Saturday, July 12, 2008

Seven Questions: What Iran Wants

By Karim Sadjadpour

Foreign Policy, July 10, 2008

Calling for dialogue one day and firing off missiles the next, Iran has baffled many observers with its seemingly erratic behavior of late. Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explains how the Islamic Republic responds to pressure, why Mahmoud Ahmadinejad laughs in the face of danger, and what Tehran’s hard-liners think of Barack Obama.

Foreign Policy: Last week, Iran sounded conciliatory notes when Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki hailed a “new trend” in negotiations with the West over the nuclear issue. But this week, Iranian officials vowed to strike back against any U.S. or Israeli attack and test-fired missiles that they claim can hit Tel Aviv. What explains this shift in tone?

Karim Sadjadpour: The last two weeks have been very representative of the worldview of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his modus operandi of neither confrontation nor accommodation with the West. Last week, we saw conciliatory signals from Tehran, saying: “We’re capable of being diplomatic.” And this week, Iran was sending signals to the Israelis and Americans saying, “If you want to escalate, we have the means to reciprocate.” Khamenei wants to send a clear signal: “Don’t think that pressure is going to moderate our behavior,” because he has always believed that if you give in to pressure, you only invite more of it.

FP: Also this week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed the possibility of an attack on his country as a “funny joke.” What do you think he’s trying to accomplish?

KS: He’s always genuinely thought that the likelihood of an attack is very slim, and his reading of U.S. domestic politics is that the Democrats won the 2006 midterm elections precisely because the U.S. public doesn’t have any appetite to embark on any more Middle East adventures. So, he believes that U.S. politicians have their hands tied.

That said, a U.S. military attack would be more carrot than stick for Ahmadinejad. There are two things that would really rehabilitate his presidency: One is a U.S. attack on Iran, and the second is a major U.S. diplomatic overture to Iran. I think the United States should not offer him either.

FP: What about an Israeli attack?

KS: I think the odds are very low. When Israel bombed Osirak in 1981, and when they bombed Syria more recently, there was “radio silence” before and after the operation. Whereas now with Iran, it’s been a much more public campaign. If the Israelis were serious about doing it, there would be a much more studied silence. I don’t think they want to do it and are hoping to intimidate Iran into compromise.

FP: Some analysts argue that, under certain circumstances, an attack might cause Iranians to blame Ahmadinejad for miscalculating.

KS: I would disagree with that. After the fall of the Taliban, there was a great deal of romanticism in Iran about the prospects of some type of 24-hour U.S. regime-change operation. But after what they’ve seen on a daily basis—and this is one thing the regime has done very effectively, broadcasting the carnage taking place next door in Iraq—I don’t see any scenario whereby Iranians would put the onus on their own leaders rather than the United States or Israel. Keep in mind, upwards of 80 percent of the Iranian public gets their news directly from official state television. You would have a segment that would blame their own leadership, but they’re marginalized politically. Iran’s liberal elite stay on the sidelines.

FP: What does Iran wants to see in Iraq right now? Is Iran pushing the Maliki government to impose a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops?

KS: For the moment, the status quo in Iraq works quite to Iranian leaders’ advantage because they have their friends, their Shiite coreligionists, in a position of power, and they have their main adversary, the United States, bleeding very heavily.

But over the long term, there are actually a lot of overlapping interests between the United States and Iran with regard to Iraq. Both want to see its territorial integrity preserved. Iran supports the democratic process in Iraq probably more than any of Iraq’s neighbors, given that the Shiites are the demographic majority. And remembering what happened in Afghanistan, the last thing Iranian leaders want is for Iraq to break down into an al Qaeda-infested, failed state.

FP: Seymour Hersh recently reported in the New Yorker that the United States is working with ethnic minority groups to stir up trouble for the Iranian government. If Hersh’s allegations are true, how do you think Iranians will react?

KS: Iranian officials have been saying for a while now that they have concrete intelligence proving that the United States is trying to foment ethnic and sectarian unrest within Iran. Any type of U.S. policy along those lines would be unequivocally disastrous, and it would alienate just about every single Iranian. You have to remember: Iran is not a post-Ottoman entity that was drawn on a cocktail napkin by Winston Churchill. It has more than 2,000 years of being a nation state. Whether you’re Persian or Azeri or Kurdish or even Baluchi, there’s a strong sense of attachment to the soil of Iran. So, if Washington’s goal is truly to bring about a more democratic Iran, you’re going to tremendously alienate the Iranian nationalists and democrats that you want to see one day come to power if they perceive that you’re trying to tear the country apart.

FP: What do Iranians think about the U.S. presidential election and John McCain versus Barack Obama?

KS: There’s far more intrigue about Obama than about McCain. Apart from the fact that he advocates dialogue with Iran, he’s African-American and his middle name is Hussein, who is the paramount figure in Shiite history and culture. If Obama were to win, it would be much more difficult for Iran to constantly paint the United States as this grand oppressor. It’s interesting to note that a few days after the hostages were taken at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the Iranians released all the women and blacks because they said these groups were historically oppressed by Americans.

An Obama victory in November could tremendously change the dynamics in U.S.-Iran relations. If you’re a hard-liner in Tehran and you survive in isolation, like Ayatollah Khamenei, it presents far more of a quandary for you to have a president in Washington who says “Let’s be friends” than one who says “Let’s be enemies” and essentially continue the status quo. I would wager the vast majority of Iran’s political elite, who do want to see some sort of reconciliation, support Obama. But then you have a small, but powerful minority who survive in isolation, much like Fidel Castro in Cuba. They see Iran opening up to the world as a threat to their interests, and I’m sure they would much prefer John McCain to be president.


At 2:51 PM, Blogger SnoopyTheGoon said...

Sound quite true, aside of "Whether you’re Persian or Azeri or Kurdish or even Baluchi, there’s a strong sense of attachment to the soil of Iran."

Yeah, if your are a Baluchi, to take one example, you are attanced to your soil (not the soil of the whole Iran), but you dearly wish that these Persians live you alone on your piece of land. So it was the only false note in the interview - to my taste, that is.

At 5:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

interesting interview. I learned some things about Iranian leadership I was completely unaware of. As far as the Baluchi misrepresentation claimed by Snoopy, I have no idea concerning that subject.

At 3:15 PM, Blogger Gert said...


I honestly can't see the "false note". Baluchis may consider themselves Baluchis first and Iranians second, but if the country came under external attack, they'd soon rally around the national flag, trust me on that...


Hi! Learning something about Iranian leadership is something we could all do with. Iran is a very complex country.

At 3:15 AM, Blogger Pedestrian said...

FP: Some analysts argue that, under certain circumstances, an attack might cause Iranians to blame Ahmadinejad for miscalculating.

I disagree like K.S. But not for the same reasons.

First of all, I have seen the consensus for that 80% and it was a highly biased one - as almost all data coming out of Iran.

One of the reasons Iran is a highly complex place to understand is that it varies greatly from region to region - in almost everything.

And so the data is usually from Tehran, and a few other provinces. Nobody ever goes to Zahedan or Abadan to see what people have to say.

But they wouldn't blame Ahmadinejad in the same way that after 9/11, no one blamed the Bush administration (or the ones before him) - for not doing better at keeping out the threat. People stick to their leaders in the event of outside catastrophes.

And snoopythegoon, these are people who have been living in separate colonies, and yet, under one flag for centuries. The unique thing about this situation is that they don't see themselves as Baluchi first and Iranians second (or vice versa) - but rather both at the same time.

At 3:56 PM, Blogger Mad Zionist said...

Obama would be hated by Iran because they fear a US government that will capitulate vs one that will fight? Wow...with that kind of logic I bet we could really scare Iran if we offered them a few billion dollars and some nuclear weapons as a "good will gesture".

At 4:16 PM, Blogger Gert said...


"Obama would be hated by Iran because they fear a US government that will capitulate vs one that will fight?"

Who said that and where? Seems to me you're misreading. Please explain...

At 3:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gert: I know this is completely off-topic, but could you email me something so that I have your email address? You've had several during the past year and I'm not sure where to send my excogitations to...


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