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Tonight's program feature Karim Sadjadpour, the International Crisis Group's Iran analyst based in Tehran and Washington D.C.. The International Crisis Group is a Washington based think tank specializing in conflict resolution. Through his work in the International Crisis Group, Karim has written widely on the Iranian state in society, Iran's nuclear program, Iran-Arab relations and U.S.- Iranian relations. Over the past three years, he has conducted dozens of interviews with senior Iranian, American and European officials as well as many months of interviews with Iranian clerics, intellectuals, dissidents, businessmen, students, activists and young, among others. Mr. Sadjadpour is a regular contributor to BBC World, CNN, National Public Radio, the PBS News Hour and has also written in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, New Republic and others. He has been invited to testify before congressional hearings as well as the Senate foreign relations committee. Mr. Sadjadpour earned his degrees from the University of Michigan and the John Hopkins School of Advance International Studies and was a visiting fellow at the American University in Beirut. Please join me in welcoming Karim Sadjadpour. Thank you very much. Its a great privilege to be here. Its a great privilege to be in San Francisco. I usually have to give all my talks in Washington, which gets boring after a while, so I'm very happy to be here with you. First, I thought I would give a brief introduction to International Crisis Group and the type of work we do. I often times describe it as a combination of being, its kind of a cross between being a journalist and being an academic. Because on one hand, we're based in the field. We have analysts in all areas of conflict, all zones of conflict, we have people in Iraq and Palestine, Colombia, Indonesia, East Timor, I'm the Iran person. But as opposed to journalist who are writing, say 800 word pieces or 1,000 word pieces in newspaper article, our reports are far more, much longer, more in depth, more analytical. So its a combination of these two. I've been based in Tehran, I flew to Tehran shortly after I finished graduate school in May of 2003 and I spent about half of the last three years there. I've spent the last three years, essentially in Tehran, Beirut and Washington. So if you want to talk about Lebanon, Lebanon is also going up in flames right now, we can talk about elsewhere in the region. Um, the title of the talk is Iran Confrontation: Our Conversation with the United States. And I thought what I would at the beginning is talk a little bit about U.S.-Iran relations, about U.S. policy, but I would like to focus the bulk of the talk about what's going on in Iran internally, because I think, United States has not had an embassy in Iran in the last twenty-seven years. We have not had a diplomat serving there. Its a very difficult country to get access to, so I though what I would do is focus on, you know the move down that the Iranian street, what is the average Iranian thinking about things and then hopefully in the question session, we can go back to talking about policy implications. To give you the perspective from Washington., often times when you talk to U.S. officials, they invoke this paradigm of two ticking clocks when it comes to Iran. They say there is the regime change clock and there is the nuclear clock. Meaning theres a, essentially what they're saying is that both of these things are on the way, both the regime and Iran, the perception is on the verge of changing, but at the same time, this particular regime has ambitions to acquire a nuclear weapon. The goal in Washington as they express it is to make sure that this regime change clock ticks faster than the nuclear clock, so the day when Iran does indeed acqurie a nuclear weapon, it will be under a more democratic-friendly regime. Now I think the fundamental dilemma with this policy, is that when you try to speed up the regime change clock, you send the message to Tehran that the United States in indeed after regime change, and therefore you need to acquire nuclear deterrent. So this is the fundamental dilemma the last three or four years is that when the United States has tried to show to Tehran that we're not interested in keeping you around and having you around, Iran says, in fact we need to pursue this nuclear deterrent. So this has been this conundrum that we're in. Now there's also a dilemma in Tehran and that is that the leadership in Tehran as I said, they believe that this nuclear issue is not about the nuclear issue. They believe that this nuclear issue is a pretext for a regime change approach and if we want to get inside the head of the person leading Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, or get inside of his turban if you will, I think his perception is that if we compromise on this nuclear issue, this is not going to get us out of trouble, this is going to be perceived as a sign of weakness in Washington and this is going to invite even further pressure. So what we need to do is stand tight on our line and hold tight on our line now, especially when oil prices are soaring, there's chaos in Iraq, we need to set a precedent from the beginning that we not going to compromise our own rights. So what we've had up until now has been a game of chicken in essentially. Some people have described this as a sophisticated game of chess. I think its really a game of chicken, where you have two cars moving at each other with increasing velocity and the dilemma has been that neither side has believed that it behooves them to either slow down or to get out of the way, as I mentioned, Iran believes that if it slows down, its going to be displaying weakness and the Untied States wants to speed it up, so this has been the major concern over the last twelve months or so. Now, last six weeks or so, I think it was in early June, United States expressed a very significant policy shift and that is after twenty six years, twenty seven years of saying, we're not going to talk to Iran, by talking to Iran is conferring the legitimacy on this regime, um, they reached a conclusion that given the options at hand, we have to somehow join these negotiations and they're very much urged by the European partners to do so. Now, I think the perception among Iran analysts and the perception in Tehran is unclear. Whether this announced policy shift in Washington was indeed a change of heart is the U.S. all of the sudden having an about face? After twenty years they want to talk to Iran, or was this simply a tactical move that you feign an interest in diplomacy, but with preconditions, this precondition of suspending the uranium enrichment, which we can talk about. Again you impose these preconditions which you know Iran is going to reject, so then you can say, we'll we tried diplomacy, didn't work, now lets escalate. This is the concern right now. And I think there was a fundamental understanding at least in Washington, especially in people among the state department that if you do want the European allies to be on your side, that you three, not to mention Russia and China, you did have to show that you're interested and exhausting diplomatic possibilities before you really try the stick. Now, International Crisis Group, of course we're conflict prevention resolution organization, we've always advocated dialogue and engagement with Iran, but I think that even this is not a no brainer anymore and there is a fundamental dilemma which exits and that is that during the era of Iran's previous President, Mohammed Khatami was talking about the dialog of civilizations, about improving relations with the west, improving relations even with United States, with Iran's Arab neighbors... during this time he was very much attacked by conservatives in Iran who said, you know what you're doing is projecting a very weak image of the country and you need to project and uncompromising approach, this is what the west responds to, etc and Iran if you remember in 2002 in President Bush's State of the Union Address, was put inside this axis of evil, along with North Korea and Iraq. And Iranian conservatives were furious with these reformists that all you've done is projected a weak image of the country. Now all of the sudden, you have this president in Tehran who's talking about wiping Israel off the map, questioning the validity of the holocaust and all of the sudden there's been about, there's a bad face in Washington. The U.S. all the sudden has announced the policy shift after twenty seven years, we want to finally talk to Iran. So there is this dilemma that you know, again we try to get inside of the head of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, he says, well, when we talked about dialog of civilizations we got axis of evil, and now we're talking about wiping Israel off the map and holocaust, now, all of the sudden, Americans want to talk to us. And I think there is a concern that the message that's being reached in Tehran is that a belligerent foreign policy indeeds reaps rewards when you try to project compromising approach, you get the back of the hand, but you project a belligerent approach and the response is more positive. Of course this has to do with the soaring prices of oil and the chaos in Iraq and, but there is a concern that at the moment, Tehran is understanding the wrong message. Now I think I will stop there talking about policy in US-Iran relations, because I think in order to formulate a coherent policy and effective policy, you have to understand what's going on within Iran internally and I think this has been one thing that's missing as I said, from lack of not having had an embassy in Tehran the last twenty seven years. So I just wanted to make five broad observations about the Iranian street and Iranian society, which I've gleaned over the last few years and some of them have implicit policy recommendations, others of them are just observations that I've found important. And then we can talk about the policy recommendations I have after this. Um, the first point, which I think is the most obvious for anyone who has traveled to Iran, but is not as obvious for those of us that have not traveled there, and that is that the number one priority for the ordinary people is economic improvement. I think, as I said, anyone who goes to Tehran, or spends a few days in Iran, quickly reaches this conclusion, you survey a hundred Iranians at random, ask them whats the biggest problem in their life, I will guarantee you, that over ninety of them will say lack of economic dignity and this is not to say that lack of democracy, lack of human rights are not issues, but they're not first their issues, they're second or third tier issues. What's very interesting about Tehran is that when we look at it from afar, as I said, it looks like its doing quite well economically. The regime right now is making about two hundred million dollars a day in oil revenue because of the soaring prices of oil. But anecdotally, this doesn't translate. I mean you go and you engage Iranians. I always think that when I, I'm in the U.S. and I spend a few months here and I'm reading from afar how well the Iranian economy is doing and then I travel to Tehran and elsewhere around the country and talk to people, I always think they're going to say, well theres been improvement, and its very interesting that people are saying that its getting even worst and I think that a lot of this has to do with simple demographic realities. In 1979 when the revolution happened, Ayatollah Khamani, employed people to go out and have many children to produce this robust Islamic society and now these children of the revolution need to be fed, they need to be employed, they need to be, they need to have jobs and you know, two thirds of the country under thirty, the regime is having lots of difficulty taking care of this young generation of Iranians. And you know. When I was a graduate student, I was a student of Arab reform, Middle East reform, political culture, etc. so this was something that I felt very dear to my heart and as someone who has Iranian origins, also something I hold very dear to my heart, the prospect of reform in Iran and I remember the first week after I finish graduate school flying to Tehran and traveling to the south of the, south of the city, to south Tehran and engaging laborers and blue collared workers about prospects for political reform, etc. And very early on, one mechanic cut me off and he said "listen, when your stomach is empty, you don't cry for democracy, you cry for bread." This is a political luxury for us. Its a luxury to wage political protests in many ways, "I'm living hand to mouth having to support a family of four, I can't afford to go out into the streets and wage political protests and potentially get into prison." So this was a lesson very early on for me, that again, when your stomach is empty, your primary goal is bread not democracy. Not to say that there's not a correlation between the two, but I think this is something we need to take into account when we think about U.S. policy and democratization in the Middle East. And this is, this is the reason why Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected. I think we need to be clear about this that he ran a campaign of economic populism of putting the oil money on people's dinner tables, he was not elected to wipe Israel off the map, or to pursue an aggressive nuclear program. And we can talk about this as well. The second issue I wanted to bring up, which I think was, has often been covered incorrectly in the western media and the Iranian media, is the the popular perceptions vis-a-vie this nuclear issue. Its often times, I've seen many headlines in major newspapers that all Iranians are united behind this project, all Iranians feel very strongly about this project and I would argue that Iranian public opinion is not monolithic, you do have some people, this is a very old culture, very old society, who feel very nationalistic about this issue and they say, well you know India, Pakistan, Israel can have this project, why this western double standard. But at the same time you have, a lot of people are very concerned or quite ambivalent about this nuclear project and the direction in which the country is headed. We often times forget that this is a country which experienced the bloodiest war of the second half of the twentieth century with Iraq. There was half a million casualties and really, not one Iranian family was left unscathed by this war. So people don't romanticize about the prospect of conflict, about the prospect of militarization. So on one hand, people may be a source of national pride for some, but plenty of others say, you know we're very concerned about the direction in which the country is headed and quite frankly this is very technical issue, reactive enriching uranium indigenously as opposed to importing enriched uranium from abroad. So the idea that the average Iranian waking up in the morning in Tehran or (unidentified) says, formally, we could enrich uranium, our lives would be so much better off, has also been a bit exaggerated. I was talking earlier to a group of students and I said that one of the problems in the way that this question has been addressed to Iranians, is its been addressed as a, as essentially a free deal. You want to have a nuclear energy program, sure why not, its like asking people do you want a free car. But you pose to them choices, or you pose to them cars and their calculus is a bit different. One thing I've always done was, there was a period of a few weeks where I sat down and I did the math and Iran has spent approximately 14 billion dollars on this nuclear program, well that's the equivalent of inviting the average Iranian family, once a week for kabob for an entire year. And i went around and asked people, everyone I came across, I engaged, would you rather have this nuclear program or a guest of the government once a week for an entire year? And the vast majority of people said kabob. It was something tangible, it was something they could experience, on gentlemen asked me if that included rice, it was not part of this calculus, but again, when you pose it to them as options, the response you get is somewhat different. And this is what I would say to American and European officials that, if there are two clear paths that are presented to the Iranian people. A) pursue this nuclear issue, this nuclear project, unequivocally, come with me, sanctions, isolation, potential military conflict or B) make certain nuclear compromises and reenter the international community. As I said, the vast majority of Iranians, two thirds of whom are under thirty, I would argue, would pursue the second option, but these options need to be presented quite starkly and I think they still have not. Third observation has to do with the Iranian street and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and this is something that we've all heard about the last year. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling for Israel to be wiped of the map and questioning the validity of the holocaust and a lot of the analysis that you read about this is what he's pandering to the Iranian street to the constituents, this is popular in the Iranian street, and I would argue that's not correct actually, that Iranian street feels much differently about this conflict than the Arab street. We have to remember that Iranians are not Arabs, there is not an inherent enmity toward Israel. Iran still has the largest Jewish population in the entire Middle East outside of Israel, still 25,000. And for many people there's been a back lash towards the Palestinian issue. Its not to say that its something that they could care less about, but they say well, you know, why are we sacrificing our national interest for the sake of the Palestinian cause, for twenty six years now we always hear about Palestinian suffering and Israeli cruelty, where there is plenty of cruelty and suffering taking place at home, so why don't we focus more on this. Remember the 2003 student protest which I attended. One of the chance of this pro democracy students was forget about what the Palestinians think about us. This was in Persian, it was a rhyme. I've been to earthquake sites before where earthquake victims say to me, had this earthquake occurred in Gaza, or south Lebanon, the government would have been much quicker in reacting than to our own people. So you know, we should take this with a grain of salt, we can talk about why he made these comments about Israel. I think he had maybe some strategic focus in mind. But I would argue that this is not the way you win popularity on Iranian street, by berating Israel. The forth issue, and this is something which is much more difficult to ascertain from abroad. It takes awhile to spend in Iran to, when I kind of understood this aspect of Iranian culture, but that is that Iranian's don't feel that they control their own destiny. What do I mean by that? To this day, Iranians political culture remains incredibly conspiratorial. You ask the average Iranian, you ask the average person, you engage the average person about politics and I think, its not in our hands. The CIA is controlling things, especially the British, I think the British are controlling things and you know what happens is this, this conspiracy culture breeds apathy in some ways because if you feel like you don't control your own destiny, its in the hands of the British, or its in the hands of the CIA or the major powers then you kind of absolve yourself from responsibilities, oh its not in our hands anyway. And what took place, the failure of this reform movement Mahmoud Khatami's reform movement to really, to really provide change, I think furthered the sense of helplessness. Because what took place in 1997, Iranians went to the polls in mass. The turn out rates were Scandinavian levels, around 80% turn out, to elect Mahmoud Khatami and they really thought change was going to happen. There was great hope for change. After three years they said, well its not happening, but we have to be patient. So they went out and overwhelmingly elected a reform minded parliament in 2000. The president and the parliament combined still were not able to invoke much change and they went and reelected Khatami again, very high levels in 2001. I think there was 75% turnout, he was elected with an 80% mandate. Again, very little luck in affecting change. And I think many young people now have simply reached the conclusion of one young person told me this, that worrying about politics in Iran is as futile as worrying about the weather. He said we may not like it, but we're not going to change it. And this is the sense right now that people have and its very difficult right now to know how you go about changing this. But I think there needs to be some type of tangible results for them to reacquiring this hope in changing the system via the ballot box. The fifth observation is also something thats a bit difficult to discern from abroad, but when you go to Iran, you spend time there, I think it becomes more obvious and this is my own personal opinion, which maybe other Iran analysts disagree with, but I don't believe in abrupt sudden upheaval would be change for the better. I believe that we should not romanticize about the prospect of some abrupt revolution and this (unidentified) regime being replaced by some secular democrats and there is a lot of talk about colored revolutions and Ukraine and former Soviet Union, or what we saw in Eastern Europe in late '80's, velvet revolutions. But I don't know how plausible this is in Iran. I would continue to argue that the vast majority of Iranians want to see some major change, major economic, social political change, but I would also argue at the same time that there is very few coherent ideas as to how they want this change to take place. There's one constant when you talk to people and you say well, you want to change the system, but how? There is one constant you hear and that they say in Farsi (unidentified), it means, without blood shed. But you know after this experiencing this revolution and this upheaval in 1979 and eight years of war with Iraq, we don't want to see chaos or upheaval and I think this aversion towards conflict and chaos has really been heightened after the tumultuous in Iraq, because I was in Iran after the removal of the Taliban 2001, 2002 and at that time people were romanticizing about the prospect of some type of twenty four hour regime change, if you will, has all sorts of romantic notions and remember they would ask me, when are the Americans going to come and rescue us. They were even romanticizing the prospect of U.S. intervention. Now, after three years of chaos and tumult in Iraq, I think people say to themselves, well, if we have to choose between the democracy in Iraq we see, or the authoritarians in Iran, we'll stick with what we have. So I think this has really dampened the prospect change in the short term. Another lesson that I personally learned from Iraq, which I tried to press upon U.S. officials is that we had a situation in Iraq where the Bathist army, Saddam Hussein's army, there was three hundred thousand men fighting in Saddam's army. After the U.S. invasion, occupation they Bathist army was disbanded. So all of the sudden you had three hundred thousand men, very few of whom actually had any affinity for Saddam Hussein, but his was their livelihood, that were without a job and without a sense that they were going to play any role in Iraq tomorrow and what we saw is that many of them go underground. And I've met actually, some of these former military people who became insurgents who are actually totally secular, joined forces in Sunni militant groups just, a) they were being provided some sense of employment and b) there was a sense that well, if we're not going to be apart of this country at least tomorrow, then we're going to fight this code that Americans want to impose and likewise in Iran, I think that when we think about the prospect of change, we have to think about two groups and that one is the (unidentified) which are a certain paramilitary group, kind of a morals police and we have two million young men you are on the (unidentified) payroll and then the revolutionary guys who are the country's most formidable military group 150,000 men and likewise within the (unidentified) I've encountered plenty of these young men who are not happy with the regime, they're not content. They'd like to see something change, but somehow invested in the continuation of this system that provided some type of a passive income and they're invested in the status quo, so I will say to anyone who wants to see change in Iran whether they're U.S. officials or Iranian exiles, or Iranian oppositionists, that any type of strategy for change in Iran has to take into account the (unidentified) and the revolutionary guys. You have to make them feel somehow that they're going to be part of Iran's tomorrow, not in the same role that they are playing now, but that they are not going to be alienated, otherwise these are the only two groups in the country which are both armed and organized and if they feel that they are not going to be part of the country's tomorrow then they will go underground and what we see in Iraq right now, could pale in comparison to what we could potentially see in Iran. There's a quote I always like to use from, from former U.S. diplomat called John Limbert, who was a great scholar of Iran he speaks Farsi fluently, his wife is Iranian and he was one of these people who believed like many did that the 1979 revolution or that when 1979 revolution happened that the (unidentified) regime would be replaced by a secular democracy and he wrote many years later in his memoirs that what, and he was held hostage actually in Iran for 444 days, he was one of the diplomats who was held hostage and he wrote in his memoirs that what he learned from this was that revolutions are not won by those who can write incisive op ed pieces. They are won by those, at that time he said those who are willing to, to trash opposition newspapers, to throw acid in peoples faces, there are these types of tactics that take to win to revolutions and likewise I believe in Iran the vast majority of the country, I would argue, are in favor of a more peaceful, tolerant, progressive democratic system, but I do fear, if we have a sudden upheaval, that its not going to be the secular democrats who are going to come to power. I know my time is short, I just wanted to end on an anecdote which I like very much because I know that my analysis was not so uplifting, but I am hopeful about the prospects for long term change in Iran and positive change in Iran. And this anecdote, I think, for me, is (unidentified) and I think it encapsulates the sentiments of many Iranians. And I was traveling, I was going from North Tehran, which is more middle class area of the city, to south Tehran, to interview an advisor to President Khatami, this was right before the elections last June. And I was in this taxi from the 1960's, (unidentified), which is the national car of Iran and the taxi driver had a sixth grade education, he had not more than a few teeth in his mouth and was cursing the regime. He was cursing the (unidentified), the leadership etc, complaining and after about forty minutes I said, Ok, I was sitting in the back seat, I said well, can I just prepare for my interview now, I'm sorry, if you can just be quiet the last twenty minutes of the ride. And he said sure, Mr., I won't bother you. So I was preparing a bit for my interview and then a few minutes before we got to our destination he again started out of the blue and he said, "Mr. Karim, do you like (unidentified)?" (Unidentified) is a type of melon in Iran. And he said, "do you like melon." And I said yeah, I like melon. Bout ten, fifteen seconds later he says, "how about honey, do you like honey too?" I said, "Yeah, I like honey too" and then he didn't say anything, and I said well that's a bit strange, the first forty minutes he's cursing the regime and then he asks me if I like melon and honey. And he said, "You know, Mr. Karim, never eat these two together. Melon and honey. Because if you do, it will create a stone in your stomach." This is one of those old, wives's tales, I think if you eat hot and cold together you get a stomach ache. I said, "Ok. I promise I will not have melon and honey together." And about thirty seconds later he said to me, "You know Mr. Karim. Religion is honey and politics is melon. When you have these two together... They're both good. Both religion good and politics is good, but what happens when you mix these two together, you ruin both the name of religion and you ruin politics." And I thought what was wonderful about this, was that, this was coming from a former revolutionary. Some one who did not have more than a sixth grade education and this was an intellectual evolution that he had reached on his own. It was a painful process, but it was an intellectual evolution from the grass roots, from below and you find many people in Iran that have reached this conclusion. This is in a time in the Arab world and elsewhere where there's great romanticism about the prospect of Islam, its politics etc. So this is why I am hopeful about the prospect of a long term change in Iran, because I think people learned a very painful, but important lesson from this revolution twenty six years ago. But how and when this change is going to take place is very unclear. So I end on that. Thank you.