect of a resolution between the US and Iran on uranium enrichment is receding, albeit not because the Iranian regime is unified under Ayatollah Khamenei but because it is riven with divisions. Indeed, if you put the nuclear issue in a wider context, those divisions come out in Sadjadpour's answer on the issue of subsidies and Ahmadinejad's economic plans.

3) Sadjadpour is right that the Obama Administration will now be "bumped", especially by Congress, into putting forth sanctions proposals. However, I think he is too optimistic about international acceptance, especially from Russia and China. The more pragmatic Obama officials recognise this, I suspect, and will try to limit the sanctions package as well as taking it outside the United Nations Security Council.

4) The most interesting part of the interview, perhaps ironically given the initial attention to "engagement", is Sadjadpour's return to the internal politics beyond the influence (and possibly cognizance) of the US Government. Thus the observation without immediate answers, as this is a marathon, not a sprint:

Both the government and the opposition are in precarious positions....I think the regime’s legitimacy will continue to decay, and they will be forced to rely on repressive measures to keep order....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.

5) Speaking personally, while I may have differences in interpretation from Sadjadpour, I am alongside him on this sentiment (with the provision that one has to be very careful in explaining what it means to "facilitate...political change"):

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.

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.

MEP: 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?

Sadjadpour: 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.

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

Sadjadpour: 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.

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

Sadjadpour: 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.

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

Sadjadpour: 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.

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

Sadjadpour: 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.

MEP: 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?

Sadjadpour: 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.

MEP: 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?

Sadjadpour: 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.

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

Sadjadpour: 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.

The Latest from Iran (1 December): A Week of Expectation

16 AZAR POSTER2115 GMT: Hacking the State Media. HomyLafayette has the story of today's cyber-attack on Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting:
At least a dozen web sites connected to the Islamic regime's radio and television broadcasters were hacked early this morning in an orchestrated operation. The attacked web sites include Radio JavanRadio Payam, Radio Varzesh, Radio TehranRadio Qoran, the literary section of the state radio-television's web site, and the Jomeh Irani (NB Iranian Friday) program.

The hackers, calling themselves Y! Underground, substituted the homepages of the attacked web sites with the above image. The Farsi text reads, 'We will stand until the end.' The title of the pages became 'Defaced by Y! Underground.' Most of the web sites were quickly closed down by their technical staff....

Astonishingly, the literary section of IRIB's web site continues to show the image placed on it by the hackers.

2100 GMT: Ahh, This is Why Mahmoud's Upset. Full credit to Reuters for getting the possible story behind the Ahmadinejad warning to Russia tonight (see 2040 GMT). A "senior Russian diplomatic source" has said, "If there is a consensus on Iran sanctions, we will not stand aside."

This appears to be a continued Russian balancing act rather than a shift behind US-led sanctions. "Consensus" may mean that Russia will accept the measures only if China also is willing. And the source cautioned that economic punishment was a longer-term prospect: "We will be thinking about sanctions but this is not an issue of the next few hours or weeks. We would rather have Iran cooperating more openly and consistently with the IAEA and showing clear steps to lift concerns -- which are gaining greater foundation -- than introducing sanctions against Iran."

2040 GMT: More on Ahmadinejad's Defiance. If nothing else, these lines from the President's televised interview are attention-grabbing: ""[Western countries] need us more than we need them. It is psychological warfare and isolating Iran is impossible. Any finger which is about to pull the trigger will be cut off."

More significant may be Ahmadinejad's warning to Moscow to come back into line --- no sanctions, renewed co-operation --- with Tehran, as he criticised the Russian vote on the IAEA resolution criticising Iran's nuclear programme: "Russia made a mistake. It does not have an accurate analysis of today's world situation."

Iran: How Washington Views the Green Opposition — The Next Chapter
Video: The Bahari Interview on CNN (Part 2)
The Latest from Iran (30 November): Nuclear Distraction, Trashing the Greens?

1940 GMT: The Ahmadinejad Speech. After a 24-hour postponement, the President appeared on national television this evening. He offered, in the words of one viewer, "a geography lesson" for his tour of Latin America, comparing Iran favourably to its partners in Venezuela and Brazil.

Then, in the passage that Western media will pick up, Ahmadinejad declared, "Iran's nuclear issue has been resolved....We will hold no talks (with major powers) over this issue. There is no need for talks." He said that Tehran might allow inspectors to some sites or to none at all.

1715 GMT: And Today's Propaganda Warning. Islamic Republic News Agency, besides waving a finger at Hashemi Rafsanjani (1700 GMT) also gives a threatening push to Mir Hossein Mousavi. IRNA uses an interview with a Hojatoleslam to warn Mousavi that, if he keeps helping the enemies of Islam, he might suffer the fate of Abolhassan, Banisadr, the first President of the Islamic Republic who is now in exile in France.

1700 GMT: The Battle over Rafsanjani. Despite the explicit warning of Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani to back off, member of Parliament Ali Reza Zakani has maintained his assault on the family of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, declaring that Rafsanjani's son Mehdi Hashemi is still the subject of a criminal investigation.

1645 GMT: It's not only EA readers who have debating which way forward for the Iranian opposition. Grand Ayatollah Montazeri has replied to four questions about the Green movement.

1630 GMT: The Prison Doctor's Death. A twist in the case of Ramin Pourandarjan, the doctor at Kahrizak Prison who died in November. After claims by authorities that Pouranjdarjan committed suicide or was the victim of a heart attack, Tehran Prosecutor General Abbas Jafari Doulatabadi now says that the doctor died of poisoning. Only two weeks ago Doulatabadi's office said Pourandarjan had not been poisoned.

1335 GMT: The Potential Significance of the British Sailor Story. Mr Smith cuts through the stories (see 1155 GMT) to get to the possible importance of the detention of the five British sailors:

As I suspected, the sailors were indeed taken by the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps. Guess they want to boast their prowess in the Persian Gulf and warn about they will do inside or outside Iranian territorial waters in case of nuclear strike or even tougher sanctions.

That may be only the start of the matter, however. The IRGC could also use this case to flex their muscle against internal challengers. Conversely, other key figures, including President Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader, may have to consider their manoeuvres versus the Revolutionary Guard.

Which is not dissimilar to the "British sailor" incident of two years ago, when 15 of Her Majesty's finest ---military in this case --- were detained. That ended, of course, with the release of the 15, an accomplishment for which Ahmadinejad took credit (although Ali Larijani was a central figure in the negotiations).

Two years on, and in a very different political context, will the IRGC again step back?

1145 GMT: Another Distraction. Looks like the international press will also be mesmerised by the story of the five British (civilian) sailors who have been detained after straying into Iranian waters. The standard line taken by Esfandiar Rahim-Mashai, chief of staff to President Ahmadinejad, "The judiciary will decide about the five ... naturally our measures will be hard and serious if we find out they had evil intentions," is racing across "Western" newspapers as an ominous sign.

The distraction extends to some rather fatuous speculation, as in this from The Guardian of London, "If the sailors arrested in the Persian Gulf are being punished for being British, Tehran's fear of the BBC could be a factor".

1015 GMT: Playing Down The Bluff. Less than 48 hours after shaking its fist with the "10 enrichment plants" declaration, the Iranian Government is edging away. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said this morning that there's not much to see here: If we do not get guarantees (for the delivery of the fuel), naturally we will have plans to move towards self-sufficiency. This is nothing unusual. Officials of some countries have rushed into adopting stances which may be indicative of the fact that they are concerned or angry." (CNN, incidentally, misses the story completely, distorting a general Mehmanparast statement ---"We will not do away with our rights" --- into "Iranian Legal Threat over Nuclear Plans.")

Meanwhile, something for the US to think about if it wants to push confrontation: a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman drew the line against further sanctions, "We should properly resolve this issue through dialogue. All parties should step up diplomatic efforts."

0715 GMT: Better Late than Never. The Associated Press has caught up with the politics of Iran's "10 enrichment plants" declaration, headlining, "Iran Nuke Plans Largely Bluster, Experts Say".

0710 GMT: Iran Contest of the Day. If the Supreme Leader's life was commemorated by Hollywood (see 0655 GMT), what would the title be?

0655 GMT: International news will be dominated today by President Obama's speech on US policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Indeed, it will be interesting to see if there is a breathing space for the Administration on its next steps towards Iran, as everyone in Washington --- including Congressmen and activists pressing for a cut-off of  talks and tougher sanctions --- switch their attention to the Af-Pak political and military corridor.

Which, of course, does not mean that life stops in Iran. Amidst the debate about the state of the Green Movement and its goals, the plans for the demonstrations on 16 Azar are taking shape. Revised routes have now been posted. Here, for example, are the paths of protests in Tehran:

  1. Azadi Square - Revolution Square - Tehran University

  2. Hafte-Tir Square - St., Karim Khan - Asr Square - Keshavarz Blvd - Street workers - Tehran University

  3. Tehran University dormitory complex - North Kargar Ave - Tehran University

  4. Amir Kabir University - Cross-Asr - Tehran University

  5. Ferdowsi Square - Street Revolution - Tehran University.

There are notes of activities at universities, and you can even follow a second-by-second countdown clock.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Leader took on another enemy on Monday. He stared down "Hollywood" in a meeting with with artists and directors of the Iranian television series "Hazrat Yousuf," a story from the Koran. The challenge to "Western" film was another setpiece in Ayatollah Khamenei's campaign for cultural purity from the arts to the universities to the seminaries.