Analysis: Mideast expert Karim Sadjadpour on status of U.S.-Iran nuclear deal —


In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with senior fellow at the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Karim Sadjadpour about a potential new nuclear deal between the U.S. and Iran. Sadjadpour says the Iranians don’t believe the Biden administration has a plan B to for the deal, leading Iran not to feel any real urgency about reaching a compromise. Sadjadpour also discusses what a Iran deal would mean for the Biden administration in a domestic political context ahead of the midterm elections. 

HIGHLIGHTS: 

  • Iran and compromise: “In my view, there’s a clear formula when you look at the instances in which Iran has compromised over the last four decades, most recently being the nuclear deal of 2015. I think three boxes need to be checked. One, they need to be faced with significant multilateral pressure. So not just unilateral U.S. pressure, but they need to feel that they don’t have an out card with Beijing and Moscow and Europe. Number two, it requires direct U.S. engagement, U.S. resolve. And number three, I think you have to articulate to Iran a concrete, limited endgame.”
  • Iranian government’s view of Biden administration: “I think from the vantage point of the Iranian government, they at the moment believe that the Biden administration has telegraphed that they’re totally committed to reviving this deal and that they haven’t articulated any Plan B. And so from the Iranian vantage point, they feel like, they don’t feel a sense of urgency to compromise. Even though, as I said this, a lack of a deal, the sanctions which Iran is experiencing have caused the country, the people of Iran, they’ve caused enormous hardship across the country, an enormous amount of money. But the economic well-being of the people of Iran has never been the first or even secondary concern, a driving force, a decision-making factor of the Islamic Republic.”
  • Potential Iran deal and U.S. domestic politics: “I think for the president, he realizes that this deal is probably going to be, if the deal is revived, the impact is probably net negative for him in a domestic political context. Meaning every single Republican, with the exception of Rand Paul, will probably oppose the deal’s revival and some key Democratic allies like Senator Robert Menendez, Chuck Schumer, who both voted against the deal in 2015, are not enthusiastic about it this time. So you never win points in the context of domestic American politics by appearing to ease pressure against the regime whose official slogan is Death to America.”

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INTELLIGENCE MATTERS: KARIM SADJADPOUR 

PRODUCER: PAULINA SMOLINSKI

MICHAEL MORELL: Karim, let’s jump right in here. In mid-August, it looked like we were close, perhaps, very close to a deal that would return the United States and Iran to the 2015 nuclear deal, the so-called JCPOA, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. But at the last minute, the Iranians made additional demands. And it now looks like, the talks are stalled yet again. I’m wondering why the back and forth with the Iranians, why did they appear in August to accept the deal? Was that just the negotiators? Why did they flip flop? What’s your sense of what’s going on in Tehran as they think about the deal?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Michael, I’m always reminded of Warren Buffett’s famous investment advice. He says, ‘be greedy when others are fearful and be fearful when others are greedy.’ And in the Iranian context, I often think, be pessimistic when others are overly optimistic and be optimistic when others are overly pessimistic. The reason I say this is I think that when we in the West, the United States or our European partners appear and we say publicly, we think a deal is imminent. I think that the Iranians probably feel, ‘okay, we can try to extract more concessions because they really badly want this deal, and we can try to get some more in return in exchange.’

And so on one hand, I think when we’re overly optimistic that it kind of makes them get a little more greedy. At the same time, I think history has proven, we have a 43 year case study of the Islamic Republic, and the instances in which they’ve compromised, you can really count them on one hand. It’s when they’ve been under very significant duress. And they feel that perhaps the window for a deal is closing. If they feel that the JCPOA, the nuclear deal, is in their back pocket, it’s on the table, they can get that whenever they want to. They have no fear that that opportunity is closing. I think that they have a sense of complacency, perhaps no sense of urgency, and they can continue to try to extract more concessions. So in many ways, Michael, I think that although this is a negotiation about a very large nuclear program, what is driving these negotiations, in my view, from certainly the Iranian end, it’s not driven by economic imperatives. It’s not really driven by defense imperatives. I think this negotiation is much better understood through the prism of psychology and politics.

In my view, there’s a clear formula when you look at the instances in which Iran has compromised over the last four decades, most recently being the nuclear deal of 2015. I think three boxes need to be checked. One, they need to be faced with significant multilateral pressure. So not just unilateral U.S. pressure, but they need to feel that they don’t have an out card with Beijing and Moscow and Europe. Number two, it requires direct U.S. engagement, U.S. resolve. And number three, I think you have to articulate to Iran a concrete, limited endgame. What that means is that if you aspire for a maximalist endgame, you want to totally eliminate their nuclear program. You have ten out of ten goals. You’re going to get zero out of ten. And so I would say right now, we have articulated to them that our endgame is simply a revival of the nuclear deal, nothing more, nothing less. I think there has been direct US engagement, although the Iranians have refused to meet directly with with U.S. officials after the assassination of Qasem Soleimani. The supreme leader outlawed direct contacts with the United States. And we essentially accepted that, which I’m not sure was the right approach. 

But I would argue that they don’t feel a sense of economic urgency for various reasons. Number one, I think the sanctions against them are pretty onerous, but they haven’t really been enforced. Iran’s oil exports have gone up quite significantly. They’re exporting a lot to China. But the broader geopolitical context in 2022 is different than it was in 2015 when the JCPOA was signed. It is more difficult for the United States to work with China and Russia toward a common end. But I would argue that certainly it is in the interests of China and our European partners to have this deal revived. In the case of Russia, I think that they perhaps have different interests. I don’t think it behooves Russia to see Iran emerge from economic isolation and start to compete with Russia in global oil and gas markets.

MICHAEL MORELL:  Karim, you also said something really interesting when you said this is really not about the nuclear deal. This is about psychology. Does the psychology point go beyond just a negotiating strategy? Is it deeper than that?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I definitely think that psychology and politics are important prisms through which to understand these negotiations. So in the political context, you’re dealing with an Iranian government that is likely in the coming years going to be undergoing a leadership transition. The current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is 83 years old. He’s one of the longest serving autocrats in the world. There’s constant rumors about his poor health, including as we speak there’s rumors about it. I’m not arguing that he’s on his deathbed. But I do think that the system in Iran is already covertly anticipating what is going to be the impact of this transition. And yet powerful forces that Khamenei himself has appointed over the years, senior Revolutionary Guard commanders who believe that it’s in their interests and the interests of these hardliners to preserve this atmosphere of hostility with the United States. 

Security forces tend to benefit from an atmosphere of insecurity. And so they don’t want to be entangled into diplomatic agreements with the West, with the United States. And so those forces have certainly played a role in trying to prevent these negotiations from succeeding, even though that’s cost the country an enormous amount of money. According to even rough calculations, if you look at both the sunk costs of Iran’s nuclear program and the lost economic opportunities in the form of sanctions,  even a conservative estimate is that it’s cost the country over $200 billion for a nuclear program that provides less than 1% or around 1% of Iran’s energy needs. So the politics of it is very important. 

In terms of the psychology of it, I think it’s a challenge for the United States to have a positive sum negotiation with an adversary that really has a zero sum worldview. I think from the vantage point of the Iranian government, they at the moment believe that the Biden administration has telegraphed that they’re totally committed to reviving this deal and that they haven’t articulated any Plan B. And so from the Iranian vantage point, they feel like, they don’t feel a sense of urgency to compromise, Even though, as I said this, a lack of a deal, the sanctions which Iran is experiencing have caused the country, the people of Iran, they’ve caused enormous hardship across the country, an enormous amount of money. 

But the economic well-being of the people of Iran has never been the first or even secondary concern, a driving force, a decision making factor of the Islamic Republic.

MICHAEL MORELL: You talked about the supreme leader and his age and rumors about his health. It reminds me that ever since 2003, when Iran stepped back from an actual nuclear weapons program, as opposed to an uranium enrichment program, which you’re talking about now, that he’s been risk averse, quite risk averse regarding actually building a weapon. The assessment of all these analysts in the world is that they’re not interested in getting a weapon. They’re interested in getting to the threshold of a weapon. And I’m wondering, is your sense that- is there any debate on that in Iran? And what’s the risk when he dies that Iranian policy with regard to an actual weapon could change?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: As you said, Mike, my friend, CIA Director Bill Burns has said even somewhat recently that the CIA’s assessment hasn’t changed. They don’t see any evidence that Iran is actually going to make a mad dash towards weaponizing their nuclear program. The the the model often referred to Iran’s ambitions is the Japan model to have a nuclear weapons capability to eventually kind of inch towards being a screwdriver, turn away from having a nuclear weapon, but to not actually cross that threshold like North Korea and detonate a bomb. At age 83, Ayatollah Khamenei is perhaps not going to change tack. That’s the strategy that he’s employed over the last two decades. Perhaps he’s unlikely to make a rash move. 

But as you said, there’s no guarantees that the next Iranian leader is going to have the same calculations. When you look at that history over the last two decades, you could see how an Iranian military commander could make an argument that it perhaps behooves the regime to actually change strategies and start to weaponize the program. You look at the example of Iraq. Saddam Hussein gave up his nuclear program, making them vulnerable to a U.S. invasion.

Likewise, Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, gave up his nuclear program, making them vulnerable to to NATO’s invasion. Ukraine gave up the nuclear program after the collapse of the Soviet Union, making it vulnerable to a Russian invasion. Whereas North Korea, despite being one of the most repressive regimes on earth, has continued to stay around. And you know how? Because in part they have a nuclear weapon. 

So it’s easy to see how an Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander could argue for weaponizing their program. But I also think that the Iranians are probably mindful of the fact that their program has been pretty heavily penetrated by US intelligence, by Israeli intelligence, and there’s been remarkable amount of sabotage operations, whether that’s explosions happening in Iran’s nuclear facilities or the assassination of top Iranian nuclear scientists. So I don’t think it’s as simple as Iran simply making that decision that they’re going to weaponize and getting easily from point A to point B. I think if they do decide one day, if a future Iranian leader decides they do want to pursue nuclear weapons, I don’t think it’s going to be easy. And it could well trigger either a US or Israeli military attack.

MICHAEL MORELL: Karim, I want to shift to the U.S. side of things. You said earlier that the Iranians believe that we are desperate for a deal. I’m wondering if it’s your assessment that that is the case. And I ask that because this isn’t the greatest deal on the planet. This deal is not as good as the 2015 deal. The politics aren’t great here for the president. And he’s got you got 14 senators in his own party that are opposed to the deal. He’s got Iranian attempts to assassinate a former senior Trump administration official in retaliation for the killing, the U.S. killing of Qasem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC Quds Force. There are not a lot of positive things here. So are the Iranians right when they think we’re desperate for this deal?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Michael, I wouldn’t use the word desperate. I would use the word committed. There’s a perception in Tehran that the United States is absolutely committed to reviving the JCPOA. And I think that so far has proven to be an accurate assessment. We’ve continued to say that there’s no good alternative to reviving the deal. We have been reluctant to articulate any Plan B. Every month we’ve said to the Iranians that time is running out, this is the last chance. But when you say that for a year and a half, the Iranians perhaps don’t take it to heart because they feel like, as I said, that the JCPOA is always on the table for them and they can just continue to try to hold out for more concessions and hope that we will cave.  

But you are right that the political context in 2022, I say the geopolitical context is different now than it was in 2015 when the nuclear deal was signed. And also the domestic political context is different. And one of the things that’s different now compared to 2015 is that the Biden administration has zero illusions that a nuclear deal with Iran may strengthen moderate forces in Tehran or may help lead to a US-Iran rapprochement. In 2015 the Obama administration did have hopes that this could bring about a different US-Iran relationship, almost perhaps lead to a Nixon to China type rapprochement. Secretary Kerry, I think, held out hope for that. And I think to some extent President Obama did as well.

And I don’t think that there’s any allegiance now that the Biden administration has. And as you mentioned, I think for the president, he realizes that this deal is probably going to be, if the deal is revived, the impact is probably net negative for him in a domestic political context. Meaning every single Republican, with the exception of Rand Paul, will probably oppose the deal’s revival and some key Democratic allies like Senator Robert Menendez, Chuck Schumer, who both voted against the deal in 2015, are not enthusiastic about it this time. So you never win points in the context of domestic American politics by appearing to ease pressure against the regime whose official slogan is Death to America.

MICHAEL MORELL: I want to come back to this point about the Iranians trying to get revenge for the death of Qasem Soleimani. It’s absolutely clear that they have their eyes on former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former national security adviser John Bolton and some others. The Iranians are clearly able to separate the nuclear deal from getting that revenge. How do you think we should think about that?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I know it’s a major concern right now for the Biden administration, how to deter Iranian plots to assassinate former Trump administration officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former national security adviser John Bolton. There also has been ongoing plots to assassinate Iranian human rights activists in the United States. A close friend of mine, Masih Alinejad, she’s one of Iran’s top women’s rights activists. There’s been attempts on her life. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. And I’m told that so far, U.S. attempts to privately relay to Iran that there will be a major penalty for this has not deterred Iran and that these plots are ongoing. 

In the event that Iran succeeds in either killing a former senior U.S. official or killing an Iranian American civil rights activist on U.S. soil, this is going to probably trigger a major debate in the Biden administration. How do you react to that? You have to do something. If you simply sit on your hands and don’t react, Iran will probably feel like they can do it again. They feel emboldened that they can act with impunity. We’ve witnessed this with Vladimir Putin over the last decade. He waltzed into and to Georgia and to Crimea and to Syria without penalty and that led them to think that he could attack Ukraine with impunity. 

Iran has done this in the regional context as well. So they feel they’ve prevailed in Syria and Iraq and Lebanon and Yemen. So at the moment,, both regionally and vis a vis adversaries in terms of these plots to avenge the life of Qasem Soleimani, there’s a danger that Iran feels like it can act with impunity. And so obviously we want to do everything in our power to deter them. So far, that hasn’t worked. And so the question is, if indeed they succeed, how do we react? There’s not a whole lot of precedent for that.

MICHAEL MORELL: I’m going to ask a question about the bigger context here around Iran’s malign behavior in the region. It was my sense in 2015 that once the Obama administration signed the deal that they sort of closed the Iran file. They felt they were done with Iran rather than pushing back against what the Iranians were doing in the region, which our allies wanted us to do. I remember the president giving a speech where he was defending the Iran deal by saying, ‘look, we made arms control agreements with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. And we did it because that was in our interests.’ And what struck me was that’s absolutely true. But at the same time, we were making arms control agreements we were pushing back against Soviet aggression all over the world. And so I’m wondering if the Biden administration really understands that if they make a nuclear deal, there is still an Iran issue to be dealt with?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: It’s a great question, Michael. And I recommend to people the great work of the Yale historian John Gaddis about America’s Cold War strategy. In his book Strategies of Containment he talks about the three pronged approach that worked vis a vis the Soviet Union. As you mentioned, arms control is one element of it. Countering their external ambitions is another element. And there’s a third element, which is trying to support the forces of change. In the case of Ronald Reagan, it was within Russia and in the case of Iran, obviously supporting those inside Iran who want to see a different form of government. And and so that’s why even though the Obama administration said this is only a nonproliferation agreement, the reality is that you have to have a broader strategy, because what ends up happening is that in the context of doing a nonproliferation deal with Iran, you unencumbered them financially. 

You are giving them a major cash injection, perhaps tens if not even hundreds of billions of dollars if they’re able to sell their oil freely on the open market. And some of that money obviously goes to Iran’s regional proxies, whether that’s, Houthis in Yemen, Shia militias in Iraq, Lebanese Hezbollah, Bashar Assad. And if you talk to U.S. partners in the Middle East, whether it’s Israel or Gulf countries, what they’ll tell you is that they’re less worried about being nuked by Iran and they’re more worried about the drones, the missiles, the increasing precision rockets which Iran and its proxies are using on a daily basis. 

If we’re able to revive the nuclear deal, that’s not the finish line. It needs to be embedded in a broader strategy vis a vis Iran. I think that like any administration, there are different views within it. There are some who believe that the Middle East and Iran are not really a priority, and the only priority is to revive the nuclear deal. And then the focus needs to be on Russia and China. But as you know better than myself, you don’t have the luxury of just focusing on one or two regions when you’re the US government. The worldview of the Iranian government is not going to change. It’s been consistent for 43 years. I would argue they’ve had a more consistent and enduring ground strategy than any governments in the world over the last four decades. One of those strategies is to help bring down the US led world order.  They’re willing to partner with anyone, whether that’s China, Russia, Venezuela or North Korea in order to do that. We’ve seen Iran openly side with Russia after its invasion of Ukraine. As much as we would like to de-escalate with Iran and not have an adversarial relationship with Iran, you can’t make amends with a regime which needs you as an adversary for its own internal legitimacy.

MICHAEL MORELL: You mentioned our allies and partners in the Middle East. Is there a uniformity of views there about the deal or are there some important differences?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I think there’s a difference between our Middle East partners and our European partners. I think there’s virtually unanimity among the Europeans that a revival of the nuclear deal is in their national security interest, and the Europeans believe it’s in the interests of stability in the Middle East, although there’s differences among some of the partners in terms of how you best reach a deal. Now, when it comes to our regional partners, here we’re talking about Israel and Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar. I would say that the Israelis are much more sensitive about the nuclear file in particular. Iran is something like 20 times larger than Israel. And given that Israel is a nation born out of the Holocaust. So they feel you can’t take a chance with an adversary that believes your existence is illegitimate. There’s no margin of error. You can’t allow an adversary that believes that to acquire a nuclear weapon. Whereas I think the Gulf countries are less focused on Iran’s nuclear ambitions and much more focused on the proxies. And again, the precision rockets, missiles and drones, which Iran’s proxies have been using to target civilian outposts in the UAE and Saudi Arabia and Iraq as well.

MICHAEL MORELL: Does Israel have a plan B? If it’s arguing against the deal, what would their plan B be?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: When I had to prepare to testified before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee a couple of months ago. And in preparation for that, I really tried to talk to a lot of people from the left and right end of the spectrum about what is a prudent strategy, what are alternative strategies that I may be missing. And I found this is a frustrating policy issue because like many issues, there’s no silver bullet, there’s no solution. And it’s a challenge which you have to manage. The Israelis and folks on the right in the United States would say it just requires more pressure. You need another maximum pressure campaign to either force the Iranian government to capitulate or implode. Those on the left end of the spectrum would say, no, you just have to be more solicitous towards them, take a softer approach, offer more incentives. But really, neither approach has worked. The only thing that’s really worked over the last four decades is actually the combination of the two, which is significant multilateral pressure coupled with very rigorous diplomacy. 

I think that part of the challenge here, Michael, is that that denouncing a nuclear deal with Iran, it makes for good politics in both Israel and the United States for understandable reasons. Because Iran’s leadership often behave like Disney cartoon characters, caricatures of villains. Like the way they say the things, Holocaust denial, death to America,  the repression of women, of ethnic minorities, religious minorities. It’s a tough argument. It’s a tough political argument to say we should be easing pressure on Iran and lifting sanctions against them. It’s a much easier political argument to say we should be tougher on this regime whose identity is premised on death to Israel and death to America. 

But this is where you see differences between the politicians and the security establishments who say, you know what, as much as we are concerned about lifting sanctions against Iran. And yes, this deal has its shortcomings. But what is the viable alternative? I haven’t really seen any viable alternative that you can hang your hat on to a diplomatic agreement with Iran. Now, I’m not trying to argue that I think the way the Biden administration has pursued this revival of this deal has been flawless. My critiques of it are like many others. But I think there’s no good alternative to a diplomatic agreement with Iran that hopefully buys us some time.

MICHAEL MORELL: Karim, what happens, do you think, if there’s a breakdown in the talks and there is no deal? What’s your guess?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: It’s interesting because I think that both the United States and Iran have an interest in making it appear that they’re not going to walk away from the negotiating table. Iran, again, unless Iran’s end state, its end game changes and they actually have made the decision to make a mad dash for a nuclear weapon. It really behooves Iran to revive this agreement because they can’t reverse their economic decline absent removal of sanctions. And this agreement is much more favorable to them than it was in 2015, because all of the sunset clauses are going to be soon expiring. So it makes eminent sense for Iran if their goal is still to have a nuclear weapons capability to revive this deal and get the sanctions relief. And then in a few years, many of these sunset clauses will be lifted and they will be able to have that nuclear weapons capability. 

But I think at the moment, the Iranians feel like they can continue to get more. From the United States vantage point as well, I think if you’re President Biden and the goal is to shift away from the Middle East, certainly to not start another conflict in the Middle East and to keep the price of oil low, you don’t want to escalate vis a vis Iran. So even if it appears there’s an impasse, you don’t want to walk away from the negotiations because you want to try to avoid an escalation. I think, one, to the extent there is any benefit and the commitment to diplomacy is that you are very much proven, in the court of international public opinion, it’s clear to many that the obstacle here is not the United States, it’s the obstacle here is Tehran. And that should renew a little more goodwill when it comes to enforcing sanctions against Iran. But as I said, I think we probably could be doing a better job of enforcing those sanctions.

MICHAEL MORELL:So it sounds like your guess is that once we get beyond the midterms and do some more negotiating, that there will be a deal at the end of the day here. Sounds like you think that.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: This is such a pendulum, Michael, that the people who watch this, you go from optimism and the deal is imminent to extreme pessimism and it’s never going to happen. And my view from the beginning is that it makes sense for both. I mean, as I said, the Biden administration has shown their commitment to reviving it. And for Iran, it makes a lot of sense to do this. As I said, they don’t have a sense of urgency at the moment because they probably are thinking that they can continue to get more out of it. 

I would say that as long as this current supreme leader is in power and Iran’s endgame hasn’t shifted, meaning they haven’t made the decision to pursue the North Korea route and weaponize, they are still in pursuit of the Japan route, that it makes eminent sense for them to revive. So I would argue that it’s more likely than not at some point the deal is revived, although I’m not arguing that it’s imminent. And I think it will require a change of US strategy or change of U.S. tactics to get the deal revived.

MICHAEL MORELL: Does the outcome of the war in Ukraine affects Iranian behavior in any way? Does it matter? 

KARIM SADJADPOUR:  The outcome of the Ukraine war is important in several ways. Number one, I think if Russia prevails, it simply further emboldens Iran and the belief that the US led world order is coming down and further emboldens Iran to be defiant and partner with Russia and China and all other countries that don’t like U.S. led world order. Second, the geoeconomics of it are complicated because a Russia which is faced with international isolation starts to compete with Iran in global oil and gas markets, in particular oil sales to China. And so Russia is eating into Iran’s oil exports to China because they’ve offered discounted oil to China, which is Iran’s main source of exports. And so I actually think that although Russia and China are often lumped together when it comes to their views on Iran, I would argue Russia and China have diametrically opposed interests vis a vis Iran and that China benefits from a nuclear deal with it with Iran. An Iran which is able to produce and export much more oil. That’s very much in Beijing’s interests, whereas I would argue that’s inimical to Russia’s interests. They don’t want to see an Iran that’s emerged from international isolation. And they like the idea of Iran continuing to remain a thorn in the side of the United States.

MICHAEL MORELL: Karim, thank you so much for joining us.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: It’s always my pleasure, Michael. 



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