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Iran's New Year Challenges

Interviewee: Karim Sadjadpour, Senior Associate, Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
March 27, 2013

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The Iranian leadership confronts a thicket of national and international challenges at the outset of the Persian New Year, or Nowruz, including an upcoming presidential election, simmering sectarian conflict in the region, and talks on its controversial nuclear program. Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert, says that despite some recent optimism surrounding the nuclear negotiations, he fears the parties may be too far apart for a diplomatic breakthrough in the near term. However, he says that "everyone recognizes that while dialogue may not be able to resolve this issue, it's a good way of preventing what is now a cold war from deteriorating into a hot war." Meanwhile, he says that Tehran is troubled by the breakdown of the Assad regime in Syria, as well as the growing appeal of Iraqi Kurdistan to Iran's own Kurdish population. In terms of Iran's June presidential election, he notes that while it's too soon to predict who will emerge victorious, it is clear that it will be difficult to get current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to retire gracefully.

This is now the New Year [Nowruz] in Iran, which will last for two weeks, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave a speech on New Year's Day (March 21). What was your read on this?

Khamenei's annual Nowruz address is like the Iranian equivalent of the U.S. State of the Union speech. And as Khamenei has done in the past, he covered both domestic and international themes. He spent a great deal of time, as he always does, talking about relations with the United States and the ongoing nuclear discussions. He's been very consistent about expressing his cynicism and pessimism about the United States and its policies toward Iran. But at the same time, he's cognizant of the fact that the vast majority of Iranians would like to have a different relationship with the United States. He doesn't want to be seen as the impediment to better relations, so he'll never come out and oppose any type of dialogue. However, he wants to paint a picture that depicts the United States as the unreasonable and intransigent actor in this equation.

The latest round of nuclear talks between the socalled P5+1 (the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany) was a technical meeting of experts last week in Istanbul, and a full round of talks is supposed to resume again in Almaty, Kazakhstan, early next month. That's a pretty fast turnaround, but many of these talks have been delayed for months. Is there any sense of movement here?

The pendulum in these talks has now shifted toward optimism, whereas for a long time, there were concerns about the prospects of military conflict. But I remain pessimistic about the likelihood of a diplomatic breakthrough because what the United States and its partners expect from Iran in terms of nuclear concessions, Iran is not going to be willing to do. At the same time, the Iranian leadership is unrealistic about the types of sanctions relief it will receive in response to nuclear concessions. So the two sides remain very far apart.

And one of the other challenges--and this has been a perennial challenge in the U.S.-Iran context--is who makes the first move? One of the things Khamenei talked about in his New Year's speech is how he wants Iran's right to enrichment explicitly recognized. The Obama administration has, in effect, implicitly recognized Iran's right to enrich, but the United States and its partners are not going to do so explicitly at the beginning of the diplomatic talks. This remains an obstacle that I don't see resolved easily.

What is the P5+1's position on Iran's nuclear enrichment?

The P5+1 would like Iran to stop all 20 percent enrichment and cap it at 5 percent enrichment. They're also calling for Iran to suspend its activities at the underground bunker facility in Fordow. Both sides have an interest in continuing the negotiations because everyone recognizes that while dialogue may not be able to resolve this issue, it's a good way of preventing what is now a cold war from deteriorating into a hot war.

Iran must be seriously concerned right now about the situation in Syria and in Lebanon, and with the recent deal between the Kurds and the Turks, which might end the guerrilla war there. The regional dynamics must be a major worry.

Definitely. In the context of the so-called Arab Spring, Iran has always been confident that more "people power" in the Arab world would be good for Tehran and bad for Washington, because usually representative governments in the Arab world--whether in Iraq or now in Egypt--bring to power Islamists who are closer to Tehran's worldview than Washington's. But the uprising in Syria and the breakdown of the Assad regime, which has really been Iran's only consistent ally since the 1979 Iranian revolution, is deeply worrying for Iran. Not only would the Iranians potentially lose a stalwart ally and their geographic link to Hezbollah [in Lebanon], but another consequence would be that the Kurds in a post-Assad Syria are likely to want to reconstitute themselves as part of a broader Kurdish nation.

That has real implications for Iran's own Kurdish community. In the past, Iranian Kurds didn't look to Iraqi Kurdistan with envy, because it was a downtrodden, economically and politically repressed place. But now Iraqi Kurdistan is booming. There are political and social freedoms there. This is a real fear now for both the Iranian government and the Iranian people, who are concerned about Iran's territorial integrity.

Secretary of State John Kerry was just in Iraq, urging the Maliki government to ban Iranian planes from using Iraqi air space to fly weapons to Syria. The Iraqis haven't said anything about this; what do you think their reaction was?

The Shiite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is in a tough position because it feels shunned by the Sunni Arab countries, and it feels that it can't alienate Iran because Tehran has tremendous influence within Iraq. Iran is perhaps Baghdad's sole ally at the moment. So I don't think it's possible that they are going to stand up to Iran on an issue that is so critical to Tehran, which is the continued sustenance of the Assad regime.

A second factor for the Maliki government is its concern that if Assad falls and is replaced by radical Sunni forces, that's not going to bode well for Iraq either. It could start to destabilize Iraq's border with Syria, and you may see the infiltration of Sunni radicals from Syria the same way you did in the early days of the post-Saddam era.

The Iranian elections are coming in June. The last election in June 2009 brought about charges of fraud and weeks of demonstrations in the street protesting the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. What's going to happen this time?

Presidential elections in Iran always have the unique quality of being unfree, unfair, and unpredictable. The last two presidents, Mohammad Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, were both major surprises. Anyone who follows Iran closely knows better than to make predictions, but I would say that the next president is likely going to have several qualities. Most importantly, he will be someone who has demonstrated loyalty to the supreme leader. The most important criteria for Khamenei is loyalty to him and to revolutionary ideals. Khamenei will also want someone with a modicum of popular support, who is acceptable to the Revolutionary Guard, and who is a competent manager, given the unprecedented domestic challenges Iran is facing. But it's going to be hard for the regime to find a candidate who checks off all of the right boxes.

In contrast to U.S. presidential elections, which are a two-year process, in Iran it's a two-month process. So we will know much more come May. But perhaps even more challenging for the supreme leader than helping to select the next president will be managing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's abdication from power, because Ahmadinejad is not going to exit the scene gracefully--especially if his chief adviser Rahim Mashaei is not allowed to run for president, which he probably won't be. Figuring out what it takes to pacify Ahmadinejad will be in some ways an even bigger challenge for Khamenei than helping to select the next president.

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