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 article for Foreign Affairs magazine, titled “Iran’s Hollow Victory: The High Price of Regional Dominance,” in which he examined Tehran’s grand strategy, describing remarkable continuity in the way it has approached the United States and the Middle East. Diwan interviewed Sadjadpour in mid-April to discuss his article, but also to look more broadly at Iran’s position in the Middle East, especially as negotiations in Vienna over a revival of the nuclear deal appear to have hit an impasse.
Michael Young: What is the status of the Vienna talks to revive the nuclear deal with Iran?
Karim Sadjadpour: The negotiations in Vienna—which have now persisted for more than a year—appear to be either on the verge of conclusion or collapse. There is currently pessimism about the likelihood of reviving the nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), even though both Washington and Tehran agree that most outstanding issues have been resolved.
Among the remaining points of contention is Tehran’s demand that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG) be removed from the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. The Biden administration appears internally divided over whether to offer this concession given the IRGC’s complicity in the death of hundreds of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, not to mention thousands of Arab and Iranian civilians. Even though Iran’s economy is under considerable sanctions duress, Tehran’s leaders don’t appear to have a sense of urgency. What they have learned over the last year is that the JCPOA is always available to them, and that if they stand firm the United States will negotiate with itself and eventually come back with more favorable terms.
MY: In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, you write that Iran has pursued its grand strategy with remarkable continuity, but at the same time that it has not achieved any of its lofty ambitions, and that it cannot afford to reform, as it would probably not survive such an effort. Can you unpack this paradoxical situation?
KS: Iran’s aspirations are to defeat the U.S.-led world order, replace Israel with Palestine, and shape the Middle East in its image. Tehran feels emboldened by its successes in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, as well as America’s diminished regional presence, including its humbling 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Iran’s revolutionary ideology has exhibited four decades of continuity and will not change so long as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remains supreme leader. Like many dictatorships, the Islamic Republic faces a reform dilemma in that it must open up to survive, but doing so could destroy it. Khamenei firmly believes that abandoning revolutionary principles—including Iran’s opposition to the United States and Israel—would be like taking a sledgehammer to the pillars of a building, and hasten the regime’s demise rather than prolong its shelf-life. I think Khamenei’s instincts are correct that repression, not reform, is the key to the Islamic Republic’s survival.
MY: Tell us something about Khamenei, and how essential is he to Iran’s grand strategy?
KS: Among the reasons Iran has, arguably, had the most consistent and enduring grand strategy of any nation over the last four decades is because it has only had two top leaders since 1979. Khamenei, now aged 82, inherited power from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 and has remained committed to Khomeini’s revolutionary ethos. He has risen to the top and preserved his power in the status quo context. For Khamenei U.S.-Iran normalization would likely prove far more destabilizing than a continued cold war with the United States.
MY: You write that Iran’s regional allies have the good luck of not being blamed for the shortcomings in governance of their countries, where all the blame is heaped on national governments instead. However, in Lebanon, we’ve seen a different trend, as Hezbollah is increasingly seen as the prime defender of the corrupt system and political elite. So, given the great power of pro-Iran groups in their respective Arab countries, how long can this degree of separation between such groups and responsibility for poor governance last?
KS: There are two separate issues, blame and accountability. Lebanese may increasingly blame Hezbollah for the country’s malaise, but there are few examples of Hezbollah being held accountable. Despite Hezbollah’s role in gruesome events—including the 2005 assassination of the former prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri, and the 2020 explosion at Beirut Port—the party continuously manages to escape accountability by threatening its opponents and suffocating justice.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is not subject to the same financial scrutiny and criticism that his Lebanese political peers face. You rarely hear calls for Nasrallah to resign, perhaps because he is perceived to be beholden to Iran, not Lebanon.
Iran has tried to recreate the Hezbollah model in Iraq and Yemen, which is to essentially wield power without accountability. Much like a mafia, Tehran and its proxies employ force, intimidation, and bribery to assert their interests, but don’t want the accountability that comes with governance. Major political decisions can’t be made without Tehran’s blessing, but don’t hold Iran responsible for governmental corruption and incompetence.
There are ample signs of the popular backlash toward Iran and its proxies. Polls show that nearly two-thirds of young Arabs in the region now view Iran as an adversary, a sizable majority of Arabs of all ages want Iran to withdraw from regional conflicts, and more than half of Arab Shiites hold an “unfavorable” view of Iran. In recent years, Iraqi protesters have attacked and set fire to the Iranian consulates in Najaf and Karbala—two Shiite shrine cities that are longtime Iranian strongholds in Iraq—and Lebanese Shiites have protested against Hezbollah in the southern Lebanese city of Nabatieh.
MY: How does Iran’s grand strategy threaten the Iranian regime on the home front?
KS: The historian John Lewis Gaddis defines grand strategy as “the alignment of potentially unlimited aspirations with necessarily limited capabilities.” Iran has invested more of its limited capabilities in its aspiration to upend the U.S.-led world order than perhaps any other country in the world, including China and Russia. In so doing, it has neglected the wellbeing of its people and made itself poorer and less secure. Moreover, the gulf between the Islamic Republic’s aspirations and its capabilities means that Iran will continue to bleed national resources to subsidize regional militias and external conflicts, deepening the public’s economic, political, and social frustration and necessitating ever-greater repression.
It’s important to note that the ideological goals of the Islamic Republic and the national interests of Iran are two different things. If you take a simple definition of “national interests”—that which advances the security and prosperity of your population—it is clear that Iran’s revolutionary ethos of “Death to America” has made the lives of its citizens poorer and less secure.
MY: You write, about the United States, “Many progressives think that Tehran’s intransigence is merely a reaction to hostile U.S. policies, whereas many conservatives have posited that greater economic hardship would force Tehran to choose between its ideology and the regime’s survival …” Can you explain how you feel about both propositions?
KS: Foreign policy discussions in the United States are often about whether America is the problem or the solution. Did America trigger Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, or can America change the nature of political power in Moscow? Former U.S. national security advisor H. R. McMaster describes this as “strategic narcissism,” the view that all global events are simply a reaction to the United States and that foreign governments and autocrats have no agency of their own.
In the context of U.S.-Iran relations, every four to eight years a new U.S. administration believes it can resolve the Iranian challenge by doing the opposite of its predecessor. I think what both sides tend to get wrong is that the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary ideology is an inextricable part of its identity, not a byproduct of weak or tough U.S. policies. Neither U.S. incentives nor pressure will compel or coerce the Islamic Republic into changing its identity.
MY: Despite the rivalry between the United States and China globally, you suggest there is common ground between them when it comes to Iran. Could you explain this, all the more so as the Chinese have provided an economic lifeline to Iran by purchasing its oil and by signing a 25-year cooperation agreement with Tehran?
KS: China and the United States have divergent views of Iran, but both countries share an interest in a stable Middle East and the free flow of energy from the region. Over the last several years Iran and its proxies have conducted attacks against Saudi Aramco, oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, and civilian airports in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, none of which served Chinese interests. While it’s true that Iran is economically dependent on China, it’s also true that China’s trade with Saudi Arabia and the UAE dwarfs its trade with Iran.
Just as great powers came together—despite their different perspectives—to find a lowest-common-denominator approach to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the question is whether Washington, Beijing, and other major powers may be able to find a lowest common denominator approach toward security in the Middle East. In the near term there is little chance of this happening, given that the world is focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As China’s presence in the region grows, however, it would be natural to see Beijing playing a greater leadership role in addressing the regional security challenges that undermine its core interests, many of which are related to Iran.
MY: Why will Iranian power in the Middle East prove ephemeral, as you write in your Foreign Affairs article?
KS: I compare Iran’s presence in today’s Middle East to a skyscraper with a rotting foundation. The countries where Iran wields influence—Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen—are failing states plagued by varying degrees of conflict, corruption, and economic suffering. Iran’s regional presence has little redeeming value for societies in which it wields influence. Much as in the latter decades of the Soviet Union, Iran’s “Axis of Resistance” is most admired by those who don’t have to live under it.