Karim Sadjadpour is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he focuses on Iran and U.S. policy toward the Middle East. Recently, Sadjadpour wrote an important article for The Atlantic, titled “How to Win the Cold War with Iran,” in which he sought to outline the foundations for a more realistic U.S. approach toward the country. Diwan interviewed Sadjadpour in early April to discuss his article, and more generally to get a sense of where the U.S.-Iranian relationship stands today as the Biden administration seeks to return the United States to the nuclear deal with Iran.
Michael Young: You’ve just written an essay titled “How to Win the Cold War with Iran” for The Atlantic. What is your main argument?
Karim Sadjadpour: I tried to distill the main lessons I’ve learned over the last two decades thinking about Iran and U.S. policy toward Iran. During the first quarter of my career I lived in Tehran and Beirut, and during the last three quarters I have been based in Washington D.C.
Any effective U.S. strategy toward Iran first requires an honest assessment of the nature of the Islamic Republic, and must aim to address three specific questions: Is the Islamic Republic capable of meaningful reform? Is the Islamic Republic able to abandon anti-Americanism as part of its revolutionary ideology? Is the Islamic Republic likely to change its longtime regional policies, including its opposition to Israel’s existence and cultivation of regional militias such as Hezbollah?
When I first began my career, I was confident that the answer to all these questions was yes. Over time I gradually came to the opposite conclusion—that for a variety of reasons the Islamic Republic, like many revolutionary regimes, is unlikely to be able to fundamentally alter its character, especially now after four decades.
The question is how should the United States approach an Iranian regime that needs America as an adversary, but is at the same time integral to several critical U.S. national security concerns? I wrote that “it requires the flexibility of a gymnast and the precision of a surgeon to cooperate with Iran when possible, confront Iran when necessary, and contain Iran with the help of partner nations.” Yet a U.S. strategy that focuses only on the nuclear and regional ambitions of the Iranian government while overlooking the democratic ambitions of the Iranian people ignores the lessons of how the Cold War ended.
MY: In your essay, you cite former Iranian president Mohammed Khatami as saying that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had told him that “Iran needs enmity with America, the revolution needs enmity with America.” Can you explain what Khamenei meant, and in light of such a statement is normalization possible between Washington and Tehran?
KS: Khatami told me this at a private meeting in Oslo in 2008. I was shocked by his candor with me, and Khamenei’s candor with him. In essence, opposition to the United States is for Khamenei an ideological pillar of the revolution and part of the identity of the Islamic Republic. The culture of “Death to America” doesn’t serve the national interests of Iran—in other words the economic and security interests of the Iranian people—but it has served Khamenei’s parochial interests in that he understands he can best preserve his authority in a closed environment and needs an external adversary as a pretext for internal failings and repression.
The short answer to your question is that for as long as Khamenei is alive, there will be no normalization between the United States and Iran. By normalization I mean a U.S. embassy in Tehran and an Iranian embassy in Washington D.C. That is not an argument against deescalation with Iran, it just means we should be realistic about what is achievable.
MY: You argue that the soundest template for dealing with Iran is one that “contains, counters, and communicates” with the country, along the lines of what the United States did with the former Soviet Union. Can you explain what you mean?
KS: It’s important to try to maintain an official, private channel of communication with the Islamic Republic, even if it is used primarily to communicate mutual concerns or “red lines.” The United States had such a channel with the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. It will not bring peace between the United States and Iran, but it can help to prevent conflict.
There are also going to be times when the United States will be required to counter Iranian provocations. If Iran or its proxies launch attacks against U.S. personnel or partners in the Middle East, a failure to react risks emboldening Tehran to believe it can continue to push with impunity. The challenge for the United States is to confront Iran with the intention of deterring, rather than provoking, further escalation.
Much of U.S. policy toward Iran is going to be about containing Tehran’s nuclear and regional ambitions. The United States cannot do this unilaterally; it requires the active support and cooperation of U.S. global allies and regional partners.
MY: You also make a key point that it would be unrealistic for the United States to discuss nuclear nonproliferation, regional security, and Iranian civil rights in one negotiation, which may be how the Biden administration would like to proceed in reviving the nuclear agreement. What would you suggest instead?
KS: My sense is that the Biden administration does not want to expand nuclear discussions with Iran to include Tehran’s regional or domestic policies. I think that is prudent. I think the question is how do you make these three priorities complimentary rather than contradictory? When the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear deal with Iran, was signed in 2015, many people who were concerned about Iran’s regional ambitions and domestic brutality felt their issues were sacrificed at the altar of the nuclear deal. I think there should be a way to craft an Iran strategy in which these objectives are not at odds with one another but mutually reinforcing.
MY: There is a view in some quarters of the United States that the Biden administration is just another version of the Obama administration when it comes to Iran. In other words, Washington, by reviving the nuclear deal, seeks to realign with Iran in the region and recognize its regional stakes, at the expense of U.S. allies such as the Gulf states and Israel. Do you see evidence of this?
KS: Iran is a much lower priority for the Biden administration than it was for the Obama administration. Biden understandably wants to spend his time and political capital on an ambitious domestic agenda, not on the Middle East.
There is also another key difference. The Obama administration hoped that the nuclear deal might serve to transform Iranian politics and the U.S.-Iran relationship. Obama’s Central Intelligence Agency director, John Brennan, wrote in his 2020 memoir, Undaunted: My Fight Against America’s Enemies, At Home and Abroad, that Obama believed the nuclear deal was “essential not only for regional stability but also to strengthen the influence of Iranian moderates, especially Iranian [P]resident Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif.” I don’t think Biden and his senior advisors have any illusions that Iran’s domestic and regional policies will soften if the nuclear deal is revived, or that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is interested in a cooperative relationship with the United States.
MY: You write that Washington’s regional allies must proscribe Iran’s support for regional proxies and violations of their sovereignty. While some states can do so, many more—Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, or Syria—are either incapable of this or do not want to do so. How would you resolve this dilemma?
KS: The countries that you mention—Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria—have weak or embattled governments, and deeply polarized societies that either view Iran as an indispensably ally or an existential threat. Iran, through its cultivation of militias, has proven more adept than any other country in the Middle East at filling these regional power vacuums.
I wrote that “Arab disorder facilitates Iranian ambitions, and Iranian ambitions exacerbate Arab disorder.” What that implies is that the only enduring way to inhibit Iranian influence is by rebuilding functional Arab governmental institutions and allaying societal polarization, which is much easier said than done. This is at least a generational endeavor that will require diplomatic leadership from the United States and its global and regional partners.
But I would argue the situation is not as hopeless as it may appear. First, there is growing resentment of Iranian influence, even within the Shi‘a communities of Iraq and Lebanon. Second, Gulf countries have resources that Tehran does not have to try and compete for Arab hearts and minds in countries where Iran wields influence. Third, Europe has been on the receiving end of the refugee crisis that Iran and its regional allies have helped to create and would like to change the status quo. Finally, China actually has deeper economic relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates than Iran, and it seeks a stable Middle East to ensure the free flow of resources from the region. China abided by a U.S.-led effort to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and I would argue a similar U.S.-led global diplomatic initiative is needed to address security in the Middle East, including Iran’s regional ambitions.
MY: You present an interesting argument in favor of reviving the nuclear deal, by observing that an improvement in the economic circumstances of Iran could destabilize the country if the rising expectations of the population remain unfulfilled. Can you explain your reasoning in more detail.
KS: The American sociologist James Davies observed in 1969 that popular uprisings tend to occur “when a prolonged period of objective economic and social development is followed by a short period of sharp reversal.” In other words it’s not crushing poverty that most often leads to political unrest, but when a society’s improving economic circumstances lead to elevated expectations that go unfulfilled. This is commonly called the J-Curve theory or the revolution of rising expectations. In fact that theory is commonly used to explain Iran’s revolution in 1979.
Many opponents of the Islamic Republic worry that a revival of the nuclear deal will provide Iran with sanctions relief that will entrench the regime. Yet the near-term economic improvements that might result from a removal of U.S. sanctions are likelier in the medium and long term to destabilize the Islamic Republic rather than entrench it. The more Iranians fully understand that what stands between them and a better future is their own leadership, not the United States, the more the country’s most potent ideology—Iranian nationalism—will be harnessed against the regime rather than in service of it.
MY: You write that history is not on the side of the Islamic Republic, because it lacks democratic mechanisms for renewal. Yet authoritarian systems seem to be doing much better today than a decade ago, so why is that necessarily true?
KS: The Islamic Republic is rare in that it is not only highly politically authoritarian, but it is also socially and economically authoritarian. It spends an inordinate amount of time and money policing not only what its citizens say, but how they dress, what they drink, whom they love, and what they read and watch.
Iran today is a theocracy ruled by elderly religious men, presiding over an increasingly secular society whose most educated members are young women. Its economy is heavily reliant on the sale of oil and gas at a time when the global reliance on fossil fuels is decreasing. In contrast to China, which has offered its citizens greater prosperity while depriving them of political freedom, Iran offers political, economic, and social repression without much upside. Repression and intimidation can sustain these contradictions for years, but not indefinitely. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, those who make political reform impossible make political revolution inevitable.