CBSN

Top Iran expert says Tehran may seek to wait out Trump administration

Last Updated Oct 17, 2018 7:17 AM EDT

Even as debilitating U.S. sanctions targeting Iran's oil industry remain slated to snap back in November, Tehran may seek to maintain a status-quo arrangement with the West until the fate of the Trump presidency becomes clearer, according to top Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour.

"It seems that the Iranian strategy is essentially to wait out the Trump administration," Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said. "To wait what happens with the midterm elections, wait until 2020, to see if President Trump is reelected."

Listen to this episode on Stitcher

In an interview with Intelligence Matters host and CBS senior national security contributor Michael Morell, Sadjadpour outlined a range of possible outcomes from the U.S.-Iran standoff as the Trump administration ups economic and diplomatic pressure on the regime.

"Outcome number one is essentially status quo," Sadjadpour said. "The U.S. has pulled out of the deal, but Iran remains part of the nuclear deal as do other parties to the deal: Europe, Russia and China." In a status-quo scenario, Sadjadpour said, Iran is likely to maintain that the United States, under Trump, and in reneging on its international commitments, is behaving like a rogue regime – all while Iran makes good on its agreements. 

"Which, if you're the United States," he told Morell, "isn't a bad outcome because Iran is continuing to keep its foot on the nuclear brakes."

Last month, the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini, announced the establishment of a new payment system to allow EU member states, Russia and China to maintain economic ties with Iran while avoiding the effects of U.S. sanctions. A number of European businesses, however, have nonetheless suspended its relationships with Iran – whose currency, the rial, has lost 70 percent of its value in the past year.

"Iran is a country which has enormous potential. It's got enormous human capital. And obviously it has enormous resources in oil and gas," Sadjadpour said. "But it's tremendously-- it's consistently punched below its weight as an economy."

In a second scenario – which might appeal to President Trump, Sadjadpour continued – the Iranians would, by virtue of deteriorating economic conditions and heightened risk of social unrest, be effectively forced to engage diplomatically and renegotiate the nuclear deal "along the lines of what happened with Kim Jong Un."

"Iran's supreme leader is much more stubborn," Sadjadpour observed, but "has a much shorter timeframe than Kim Jong Un."

While Kim, still in his 30s, has a decades-long outlook on ruling North Korea, Iran's 79-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, "doesn't have an outlook which is that long," Sadjadpour said. Especially if foreign investment levels remain anemic and growth is stagnant, Sadjadpour told Morell, "at some point [Khamenei] may have to swallow his pride, just as he did when Iran signed the nuclear deal."

President Trump has signaled a willingness to meet and negotiate with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, who has largely rebuffed offers of dialogue with the U.S. "Trump's offer of direct talks with Iran is not honest or genuine," Rouhani wrote in an op-ed last month.   

"I think President Rouhani would like to see a different relationship between America and Iran," Sadjadpour told Morell, "but as long as Khamenei is supreme leader, that acrimony is going to remain."

Khamenei, Sadjadpour said, has for years sought to downplay the impact of sanctions while assigning blame to domestic mismanagement. "The modus operandi of Iran's supreme leader is he wields power without accountability," Sadjadpour explained, "and in order to do that, he needs a president who has accountability without power."  

The supreme leader also maintains a carefully calibrated symbiotic relationship with Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps, Sadjadpour told Morell, in part by routinely exchanging economic benefits for steadfast political and military support. "[The IRGC have] made a lot of money over the years," Sadjadpour said. "They're not only Iran's increasingly the most powerful political institution, but also Iran's most powerful economic institution."

But an effort by the IRGC to take power more overtly, Sadjadpour said, could present a third scenario involving "something major happening in Iran."

"Either a regime implosion," he suggested, "or some type of a coup" might be possible – if near-impossible to predict.

"If you had asked any expert on Egypt or Libya or Tunisia what are the prospects for popular revolution in December 2010," Sadjadpour said, referring to now-known focal points of uprisings that made up the Arab Spring, "Most people would've said, 'very, very low.'"

"But it is within the realm of possibilities. You do have that same type of discontent in Iran," he continued, noting that three-quarters of the current Iranian population was born after the 1979 revolution.

"The experience of 1979 and the culture of 1979 – 'Death to America,' 'Death to Israel,' – that doesn't resonate with young people who really want to be like South Korea, not North Korea," he said.

Still, Sadjadpour noted, Iran has the unique and dubious distinction of being among few countries in the world simultaneously involved in three proxy wars – with Saudi Arabia, with Israel, and with the United States.

"Outcome number four is conflict," he said. "All three of these cold wars could potentially turn hot."

"The U.S. and Iran, there's a whole host of ways that you could see a conflict emerging, whether it's Iran trying to harass U.S. ships in the Person Gulf," he said, or "if Iran restarts its nuclear program – that could warrant a potential strike."

 "[T]here are so many conflicts happening in the world and we kind of feel like the world doesn't have bandwidth for yet another one," Sadjadpour said.

"But I do think it's within the realm of possibilities that, in the next two years, you see some type of an escalation [or] conflict with Iran."

For much more from Michael Morell's conversation with Karim Sadjadpour, you can listen to the new episode and subscribe to Intelligence Matters here