June 7, 2024 | Foreign Podicy

What America Misunderstands About the Islamic Republic of Iran

June 7, 2024 Foreign Podicy

What America Misunderstands About the Islamic Republic of Iran


Filling in for host Cliff May this week is Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of FDD, and he’s joined by Karim Sadjadpour. They cover the full gamut of U.S. foreign policy on Iran, from looking back at President Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic and President Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the JCPOA to looking ahead and arguing for policies of maximum pressure on the regime and maximum support for the Iranian people.

Karim is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he focuses on Iran and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. He’s also an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Karim regularly advises senior U.S. officials and has testified numerous times before Congress. His analysis is widely published, and he frequents major media outlets including PBS NewsHour, NPR, and CNN.


DUBOWITZ:        Hi, it’s Mark Dubowitz. I’m the CEO of FDD and really pleased to be sub-hosting for my colleague and friend, Cliff May, and to be welcoming another good friend, Karim Sadjadpour. Karim and I have known each other for many years. He’s a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment. He’s an adjunct professor at Georgetown. He’s writing a new book, which we’re going to talk about, and Karim has been my go-to Iran expert for 20 years. If Karim is writing something or saying something, I need to hear it or read it. Karim, thank you. Welcome.

SADJADPOUR:    Thank you, Mark, for that very kind, overly kind introduction.

DUBOWITZ:        Not at all. Not at all. So Karim, I want to jump in. You and I probably agree on many things with respect to the Islamic Republic of Iran. I want to jump in on a topic where I think we might disagree, and that’s the 2015 nuclear agreement, the JCPOA. You were a supporter of the agreement. You opposed Trump’s withdrawal. I was an opponent of the deal, though I actually opposed Trump’s withdrawal. We can talk about that if you’re interested, a rather complicated position. But tell us why you supported this agreement that I called ‘fatally flawed’ in 2015.

SADJADPOUR:    Sure. Thank you so much, Mark. So I remember at that time in 2015 when the deal was signed, it was a time where everyone was either 110% for it or 110% against it. I felt it was more of a 60/40 proposition, meaning I felt it necessary that we, as Secretary of State Clinton then put it, to contain and put a lid on Iran’s nuclear program. But I recognize that simply focusing on the nuclear file and removing sanctions against Iran would empower the Islamic Republic to double down on their very malign regional policies and their domestic behavior. So for me, it wasn’t meant to be an end-all-be-all, simply sign the JCPOA and that’s the end–

DUBOWITZ:        But you thought it was a good nuclear deal in and of itself.

SADJADPOUR:    My view was that it was a 5 out of 10 approach, meaning–

DUBOWITZ:        Which in Washington is not a bad grade.

SADJADPOUR:    Well, ideally, as you know better than I do, and outside the policy world, you aspire for maximalist goals. In this context, it would have been wonderful if we could just totally eradicate Iran’s nuclear program. But in my view, that wasn’t attainable. So 5 out of 10 was essentially a proposition whereby you curtail, I would have said significantly curtail, you may dispute that the adjectives, significantly curtail Iran’s nuclear program for a prolonged period of time, and my view was different in some ways than the administration’s. When I go back and read the memoirs of senior Obama administration officials, for example CIA Director John Brennan, the way they were thinking about the JCPOA was this was an attempt to empower moderate forces in Iran. I never believed that was going to be the case. My view was that this was a good deal or a decent deal with a bad regime, and a good deal with a good regime wasn’t on the menu. As I said–

DUBOWITZ:        You couldn’t flood the Islamic Republic with cash and turn Khamenei and the IRGC into responsible global stakeholders. You didn’t buy that theory of the case from Barack Obama and Brennan and others, right?


DUBOWITZ:        You weren’t going to turn them into moderates. You were effectively going to give them a trillion dollars in sanctions relief, and they were going to use that money to double down on their malign activities. But your view is that the nuclear deal itself, at least for a certain period of time, would, as Jake Sullivan has said, put the nuclear program in a box. Is that a fair characterization?

SADJADPOUR:    Yeah, I believe that Ayatollah Khamenei, we call them hardliners, they call themselves ‘principalists’, and that means that they’re committed to the principles of the revolution. They believe that trying to reform the regime would actually hasten its collapse just as Gorbachev’s attempts at Perestroika hastened the Soviet Union’s collapse. So I’ve been writing about that for many years, years before the 2015 JCPOA. So I never believed that it was going to either moderate Khamenei or empower moderate forces in Iran at his expense. But ultimately, and I think here we agree that you do need a diplomatic approach to the nuclear challenge. I think your argument, and correct me if I’m wrong, is that it wasn’t a 5 out of 10, or it should have been closer to a 7 or an 8 out of 10. I think you would also agree that 10 out of 10 probably wasn’t attainable and that it would be nice to totally eradicate Iran’s nuclear program, but that wasn’t something likely achievable just via a course of diplomacy. Is that accurate?

DUBOWITZ:        I think that’s fair. I would’ve been fine with a 5 out of 10, but I thought it was a 2 out of 10. I think the fundamental reason for me was that the fatal flaw of the JCPOA were the sunset provisions under which the nuclear restrictions would go away over time and Iran would emerge with an industrial-size enrichment capability, near-zero nuclear breakout, and advanced centrifuge powered covert sneak out. And when this happened, Iran’s nuclear program would be considered legitimate and legal under international law.

So that end state, which by the way is going to happen in six years from now under the agreement, would establish the Islamic Republic as a threshold nuclear power with an industrial-size program, the ability to break out or sneak out at a time of its choosing, a trillion dollars in sanctions relief which would empower the regime for more domestic repression and regional aggression. But the program would be legitimate and therefore much more difficult for the United States or Israel to bomb if the Islamic Republic decided to go for the bomb. So that was my central objection to the deal were the sunsets. We are a few years away from the sunsets really beginning to disappear or to kick in and the restrictions disappear, and 2030 it’s game over. So that was my principle rejection.

SADJADPOUR:    So let me ask you, do you think a better deal would have been attainable either under Obama or during the Trump administration?

DUBOWITZ:        I think a better deal would have been attainable with a better negotiator. You know because you’ve been following the Islamic Republic for many years, Khamenei is a brilliant strategist and negotiator. He also found a very successful nuclear negotiating team in Rouhani and Zarif, and they were willing to play hardball. I think Obama and Kerry and Sherman and others on our side were lulled into a false sense of security. I think they actually did buy-in Zarif and Rouhani’s claims of moderation. I think they bought into the fact that they were empowering the moderates, and they were willing to give massive concessions in order to empower the moderates because they believe something you don’t believe in, which is that the Islamic Republic is reformable.

SADJADPOUR:    It’s interesting, when reading John Brennan’s memoir, he mentioned something which don’t come out in some of the other memoirs, which is, he said that President Obama used to oftentimes tell them in cabinet meetings that this deal is important to empower the forces of moderation inside Iran. But I think that the administration was at times careful not to try to market it as such, or they would deny that they actually believe that.

DUBOWITZ:        Because by the way Karim, the deal doesn’t make sense unless you actually believe that over time flooding the regime with cash and strengthening Rouhani and Zarif or that wing of the Islamic Republic was going to yield a more moderate and pragmatic regime. Because if it didn’t, when you get to 2030, then what you’re essentially doing is handing the Revolutionary Guards, Khamenei or his successor this massive nuclear program with no restrictions, a trillion dollars in cash and the ability to both go nuclear and power its regional aggression, no doubt a much more powerful security apparatus to repress Iranians, and you ended up in the worst of both worlds.

So I think Obama truly believed, frankly, as Richard Nixon believed and Henry Kissinger believed, that by empowering the Chinese Communist Party and ultimately integrating them into the global economy, which Bill Clinton eventually did, that you were going to turn the hard men of Beijing into responsible global stakeholders. Well, that failed. We failed to turn Putin into a responsible global stakeholder by flooding him with cash. I believe and believed at the time that this was a fool’s errand to assume that we could do the same thing with the hard men of Tehran. So I think the administration bet on that, and I think it would’ve been a foolish bet.

SADJADPOUR:    So let me take a step back. I had a long chat today with someone at the White House about U.S. strategy toward Iran, because in my view, we now have a 45-year case study of the Islamic Republic of Iran. We can definitely count on one hand, maybe two fingers, the number of times that the Islamic Republic of Iran has agreed to meaningful compromise. One was Ayatollah Khomeini’s decision to swallow poison and end the Iran-Iraq War and the other was the JCPOA of 2015. In my view, when you look at under what circumstances does this regime compromise, I think basically three conditions have to be met.

Number one, they have to be faced with very significant multilateral pressure. If the pressure of sanctions is only unilateral from the United States and they feel they have an out card in Beijing, Moscow or Brussels, they don’t have the existential angst that they need. Number two, I believe it requires direct U.S. engagement, direct U.S. dialogue with Iran. Number three, as we were talking about, it needs to be in pursuit of a concrete, viable outcome, what I’d call a 5 out of 10, or 6 out of 10, or 4 out of 10. But it needs to be a concrete, viable approach, which isn’t maximalist. I think the challenge with the JCPOA was, and this will continue to be a challenge with Iran, if you need a full court press and you need global buy-in, the question is whether… especially nowadays, now is a much more difficult geopolitical context than it was in 2015 given the U.S.-Russia relationship, given the U.S.-China relationship.

So looking forward to next January, whether it’s a Biden administration or a Trump administration, countering Iran’s nuclear ambitions is, in my view, going to be a top priority for the next administration. The question is, how do you do that now in a much more difficult environment when you don’t have the cooperation of China and Russia that you did in 2015? So I guess that’s a question for you, Mark. Is it possible to come up with a stronger deal or address these concerns, valid concerns you talk about with sunset clauses when it’s going to be much more difficult to build that global coalition against Iran?

DUBOWITZ:        Yeah Karim, listen, I agree with you. I think this is the shame of 2015 is we really had significant leverage at the time. We had overwhelming sanctions pressure, U.S. pressure. By the way, I’m a big believer that U.S. secondary sanctions at the end of the day is what really makes a difference because the Chinese and Russians can step in, the Chinese can buy Iranian oil, the Russians can help with sanctions evading. But at the end of the day, if we are willing to threaten global financial institutions that if they continue to process trade, including oil trade, in dollars, then they will be severely sanctioned, it makes a big difference. With the Chinese the Obama administration deserves a lot of credit, because they got the Chinese to effectively stop buying Iranian oil. The Trump administration did the same thing, and in both cases, they did it by threatening Chinese banks that if you buy Iranian oil and you process those transactions, then you will not be allowed to access the global financial system and trade in dollars.

So I think U.S. secondary sanctions, no doubt, are very powerful. It’s good to have multilateral sanctions to give us political cover, but they don’t really give us teeth. The teeth comes from the willingness of an administration to really enforce sanctions, which is what Obama did, I mean Congress did and Obama went along with it, and certainly what Trump did for the two years of his maximum pressure campaign. But I fully agree with you. I think fast-forward to 2024, there is no deal with Iran over their nuclear program or anything else unless we credibly threaten and selectively use instruments of American national power. Sanctions, yes, a course of diplomacy, for sure, but other instruments of power, including military power. So what I want to turn to next, because I think you and I could probably spend all of the hour talking about the JCPOA, what I really want to talk about is where we go from here with this Islamic Republic.

You’ve been one of the most astute observers and analysts of the Islamic Republic. I think you and I have had many conversations about… the reality is that our most effective instrument against the Islamic Republic today, and I hate to instrumentalize the Iranian people, but they effectively are our best instrument against this regime. The majority of Iranians despise this regime. They’ve been out on the streets since 2009 and effectively since 2017, culminating in the Woman, Life, Freedom movement. Talk to us, Karim, about the Iranian people, the relationship of the Iranian people to the regime. How brittle do you think this regime is today? In terms of American national power, what could we actually do to provide maximum support to the Iranian people instead of just maximum pressure on the regime?

SADJADPOUR:    I think I’ve said this to you before, Mark, that I think there’s very few countries in the world with a greater gap between the aspirations of its regime and the aspirations of its people than Iran and that you have a regime which aspires to be like North Korea, and a society that aspires to be like South Korea. That gap in my view is certainly irreconcilable as long as Ayatollah Khamenei remains Supreme Leader. Because he’s the Brezhnev, right? He’s committed to the status quo. I’ve long thought that the greatest ally that the United States has against Iran is, in fact, the people of Iran. Up until now, I think that few U.S. administrations have thought seriously and creatively about how do we support the forces of change in Iran and support the aspirations of the people of Iran the same way we thought about it during the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

I think one of the challenges now in Washington is after a couple of decades of failure in the Middle East and Iraq and Afghanistan, there’s a collective lack of self-confidence in Washington, whether among Democrats or Republicans about America’s ability to will desired outcomes in the Middle East. What I oftentimes say is that in my view, Iraq and Afghanistan are not the best analogies for Iran. In some ways, apartheid South Africa is a better analogy, or post-Soviet Union and Russia are better analogies. But even those are not, unfortunately, very happy stories. You know, what people hoped for. And the post-Soviet space was not what Russia is now.

DUBOWITZ:        Yeah, but I would argue the Soviet Union was effectively an existential threat to the United States during the Cold War.

SADJADPOUR:    And it no longer is, yes.

DUBOWITZ:        And it no longer is. Putin’s obviously a tyrant, and his invasion of Ukraine has been brutal and a severe threat to the Western order. But Russia today is not the Soviet Union. Apartheid South Africa for a few brief years with the Rainbow Coalition and Nelson Mandela and the real hope for South Africa, well, today, South Africa is becoming more and more of a failed state economically and because of endemic corruption through the ANC. But at least Blacks are free in South Africa. They’re not economically prosperous, but at least they’re politically free. So you never get that…

SADJADPOUR:    The 10 out of 10.

DUBOWITZ:        You never get a 10 out of 10, exactly. But if you can actually reduce the severity of the threat, and if you can reform the system to give people at least the opportunity for political change… It always struck me, Karim, that the only place where Iranians are not successful in the world is inside the Islamic Republic of Iran.


DUBOWITZ:        I grew up in Toronto, affectionately known as ‘Tehranto’. But you go to Toronto, you go to LA, you go to Great Neck, you go to Australia or you go to Europe, and the Iranians are the most incredible immigrants and incredibly successful. Yet inside Iran, they live under this brutal regime, this terrible economy. Much of the problems in the economy are not because of sanctions, but because of the–

SADJADPOUR:    Mismanagement and corruption.

DUBOWITZ:        …mismanagement and corruption, exactly right. So you’ve got this incredibly impressive people that if we could just give them the opportunity to be free, I’m confident that Iran would be free and prosperous. Now the question is, are you? Because I want to ask you a question about the Iranian diaspora and about Iranian opposition, because I sense a lack of confidence as opposed to a skepticism on my part about what the future would look like.

SADJADPOUR:    So one thing I’d say from the outset is that Henry Kissinger once said there are few nations in the world with whom the United States has more common interests and less reason to quarrel than Iran. But he said years later Iran has to decide whether it’s a nation or a cause. Now, the Islamic Republic long ago decided it’s a revolutionary cause, not a nation state. But the first part of that sentence is very telling that Kissinger, the uber realist, says that if Iran were to follow its national interests, America and Iran are natural partners. I happen to believe that’s true.

DUBOWITZ:        You’ve argued recently in The New York Times that you think actually Iran and Israel are natural partners.

SADJADPOUR:    Yes, I believe Iran and Israel have complimentary national interests. They are not inherent adversaries, and what’s driving Iran’s enmity toward Israel is not the national interests of Iran. It’s revolutionary ideology. I’d say that about much of what Iran does today. “Death to America” is not something that makes sense in the context of Iran’s national interests. I define national interests by that which advances the security and prosperity of your people. Well, having trade relations with the greatest economy in the world would be in the national interest of your people. It doesn’t make any sense to have gratuitous hostility with the greatest military power in the world if you’re Iran.

I believe that, I don’t want to set the bar so high as to say Iran has to transition to a Scandinavian-style democracy. Even if you go from the current system, anti-American theocracy, to a government whose organizing principle is the national interests of Iran, rather than the revolutionary ideology of 1979, in my view, that should be a net positive for the United States because as I said from the perspective of the national interests of Iran, America and Iran have many overlapping interests.

Now, what about prospects for something better than that, which is as we’ve talked about secular, democratic government in Iran? I believe there’s a strong constituency for that inside Iran. When I see protests over the years, it gives me great hope about the political maturity of this society, especially the younger generation who, after four and a half decades of living under theocratic tyranny, is trying to separate mosque and state, not join mosque and state. By virtue of having lived under an incredibly intolerant government, socially, politically, economically, they aspire for much greater tolerance.

In fact, I think you could argue, Mark, that from the vantage point of the United States, there’s probably few countries in the world that America would feel more hopeful about anti-government protests in that country than Iran. If there are anti-government protests against King Abdullah of Jordan, that would probably be worrisome for many people in Washington, because you would think, well, if the monarchy falls in Jordan, what could come next?

DUBOWITZ:        Or Saudi Arabia or the UAE.

SADJADPOUR:    Or Saudi Arabia or the UAE, take your pick. But Iran is one of the outliers in that category. But my concern is that if the forces of democracy in Iran are not able to unite, and organize, and think strategically, whenever this system implodes or there is a power vacuum after Khamenei dies, it’s going to be the forces of darkness who are armed and organized and willing to kill to preserve their power who eventually prevail.

DUBOWITZ:        And that is the difference, right? I use the Soviet-Cold War analogy a lot when trying to convince policymakers in Washington to support the Iranian people the way that we supported anti-Soviet dissidence. But you don’t see the prospect of a Gorbachev in the Islamic Republic, right? You see Khamenei, the Revolutionary Guards, or whoever comes next as Supreme Leader, turning their guns on the people and slaughtering them. They’re not going to allow the Islamic Republic to be reformed in any way without a fight. Would you agree with that?

SADJADPOUR:    Certainly that’s the case as long as Khamenei is alive. This observation was made by some of the great political philosophers in history, Machiavelli, Tocqueville, that the most dangerous moment for any bad government is when it tries to reform itself, and so Khamenei is committed to the principles of the revolution. Now, let’s fast-forward a couple years, let’s say Khamenei dies.

Most likely, they will engineer his successor to be someone who shares his worldview. In my view, Khamenei is likely going to be the last powerful clerical leader in Iran. If the Islamic Republic manages to sustain itself, its next powerful leaders are going to be men with military background, Revolutionary Guard, intelligence background, not clerics.

DUBOWITZ:        I thought a lot about this, and I’ve asked other people, because there’s this sort of sense that that will be worse. I wonder what you think about the proposition that that could be better. I don’t mean better for the Iranian people in the short term, because those are brutal men who will repress Iranians, and obviously who will continue to support terror and proxies around the region, and certainly may even move faster in advancing their nuclear weapons program than the supreme leader.

But do you think that the ability of the Islamic Republic to be a revolutionary regime that can inculcate this revolutionary ideology amongst co-religionists throughout the Middle East will diminish if the Islamic Republic is no longer run by clerics but run by military dictators? Do you think it’ll have an effect on their ability to spread the revolution throughout the Middle East?

SADJADPOUR:    Well, I do think that the most important debates which are likely to shape Iran’s future will be within the Revolutionary Guards, not between the Revolutionary Guards and the clergy, but the forces within the Revolutionary Guards, between those who… you know, the senior commanders who have been handpicked by Khamenei who want to continue with the revolutionary ideology being the country’s organizing principle and those within the Revolutionary Guards who are definitely not Democrats but who believe that the country should prioritize national interests over revolutionary ideology, much like the Chinese decided in the late 1970s. Now the question is, a bad case outcome would be that there’s a transition to a military-ruled government which maintains the revolutionary ideology.

In my view, they’re likely to be much more aggressive on the nuclear front, because they essentially talk about this publicly, that the example one learns from history, Ukraine, Iraq, Libya, they didn’t cross the nuclear threshold, and they made themselves vulnerable to external intervention. North Korea did weaponize and provided themselves a cloak of immunity. So there’s a danger that military men take over Iran and they actually decide to cross a nuclear threshold.

There’s another potential scenario as well, whereby you have military men who as I said they believe that Iran’s national interest should come before revolutionary ideology. What does that mean? That means that you want to normalize relations with the United States. Well, one condition of normalizing relations with the United States would be Iran totally changing its regional outlook, its opposition to Israel’s existence, and its support for all these regional militias, which are actively opposing Israel’s existence.

In my view, that would be likely an improvement on the status quo in Iran. Anyone who’s worked on the Middle East long enough knows not to make predictions. As I said, one thing I do feel comfortable predicting is that if there isn’t a cohesive, united, democratic Iranian opposition that is capable of thinking and organizing and acting strategically, then they will not be the inheritors of power in Iran.

DUBOWITZ:        Karim, it’s interesting, because I actually think that is an excuse used by US policymakers not to support the Iranian people. I think you and I have talked about this in the past. I don’t believe that there’s such thing as a ‘unified opposition’. What is ‘unified’? Are the American people ‘unified’? Are the Israeli people ‘unified’? Are the French? Are the Germans? Are the Hungarians ‘unified’? No one’s unified.

In the history of revolutions or in major movements that came to power, I think it’s not a question of unity. I think it’s a question of brave men and women who are willing to stand up and fight the man, the powers, in order to bring about those changes. We can have a whole separate and long discussion about the Zionist Movement, but the Zionist Movement to me certainly is an example not of unity. David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin despised each other, right?

Labor and Likud are the modern manifestations of that rivalry that dates back to pre-state Israel. They’re examples of the Altalena incident, which was a famous incident that very few people know about, but there was a ship that was being manned by Holocaust survivors. They were trying to move weapons to the Irgun, which was run by Menachem Begin at the time. Ben-Gurion had made it very clear, there will only be one power in the land, and there will be a monopoly on force, and I will not tolerate all of these splinter organizations running around with their own weapons.

Ben-Gurion instructed his forces at the time, the Hagana, which became the IDF, to fire on this boat, and they sunk the boat with weapons and men to the bottom of the ocean. These were Holocaust survivors, shortly after the Holocaust. You can imagine what a step that was, and you can imagine how those bitter wounds still continue. The point is that there was no unity. There was no unified opposition.

There were men who were prepared to fight, and die, and kill in order to, at the end of the day, establish a government that could take over and that had a monopoly in force, and then opened up a political system and enough political space for a democracy to emerge, which is what you have in Israel today, rather a rambunctious and noisy democracy, which doesn’t always work very well, but at least it has the freedom and openness to allow different expressions of political faith.

I’m really of the view that I think that Washington policymakers do a great disservice to Iranians, in expecting Iranians to be the first people on earth or in history to be unified. If anything, anybody who raises their hand as the leader inside Iran of the opposition movement is going to get killed, and then their family’s going to get killed. To me, it makes little sense to expect Iranians to emerge as opposition leaders inside Iran. It makes little sense to expect them to be unified, either inside Iran or outside Iran.

What I think we need to see is people inside Iran who have demonstrated this already, their willingness to stand up and resist and in many cases be arrested and tortured and in some cases killed, but people on the outside who live in relative safety in the United States or Europe around the world in the Iranian diaspora, who are also prepared to stand up and fight.

Now, I want to ask you about the Iranian diaspora, because you just recently came under a kind of withering criticism from people who I thought were being rather unfair to you about efforts that you had put in order to “unify the opposition.” Can you tell our listeners a little bit more about that? What happened, and where do you think the critics of you went wrong?

SADJADPOUR:    I think, Mark, right now, if I had to contrast Iran now in 2024 to the Iran of 1978 just before the revolution, the forces that opposed the Shah had very little in common with one another. If you ask them about their end games, you had Marxists, you had Khomeinists, you had secular nationalists, they had totally irreconcilable end games, but they agreed on the means, which is revolution. So they’re able to work together against the Shah. Then once they got rid of the Shah, the Khomeinists quickly swept everyone aside.

I have higher expectations now, in that it seems to me that there aren’t irreconcilable end games among people who oppose the Islamic Republic. There’s not really any serious Marxists or Islamists left. It’s basically groups of people who want one form or another of secular democracy, whether you want constitutional democracy, some favor constitutional monarchy.

I guess what I’m trying to say is I don’t think that there should be as much acrimony as there is, because people ultimately want the same thing. This regime, the Islamic Republic, in my view, is really one of the worst governments in the world. It has almost no redeeming qualities in that it’s politically dictatorial, one of the most authoritarian regimes in the world, one of the most poorly-managed economies. Iran should be a very wealthy nation when you think about its natural resources and human resources.

On top of all of that, it’s socially authoritarian. It’s a totalitarian regime with almost no redeeming qualities, and you have a highly educated diaspora. The Economist a few years ago had a graph that showed that in terms of income and education, Iranians were the second most successful immigrant group in the United States after Indians. That’s why I have these high expectations, because you have a highly educated, successful diaspora, and one of the worst regimes in the world. You would think it would be possible to work together against that.

When the protests began in Iran after the killing of Mahsa Amini in September of 2022, there was many inspiring moments inside the country, incredible acts of courage, women removing their headscarves, and that was energizing the diaspora. There was for example 80 to 100,000 Iranians gathered in Berlin. Those inside the country inspired the diaspora. Then diaspora did things which helped to inspire those inside the country. There was initially this wonderful synergy.

But I think after several months people said, well, that’s not enough, just posting things on social media and witnessing these acts of bravery. This has to be harnessed towards something, has to be constructively harnessed and organized. I think there was this huge demand for certainly those on the outside who, as you said, are not going to get killed for coming together. Those on the inside could be imprisoned anytime. In fact, on many occasions, I spoke to prominent activists inside Iran. They said listen, don’t expect anything of me. They could haul me off to jail tomorrow, but you guys in the diaspora need to step up. After many months, there was a group that came together at Georgetown University, including the former Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, women’s right activists like Masih Alinejad, Hamed Esmaeilion one of the spokespersons for the Ukraine airliners flight that was shot down. But ultimately, it turned out to be a short-lived experiment. I thought it was important to reflect on the lessons learned from that experience for the next time.

The Islamic Republic is an inherently unstable, unsustainable regime. Two, three, four months from now, Khamenei could die, there could be another match that lights the population on fire, and it’s important to be prepared. You can’t organize an opposition once the protests have already begun. So this interview I did with a Persian publication called OSU was my attempt at drawing lessons from that experience.

I actually don’t believe that it was the fault of any individual, why this movement didn’t succeed. I think there’s these structural and organizational challenges, which are not impossible to overcome, but they’re difficult. It’s difficult to organize an opposition from thousands of miles away. That’s very difficult. There’s some advantages that the Khomeinists and the revolutionaries had in 1978, right? They had a network of mosques. They had the bazaar merchants. The Shah certainly wasn’t as brutal as the Islamic Republic, but there are some advantages in modern times that they didn’t have in 1978.

You can send out a WhatsApp message to millions of people, you can Tweet and millions of people can see it. There’s advantages and disadvantages of each era. Again, I go back to the belief that I believe that this is a society which is ripe for democracy. I truly believe there’s a sizeable democratic constituency inside Iran and that an Iran that is a representative government which follows its national interests rather than the revolutionary ideology of 1979, that would be a political game changer for the United States.

DUBOWITZ:        Well, Karim, I agree with you, but I think actually the fault is also with the United States. We can’t put Iranians on the streets. That’s up to Iranians, and they’ve taken to the streets many times. 2009, the Green Revolution, there were millions of Iranians on the streets, yelling “Death to the dictator! President Obama, are you with us? Are you with the dictator?” Well, he decided to engage with the dictator.

Now, you could say he decided to engage, and he engaged because he wanted a nuclear deal, and he got the JCPOA. We’ve had a detailed discussion on that, whether it was a good deal or a bad deal, but the fact is he made his decision to engage with the Supreme Leader and not support the people.

By the way, during Woman, Life, Freedom, President Obama said that he regretted that decision. And Hillary Clinton said she regretted that decision. They should have stood with the Iranian people. I think I’ve been in this town too long, and I’m growing more, certainly older, more cynical, I don’t believe that the Biden administration, or the Trump administration, or any administration at this point truly wants to do what is necessary to support the Iranian people when they go on the streets, because there’s many things we can do. You mentioned about sending out millions of WhatsApp messages. Well, the regime has bought surveillance technology from the Chinese and others to surveil those WhatsApp messages. They shut down the internet. They cracked down on communication, because they know that if you can’t communicate, you can’t mobilize. If you can’t mobilize, you can’t protest. If you can’t protest, then you’re not going to be able to take to the streets and affect any kind of meaningful change. At a very simple level, we could come up with technology solutions to help Iranians circumvent this surveillance technology and internet blackouts and be able to still communicate. There’s very little that the Biden administration has done, that the Trump administration has done.

That seems to me technologically feasible and something that we should all be working on today, getting ready for the next time, as you say, Iranians are going to be on the streets, because they are going to take to the streets if the Supreme Leader dies or there’s some other kind of spark. I think this is all an excuse, the fact that we are asking Iranians to unify and come together with a common mission, and a common playbook, and identify what a post-Islamic Republic of Iran is going to look like.

Yes, there should be discussions of this. I’m not suggesting there shouldn’t be a day-after plan. Of course there should be. But at the end of the day, what we need to focus on is providing Iranians with the tools and support from technological to rhetorical to others that will help them in this fight against this brutal regime. I just truly believe that the US government is not interested in it. I don’t believe our intelligence community is interested in it. I don’t know what they’re doing, but I would guess they’re not planning for the next time Iranians are on the streets. There may be other countries that are doing more and prepared to do more. I actually think the Israelis are prepared to do more and have done more. I think that they obviously are preparing because they understand that the Islamic Republic remains an existential threat to Israel, and maybe are prepared to be more and forward-looking, forward-leaning and take more risks.

But let me switch gears for a second. I want to talk a little bit about the New York Times piece that you had recently on the Islamic Republic in Israel, because I thought that was a fascinating piece. Maybe for the benefit of our listeners you could explain, why is the Islamic Republic so obsessed with Israel? I think you put it very eloquently when you said it’s one of the few nations on Earth that spends much of its time and resources and energy at a huge cost actually to Iranian society focused on trying to obliterate a state as opposed to trying to build a state for the benefit of its people.

What is this obsession about? Why is it so fundamental to the theology of the Islamic Republic and why is antisemitism so deeply rooted in this ideology? When based on my experience with Iranians, Iranians tend to be the most philo-semitic people I’ve ever met. And I’ve noted that in many of the pro-Israel rallies since October 7th, you’ll see Israeli flags and American flags, but you’ll also see pre-Islamic Republic of Iran flags as Iranians have come out to support their Jewish and Israeli friends. So it’s a fascinating disconnect between an antisemitic regime and seemingly philo-semitic people. Karim, what’s going on here?

SADJADPOUR:    Well, I do think Iran’s hostility toward Israel is an historic aberration. It’s not something which is a natural reflection of Iran’s actual interests. One of the things I wrote in that piece was that Iran’s Jewish community is one of the oldest continuously inhabited Jewish communities in the world that dates back 2,500 years to the ancient Persian Empire. As you know, Cyrus the Great is revered in the Old Testament.

And it’s in my view among the many tragedies of the revolution in the Islamic Republic that a generation from now that Jewish community could well be extinct. In 1978, there was probably 100,000 strong members of that community, and now according to some estimates down to 12,000, and I really do believe that the hostility of the Islamic Republic toward Israel, it goes back to the father of the Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, when you go back to his writings. Nowadays, the leadership of the Islamic Republic and its fellow travelers, they try to be careful not to be overtly antisemitic in that they use the word ‘Zionist’ rather than ‘Jews’ and ‘Jewish’.

DUBOWITZ:        But they engage in Holocaust denial.

SADJADPOUR:    Absolutely.

DUBOWITZ:        They have Holocaust denial contests. I mean, Holocaust denial seems to be also a central pillar of their propaganda. So they may try when they come to Washington and give speeches at CFR, but they seem to let it slip.

SADJADPOUR:    No, no, absolutely, and I don’t want to deny that. My point is, is that Khomeini was proud of it. He didn’t even try to hide it. The text that Khomeini wrote was based on a series of lectures called the Islamic Government, which became what is now the foundation for the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, is rife with very antisemitic statements. I don’t think the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ existed at that time, but just casual support of ethnic cleansing, citing examples in the Koran when there would be a troublesome Jewish tribe which the Prophet Muhammad quote, unquote “eliminated”.

And so I think that’s where you have to start to understand the Islamic Republic’s hostility toward Israel, and Ayatollah Khamenei essentially inherited the mantle from Khomeini. This is something which they very much believe, it’s earnest. You sometimes hear that Arab governments don’t really care that much about the Palestinians, but they know their population cares about it, and so they pay lip service to it. What I’d say about Iran is the opposite. Its hatred toward Israel is not driven by popular demand. The population, as you alluded to, they don’t have any inherent hostility toward Israel.

The other thing I’d say about the Islamic Republic of Iran is that there’s a difference in my view between being anti-Israel and being pro-Palestine. The Islamic Republic is anti-Israel, it’s antisemitic. I don’t think it’s pro-Palestine. It’s actually fine to see, it’s fine for them to see tens of thousands of Palestinians being killed if that helps there, in their goal of trying to delegitimize and oppose Israel.

All the money, which now can probably be measured in the billions of dollars that Iran has provided over the years to Palestinians, it’s never to groups that are advancing the welfare, human welfare of Palestinians. It’s to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. And so the Islamic Republic, its motto is not ‘long live Iran’, it’s ‘Death to Israel’. And as I said, that’s hard pressed to think of other nations in the world–

DUBOWITZ:        So, not ‘long live Iran’, but ‘death to Israel’.

SADJADPOUR:    Exactly. That are more committed to the destruction of their adversary than the advancement of their own society. Now, in addition to their ideological beliefs, I think there is a strategic element here, which is if you are the Islamic Republic of Iran, and you aspire to be the regional hegemon, but you’re a predominantly Shiite-Persian country in a region which is predominantly Sunni-Arab, you don’t win a lot of followers by waving the Shiite flag or by waving the Iranian flag. But if you wave the anti-Israel flag, that’s the way of transcending the Persian-Arab divide and the Sunni-Shiite divide. So, there’s a strategic element as well, but I believe the Islamic Republic on this issue is very earnest. They’ve been for decades very consistent that they’re opposed to Israel’s existence.

DUBOWITZ:        It’s interesting, because if you follow the Supreme Leader on Twitter, on X, the obsession with Israel and with Zionism is remarkable. I mean, it’s sort of like my obsession with the Islamic Republic on Twitter. He’s clearly ideological, theologically and practically willing to expend whatever it takes in order to destroy Israel. And his strategy seems interesting. I mean, you mentioned North Korea. I used to say that the Supreme Leader’s strategy was to turn Tel Aviv to Seoul, in the sense that what North Korea has done so well is through the nuclear weapons threat but having amassed conventional weaponry on the border with South Korea, they’ve effectively created a situation where within a few weeks, they could destroy Seoul just using their conventional weapons. And in doing so, what they’ve done is they’ve significantly limited the South Korean military option. They’ve actually significantly limited the American military option to take on North Korea. And so today, the Supreme Leader seems to not only want to turn Tel Aviv into Seoul in that sense by surrounding Israel with a ring of fire of all these terrorist organizations and conventional weapons while expanding his nuclear weapons program.

But increasingly, he seems like he wants to turn Tel Aviv into Kyiv, which is to wage a war of attrition. To make it so miserable to live in Israel that the best and the brightest and most flexible will leave, therefore leaving behind sort of a rump who are going to be outgunned and outmanned as he moves in for the kill shot. In the meantime, moving forward with nuclear weapons so that he can do what Vladimir Putin has recently done, which is threaten to introduce tactical nukes into the battle space. And the Biden administration has backed down as a result of that threat and has been unwilling to provide the Ukrainians with what they need to really inflict major harm on the Russian military, particularly beyond the Ukrainian-Russian border.

It seems to me that’s exactly what the Supreme Leader is trying to do with this nuclear escalation, which ultimately will translate into a nuclear threat that will severely limit the IDF, the Israeli Defense Force’s ability to respond to proxies. Because you can imagine that if there was, God forbid, another October 7th under an Islamic Republic nuclear umbrella, a US president, no matter a Republican or Democrat, would tell the Israelis to stand down and not respond in the way that they have to October 7th.

So, he seems to be my mind, I mean, one of the most brilliant and thoughtful and strategic of the Middle East leaders, if not global leaders. He has a plan, as you said. He seems to be following that plan methodically, and he seems to be playing three-dimensional chess while the rest of us are playing checkers. Do you think that, again, once he goes, you mentioned that this will be a contest between the Revolutionary Guard, an intra-Revolutionary Guard contest. I mean, do you see any other men, because they’re always men, of course, on the horizon with the same kind of strategic brilliance and strategic patience as the Supreme Leader? Or are we really moving into the B and C team that arguably could be even more dangerous?

SADJADPOUR:    I think that Khamenei is arguably the longest-serving dictator in the world today. He became president in 1982, leader in 1989. So, he’s been Iran’s most powerful man for 35 years. He hasn’t left the country since 1989. And he controls enormous resources.

I think one of the advantages Ayatollah Khameini has, similar to Vladimir Putin, is that he is not constrained by public opinion or by term limits, right? He’s been in power for the better part of 45 years. He became president of Iran in 1982, he became Supreme Leader in 1989. And he’s learned a lot over the years, including from his own mistakes.

So, I look at how we operate in Washington, and oftentimes you have a new administration starting from scratch every four years with people who, there hasn’t been a US-Iran relationship for 45 years. I think there was a study that came out a few years ago that the US State Department has more Albanian speakers than Persian speakers. And so we’re oftentimes starting from scratch in our Iran strategy. New administration will come and say, “Well–

DUBOWITZ:        But don’t you think our Iran strategy always seems to be the United States saying, “Hi,” and the Islamic Republic of Iran saying, “FU”, and then US policymakers doing whatever they can, whether it’s through pressure or diplomacy, to try to persuade the Supreme Leader and the regime to reach some kind of diplomatic resolution. I mean, it seems to me very interesting that regardless of whether it’s Republicans or Democrats, we are always sort of obsessively chasing the regime in pursuit of the deal.

And I don’t think Trump will be any different if he comes back into office. I mean, I think Trump is more likely to do a deal than Biden, and he’s more likely to do it in a Manhattan minute. And there’s a chance it might be an even worse deal than the JCPOA because of that strong American desire, and that the Supreme Leader, having been in power for so many decades, having survived so many presidents, he’s got our number.

I mean, he understands our weaknesses and our leverage points. He also knows we’re not willing to escalate against him in any kind of meaningful way or use really serious instruments of American power. And he also thinks that we’re not prepared to even support the Iranian people against the regime. So, how do we, even with a new Supreme Leader coming in, or an IRGC military dictatorship, Karim, how do we actually change course so that the Islamic Republic is not always on offense and not always seemingly has our number and always translates that number into strategic gains as they’ve done so successfully?

SADJADPOUR:    As I said, as long as Khamenei is around, he’s 85 years old now, so he is not going to be around much longer. He’s the Brezhnev figure. He’s committed to the status quo, committed to the principles of the revolution. I think we have to think of a comprehensive strategy, which contains and counters their nuclear program, contains and counters their regional ambitions and supports the cause of political change inside Iran. But I think that one of the lessons that many have learned in Washington over the last two decades is that we haven’t had great success willing our desired political outcome in the Middle East.

And so that’s not a reason to not try. And what you were saying earlier about there’s a lot more we could do to inhibit the regime’s ability to, for example, control information and control communication. Starlink terminals, which inhibit the regime’s ability to shut off the internet. These are things we can do to empower people inside Iran, empower civil society, but we can’t will our desired outcome in Iran. But it is, my view, just, I think it bears repeating that a government in Iran, which is either representative of popular demands or a government in Iran, which is representative of the country’s national interests, would behave very differently than the Islamic Republic because much of what the Islamic Republic does, death to America, death to Israel, all the billions that they are spending on these regional proxies, in my view, are actually inimical to the national interests of Iran in that there’s no return on investment financially.

You’re not advancing the economic well-being of Iranians, and you’re certainly not advancing Iran’s security because people feel constant sense of insecurity, thinking constantly, for the last decades they’ve been thinking constantly about potential war. This is not a government which, in my view, represents the national interests of Iran at all. And at some point, I believe there will be a course correction. I think one of the things we, the United States, can do, as we did during Soviet times, to sharpen those contradictions between the people and the regime and make clear to the people inside Iran that the United States welcomes a much better relationship, a normal relationship between Iran and the United States. We’re not interested in a hostile relationship.

DUBOWITZ:        Do you see anything positive in the Biden administration’s Iran policy? Or perhaps you think it’s a good policy? I don’t want to mischaracterize your opinion.

SADJADPOUR:    There’s a line I really love from, I believe your colleague at FDD, HR McMaster, who is the former national security advisor, and he uses this term called ‘strategic narcissism’, which essentially warns against this belief that America’s adversaries are simply responding to our policies. And if we’re nicer to them, they will reciprocate. I think early on in the Biden administration, there was this belief that if we take a more solicitous engagement approach towards–

DUBOWITZ:        This was Orange Man’s fault.

SADJADPOUR:    Yes. This was the–

DUBOWITZ:        And maximum pressure which forced the Iranians–


DUBOWITZ:        Basically, we withdrew from the deal, we put all this pressure on them, and if we just abandon maximum pressure and engage in maximum deference, maximum inducement, maximum concessions, we’ll be able to get the Islamic Republic back to the table and re-enter the JCPOA, to be fair.

SADJADPOUR:    I worked for many years with current CIA director Bill Burns. I worked with Jake Sullivan. I don’t think Jake and Bill, for example, I don’t think they ever had any illusions about the nature of the Islamic Republic, but I’m sure there was a debate within the administration. I think where they are now, three years into the administration, is different than where they began in the early months of the administration.

DUBOWITZ:        They got mugged by reality.

SADJADPOUR:    Yeah, I think there’s a sense that, okay, this isn’t a regime in Iran which is interested in having a better relationship with the United States. They had initially taken the Houthis off the terror list. They had to put them back on the terror list. Ayatollah Khameini, I believe is the only world leader who praised October 7th, and he continues to praise it. I think there’s now an understanding that, okay, this is a malign regime, and it doesn’t respond to only US engagement.

And I think that was frankly one of the lessons which I thought everyone was going to draw from the JCPOA, which was that the regime signed that deal in Obama’s second term, not in Obama’s first term, when Obama’s first term was mostly focused on trying to engage Iran. It wasn’t until Obama’s second term that it was significant pressure, which if you read the memoir of Bill Burns, that was a very important component of JCPOA.

So, I think now in my conversations with Biden administration officials and what they tell me about the president’s view is that they don’t have any illusions that, certainly under Ayatollah Khamenei in this current regime, it’s possible for America to have a cooperative relationship with Iran. But as I said, I think there is this collective lack of self-confidence in America’s ability to will positive outcomes in the Middle East, given what happened in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and the failure of virtually every country that had a leadership change after the Arab Spring.

DUBOWITZ:        But if you could wave a magic wand, or more practically speaking, you’re sitting in the Oval Office with President Biden and you have one recommendation to make to the president to really change the trajectory of US-Islamic Republic relations, what would that be? We talked about a lot of components of what a campaign could look like, maximum support for the people, maximum pressure on the regime. There’s obviously lots of components embedded within maximum pressure and maximum support, right? There’s sanctions, there’s credible threat of military force, there’s covert action, there’s cyber warfare, there’s, let’s hope, coercive diplomacy where we actually use other instruments of power to credibly threaten them. But wave the magic wand or provide that one recommendation to President Biden. What would it be?

SADJADPOUR:    Well, I wish I could say that I did believe that there is a silver bullet, which if we just employed that policy–

DUBOWITZ:        But even silver shrapnel, something that was going to wound the Islamic Republic of Iran, support the people and do something that we get back on our front foot. Because I got to tell you, Karim, I have this sort of thing. I think about this quite often. I think the Supreme Leader spends about 80% of his time thinking about how to kill Americans and Israelis and Jews, and he spends about 20% of his time thinking about how to defend the regime from Iranians. And I think that changes, obviously during Women, Life, Freedom or the Green Revolution, that percentage may shift, but it’s sort of 80-20, and my view is that we should flip the percentages. He should be spending max 20% of his time thinking about how to kill us and 80% of his time trying to defend his regime from Iranians, and yet I don’t see any evidence that your former colleague Bill Burns, or Jake Sullivan, or the president himself believes in the proposition that Ronald Reagan believed in during the Cold War, that it makes sense in a comprehensive policy to support anti-regime dissidents.

And to do so will not lead to some rally around the flag. Maybe it’ll be rallying around the pre-Islamic revolutionary regime flag, but they’re not going to rally around the Islamic Revolution, and that these brave people are going out on the streets and we need to do something to defend them. And that we’re not going to wait for Georgetown to pull together the Iranian diaspora and create wonderful, magical unity amongst Iranians before we actually do anything. Are they missing an opportunity, or do they think that they’re not capable of implementing on this opportunity? Or at the end of the day, is this just not actually a priority for the Biden administration? They’ve got China, they’ve got Russia, they’ve certainly got an election to try and win in November. The Islamic Republic and the threat to the Middle East and threat to US allies and to the United States has become sort of a tertiary priority in this town.

And guys like you and me who spend all our time thinking about Iran, maybe we’re just a aging, dying breed as all of the China firsters step up and now are in much more persuasive positions in both inside the administration and outside the administration. I guess what I’m grappling with, and I can’t quite put my finger on it, is why is this administration not doing more to weaken the Islamic Republic, put Khamenei on the defense, support the Iranian people, and create a Reagan-like strategy against a regime that, as you say, is ideologically, theologically bankrupt, economically almost bankrupt. It fears and hates its own people. Its forces are stretched out over the Middle East, and it’s not 10 feet tall. It’s not communist China. It’s not even Putin’s Russia. It’s a tin pot dictatorship led by a brilliant strategist who his death is imminent.

SADJADPOUR:    One thing I’ll agree with you is that if you’re looking at the world from the Oval Office and you think about all the various challenges the United States faces, whether that’s Russia’s war against Ukraine, China’s ambitions in Taiwan, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, cybersecurity, energy security, other anti-American autocracies in Venezuela and North Korea, Iran is almost central to every one of these challenges. Iran plays a role in almost all of them. And Iran is one of the few governments in the world whose entire identity is premised on opposing US interests. They’re more focused on opposing US interests than advancing their own interests. And in my view, they’ve proven over the last 45 years, that it’s not a regime that’s capable of reforming. So therefore, political change inside Iran is not just a nice thing to have. It becomes a US national interest.

DUBOWITZ:        But I’m not letting you off the hook. And reason I’m not letting you off the hook is… Why is the Biden administration not understanding what you understand? And why are they so unwilling to use instruments of a national power to advance American interests in the Middle East against the foremost threat to those interests, which is the Islamic Republic? If Iran is now expanding its nuclear weapons program at the same time it’s working on an intercontinental ballistic missile, those are nuclear-tipped ICBMs that only have one purpose, which is to threaten the American homeland. And so the proliferation risks are profound to American national security, to homeland security, nevermind to a cascade of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East with multiple nuclear weapons powers, including the Saudis and the Turks and the Algerians, possibly the Egyptians, all on a hair trigger with nuclear weapons, which could have devastating consequences not just for the region, but for our national security. If they get what you get, why the unwillingness to really do anything serious about it?

SADJADPOUR:    Listen, for me, whether it’s President Biden or President Trump or whomever, I think that the US strategy towards Iran needs to be comprehensive. And in my view, there’s three pillars of that strategy. As you talked about, it has to be focused on containing and countering Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Second, it has to be focused on containing and countering Iran’s regional conduct. And the third pillar is Iran domestically advancing the cause of political change in Iran, because as long as this regime is in power, we’re simply going to be responding to the symptoms of the challenge. Now, I think that these three polls of a strategy need to be somewhat in concert with one another, right? In the past, they’ve been in conflict with one another. During the JCPOA, everyone who was focused on regional issues or Iran domestic issues felt that their interests were being sacrificed at the nuclear altar. I think there needs to be a strategy, and I think during the Cold War, certainly during the Reagan years, we did this well, of having a comprehensive strategy, in which the polls of that strategy were mutually supportive.

You can counter Iran’s nuclear program and counter its regional ambitions and support the cause of internal change inside Iran. Whether it’s President Biden or President Trump, I think that’s what we need, and it’s unfortunately not going to be something which necessarily leads to quick success. It’s not something we can unfortunately will very quick outcomes.

DUBOWITZ:        Well, let’s end with where we started, which is on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. We’ve spoken a lot about it, but I want to ask you a direct question. As Iran now is a threshold nuclear weapons power, a turn of the screw from having a arsenal of nuclear weapons, a sense that if not the Supreme Leader, the next generation of Iranian leaders may be much more aggressive in the pursuit of those weapons. Do believe President Biden will use military force to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons? He certainly committed in the Jerusalem Declaration that he reached with Prime Minister Bennett a couple of years ago that America will use all instruments of national power to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and it’s a commitment that has been made by multiple presidents. Do you believe that he’s prepared to use force, and much more importantly, do you believe the Supreme Leader of Iran thinks that a US president is prepared to use force?

SADJADPOUR:    So my view is that as long as Khamenei is alive, they’re not likely to attempt to cross that threshold. Now, let’s say Khamenei dies and Biden is still president, and they do attempt to cross that threshold. Then America is essentially faced with a binary choice. Either you take military action against Iran’s nuclear program or you allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon. I think President Biden is prepared to take military action. I don’t get the impression that Khamenei currently believes that. Khamenei doesn’t know America well because he’s only been here once, but one thing I’ve noticed is that he tends to be a pretty good judge of US resolve. He knows when US presidents are serious about something, and he also knows when US presidents are not prepared to act. And so over the last three years, because of the fact that the Biden administration, for a good reason has been focused on Russia and China, I don’t think that currently believes that President Biden has the strongest of resolves to counter the nuclear and regional ambitions.

DUBOWITZ:        It’s worth noting that after Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in May, 2018, for a year, Tehran did nothing, and then began incrementally increasing their size of their nuclear program, but incrementally so. And then Trump killed Qasem Soleimani, and for 11 months, they did nothing because I think they were so shocked by that decision by President Trump to kill Soleimani, a decision that no other president had been willing to take, that they actually froze their nuclear expansion. And then when Joe Biden was elected and committed to abandon maximum pressure to go back into the JCPOA and engage in diplomacy, since then, they have undergone a massive expansion of their nuclear program. So the lesson I draw from this is that when there is a credible threat or application of American power, particularly military power, not necessarily sanctions power, the regime is cautious and at least temporarily backs down as they try to assess the resolve of an American president.

And if they believe an American president is prepared to use force… As for example, during the Tanker War was when Ronald Reagan sunk half the Iranian navy because of the regime’s threatening of international shipping in the Gulf, they backed down. They backed down, as you said in 1988 when they believed the United States was going to intervene in the Iran-Iraq war when the US accidentally shot down a Iranian passenger airline, but the regime believed that that actually wasn’t accidental, that it meant that the United States was about to intervene militarily and Khomeini drank the poison chalice, as it was called then. That the threat of American power, military power is what gets the regime to ultimately back down and consider compromise. But if they sense American weakness, American fecklessness, then they push forward. Would you agree with that?

SADJADPOUR:    Let me slightly caveat that, and I’ll give one counter example.

DUBOWITZ:        Because I want to end on a caveat and a counter example.

SADJADPOUR:    During the early years of the Iraq War, we had over 100,000 US troops in Iraq. And George W. Bush, on a weekly basis, was saying, vis-a-vis Iran, all options are on the table with regards to Iran’s nuclear program. And that turned out to be a period when Iran was killing hundreds, if not thousands of US soldiers in Iraq using IEDs. And what Khamenei has understood over the years is that if you go after America in the United States, if you bring down the Twin Towers, America will come and hunt you down. But if you go after US forces in the Middle East, as they did for example in Lebanon in the 1980s, they killed over 200 Marines, Hezbollah did, and Ronald Reagan pulled out several months later. Killing American forces or going after US interests in the Middle East tends to have the impact of souring American public opinion. And so Americans will say, “Well, why are our sons and daughters even in Lebanon or even in Iraq?”

So that was one example in which we had over 100,000 troops, US had over 100,000 troops on Iran’s border, were constantly threatening them, but they were continuing to come after us. So in my view, it’s–

DUBOWITZ:        But Karim, actually, what’s interesting was when we invaded Iraq and disposed of Saddam Hussein in a matter of a few weeks, whereas Iran had fought an eight-year brutal war with Iraq, they actually suspended their nuclear program…


DUBOWITZ:        …temporarily. But then, you’re absolutely right, they realized that they needed to bleed us in Iraq.

SADJADPOUR:    Yes, exactly. So initially, they were very fearful, but their strategy was just to make life hell for the United States.

DUBOWITZ:        They also knew we weren’t going to cross the border and hit Iranian Revolutionary Guards or any of those who were providing IEDs to the Shiite militias to kill our men. So there’s a sense that he was testing us like they did recently when they killed three US soldiers in Jordan. And the Biden administration’s response to that was to telegraph the punch, tell everybody to get out of dodge. The Revolutionary Guards got out of dodge, and then we dropped some bombs on some hapless Shiite militias who decided to stay, right? The Supreme leader realized once again, we weren’t prepared to kill IRGC commanders or go after Iran directly. We would just go after his proxies. And he’s prepared to fight us and these Israelis until the last dead Palestinian, Iraqi, Lebanese, Yemeni, Syrian, you name it.

It seems to me the lesson I draw is similar to the lesson you draw, but it’s one where if we’re not prepared to strike the Islamic Republic directly and its forces, and we either back down or we go after its proxies, the Supreme Leader draws the right conclusion, which is we fear escalation. We don’t want war in the Middle East. And he knows that his regime is safe. He’s safe from us. He’s safe from the Iranian people because we don’t support them, and he can move ahead on multiple trajectories, nuclear, regional, terrorist in order to weaken us and bleed the Israelis and ultimately go in for the kill shot. And the kill shot, I think as you’ve written, is convince the United States to get out of the Middle East, and then basically turn Tel Aviv into Kyiv and destroy Israel.

SADJADPOUR:    Well, on one point I would perhaps quibble, which is Khamenei’s confidence that the regime is safe and secure. I actually think that he’s a deeply insecure leader, both about his own power, and also about the sustainability of the Islamic Republic. A government which has self-confidence doesn’t need to go and try to kill journalists who are just doing their job, Iranian journalists in London or women’s rights activists living in Brooklyn. So I think this regime is deeply insecure and unsustainable. And if we want to end on a positive note, I actually see light at the end of the tunnel. The challenges right now, there’s no tunnel to go from where we are right now with Iran to a future which is, in my view, very much in the interest of the Iranian people, and very much in the interests of the United States.

DUBOWITZ:        Okay. I think with that, that’s a positive note, a light at the end of the tunnel. Hopefully it’s not the light of a train that is heading straight for us. But Karim, thank you very much.

SADJADPOUR:    Thank you.

DUBOWITZ: I always learn so much from speaking to you. Hopefully we can have you back, and hopefully one day we can celebrate the end of the Islamic Republic in Tehran with a drink and to really be amongst the incredibly courageous Iranian people who I really believe, at the end of the day, will be the best friends of both the United States and Israel and freedom. So thank you, Karim.

SADJADPOUR: Thank you for having me, Mark.



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