Saturday, November 14, 2009

Karim Sadjadpour is somewhat America-centric and probably overestimates the strength of Iran's opposition

We have a Q&A about Iran produced by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Qantara publication. Qantara titled the piece "The Iranian Regime Is Now More Vulnerable Than Ever Before" which is probably exactly wrong. Laughably so actually. More vulnerable than when Iraqi troops were on Iranian territory supported by what looked to the Iranians like the entire world?

In fact, It seems the factions that won the June election are much more secure in place than they were before the election. This point is parenthetical but If you look at Ahmadinejad during the debates, you see a man who considers himself being ganged up on by a vast array of power represented by the three candidates who each posed as an anti-Ahmadinejad candidate and supported behind the scenes by Iran's richest man, a friend the of Supreme Leader and better politically connected than any Iranian other than Khamenei. Ahmadinejad did not go into the debates as a relaxed person who knew the fix was in, he went into the debates panicked that he may not be able to convince Iran to go his way. We see none of that panic in Ahmadinejad now.

Karim Sadjadpour, providing the answers, demonstrates the common Western misperception that the opposition protests are stronger than any evidence shows them to be and also gives what is probably unwarranted emphasis to anti-Americanism as a motive for Iranian policy.

On the first misperception, what is happening is we have a whole corps of Western-based foreign policy analysts who viscerally dislike the Iranian regime, with a particular animus for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. If a poll shows that 80% of Iranian people believe Ahmadinejad is honest, I'd guess 5% of Sadjadpour's peers share that impression. Sadjadpour's peers have a strong tendency to project their own feelings onto Iran's people. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the demographic groups most hostile to Ahmadinejad are also the demographic groups with the greatest access to people like Sadjadpour. Finally Sadjadpour and his peer reinforce each other's biases and thereby perpetuate a process that leads their analyses further and further away from any objective evidence.

The second misperception is also a problem of projection, the United States, as such, is a more important issue for a US-based analyst than it is for an Iranian leader. US-based analysts might find themselves reading speeches and focusing on the issues the analysts find most important, even potentially skipping over issues that an Iranian speaker considers most important. Iran does not define itself as an anti-US nation. There is no benefit to opposing the US just to oppose the US. An analyst may get an inaccurate impression of Iran's motives by over-focusing on the subject of greatest interest to the analyst himself.

But I'll put the questions in bold and provide what I think are more accurate answers and discuss Sadjadpour's answers.

The political situation in Iran is tense. On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the takeover of the United States Embassy in Iran on November 4th tens of thousands of protesters were on the streets of Tehran despite severe warnings from Iranian security forces. The demonstrations took place not only in Tehran but also in various other cities around the country. Mr. Sadjadpour, for how long do you think will the opposition be able to keep up the pressure against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government?

John McCain could get much larger protests against Barack Obama today if he called for them. There is a strong tendency to overestimate the amount of pressure the street protests are providing. During the protests, for the most part life went on as usual in Tehran. If we remember China's Tienanmen Square protests they were much more broadly supported and thrown against a government that did not have Iran's support (at least according to the best polls we have) and did not throw elections. Maybe there will be protests from now on. But these protests are not increasing, haven't captured Iran's popular imagination and it is difficult to describe them as pressuring Ahmadinejad's government.

Sadjadpour's contention that there will not be change overnight is correct. Next election, where Mousavi almost certainly will not be allowed to run, there will be a whole new set of issues. Ahmadinejad, the most popular politician in his faction also will not be able to run. In terms of looking for change in Iran, the next election is more a more important event to look at than any of the protests that might happen between now and then.

What do you think is going to happen over the next few months?

A few months is a tiny amount of time. Iran in June 2010 will look a lot like it looks now. The opposition will be able to get maybe thousands of protesters onto the streets. Not enough to be disruptive.

Sadjadpour implies without saying that he expects the protest movement to gain steam. That scenario is very unlikely. We'll see who's right in a few months.

During the demonstrations on November 4th we heard for the first time people chanting "Obama, Obama – either you're with them or you're with us" along with the slogan "Down with the dictator". Do you think the Obama administration responded in an apt manner to the developments in Iran?

This is an interesting, interesting question. It is well known, Obama has said himself, that he believes speaking for the opposition would delegitimize the opposition. He's right about that, but because it is so well known that he is being silent as his way of assisting the opposition, his silence does not help the opposition.

His Secretary of State is another issue entirely. The episode where the State Department asked Twitter not to perform maintenance in order to help the protesters, and then publicized that it made that request just left me shaking my head incredulously. I still can't figure out what the US was aiming for with that. She has also publicly said that while the administration knows speaking in its favor could harm the opposition, "behind the scenes, we were doing a lot".

The administration need not try to be too clever. If it believes the opposition protesters are more popular among Iranians than the than the ruling regime, in theory the administration should just say that. Conspicuously holding silent, with the openly stated intention of supporting the opposition that way does not help the opposition. Unfortunately for the Obama Administration, there is a small problem and a big problem with speaking out in favor of Iran's opposition.

The small problem is that once you claim most Iranians want the government to stop supporting Hezbollah, recognize Israel and accept "peaceful nuclear power" without domestic enrichment, a poll can come out that shows 80% or even greater majorities of Iran on the opposite side of each of those issues. By being silent Obama can remain in the realm of the unfalsifiable, which is better than being indisputably wrong.

The big problem is that once you say the US stands for democracy in the Middle East, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia come up as subjects. Now, worse than being indisputably wrong, Obama would be exposed as a liar. More than the consideration of whether or not public support is helpful or harmful to the opposition, Obama's policy has to take the constraints of its own credibility into account.

So it is strategically sound for Obama to remain silent. His silence is not helping the opposition, but there is not much Obama can do to help the opposition. Given these constraints Obama has not actively worsened the US position the way others in his administration have.

Sadjadpour's suggestion would only backfire.

Does the opposition feel betrayed by the West?

We have to understand about Iran's politics that there are two major factions, Rafsanjani's that I call clerics and Ahmadinejad's that I call the security establishment. There are clerics in Ahmadinejad's camp and military people in Rafsanjani's camp but these labels are broadly accurate.

The liberal pro-Western Iranians are not naturally represented by either camp, but the last election Mousavi aligned himself with both pro-Western Iranians and Rafsanjani's camp.

Here's the problem. Mousavi immediately declared that the elections were fraudulent and called for big disruptive protests before there was convincing evidence of fraud. Mousavi's strongest supporters don't need much convincing. Sadjadpour's peers in the Western analysis community don't need much convincing. Most Iranians do need convincing. Most Iranians do not believe a claim of fraud by Ahmadinejad must be true unless it is proven false.

With many, likely most Iranians, Mousavi's behavior may or may not have been influenced by foreigners, but it was not helpful for Iran and Mousavi discredited himself. All elements of that coalition have been discredited relative to May of this year. Rafsanjani is much weaker, Mousavi is barely relevant if at all in Iranian politics now.

The opposition does not need anything from Obama. It needs time to put its claims that did not pan out behind them. Or it needs evidence that it was right all along. (Not somebody in England saying they doubt Ahmadinejad could have gotten this many votes in that district, or the there aren't enough ballot counts with "2" as the last digit, but a witness willing to say "when we counted my polling location, Mousavi won, but it was reported that Ahmadinejad won".)

Iran's opposition needs to reconnect to the Iranian people. The fact is that there is no consensus in Iran that religion plays too much a role in government, (some believe there is too much role, about the same amount believe there is too little role) so the opposition has to make its case to the Iranian people. If there is corruption in Ahmadinejad's camp, and there may well be, the opposition need to find it and publicize it. Right now there is no consensus in Iran that Ahmadinejad's camp is the more corrupt. Rafsanjani is notorious in Iran as the single exemplar of state corruption. This is an issue the opposition will have to address one way or another.

Sadjadpour's idea that the will of the people is opposed to Iran's regime is wrong. At least it is not supported by any poll and there is no tangible reason to believe the election results were not correct. The will of Sadjadpour and his peers is opposed to Iran's regime, but that really does not matter.

The Obama Administration shows first signs of patience running low. First Tehran seemed to have agreed to send its Low Enriched Uranium to Russia and France in order to get it back in a higher enriched form for use in a medical reactor. Then the Iranians backpedalled. For how long will Obama keep committed to the diplomatic talks?

Forever. The Obama administration does not have a better alternative than talks. The US is vulnerable in both Iraq and Afghanistan and could lose both at huge cost, a cost the US can hardly calculate or imagine, if it turns Iran outwardly and actively hostile. This idea is difficult for Israel and its supporters to accept, and we are seeing some degree of performance for those parties by the Obama administration, but the US will come up with a formula that is acceptable to Iran or it will allow the status quo to continue. Every other alternative is worse for the US and the US knows that quite well.

Sadjadpour says the US has gone further than the Bush administration. Publicly, Obama has not said anything Bush did not say. Clinton has not said anything Condoleeza Rice didn't say. When Obama publicly actually goes further than Bush. When he officially endorses John Kerry's statement from June that trying to stop Iran from enriching was stupid, that will be a clear indication that the issue is close to being resolved.

People like Sadjadpour though, may have convinced Obama that Iran is moments away from buckling so Bush's goal may still be realistic. If Obama believes that, we'll see the status quo until the Obama administration is convinced that its goal actually is unrealistic.

If no compromise can be found on the basis of the International Atomic Agency's proposal increased sanctions will be on the agenda. How do you rate the chances that such sanctions will lead Ahmadinejad to change course?

I think there very high chance that if there are substantial sanctions, Iran will immediately substantially increase the speed of its enrichment. Iran would not suspend or submit to US demands even under threat of war. There are no sanctions that Iran fears nearly as much as it values its enrichment program - for good reason, Iran achieving nuclear capability, even if it never builds a weapon, would be a very valuable strategic asset for Iran, and would deter threats of US or Israeli military hostility long after the US troops have left Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sadjadpour thinks if Russia and China agree with the US position on sanctions, that might change Iran's calculations. That's wrong, but the reason Russia and China have not come around is because those countries calculate, correctly, that sanctions will accelerate, not slow, Iran's nuclear program.

The Obama administration hasn't taken the military option off the table. Under which circumstances do you think a US military operation would be possible?

Sadjadpour is exactly right that there is a very low chance of a US attack on Iran. He overestimates the independence of Israel. Israel, even if it did not have to pass US airspace to attack Iran, could not do so because if Israel was to harm US interests as much as it would by attacking Iran without permission, it would seriously risk losing its superpower patron, which is a far bigger existential threat to Israel than an Iranian nuclear capability.

The IAEA chief until end of November, Mohammed ElBaradei, told the New York Times "there is total distrust on the part of Iran". Mr Sadjadpour, you have authored a study on the speeches and writings of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader in Iran. Is the most powerful man in Tehran indeed viscerally opposed to the US?

Iran is primarily a religious fundamentalist nation. Iran believes it is a far better proponent of Islamic values than the US and opposes the US only to the degree that it perceives the US as contradicting those values.

It is important to understand that Iran does oppose US support for Israel, and the string of pro-Israel dictatorships Iran perceives the US to be propping up in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and others but it does not oppose the US beyond its policies.

In theory, the US could change policies, embrace religious values and be Iran's best ally. In practice, US support for Israel is deeply entrenched in the US political system and the US identification with Zionism is not reconcilable with the Iranian identification with the Palestinians.

But Sadjadpour is wrong in his contention that Khamenei or any Iranian leaders opposes the US per se. But as long as the US perpetuates with Iran sees as the dispossession and oppression of the Palestinians - as well as the disenfranchisement of over 100 million Arabs in states (like Jordan and Egypt) that could pose the same threat to Israel that Iran does if they were democracies - then Iran will see the US as an evil nation. A nation that opposes the Islamic values of justice and equality of all people before God.

Sadjadpour's mistake comes from an understandable over-focus on the US in his readings of Khamenei's speeches. What is important is Islam, the US only takes on importance as far as its agreement or conflict with Islamic values. Like Sadjadpour, I am not a religious fundamentalist, but in communicating with or even predicting Iran, it is more effective to have a more accurate understanding of its motives.

What do you think he is most worried about?

Right now Iran is beating expectations. From an Iranian point of view, I worry that the US will lose its vulnerability in Iraq and Afghanistan before Iran has had a chance to consolidate its gains. I'm not sure what Iran's actual calculations are as far as that issue.

Sadjadpour is right that the Iran believes the US wants to foment a velvet revolution in Iran. If it was tried in June, it failed. I doubt Khamenei worries much about that now. US support for separatist forces in Iran is a bigger concern. Terrorist campaigns like the October attack in Balochistan risk pushing Iran over the edge and moving to open hostility without any attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. On a day to day basis, I'd guess that is Iran's biggest concern right now.

Rapprochement with the US is not a threat to Iran, but could not happen unless an acceptable formula is reached regarding Israel. If Iran considered its regime's survival in doubt, it would be more willing to adopt a Malaysian profile, in which it does not recognize Israel but does not actively support those who are combating it. If Iran is stable as today, rapprochement would require US toleration of Iranian support for Hamas, Hezbollah and others.

The US is free not to accept that - Iran considers the US an evil nation that accepts and advances the oppression of the Palestinians - but if the US was to accept that, rapprochement would pose no threat at all to Iran.


b said...

Thanks Arnold, good analysis an I agree.

Interestingly it is dawning to some in the U.S. that the Iranian opposition movement is a political nobody with zero perspective.

See today's WaPo piece on the opposition:

Fissures over goals test strength of Iran's opposition

Five months after a disputed presidential election spawned the largest anti-government demonstrations here in three decades, Iran's opposition movement appears rudderless and divided, with protesters increasingly at odds with their leaders' insistence on preserving the country's system of religious government.
"Nobody knows what will happen," he said. "We all are the leaders of this movement, but we don't have a clue where we are taking it."

Lysander said...

Great to hear from b and I hope all is well.

As to sanctions, I'm not so sure they wont happen. They ARE in American interests. Granted they will not stop Iran's nuke program, but they will put an economic strain on the country and help slow its continued development. Which is the whole point of sanctions, really. To prevent, or at least slow, Iran from emerging as a true competitor to Israel.

And for that matter the U.S.

The Russians can't really be counted on to prevent sanctions. They certainly would not want Iran to become another U.S. client state, but they do want Iran to be dependent on Russia.

China is another matter. They might actually veto sanctions agreed to by Russia and the U.S. We will see.

Arnold Evans said...

Yeah b, real good seeing you.

Sanctions are in the US interest, taken on their own.

But Iran has such a good response, it has all of those centrifuges under vacuum that all it has to do is connect to almost double its uranium production.

I also remember in 2005. I don't remember what happened, but I thought, oh wow, the US may not understand how much of a disaster an attack on Iran would be and they may actually attack.

These kinds of false alarms have come and gone because the US is really trying as hard as it can to bluff. I thought as recently as September that we were headed for sanctions because Obama had talked himself into a corner with the September deadline stuff. Then he just walked out of the corner with no sanctions and no suspension or talk about suspension from Iran.

Now I just stick to the fundamentals. If it is clear that Iran's response to sanctions would improve its situation relative to the US, and it's clear the US can figure that out, then there won't be sanctions, regardless of indications that could be faked.

Iran has to get as much done while the US troops are pinned down in Iraq and Afghanistan. A major increase in its enrichment rate would do just that, and Iran clearly has the capacity to do it.

I don't have the link any more, but I believe it was Ahmadinejad who said a year or two ago that "every time they've imposed sanctions, our program has accelerated, not slowed".

We'll see. And it's Obama's call. If he wants to he'll get sanctions of some sort. He's obviously been deterred from making a major push so far. I'm pretty sure he'll continue to be deterred.

Lysander said...

I agree with what you say, Arnold. But if U.S.-Israeli policy makers have concluded as you have (correctly I think) that Iran's enrichment program is unstoppable, then the logical action for them would be to place as many sanctions on Iran as they possibly can. Yes, Iran will react by expanding enrichment, but that is acceptable to them if they can seriously hurt Iran's economy. The key is to make sure a nuclear Iran is economically weakened to whatever extent can be done.

Russia is a wild card. They do not 'fear' a nuclear Iran, but they do prefer an Iran dependent on them, especially should it ever gain the independence nuclear capability brings.

They also want to be the sole source of natural gas for Europe.

Also, you can't just expect "national interest" to always win the day. It is very much in Europe's interest to invest heavily in Iran's energy sector. It is very profitable and reduces dependence on Russia. And yet they do not.

Quite simply, the U.S. and Israel are not prepared to see Iran become a regional superpower and will do whatever they can to stop it. Sanctions are their best (only) bet at the moment.

Arnold Evans said...

The US certainly is acting as if it is true that it has decided that if Iran can't be brought to zero enrichment, it might as well just get sanctions.

I don't believe this is the actual calculation, but we just have to see. Sanctions also go along with levels of hostility between Iran and the US that even Bush shied away from.

I'm sure there have been discussions behind the scenes. Possibly the US made its best offer of limited nuclear capability and Iran made its best offer and the US believes either Iran's best offer isn't enough better than the status quo to be worth giving up sanctions or Iran will have a better best offer after a year of sanctions.

If the US thinks a better offer will be on the table next year, that is very likely to be wrong.

If the US has decided that it sees no substantial enough difference between what we have now and the steps Iran would agree to take, such as international participation in its program, ratifying the AP and setting some maximum amount of enrichment then sanctions are the way to go.

I see that as unlikely because on this path, by the end of Obama's first term, Iran will have several bombs worth of uranium and have a demonstrated capacity to reach at least the 20% mark.

Sanctions also would not in themselves cause an all-out war effort by Iran in Iraq or Afghanistan, but Iran would turn the heat up in both countries.

I can't believe sanctions are worth it for the United States, or that the United States can't come up with an agreement short of zero enrichment that it would prefer to Iran accelerating its program.

If I'm wrong, we'll see in 2010.

Anonymous said...


The US doens't always act in a logical manner, take a look at their idiotic policies on North Korea, or even Afghanistan, Iraq. Just because it would be in their strategic interests to make peace with Iran doesn't mean they will. And just because Obama's in office, we shouldn't expect a more conciliatory approach than under Bush. Bush didn't try to shut down any mosques religious foundations to try and pressure Iran, Obama has apperently no qualms about doing so. Much depends on internal political lobbies, but also on the US national security establishment's self image and ambition. These two contributing factors towards US foreign policy are as hawkish as ever.


b said...

New IAEA report on Iran.

- 4000 centrifuges working
- 2000 under vacuum but not working
- 3000 additional installed but not under vacuum
- more installation is ongoing

Iran is sticking to the "freeze for freeze" but can immediately more than double production should that agreement brake.

Arnold Evans said...

I agree that it looks as if the freeze for freeze is still in effect. I don't see a strong impulse on the part of even the US, much less Russia or China to break it.

This talk about "international obligations" really strikes me as performance that can be ignored.