The P5+1 is currently holding its first meetings with Iran in more than one year. What do you think are the objectives of the two sides in these meetings?
The objective of the P5+1, particularly the United States and Europe, is to commence a process whereby Iran would eventually, in the near term, agree to meaningful and binding nuclear compromises and greater transparency. Whereas in previous discussions the goal of the United States was for Tehran to cease uranium enrichment, I think it’s understood that is no longer a realistic outcome.
Iran’s objective will be to buy time and stave off pressure by trying to create cleavages within the P5+1, namely to split China and Russia from the United States and Europe. So far the greatest ally the United States has had in keeping the coalition together has been Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has shown a unique ability to alienate, whether we’re talking about individuals or nations.
What has recently happened that allowed these meetings to take place?
Both sides agreed several months ago to recommence talks, but there was some quibbling about the participants and location. Iran tried, unsuccessfully, to include Turkey and Brazil in the discussions, and suggested that the meeting be held in Istanbul.
U.S. officials have recently stated that sanctions on Iran are increasingly having an effect. How do these sanctions shape the atmosphere around the talks?
Sanctions haven’t curtailed Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but they appear to have succeeded in slowing them down, at least temporarily. For this reason there is less of a sense of urgency in Geneva that a deal must be reached or else Iran’s acquisition of a weapon is imminent.
Nonethless, sanctions aren’t likely to compel Tehran to moderate their nuclear posture and foreign policies. This regime has long shown itself willing to subject its population to severe economic hardship rather than compromise on its political and ideological aims.
Moreover, an important tenet of Supreme Leader Khamenei’s worldview is to never compromise in response to pressure; he believes it projects weakness and will invite even more pressure.
What effect do these sanctions have on the Iranian government’s relationship with its people?
To the average Iranian citizen it’s tough to discern whether deteriorating economic conditions are due to international sanctions or domestic mismanagement.
While it’s difficult to make generalizations, I think sanctions often accentuate people’s existing political disposition. For government critics, it’s another example of the regime’s disregard for their general well-being. A very common refrain you hear among Iranians is, “they [the government] do whatever they want, and we [the people] suffer the consequences.”
For government supporters, however, the sanctions offer another reason to criticize so called “American arrogance”. I don’t get the impression that sanctions really compel people to change their political orientation.
Iranians have been under international sanctions for a few decades and as opposed to Cubans, for example, they overwhelmingly cite mismanagement and corruption as the underlying cause of the country’s bleak economic condition, not sanctions. When you live in Iran you witness the government’s endemic mismanagement and cronyism on display daily; the effects of sanctions on day-to-day life are less tangible.
Many countries approved more extensive unilateral sanctions after the international sanctions were passed. However, recently there have been reports indicating that certain countries such as Turkey and China are not fully complying with the international sanctions. What is your overall assessment of the extent to which these countries and the international community have implemented Iranian sanctions?
Outside the United States there are few if any countries in the world that like sanctions or believe in their efficacy. That said, I think the Obama administration’s ability to assemble a broad-based sanctions regime against Iran exceeded expectations.
Given Iran’s size and its wealth of energy resources it’s impossible to put a moat around the country, but Iran’s trade ties with its major partners—China, Dubai, and Europe—have been trending downward over the last year.
China is an indispensable strategic and commercial ally to Iran, but Iran isn’t an indispensable ally to China. I think many countries, including China, are concluding that the costs of damaging their bilateral relationship with America outweigh the benefits of expanding their commercial ties with Iran.
Was there any new information discovered in WikiLeaks’ document release that will affect U.S. or international policy toward Iran?
I don’t believe any of the revelations, many of which were open secrets, were game changers. I think one thing they did underscore was just how isolated and poorly regarded the current Iranian government is throughout the world. Aside from North Korea, Syria, and Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, Iran is a country with no real friends.
Incidentally, while the ostensible intent of the leaks was to reveal the duplicity of American foreign policy toward the Middle East, what was far more revealing was the duplicity of Middle Eastern states toward one another. The Qatari Prime Minister’s characterization of his country’s relations with Iran aptly summed up intraregional diplomacy: “They lie to us, and we lie to them.”
Given Arab states’ fears of Iran as expressed in the documents, what more could these countries do to address the situation? What are they already doing?
Gulf Arab countries have valid concerns about Iran, but the military approach privately advocated by their leadership is lazy, misguided, and inimical to their own interests.
Iran’s ascent in the region over the last decade has been due primarily to its political influence more than its military prowess. Tehran’s military budget is a quarter that of Saudi Arabia’s, and U.S. General David Petraeus once even said that the UAE Air Force could “take out the entire Iranian Air Force.”
But Iran’s soft power, along with it support for militias, can undermine governments with vastly superior militaries, as has been evidenced by the United States in Iraq. Given that Iran’s appeal in the Arab and Muslim world is derived from its defiance of the United States and Israel, a military strike would only increase Iran’s aura as the one country in the region that speaks truth to power.
When we last spoke to you in December 2009 you talked about the need for the United States to emphasize justice and the preservation of human rights in Iran, while at the same time engaging the Iranian government on critical national security issues such as nuclear proliferation, Afghanistan, and Iraq. How would you gauge the U.S. administration’s efforts in these areas since then?
The administration has been criticized from all sides, by those who argue that their attempts at engagement were feeble and disingenuous, and others who argue they haven’t done enough to support democracy and human rights activists in Iran.
Europe is a useful barometer regarding the first criticism. When I would speak to European diplomats during the Bush administration, they would often complain more about Washington’s unwillingness to engage Iran than Iranian intransigence. That’s no longer the case today. Our key European allies—the United Kingdom, France, and Germany—appreciate the fact that Tehran has not reciprocated the Obama administration’s unprecedented overtures.
While the U.S.’s ability to influence Tehran’s internal politics is very limited, I do think the administration could stand to focus more on Iran’s treatment of its own citizens. The recent move to sanction Iranian officials responsible for egregious human rights violations was a welcome step, and should be continued.
I think one valid critique is that the administration has not made an effort to level the technological imbalance between the Iranian regime and its people; they’ve not thought seriously about ways to inhibit the Iranian government’s ability to use technologies to censor, eavesdrop, and repress people, and prevent them from communicating with each other and the outside world.
You also said that it is politically expedient for Iran to have the United States as an adversary—a point that you have mentioned in recent articles. How does this affect the way the United States should approach Iran? Also, how would this affect a decision to use military force against Iran?
I think the individuals who are currently running Iran believe enmity toward the United States to be an inextricable part of the Islamic Republic’s identity and ideological narrative.
This doesn’t mean that we shun dialogue with Iran, but we should have realistic expectations of what it will achieve. Our conflicts with Iran are not due to simple misunderstandings, but real, serious differences about the way the world ought to be. For me the utility of negotiations is not necessarily to resolve our differences with Iran, but to contain our differences and to mitigate the prospects of escalation and conflict.
I think the mathematics of a military strike make it highly inadvisable. According to best estimates it could delay Iran’s nuclear progress by 2-3 years, but it would likely entrench Tehran’s most radical elements for years, if not decades, to come. I think Iran’s hardliners—including Khamenei—would welcome a military strike; they would use it as a pretext to crush dissent and repair the country’s internal political divisions.
As one Iranian democracy activist once told me, there should be "less focus on the gun, and more focus on the bandit trying to obtain the gun." Bombing Iran will strengthen the bandit and only increase his desire to get the gun.
How do you see the dynamics between Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, and the Revolutionary Guards?
I believe Khamenei remains at the apex of Iran’s power pyramid. His ruling style is very Machiavellian in that he surrounds himself with individuals who are loyal to him but often despise one another.
When Ahmadinejad gets too big for his britches, Khamenei silently allows and even encourages the president’s conservative critics in the parliament to bark loudly at him, but he won’t allow them to impeach him. It’s actually expedient for Khamenei to have a weakened president who can serve as a lightning rod for popular discontent and deflect accountability away from the leader himself.
I would also discount the analysis that the Revolutionary Guards are backing Ahmadinejad against Khamenei. There are many examples of the Revolutionary Guards publicly criticizing Ahmadinejad, but no examples of them publicly criticizing Khamenei.
What can be expected to happen internally in Iran in the short and medium term? What are the prospects for political change?
In the next year, the biggest potential source of unrest is skyrocketing prices due to the removal of subsidies on daily staples such as foodstuffs and petrol. Due to the volatility of such a move, the decision has been delayed for several months now.
It’s sure we’ll continue to see periodic bouts of unrest in Iran, from students and labor unions, but I don’t see any signs that there is a cohesive opposition with a vision and a strategy to channel popular discontent.
When I look at democratic transitions elsewhere in the world, in places like Eastern Europe, South Africa, and Spain, it seems there were a few requisite ingredients. From the bottom up, there were grassroots agitations, and from the top down, there were elite divisions and the loss of will to do what it takes in order to remain in power.
In Iran you have the popular will for change, as well as fissures among the elite. But what you don’t have is a loss of will, on the part of the current leadership, to intimidate, imprison, and kill their opponents in order to stay in power.