Iran Expert Terms Nuclear Decision A Victory for Tehran ’Pragmatists’

Iran Expert Terms Nuclear Decision A Victory for Tehran ’Pragmatists’

October 24, 2003 3:57 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the International Crisis Group (ICG), a nonprofit organization that works to prevent and resolve deadly conflicts, says that Iran’s apparent decision to comply with international demands to open its nuclear power program to inspections was a “very welcome sign.” Sadjadpour, who spent the summer in Iran working on an ICG report, “Iran: Discontent and Disarray,” says the decision suggests “that the pragmatists within the conservative ranks are winning the debate. This is a good harbinger.”

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Sadjadpour was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on October 23, 2003.

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Under pressure from European nations and the United States, Iran has turned over a dossier covering its past nuclear activities and has promised to sign a protocol demanded by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) allowing random inspections of its nuclear facilities. How did this come about and what are the implications for overall Iranian policy?

There has been a strong internal debate in Iran between those who are interested in getting Iran back into the international community and those who think the IAEA is an American spy organization and should be spurned. Backing the latter side were many conservative intellectuals who said that Iran needed to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty altogether and that nothing good would come from working with the IAEA.

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Who favored going along with the IAEA?

Favoring it were the so-called reformers, who recognize that the biggest problems facing the country today are related to the economy, not national security. In addition, there was a debate even among the conservatives. Those in favor of going along with the IAEA argued that it was absolutely necessary for Iran to re-enter the international community and to stop being perceived as a pariah state. The decision to accept the IAEA demands was a very welcome sign. It would suggest that the pragmatists within the conservative ranks are winning the debate. This is a good harbinger. Given an option between conciliation and defying everything the international community says, the pragmatists have won out.

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If Iran hadn’t complied with the IAEA demands, the U.N. Security Council probably would have voted to impose economic sanctions. Did that threat prod these so-called pragmatists?

There was quite a bit of debate in the past few months over this. There were editorials in leading newspapers, op-ed pieces written by reformer intellectuals, saying it was important for Iran to come to terms with the United States and the international community. They understood, after a cost-benefit analysis, that the cost of not signing the additional IAEA protocol far outweighed any potential benefit. I think you had the majority of the country thinking along those lines as well. You have an unusual population makeup in Iran. Seventy percent are under 30 years old, and these people overwhelmingly want more interaction with the international community, including the United States. There is a very small percentage of conservative ideologues who took the position they traditionally take, which is to oppose anything perceived to be an attempt by the Americans to impose their system and values on Iran.

Concerning U.S.-Iran relations, there is a widespread feeling in this country that every time the United States holds out a hand of friendship, it gets slapped away as interference in Iranian affairs and gives hardliners a weapon to use against reformers. Do you have any advice for Washington?

That dynamic has changed. That was the perception of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright following the election of President Mohammed Khatami in 1997. She referred to it as “the kiss of death”: Washington felt whenever it supported an Iranian politician, or agitated for democracy, its backing would delegitimize the political figure or discredit the policy. What you have now is a situation where the vast majority of the population has lost hope, not only with the conservatives but with the reformers as well. The hopeful mood that existed several years ago with Khatami’s election and re-election, and the election of a reform-minded Parliament, is no longer there. People have seen, empirically, that the real power lies in the hands of the unelected conservative officials.

The majority of people now seem to be saying that they would like the United States to support its cause for democracy and for human rights and greater civil liberties. Iran is not an easy place for which to design a policy. I can sympathize with both United States and European policymakers because, on the one hand, you have U.S. policymakers who have tried sanctions and various other policies to isolate Iran, but on the whole, you can’t really say that policy has borne much fruit. On the whole, Iranian behavior has not really improved. On the other hand, you have Europeans who have for the past few years tried to engage Iran in what they call “a constructive dialogue.” But most of the European diplomats with whom I spoke this summer in Tehran thought that policy had not borne much fruit either.

Any “carrot” the Europeans can offer the Iranians on their own will not be significant enough to improve Iranian behavior. And the American policy of just raising “sticks” has not shown that it is tough enough to improve Iranian behavior. We need a combination of the two. The regime is not going to fall anytime soon. I was there during the student protests last June and, while it is no small achievement to mobilize a few thousand people in such an intimidating atmosphere, when you are in Teheran, an immense city of 12 million people, protests of 3,000 to 4,000 people can easily go unnoticed. I think for the majority of Iranians, they may have been following events that were taking place, but it was, in the end, business as usual. The regime in power is not afraid of using violence. Their opponents are against violence and bloodshed. The United States cannot count on supporting a few protestors and expecting the regime to fall. At the same time, you’ve seen that isolating the regime and trying to impose sanctions have not borne much fruit. There needs to be a constructive dialogue, just as the Europeans have tried to start. You do see some willingness in recent months on the part of Iranian officials to talk to the Americans.

Of course, the Americans would love cooperation from the Iranians on fighting terrorists. What can someone like yourself learn about al Qaeda or other terrorists in Iran?

It is very, very difficult to know what is happening in Iran under the radar. There are almost two regimes in power at once. You have the reformer regime led by Khatami, but you also have a small coterie of officials— they might not even be officials but conservatives who work underground and publicly support terrorist groups like al Qaeda. It is difficult to know about any of these groups in Iran. There is a little history on this. At the time of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, there apparently was good cooperation with the Iranians on dealing with Taliban. But there has been friction over the [initial] U.S. decision not to disarm the Iranian opposition groups based in Iraq, which very much upset the Iranian regime. Nobody knows if the Iranians are stirring up Shiites against the United States in Iraq.

If there is progress resolving the IAEA issues, will this lead to an improvement in Iran’s relations with the United States and Europe?

As I noted earlier, this action is welcome, but it is far too early to judge it at this point. The IAEA has to check out the dossier. The Israelis are very concerned about a nuclear-armed Iran and constantly pressure the United States to take action against Iran. The Europeans push in the opposite direction.

A lot of Iranian intellectuals this summer said U.S. and Israeli pressure on Iran had pushed the hardliners into the North Korean way of thinking, that is, to try to get a nuclear weapons option. The Iranians in power, particularly the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, are very distrustful of the United States, and [Khamenei] thinks that basically nothing but a change in regime will appease U.S. policymakers. There are other, more pragmatic leaders, like former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who are not in power. And although they are able to influence Khamenei and some of the others, the debate within the conservative ranks will probably influence the future course of U.S.-Iranian relations.


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