Sadjadpour: On Iranian Public Support for Tehran’s Nuclear Ambitions

Sadjadpour: On Iranian Public Support for Tehran’s Nuclear Ambitions

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group who was in Iran until last summer, says the general assumption that most Iranians support the Iranian government’s pursuit of nuclear know-how is "overblown" by outsiders.

March 13, 2006 3:20 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.

More on:


Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group who was in Iran until last summer, says the general assumption that most Iranians support the Iranian government’s pursuit of nuclear know-how is "overblown" by outsiders. "Iranians do feel nationalistic about this issue," he says, "but I would argue that perhaps just as many feel concerned, ambivalent, or simply uninformed."

He does worry, however, that unless there is a surprising diplomatic breakthrough between Iran and the United States and its European allies, then pressures may mount for some kind of military confrontation by the first quarter of next year.

"I think if you have a scenario where Iran continues to move full-speed ahead on its nuclear ambitions, continues to enrich uranium, and the coalition of Western nations decides to put on sanctions and other censures that do not work, then a military option does become more likely, perhaps in the first quarter of 2007," he says.

You’ve been following the events in Iran very closely. What’s the situation vis-à-vis the Security Council on Iran? Where does it stand right now?

Well, right now Iran’s file has officially been transferred to the Security Council, but that doesn’t mean the council immediately puts sanctions on Iran. I think the first step is to simply strengthen the mandates of the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] and the IAEA inspectors, and try to give Iran a few more weeks to back down from the ledge. If Iran wants to continue full-speed ahead, I think in about four weeks’ time they [UN Security Council members] will start to talk about stronger measures.

The latest diplomacy has concerned the Russian offer to let [Iranian uranium] enrichment proceed on Russian soil. That seemed dead in the water last Friday, but some news reports from Moscow are suggesting it’s still alive?

I think the Russian proposal at best can be an interim solution. From Iran’s perspective, if the Russian proposal is presented as some type of proposal to enrich on Russian soil until Iran can enrich on its own soil, then I think they would be amenable to this. But it’s been presented as kind of a final offer to enrich on Russian soil in lieu of Iranian indigenous enrichment, [which] from Tehran’s perspective, doesn’t resolve its original arguments that they cannot be dependent on outside sources of fuel.

I think what further complicates the Russian proposal is the fact that if you look at contemporary Iranian history, there’s been a great deal of mistrust vis-à-vis the Russians. And I think this is a criticism of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration’s foreign policy outlook; that they’ve put themselves in a corner where they’re relying on the Russians.

You’re of course referring to, most recently, of course, at the end of World War II, when Russian troops came into Iranian Azerbaijan from Soviet Azerbaijan?

Exactly. They tried to occupy Iranian Azerbaijan and unite it at that time with Soviet Azerbaijan. And then, if you look at early twentieth century, Russia and Britain had divided Iran into spheres of influence. So historically, there has been this great sense of mistrust and when you talk to Iranian officials they would much prefer to be working with Americans and Europeans than Russians.

What is the popular attitude in Iran on this whole question of nuclear energy? I think most commentators suggest it’s a very popular issue, that every cabdriver or bus driver thinks that Iran has to do it for its national honor. You’ve been living in Iran until last summer, and you’ll probably go back soon. What is your sense of it?

I think this notion that all Iranians are united behind the government’s nuclear ambitions has been overblown. Iranians do feel nationalistic about this issue, but I would argue that perhaps just as many feel concerned, ambivalent, or simply uninformed. This is a very technical issue, so the idea that Iranians wake up in the morning thinking about uranium enrichment is quite silly. I would argue the vast majority of people are far more focused on their day-to-day economic needs.

When we talk about "going nuclear," I think most people are thinking in terms of nuclear weapons. Do you think that holds in Iran too?

I would argue that after India and Pakistan detonated their nuclear weapons in 1998 and there was a very positive reaction on the Indian and Pakistani streets, it became a kind of conventional wisdom that there existed this correlation between nuclear weapons and national pride. But I would argue, in the case of Iran, that’s not true. In fact, the vast majority of Iranians I come across, from all walks of life, were very concerned about the prospect of nuclearization and militarization for three broad reasons. The first one is that this is a society that has experienced eight years of war with Iraq, the bloodiest war of the second half of the twentieth century. Not one Iranian family was left untouched by this war, so nobody romanticizes the prospect of militarization. The second reason is that, when you look at the reaction from Indian and Pakistani streets, you have to look at it in the context of the rivalry between the two countries. The Indians were showing off to the Pakistanis and vice versa. But when you ask Iranians about a nuclear weapon, they say, "Our government may have problems with the United States or with Israel, but in fact we’re quite pro-American, we don’t have problems with anyone. And Saddam Hussein is now gone in Iraq, so what are we trying to prove to whom? We don’t need this nuclear weapon." And I would argue that the third reason is there’s concern about this particular Islamic regime getting their hands on a nuclear weapon because there is a concern that, if it were to do so, it would make it further immune from outside diplomatic pressure.

You were talking about attitudes toward Israel and the United States. Of course, the most hostile comments coming out of Iran in recent times have come from President Ahmadinejad. What do you think the basis for his comments are? He keeps repeating, "Israel should be wiped off the map." Does this generate a large following for him in Iran?

Oh, not at all. In fact, there has been a popular backlash toward the Islamic Republic’s policy vis-à-vis Israel/Palestine, simply because a lot of people say, "We’re Iranians, not Arabs. This is not our fight, and why should we be more Palestinian than the Palestinians? The Palestinian leadership itself has come to terms with the existence of the state of Israel. Who are we, Iran, to say no and not accept that policy?" I think lots of people appreciate the fact that Iran is sacrificing its own national interest for the Palestinian cause. I would argue that Iranian leaders are cognizant of the fact that this issue doesn’t have a particular resonance in Iran, but there’s growing concern on the Arab streets, particularly the Sunni-Arab streets, about Shiite ascendancy in the region, particularly a Shiite ascendancy in Iraq. This was a way of trying to end this growing rift between Sunnis and Shiites by playing the Israel card.

While we’re still on that subject, how heavily is Iran playing the Shiite card in Iraq?

I think they’ve made it very clear their priority is to have their Shiite friends come to power via democratic elections. I remember one Iranian official told me, "They say democracies don’t fight democracies, we believe Shiites don’t fight Shiites." But they had very legitimate concerns about the potential rise of another hostile regime in Baghdad, either a Sunni Baathist regime, a pan-Arabist regime, or some type of a U.S. puppet regime. And they believe the best way to secure their interests is to have their Shiite friends come to power.

Do you think they’re supplying military advice and hardware to the Shiites in southern Iraq?

Most people who operate along that Iran-Iraq border argue that arms trade is in fact going from Iraq to Iran, not vice versa. Iraq has more free arms than Iran does. But at the same time, when this Iraq war was prosecuted, it was done under the premise that the United States is going to change the political culture of the Middle East, first Baghdad, and maybe next Iran. So from the very outset, the United States didn’t offer Iran much incentive to see a great U.S. success in Iraq. And the Iranian concern is, if the United States does well in Iraq, it’s simply going to be trying to transfer this regime-change policy eastward. So I think on the one hand, they do want to see their Shiite friends come to power, but on the other hand, they want to make sure this operation is as expensive as possible for the Americans.

There was some comment over the weekend from the supreme commandant of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard that the United States had failed in the Middle East and was sinking in the "Iraq quagmire." I guess there’s a sort of wish there that the United States would be so distracted by Iraq it’ll leave Iran alone.

That’s part of it. The thing with the Iranian regime is there’s a very schizophrenic feeling among the senior Iranian leadership because, on the one hand, they do look at Iraq and they feel they’re doing very well in Iraq, they feel emboldened. Also, soaring prices of oil have given them a $30 billion oil surplus. But at the same time, they look around and they’re surrounded by the United States and they feel very threatened. At once they feel emboldened and threatened, so this produces a great feeling of schizophrenia, I believe.

The U.S. government talks about a sort of evolutionary policy of trying to bring about change in Iran through Cold War tactics of more contact, radio broadcasts, etc. But it doesn’t seem to want to negotiate with the Iranians. At least with the Soviet Union, the United States negotiated all the time. You’ve been in Washington now for a while; what is holding up negotiations? Is it the Iranian side, the Americans, or both?

During the previous presidency of Mohammed Khatami, I think one could make a very good argument to the United States that the best way to both change Iranian external behavior and change domestic factors in Iran is to engage with Iran and to have diplomatic relations as you did in the time of transitioning in Eastern Europe. But now, with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president and these comments he’s made, it’s very difficult for the U.S. to put incentives on the table because you run the risk of sending the message to Tehran that a belligerent outlook works and this is how you reap rewards. So from that perspective, the United States is in a dilemma. Iran at the same time is equally ambivalent because the perception of the leaders in Tehran is that, "If we give in to outside pressures, this is only going to invite more pressure, so we have to stand firm." So both sides right now have a sense it doesn’t behoove them to acquiesce on their policies, and this is why we could be headed for a confrontation.

Most people really don’t think the United States is thinking of any kind of military confrontation for the obvious reason the United States is so tied up in Iraq. What is your sense?

My sense is, unfortunately, that this is within the realm of possibility. It appears that, right now, the path being taken is to dissuade Iran from going ahead with its nuclear ambitions, which is not going to include carrots; it’s going to be turning up the heat on Iran and showing larger sticks. And again, the perception of the leaders in Tehran and the perception of [Supreme Leader] Ayatollah Khamenei is, "There’s zero incentive for us to give in to pressure that is only going to invite further pressure." Thus I think they’re going to continue forward with enrichment. And if you have a scenario where Iran continues to move full-speed ahead on its nuclear ambitions, continues to enrich uranium, and the coalition of Western nations decides to put on sanctions and other censures that do not work, then a military option does become more likely, perhaps in the first quarter of 2007.

The International Crisis Group did issue a paper earlier in February on the nuclear issue. Do you want to sum up briefly what you’re proposing?

Our proposal is essentially that, given the current context of relations between the United States and Iran, there’s such a great sense of mistrust between the two countries it appears unlikely they will come to the table to discuss their differences. It’s going to be very difficult to achieve this "zero enrichment option," the preferred option of the West. Our proposal is what we call the fallback option. It’s a three-phased approach. The first phrase would require Iran to continue to adhere to a two- to three-year freeze on all enrichment activities. But if they were to graduate from that phase, then they would be allowed a small-scale pilot enrichment program under a very intrusive inspection regime. And this would be three to four years, and if they were to graduate from this phase they would be allowed larger-scale enrichment.

Also under safeguards?

Also under very intrusive international safeguards. The idea is that this is a less-than-perfect solution but it could be the least-bad option available. And if you allow Iran some type of enrichment scheme, you then do have the legitimacy to call for a very intrusive inspections regime, and having a very small-scale pilot program along the lines of 200 centrifuges or so does not present a tremendous proliferation risk.

Now, this is similar to what the Russians reportedly had on the table two weeks ago. The Russians would allow, even if enrichment took place in Russia, the Iranians could do some laboratory-type enrichment in Iran. And this was rejected by the United States out of hand.

Yes, and the U.S. policy has been unequivocal. Enrichment is an absolute red line and they refuse to acquiesce on their position. I think the Europeans, prior to Ahmadinejad’s arrival, were more amenable to the prospect of putting some type of a pilot enrichment scheme on the table. It would have to be preceded by at least a couple of years’ freeze, confidence-building measures, but as I said, I think with the arrival of Ahmadinejad, it’s complicated things because even the Europeans don’t want to look like they’re validating Ahmadinejad’s behavior by offering Iran the opportunity to enrich [uranium] when they didn’t offer that to the Khatami government.

In a nutshell, what is your thought on this? Do you think Iran’s ultimate goal is nuclear weapons?

I think the ambitions of Iran’s current leadership are similar to the Shah’s ambitions, in the sense that they want to be a screwdriver’s turn away from having the ability to weaponize their nuclear program. But I would argue that current perception in Iran is that passing that nuclear weapons threshold, detonating a weapon like India and Pakistan did, is actually going to augment the country’s vulnerabilities rather than its security. So I think they want to go for nuclear weapons capability where they can always be three to six months away from producing a bomb, and they want the world to know they’ve reached this point. I don’t think they would cross that threshold.

More on:


Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament


Top Stories on CFR

West Africa

The split between ECOWAS and the mutinous AES states may be just what the regional body needed. 

Election 2024

Each Friday, I look at what the presidential contenders are saying about foreign policy. This Week: Republicans are gathering in Milwaukee next week optimistic about their chances in November.  

United Kingdom

CFR experts discuss the results of presidential elections in France and the United Kingdom, as well as what to expect from the 2024 NATO Summit in Washington, DC.