'Regime Change' and the Nuclear Question in Iran

Karim Sadjadpour on US-Iran relations in the context of the invasion of Iraq

Kurdish Peshmurga, outside a village near the Iran/Iraq border east of Sulimaniyah, Iraq. (James Gordon/Flickr)

In this interview, Karim Sadjadpour, the International Crisis Group's Iran analyst, discusses the possible outcome of the present impasse between the United States and Iran on the latter's nuclear aspirations.

Mr Sadjadpour has written on Iranian society and politics, Iran's nuclear program, Iran-Iraq relations, and U.S.-Iran relations. He is a regular contributor to BBC World and National Public Radio, and has also published pieces in the Washington Post, International Herald Tribune, New Republic, and others.

This interview was conducted the day after the Asia Society event Understanding Iran's Nuclear Aspirations: Pragmatism or Brinkmanship? on March 28, 2006.


During the panel discussion last night, you said that the dilemma is not Iran, but the NPT. What did you mean by that?

Iran has behaved within the confines of the NPT. As a signatory to the NPT, Iran can correctly assert that its right to enrich uranium is enshrined within the treaty. The concern is that the NPT itself is ambiguously worded. For countries that have not been fully transparent in the past, the treaty neither conveys any punishment or accountability nor does it propose a period of freezing of any activities. Even senior officials in the IAEA, or former officials like Pierre Goldschmidt, appreciate the fact that the NPT regime itself is allowing for many of these activities to take place, and it is difficult to single Iran out given the improprieties that have taken place elsewhere in the region (in Pakistan, India, etc.).

A number of analysts point to the unequal and unjust application of the NPT. How do you think the NPT can be altered, or perhaps just enforced on nuclear weapon states (NWS), so as to appear less discriminatory, and thus possibly more palatable to Iran and others?

Well, I think it is very difficult because the United States obviously wants the NPT to be applicable to the non-nuclear weapon states, and this is a status which the non-nuclear weapon states reject as a double standard.

Could you please repeat the first part of your question?

The question is whether the NPT can be made more just by being applied to nuclear weapons states. As you know, the NPT also has provisions for disarmament.

Yes. I don't think, realistically, we are in a world where the nuclear powers are going to disarm. Even if we look at it strictly in a regional context, this is something that Middle Eastern countries have been trying to push for a long time: a nuclear weapon-free zone. But the likelihood of Israel unilaterally disarming, absent some type of broader peace in the Middle East, is extremely unlikely.

One thing we can build on is maybe to have smaller ambitions from the beginning, and start with a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Persian Gulf, which would include Iran, and would also obviously include Iraq. But there would have to be some US participation in this, including providing security assurances. I think there are small building blocks and creative possibilities to work with, but when there is this current antagonism between the US and Iran, it is very difficult to think outside the box.

Could you briefly explain the two proposals on Iran put forth by the International Crisis Group: the "zero enrichment" option and the "delayed limited enrichment" option?

The first option, zero enrichment, is what we said is the ideal option from the Western perspective, and that is for Iran not to enrich uranium on an industrial scale for an indefinite period, say at least seven to ten years. The reason why this was not our primary option is, given the depth of the mutual mistrust and ill-will right now between the US and Iran, it is very unlikely that what it will take to achieve this scenario is possible. It will require broader diplomatic accommodation between the US and Iran, meaning security assurances from the United States, removal of sanctions, and improved bilateral relations. It will also require parallel Iranian steps on its approach to Arab/Israeli peace, its support for extremist groups and so on. Our finding was that, as I said, the depth of mutual mistrust is so great right now that this is not likely to be possible. Also Iranians feel quite emboldened given the chaos in Iraq and the high prices of oil, so they are less amenable to compromise than they were three or four years ago. This scenario is not currently possible.

So we present what we call the delayed limited enrichment approach as the fall-back option. This approach will require both sides to make certain compromises. The first step for Iran would be a freeze on all types of nuclear activities for two to three years. If Iran were to graduate from this phase then they would be allowed what we call a pilot-scale enrichment program, very small scale, at most several hundred centrifuges, which would be subject to a very intrusive inspections regime. This would also be several years, three to four years. If Iran were to graduate from this phase it would be allowed larger scale enrichment. The argument is that if Iran is allowed to have a small scale enrichment program, it is not a tremendous proliferation risk, and the international community will have the legitimacy to call for an intrusive inspections regime. Iran will also be more invested in the entire process, its calculus will have changed, and it will have far more to lose by trying to break away. Iran will have certain incentives that are on the table if its behavior is good so it will be more likely to act accordingly.

But from the US perspective, this is totally unacceptable. Any type of enrichment is too much enrichment. It is a red line. The Europeans were more amenable to this scenario prior to the arrival of President Ahmadinejad. But after Ahmadinejad has now arrived and projected a belligerent foreign policy saying Israel should be wiped off the map and that a world without the US is possible, it is very difficult for the Europeans. Their concern is that if they offer Iran incentives that they did not offer during President Mohammed Khatami's era, they are sending a message to Tehran that belligerent foreign policy works; this is how you reap rewards. They would essentially be encouraging bad behavior. So this is the dilemma.

Why has the response to Iran been so different from that to Pakistan given that in many ways the situation in Pakistan is even worse than Iran: Pakistan is run entirely by the military, a military that worked closely with the Taliban in Afghanistan, it has supported, and apparently continues to support, jihadist groups in Kashmir and elsewhere, has had virtually no IAEA inspections, and its preeminent nuclear scientist AQ Khan has been responsible for widely proliferating nuclear material and information?

That's right. Well, that is exactly what the Iranians say. And furthermore, from the Iranian perspective, one reason they have concerns about their security is what they call the potential for the "Talibanization" of Pakistan; that is, the potential that the current regime could be replaced by a fundamentalist Sunni regime that is inherently anti-Shi'ite. This is a serious concern for Iran.

Now, why is there a double standard? After September 11th there was a fundamental decision made in Washington that Pakistan would be an integral partner in the war on terror against the Taliban in Afghanistan and against these jihadist groups that you mentioned. Musharraf was a leader the US could deal with, he had the same worldview, and the decision was made that Pakistan needs to be co-opted rather than antagonized, because the alternative in Pakistan could be much worse.

The difference in Iran is that the US views the alternative to the present government to be much better, meaning that if there is a change of regime it would be a friendly, pro-American regime. This is the perception in Washington. So the alternative to the status quo in Iran is far preferable, whereas the alternative to the status quo in Pakistan could be far more disastrous.

I suppose your previous question answered the next one, which is, given the urgency of the problem of nuclear proliferation as evidenced most recently by the ongoing crisis with Iran, is it not striking that the single individual responsible for disseminating technology and expertise to at least Iran and North Korean -- that is Pakistan's AQ Khan -- was pardoned by General Musharraf, an ally of the United States, and this extraordinary gesture was met with little or no resistance here?

I always think that rather than badgering Iran for information about nuclear sites, they should just go to AQ Khan and ask him what Iran actually has. They will find out far more information! But again, the relationship with Pakistan the US considers important and delicate. This is a tactic that Middle Eastern autocrats have used for a long time, from Hosni Mubarak to the Assad family to the Saudi ruling family: "Listen, if you don't like dealing with us, the alternative is much worse, so you should just be happy that you have us, we have similar worldviews. And don't bother us too much! After all do you want another situation like Iran in this country?"

So I think that the fear of the alternative oftentimes gets the US in unsavory entanglements which they view in terms of realpolitik, as necessary.

Could you comment on the relationship, if there is any, between the expressed desire for regime change in Iran and the present crisis over nuclear proliferation? In other words, if Iran were to pursue the ICG's indefinite zero enrichment option, as unlikely as that appears, would this crisis end?

Let me put it this way: I think there is a perception in Washington that there is a "regime change" clock and a "nuclear" clock, and what we have to assure is that the regime change clock expires faster than the nuclear clock, meaning that there will be a change of regime before Iran acquires nuclear capabilities or a nuclear weapon. The problem is that when there is pressure exerted on the regime change clock, that is when messages are sent to Tehran that the government will be overthrown, then Iran's nuclear ambitions are expedited. When Iran is being threatened and thinks that the US is intent on changing the regime, then there are more voices in the country that say Iran needs a nuclear deterrent.

So I would argue that these two policies are at loggerheads. Either a decision has to be made that the primary goal is nuclear non-proliferation and the problem has to be approached from the roots, by asking, for instance, what Iran's impetus is for pursuing this program. I would argue in large part it has to do with security concerns. Then these concerns should be addressed. This means that the US must disabuse itself of illusory hopes for an abrupt change of regime in Tehran. The current policy is very problematic in the sense that, as I said, I don't believe the nuclear issue can be solved absent some type of US security assurances. And when simultaneously the State Department has earmarked at least $75 million to be put aside for essentially supporting Iranian agitators for democracy and regime change, it is very difficult to offer Iran security assurances. These are conflicting messages.

From the perspective of the US administration, though, what purpose does it serve to allocate this $75 million in the midst of the nuclear crisis?

The hope of the US government, I think, is to make sure that the regime change clock ticks faster than the nuclear clock. The calculation they are making is that it may be inevitable that Iran will have nuclear know-how and capacity, but it could take five to ten years, and the US wants to be sure that this takes place under a different Iranian regime, which is going to be a representative democracy, and far kinder to the United States. I think this is a strong perception in Washington.

I agree with you that one of the principal reasons that Iran might be interested in acquiring nuclear weapons is for security purposes. But really one would think that the last country on earth from whom Iran would be willing to accept, much less trust, any kind of security guarantees, at least for the foreseeable future, is the US. And I am not sure that the situation could change to such an extent that such trust would be possible even if such a guarantee were forthcoming from the US - which it is plainly not.

Well, that is a very good point. Likewise, the Americans would be reluctant to trust that the Iranians have totally put to rest this nuclear program. Whenever we talk about US-Iran relations, and hope for rapprochement, whatever the issue is it always comes back to this huge mutual mistrust. Washington does not trust that Iran's intentions are peaceful on the nuclear issue, and they don't trust their intentions are good on a number of other issues. The perception in Tehran is that nothing short of regime change is going to appease the Americans, and they think that giving into American pressure will only invite further pressure. So if we want to find a resolution to this dispute, there needs to be confidence building, trust building. You are right, of course, security assurances on a piece of paper are not going to mean much; concrete steps need to be taken. But I think a good first step is simply dialogue. This is the prerequisite for anything.

As late as March 2005, which is to say exactly one year ago, the ICG argued in a report that Tehran had a relatively cautious attitude toward Iraq, but warned that this attitude depended "on the nature of relations between Washington and Tehran. So long as these remain unchanged, Iran is likely to view events in Iraq as part of its broader rivalry with and heightened fears of the US. Highly suspicious of a large US presence on its borders, concerned about Washington's rhetoric, and fearing its appetite for regime change, Tehran holds in reserve the option of far greater interference to produce far greater instability." Given the steady decline in US-Iran relations in the last year, do you think that Tehran has already exercised this option?

I don't think so. I would continue to make the same argument: Iran's role in Iraq is very much a by-product of US-Iran relations, meaning as the tension heats up between the US and Iran, Iran's likely means of responding are going to be in Iraq. At the same time, when the Iraq war was first prosecuted, one of the premises was to change the political culture of the Middle East. And there was also a lot of hubris involved: first Baghdad, next Tehran. So from the very beginning there have not been many incentives offered to Iran to see a sweeping US success in Iraq because the obvious concern is that if the US does well in Iraq, they are simply going to be emboldened to transfer this regime change policy eastward.

So on the one hand Iran does not have much incentive to be a cooperative player like it was in Afghanistan. On the other hand, Iran does not take lightly the concerns about potential breakdown in Iraq in terms of either territorial disintegration or civil war. These are very valid, meaning if Iraq breaks up into three separate new entities, the implications of an independent Kurdistan, Iraqi Kurdistan, are very strong for Iran's own Kurdish community, which is about ten per cent of the population, and has been increasingly active in agitating for greater autonomy. So it is not in Iran's interest to see Iraq totally break down. At the same time, Iran has seen on its border a 20 year civil war in Afghanistan which produced an influx of two million refugees in Iran, which are a big weight on an economy which is already burdened with an enormous youth population. So the potential for out and out civil war in Iraq is not a welcome scenario for Iran. There is concern that this could result in millions of Iraqi refugees coming to Iran.

So for many months I think the policy was one of managed chaos. They wanted to see that this policy of regime change was going to be a very expensive operation for the Americans, but they didn't want it to get totally out of hand. And Iran has a very diverse portfolio of friends in Iraq, from Ahmed Chalabi and Ayatollah Sistani, to Muqtada al-Sadr, and even some of the Sunni insurgent groups. So they have contact with a wide variety of people, and as I said, when relations with the United States are going well, or there is potential for common ground, I think that Iran is less likely to play a menacing role in Iraq. But in the event of some type of a military confrontation between the US and Iran, Iran's likely place of response is not going to be trying to hit US bases in the United States, or even via Hezbollah in Lebanon on Israel, I think it's going to be Iraq.

Could you comment on the recent offer by Iran to open negotiations with the US on Iraq? What is the likelihood that these talks will take place?

Well I think they are going to take place. They have been delayed somewhat at the behest of the Arabs who want an Iraqi presence in these talks as well, who say that if these talks are about Iraq, it shouldn't just be the US and Iranians, there should be also Iraqis at the table. But the United States first floated the idea of talks with Iran regarding Iraq last fall.

That's fall of 2005?

Yes, fall of 2005. Ambassador Khalilzad made it known that President Bush had given him permission to talk to the Iranians about Iraq. The immediate response the day after that from Secretary Rice was that these talks are only going to take place about Iraq, and that the US does not intend to discuss wider matters, because it does not intend to confer legitimacy on the Iranian regime in that way. The response in Tehran is that if that is how the US feels, then maybe they should not talk at all, and the Iranians are not interested in talking.

So I think both sides have realized for a long time that it behooved them to talk about Iraq, but because of this mutual mistrust and ill will, it took a while before they could come to the table. Now I think that Ali Larijani, the head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, let it be known that this was at the behest of the Iraqis; the Iraqis wanted Iran involved.

There is a school of thought that says Iran is also making this move right now so the potential measures imposed on it by the UN Security Council will be softer. Right now they are displaying good will because they want to send a message to the Europeans, Russians and Chinese that they're playing nice, and if sanctions are imposed, they can start to play mean in Iraq. So it's a tactical game as well.

But as I mentioned I think there is a lot of common US-Iran ground in Iraq. Both countries do not want to see Iraq fall apart. Both the US and Iran would like to see some type of a democratic system take hold, because there is a perception in Tehran that given Iraq's demographic realities (a majority Shi'ite population) if Iraq becomes a one person-one vote democracy, the results are going to be in Iran's favor. So there is a lot of common ground between the US and Iran over Iraq, much more than between the United States and neighboring countries in the region. And this could be a very positive starting point for the opening of a broader dialogue on more contentious issues.

This is a slight digression, but could you please clarify why there seems to be so much confusion about the extent to which Iran is or is not a democracy?

Iran is not a democracy. Iran has elements of democracy in its system, but to call it a democracy is inaccurate and unfair. To be able to run for any type of elected office in Iran you have to get through a very stringent vetting process. For example, in the last presidential elections, there were about 1,100 candidates who tried to put their name in the hat -- all but eight of them were vetted by an unelected body called the Islamic Guardian Council.

So for any type of political office from local city councils to parliamentary and presidential elections, the candidates are pre-selected, and in that sense it is not an open democratic system. Once elections do take place with these pre-selected candidates, it can be a vigorous democratic process in the sense that the last presidential election was fairly lively, there was debate taking place, there was a broadening of the political dialogue. But would Ahmadinejad have won had it been a free and fair election where Iranians could have voted for whomever they wanted to? I highly doubt it.

But he was among the most conservative candidates who was running.

He was the most conservative.

And he was also the mayor of Tehran.

He was the mayor of Tehran, yes. Again, we should not overemphasize his mandate. He received 5.7 million votes out of a total electorate of about 47 million, which amounts to about 12 per cent of the electorate and 20 per cent of total votes cast. Compare that to what Mohammed Khatami won in 1997 and 2001, when he was winning 70-80 per cent of votes cast.

So in comparison Ahmadinejad's victory is quite insubstantial. There were rumors of electoral improprieties as well. The election went to a second round and it became a race between Ahmadinejad and the former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, who for many people epitomized all of the problems of the Islamic regime, meaning dishonesty, corruption and cronyism. So for many people it was a choice between the old ways of the regime, or Ahmadinejad, who had done a successful job running on a platform of economic populism, telling people he's going to put the oil money on their dinner tables. A lot of people were taken by his populist appeal. I remember a lot of people told me that he may not be able to solve their problems, but at least he's not going to enrich himself in the process of trying.

Your colleagues at the International Crisis Group have recently written (February 22, 2006 in The Financial Times) on the Iran crisis that, "If diplomacy fails, there are two likely scenarios, both much worse. One is rapid descent into a North Korea-like situation, with an unsupervised nuclear programme leading to the production of nuclear weapons, with all the unpredictable regional consequences likely to flow from that. The other is to move to an Iraq-like preventive military strike, with even more alarming consequences, both regionally and worldwide." Do you think that in weeks that have lapsed since then, we have moved closer to either of these two possibilities?

Either North Korea or Iraq? Not necessarily. I think Iran's case is quite unique. Iran is both much different from North Korea and much different from Iraq. As opposed to North Korea, it does matter to Iran to be a member of the international community. Remember, this is a country that experienced a devastating eight year war with Iraq in which they were in international isolation. Iran's current supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, was president during that time. He does not want to re-live those days. So I would argue that Iran is going to be far less likely to pursue this program unequivocally than North Korea has done.

On the other hand, Iran is not run by a single dictator like Iraq was by Saddam Hussein. He also had a far more unreliable track record, and a far greater tendency to overplay his hand as evidenced by his attacking two countries within a fifteen year span, Iran and then Kuwait. In Iran, there are parallel centers of power, there are a lot of checks and balances. The regime is not looking for a confrontation; it is looking for a way that it can both assert its rights, not acquiesce on what it believes are its legitimate rights, and at the same time avoid a confrontation.

So the Iran case is unique and different from both Iraq and North Korea. It is also going to depend on what US policy is going to be: continuing to push this zero enrichment for zero incentives policy could push the Iranians into a situation where they feel that if a confrontation is inevitable, they want it on their terms when oil prices are soaring and Iraq is in chaos. That is one school of thought right now in Tehran, and it's a dangerous one.

Whereas the West may feel that they don't want to reward Iran for bad behavior, disincentives alone are not going to resolve this crisis. Even if they want to escalate, they have to give Iran a ladder to climb down from at the end of the day. Because if Iran views its options as solely capitulation, it will not take that path.

But do you think that America's experience in Iraq has made them more or less likely to be patient with Iran?

More likely. They have relied far more on diplomacy with Iran than they did with Iraq. Of course it has not necessarily been by choice; they would much prefer to have a harder line on Iran, especially people within the Vice President's office and the Secretary of Defense's office. But I think they realize that with their hands tied in Iraq they have to rely on their European allies. In many ways they have out-sourced diplomacy entirely to the Europeans. The US even realizes that to have any type of effective coalition against Iran, the Russians and the Chinese have to be included. For many years the Iranians were splitting the Americans and the Europeans, and now the Europeans and the Americans have kind of met over the Atlantic and have projected a unified front against Iran. But now Iran is becoming adept at splitting the Americans and the Europeans on one hand, and the Chinese and the Russians on the other. Even the fact that there has not been a Security Council resolution so far, and the Americans have not pushed their case, is telling. This was not at all the case with Iraq. Then they had said, "You're either with us or against us," and they pursued the Iraq war full speed ahead without the support of the majority of the countries in the world. But in Iran they have been forced to take a far more multilateral approach.

It seems quite certain that the US would in any case not contemplate anything like what happened in Iraq with Iran. From what has been discussed, the US, if it is to respond militarily at all, would most likely launch targeted military strikes against Iran's nuclear installations - assuming they even know where they are. With this option, the US doesn't need to worry about the risks of occupation, and depending on what the situation in Iraq is at the time, what costs they would likely incur there. But any US military option, it seems, would be very different from what happened in Iraq.

But the potential fallout is tremendous if there were to be some type of military confrontation with Iran. First of all it is almost impossible to have a policy where you are simultaneously trying to democratize and tranquilize Iraq while antagonizing Iran. It is very difficult to achieve this policy when Iran arguably is the country that enjoys the greatest amount of influence over Iraq. One could even argue that Iranian soft power is dominating American hard power in Iraq. So this is quite difficult.

There is also concern that if the US bombs Iran's nuclear sites, Iran has the potential to mobilize its Shi'ite friends, and incite and mobilize them to have, say, a "million man march" against the US occupation in Iraq. It would be very difficult if the newly elected Iraqi leadership tells the Americans to get the hell out, and if a million Iraqis march in the streets demanding an end to the military occupation. This would be a far bigger blow to the United States than for Iran to retaliate militarily by killing 20-30 US troops like they were doing in Lebanon in the 1980s, because that's taking place anyway. It would be a far bigger blow to the United States to have Iraqis calling for an abrupt withdrawal of US troops, and then having Iran fill the vacuum left behind.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of Asia Society.