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Transcript: Karim Sadjadpour speaks with Michael Morell on "Intelligence Matters"

How Iran is dealing with coronavirus
How Iran is dealing with coronavirus 04:34

In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with Karim Sadjadpour, Iran policy analyst and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Morell and Sadjadpour review the effects of the spread of coronavirus within Iran, including the toll it has taken on senior leadership and the unrest it has generated among its populace. Sadjadpour also discusses Iran's behavior regionally and vis a vis the United States following the January killing of General Qassem Soleimani. He tells Morell why the virus outbreak may accelerate Iran's transition to a military dictatorship and why a change in U.S. policy may not prompt a different reaction from Tehran.  

"Intelligence Matters" has dedicated a series of episodes to understanding the fundamentals and national security implications of COVID-19.

Listen to this episode on ART19

Highlights: 

  • Potential of a military dictatorship: " I think one notable data point is the fact that the Supreme Leader, he was initially very skeptical of COVID-19; he said 'It's not that big of a deal.' And then when so many top officials in Iran contracted it, he came out and essentially alleged this was a conspiracy theory. This was a biological weapon ostensibly launched by the United States to weaken Iran, to weaken China. And by calling it a biological weapon, he gave himself the pretext to appoint a Revolutionary Guard commander rather than a physician to lead the task force against COVID-19. So my sense is that what's happening, at least in the near term, is not that this virus is bringing down the Islamic Republic, but is accelerating Iran's transition to military dictatorship."
  • Effects of Soleimani's killing: "On one hand, you could argue that we haven't seen Iran's regional ambitions -- and its hostility towards the United States -- certainly haven't diminished since Soleimani was killed. You could argue that they are less effective than they were. And one example of that is that the candidate they were trying to push for the premiership, the position of Iraqi prime minister, they didn't manage. And so, it seems that in the region, if you talk to Iran's regional adversaries, they will say that Iran is less effective than it was in the Soleimani era."
  • Regime behavior: "[T]he reality is that for the Iranian government, the economic prosperity and well-being of its population has never been a primary or even secondary concern. They've always put the regional proxies and, you know, things like opposition to Israel, opposition to United States as as as one of the primary causes of the revolution. And so I think you will see people going hungry in Iran before you will see Iran ceasing to fund Lebanese Hezbollah, for example."

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INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – KARIM SADJADPOUR

MICHAEL MORELL:  Kareem, welcome back to Intelligence Matter. It is great to have you on the show again. 

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Thank you so much. I'm honored to be with you. Lots to discuss.

MICHAEL MORELL: So let's get right to it. First, Karim, Iran and coronavirus. How hard has COVID-19 hit Iran, both from a public health perspective and from an economic perspective? How has the government responded and how has all of that affected public attitudes toward the government? What's your sense?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Sure. Iran has been hit very hard from a public health perspective. The official figures are approximately 7,000 deaths and approximately 120,000 positive cases. So that would put Iran in the top 10 in both total COVID-19 cases and total deaths. But the unofficial figures are likely to be much, much higher. You know, Iran -- I'm looking at the top 10 countries in terms of total contractions. It's obviously the United States, Britain, Italy, Spain, France, Brazil, Belgium, Germany, you know these are all open societies where there's journalism, there's statisticians, there's open data. 

Iran is obviously none of those things. And so I think it's widely accepted the government has been trying to suppress the official numbers, which are quite a bit higher. And so from a public health perspective, Iran has been hit hard. And this happens at a time when oil prices have also collapsed. You know, obviously, oil prices, are Iran's number one source of revenue. And you add on to that incredibly onerous U.S. sanctions against Iran, which have really inhibited Iran's ability to export its oil. And then you add on to that all the money Iran is spending in the region to keep afloat its regional allies, whether that's Bashar Assad in Syria, Lebanese Hezbollah, Houthis in Yemen, Shiite militias in Iraq. And this has really been a perfect storm for Iran. 

And, you know, I have the last two months been back at home where I grew up in Michigan, helping out my parents. And for that reason, I've been in touch with family in Iran, and extended family in Iran in a way I hadn't been for many years. And it's clear, talking to both family and friends and just reading, you know, the social media on Iran, that there's enormous popular fatigue and anger and exasperation. But I don't think that that's translating into any type of political agitations. People are just really tired. They're scared. They're fatigued. They're fed up. But there's no signs that that's manifesting itself, at least for now, into popular protests against the government.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Karim, most public health experts expect COVID-19 to be with us for quite some time, 18 to 24 months. And I'm just wondering what what's your sense in terms of if that's true in Iran -- They have a presidential election, I think, in mid 2021. So could we eventually see this public frustration play out politically? Do you think or not?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: You know, it's possible. There have been so many protests in Iran over the years, and they've all, most all of them, come very unexpectedly out of the blue. They're oftentimes, you know, they're triggered by an economic event. You know, a rise in living costs, inflation. And then, you know, the political unrest follows. 

But I would say in terms of -- what at least I'm paying attention to in Iran, number one is the health of the Supreme Leader. And we've been saying this for a long time, as you know, Michael, as long as I've been following you around the last two decades, people have been saying that the Supreme Leader is on his deathbed. And he's proven -- Ayatollah Khamenei has proven to be quite resilient to the point that he's one of the longest serving autocrats in the world right now. He's certainly the longest serving autocrat in the Middle East. He's been Supreme Leader since 1989. 

But he's now 80 years old. And many of the top political leadership in Iran have contracted COVID-19. And so, you know, he's in a very tough spot because he's already surrounded by a very small coterie of advisors. You know, he's an incredibly suspicious guy, doesn't trust a lot of people. And so if he contracts COVID-19 age at age 80, you know, that could be very detrimental to his health. 

The other thing I'm watching in Iran is that  -- in my opinion, the way this virus is having an impact on Iranian politics, it's not that it's leading to, at the moment at least, you know, popular uprisings that could bring down the Islamic Republic. I think what it's doing is it's accelerating a transition, which already started happening a decade ago, which is Iran's transition from essentially a clerical dictatorship to a military dictatorship. You're seeing that the Revolutionary Guards are much, much more overt control of the country than they were before. 

And I think one notable data point is the fact that the Supreme Leader, he was initially very skeptical of COVID-19;  he said 'It's not that big of a deal.' And then when so many top officials in Iran contracted it, he came out and essentially alleged this was a conspiracy theory. This was a biological weapon ostensibly launched by the United States to weaken Iran, to weaken China. And by calling it a biological weapon, he gave himself the pretext to appoint a Revolutionary Guard commander rather than a physician to lead the task force against COVID-19. So my sense is that what's happening, at least in the near term, is not that this virus is bringing down the Islamic Republic, but is accelerating Iran's transition to military dictatorship.

MICHAEL MORELL: Karim, can you describe how Iranian policy in the region has evolved since the killing of Qassem Suleimani? Did that deter the Iranians in any way, particularly in Iraq, or not? What's your sense?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: To be honest, Michael, I still think it's a bit early to to to say.
I mean, Qassem Suleimani -- It seems like he was killed many years ago now, but it was just a few months ago in January of 2020. And, you know, early on, Iran, we saw them retaliate. They launched missile strikes against an Iraqi base where U.S. troops are located.

And they injured hundreds of troops, causing brain injuries, brain trauma to many dozens of them. And they they followed up on several occasions doing that. So, on one hand, Iran's aggression, its agitations against the United States in the region in some ways increased after the after the killing of Soleimani. They didn't decrease. 

You know, at the same time, I think that Qassem Soleimani was a larger than life figure for the Iranian government. He, for the last two decades, had essentially been the tip of Iran's spear in the Middle East, whether that was in Lebanon and Syria, in the Palestinian territories and Yemen and Iraq. And so his shoes are very difficult for the regime to fill. His his successor, a guy called Esmail Ghaani, doesn't have that same charisma, doesn't have the same respect among Iran's regional proxies that Soleimani had, doesn't have the same level of charisma. 

And so I think that on one hand, you could argue that we haven't seen Iran's regional ambitions and its hostility towards the United States certainly haven't diminished since Soleimani was killed. You could argue that they are less effective than they were. And one example of that is that the candidate they were trying to push for the premiership, the position of Iraqi prime minister, they didn't manage. And so, you know, it seems that in the region, if you talk to Iran's regional adversaries, they will say that Iran is less effective than it was in the Soleimani era.

MICHAEL MORELL:  So, Karim, do you have any sense for how the Iranians are trying to work with their proxies in the region? Soleimani obviously took the lead on that, he's no longer there. Any sense of how they're trying to do that? Is Ghaani himself trying to do it? Are they trying to do it in other ways? Have they lost some control over the proxies? And is there a danger associated with that? How do you how do you think about that set of questions?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I haven't seen any examples of Iran losing control over its proxies. I think the essential model that they're working from is the Lebanese Hezbollah model. And Lebanese Hezbollah has been Iran's most successful creation since the 1979 revolution. And I think they're essentially what Iran is trying to do in the region is to franchise the Hezbollah model in different countries, whether that's Shiite militias in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen. 

They've even been effective, Iran has been effective at recruiting Pakistani and Afghan Shia militiamen to go and fight in Syria on behalf of Bashar Assad. And so the model that Iran has sought to emulate is the Hezbollah model. But that model is you know, it's more and more difficult for Iran to pursue that model, given Iran's incredibly difficult economic circumstances. You oftentimes see in popular protests in Iran -- one of the slogans of the protesters. People say, 'Forget about Palestine. Think about us. Forget about Syria. Think about us.' There's been a domestic backlash to Iran's regional activities and, in the region, Iran also has paid an enormous cost because of its regional policies.

You know, there was a time, I'm sure you remember this Michael when you were in government, when the Islamic Republic of Iran was quite popular, including in the Sunni Arab world. You know, people admired Iran, including Sunni and Christian Arabs, admired Iran for standing up to Israel, for standing up to the United States. But if you look at opinion polling now, Iran is incredibly unpopular in the Sunni Arab world -- even the Palestinians who, Iran has spent billions of dollars on the Palestinian cause over the last several decades -- Iran is very unpopular among Palestinian populations, when you look at polling figures.
You know, Iran is a predominantly Shiite Persian country in a region which is predominantly Sunni Arab. And so I would say that the sectarian polarization that we've been seeing in the Middle East over the last several years -- it hasn't been broadly beneficial to Iran because, again, the Shiites, Persians are a minority in this region. 

And the final thing I'd say is that even in places in which Iran has a demographic advantage here, I'm talking about Lebanon and Iraq, places which have if not majority, but a plurality of Shia, we've seen popular protests even in the Shia communities in Lebanon and Iraq against Iran's role in their country. The Iranian consulate and in Najaf and Karbala in Iraq were burned down by protesters several months ago.
And so, you know, going back to what we started our conversation talking about, this has really been a convergence of crises for Iran. They're dealing with a pandemic. They're dealing with a collapse in oil prices. They're dealing with enormous economic sanctions. And then they're dealing with crises throughout the region and in drawing opposition to to their role in the region.

MICHAEL MORELL: Karim, do you think -- maybe this is an unfair question given there's not a lot of time yet -- but do you think COVID-19 has affected Iranian foreign policy to any significant degree?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I think it's too early to tell. You would think that on one hand, given that the country is experiencing this national health crisis, which has obviously been very costly to every country, that they would have less bandwidth to continue their regional adventurism. But I don't think we've seen real signs of that so far. And, you know, one of the arguments which is commonly made, which is true, is that, you know, Iran's military budget isn't nearly the military budget of some of America's regional allies, like Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, who spend a lot of money on very costly high tech airplanes and and submarines and missiles.

Whereas, you know, Iran's form of asymmetric warfare has been much cheaper to operate. You know, I think that's probably true, although there's so much we don't know about Iranian military spending and the covert funding that go to groups like Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. But the reality is that for the Iranian government, the economic prosperity and well-being of its population has never been a primary or even secondary concern. They've always put the regional proxies and, you know, things like opposition to Israel, opposition to United States as as as one of the primary causes of the revolution. And so I think you will see people going hungry in Iran before you will see Iran ceasing to fund Lebanese Hezbollah, for example.

MICHAEL MORELL: So I guess on the COVID front, there's a possibility that the Iranians could look at the U.S. being inwardly focused and perceive an opportunity. Or at the same time, see the president in some political trouble as a result of COVID here and be somewhat fearful that he might want to pick a fight with them, right, leading up to the election, have you sensed any of that kind of thinking on the part of the Iranians at all?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I think we've certainly seen signs of the former, which is that early on when the world and obviously the United States was consumed in the early days of the pandemic, Iran did launch -- Iran's proxies in Iraq, launched a military attack against U.S. forces in Iraq, which I believe had one or two casualties, if I'm not mistaken, I think, two U.S. citizens and a British citizen were killed as a result. So you have seen signs that Iran is testing the resolve of the United States. There've been incidents of Iranian ships continuing to harass US ships in the Persian Gulf. 

But at the same time, I think that this president, President Trump, has proven to be incredibly erratic. On one hand, he's made clear in the past his desire to have a dialogue and a summit with Iran, and at the same time, he he killed Qassem Soleimani, he killed Iran's top military commander. So I think that the Iranian regime is mindful of the fact that President Trump is incredibly unpredictable. 

And I think the goal, the longstanding goal of Iran's Supreme Leader vis a vis the United States has been neither peace nor war, neither outright confrontation nor conciliation. And I suspect that the Iranian regime is just going to try to hunker down and hold tight until November 2020 and and hope that a Biden administration comes to office, which will be more inclined to to go back to the JCPOA, which would effectively remove very burdensome sanctions on Iran.

MICHAEL MORELL: Have you seen, Karim, speaking of our election, have you seen any Iranian attempts to influence our election the way the Russians did in 2016?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Absolutely so, you know, social media, cyber warfare and social media bots, and propaganda is a very cheap game these days. I have a friend who works on these issues closely and he said that the the phishing operation which hacked John Podesta's email and the DNC's e-mail, that could have been done by a teenager, it was a very unsophisticated operation. And so you can have an enormous impact using cyber warfare at a very, very low cost. And so Iran is not a first tier cyber power like the United States, Russia and China. It's probably not even a second tier power, but it's a third tier power. And it has invested a lot in this over the years. And you see a lot of signs of this on Facebook and Twitter or fake groups being created, like the Russian efforts.

It's not necessarily advocating for a particular candidate. It's just trying to sow popular unrest and discord among Americans. You may even be publicly advocating for two polar opposite groups, which are fighting one another online. But it's absolutely true that Iran has followed the Russian lead, what Russia did in 2016. And they're trying to to to meddle in our elections the same way they feel like United States has been meddling in Iranian internal politics over the years.

MICHAEL MORELL: Karim, how do you how do you think the Iranians perceive U.S. policy? And is there any difference in Tehran on how folks think about what the U.S. is doing vis a vis Iran?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, I think that the longstanding view of the Supreme Leader is that America's official policy towards Iran, whether they say it or not, is regime change. They don't want to see the Islamic Republic in power. The United States never got over the fall of the Shah of Iran  in 1979, who was America's great regional ally. And they've never come to accept the Islamic Republic. And so whether or not the United States says it, the real policy is regime change. 

And the Supreme Leader used to always say that it doesn't really make any difference who's in charge in Washington because the policy always is the same. Now, I think Donald Trump is probably disproving that worldview for a lot of Iranian officials, they saw there was actually a very notable difference between the policies of Barack Obama toward Iran and the policies of Donald Trump toward Iran. But I think, Michael, this is a point which is I think not well understood even in the United States: In my opinion, whether you have a U.S. president like President Obama, who was very supportive of engagement with Iran -- I think if it were up to Secretary of State John Kerry, he would have loved to normalize relations with Iran and open up a U.S. embassy in Tehran and an Iranian embassy in Washington -- Whether you have an administration like that in Washington or you have an administration in Washington which is totally hostile to Iran the disposition of the Iranian government towards the United States is not really going to change because this is a regime whose identity is really premised on opposition towards the United States.

I would say there's kind of three pillars left of the 1979 revolution. You have the official slogan, 'Death to America.' 'Death to Israel' is the second pillar, and the third pillar is the veil, the mandatory veil hijab for women, which symbolizes Islamic piety of the Islamic Republic.

And so the Supreme Leader -- actually, once the former president of Iran, Mohammed Khatami, once told me in a private meeting about 10 years ago or more in  Oslo, President Khatami said -- he was giving a private speech and he said there are those in both capitals, both Washington and Tehran, who don't want to restore relations because it's not in their personal interest to do so. And after his talk, I asked Khatami about that specific point, I said, 'President Khatami, who were you referring to in Tehran, when you say it's not in their interest to restore relations?

And I was quite surprised that he admitted to me privately, said, 'You know, when I was president, the leader used to tell me that we need enmity with the United States. The revolution needs enmity with the United States.'

And so, you know, I think this is true about a lot of autocratic leaders around the world, including people like Fidel Castro, the late Fidel Castro, Kim Jong Un. They kind of understand that their role is much easier to preserve in a closed, isolated environment, in which they have this external adversary, which they can use for propaganda purposes and also as a pretext to to continue their repression. And Ayatollah Khamenei is 80 years old, he's been espousing this worldview for four decades, so he's not going to change. And that's why I said to you early on, I'm not optimistic about real change, any type of change, meaningful change in U.S. Iran relations, as long as he Ayatollah Khamenei remains at the helm in Iran.

MICHAEL MORELL:  Karim, can you walk us through what is going on at the U.N. right now with regard to Iran, Iranian missiles and the nuclear deal? There's a lot of moving parts. 

KARIM SADJADPOUR: So essentially, the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the official name of the Iran nuclear deal that was signed in 2015.
And there were various parts to that agreement. And one of them was an arms embargo, weapons embargo, which inhibits Iran's ability to buy and to import sophisticated military hardware, including missiles from different parts of the world.

And the Trump administration, even though they withdrew from the deal, they now want to claim that, you know, they can snap back sanctions against Iran for violating these weapons embargoes. And some of these embargoes are set to expire. And so there is a real concern, especially in places like Israel and Saudi Arabia, that with the expiration of some of these arms embargoes that Iran is going to be able to import sophisticated military hardware, which either it can use itself or it can proliferate to its regional allies. And countries that are signatories and remain signatories to the nuclear deal like China and Russia said that they will veto U.S. attempts to snap back sanctions against Iran.

And so, this is one of the issues which is is hotly debated right now. And I think that the accusation against the Trump administration is that they're trying to have their cake and eat it, too. On one hand, they pulled out of the nuclear deal and they slapped new sanctions against Iran, even though Iran wasn't in violation of the agreement. And now they're trying to invoke the JCPOA to deprive Iran from from from importing and purchasing sophisticated military hardware.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Karim, I love listening to you talk. And what you've said today really takes me to two kind of really big questions. I wasn't actually planning on asking these questions, but you sort of brought me here. 

The first is, if I took what you said earlier correctly, bringing change to Iran, in particular, the kind of change that we're looking for -- better behavior in the region, no pursuit of nuclear weapons, that sort of thing -- you made it sound like that's gonna be extraordinarily difficult to do. So given that, what approach would you recommend to a president that he or she take?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: You know, I really think that the best template for dealing with Iran is is following the Ronald Reagan template vis a vis the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

And I certainly don't want to elevate Iran to being a global superpower. Iran is not a superpower. It's not a rival of the United States. It's a it's a regional power. But the policies, which I think Reagan effectively used against the USSR can be instructive in dealing with Iran. What I mean by that is that Ronald Reagan didn't shy away from from calling out the malign nature of the Soviet regime.

He voiced solidarity with Russian civil society, with Russian dissidents. He called them the evil empire. So  he didn't try to downplay the hostility of the USSR and the repression of the USSR. But at the same time, he was very willing to engage USSR leadership and arms control talks -- multiple arms control talks. 
And so, I think it was very effective because essentially, when you look at the collapse of authoritarian regimes throughout history, I think there's usually a couple key ingredients. Obviously, number one, you do need pressure from below. But I think even more importantly than not you need divisions from above. You need divisions at the top. And I think that in our Iran policy, we have never really come up with a policy which does both of those things -- which on one hand, it is not shy about exposing the Iranian regime for what it is. It's a highly repressive, corrupt system which does terrible things to its own people and has been a malign force in the region. 

But doing that, while also being open to dialogue and engagement and arms control deals with the Islamic Republic. And I think ultimately, you want to continue to expose to the Iranian people that the obstacle between them and a better future is not the United States and U.S. sanctions. It's their own leadership. 
But we also have to be very humble and saying that and knowing that the world in 2020 is a much different world than the world of 1953, where a couple years of an American embargo could actually bring down a country, or you could carry out coups which could bring bring down political leaders who didn't like. The timeline of change in Iran is incredibly unpredictable.

I think the last time we spoke, Michael, I told you about this North African philosopher I admire called Ibn Khaldun who lived in the 14th century. And he had come up with this theory, which is nowadays in modern times called the power cycle theory, in which he said that empires are built and destroyed over three generations. The first generation builds it. The second generation preserves it. And third generation loses it. And, you know, the Soviet Union essentially lasted three generations and the Islamic Republic is really entering its second generation of leaders.

So I think that, in my opinion, going back to your question about what is a sound policy, I think this is a regime which we can effectively contain. It's really a virtually friendless government. Its only longtime friend has been the Assad regime in Syria. Otherwise, it's incredibly isolated, its economy is totally ravaged and it's incredibly unpopular with its own people. And so I think we shouldn't be shy about calling out the malign nature of the Iranian government.

I disagree with my friends on the left who think if only we're nice to Iran, they will reciprocate and their regional and domestic behavior will change. I don't think there's any signs of that.
But I think we can also walk and chew gum at the same time, which means, you know, we can we can talk to Iran about the nuclear program and maybe even sign a follow up to the JCPOA while also countering what Iran has been doing in places like Syria and Iraq and Yemen and elsewhere. 

The final thing I'll say on this is that, another tenet of US foreign policy towards the Soviet Union which was so effective was our alliances, especially with European countries, you know, a common alliance against the Soviet Union, against communism. And I think that's one thing which has really been lacking in the Trump administration, has been, either the abandonment of our allies like the Kurds or kind of the denigration of the whole concept of having alliances. And I think our our allies, whether our regional allies or Europeans or Asian allies, are going to be very important in helping to counter the malign influence of the Islamic Republic.

MICHAEL MORELL: Karim it is always great to talk to you. Thank you for joining us on the show. And we hope to get you back someday. 

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Thank you. It's my great pleasure. Thank you, Michael.

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