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Inflection in Iran’s Politics and Geopolitics

IRAN-POLITICS-ELECTION
Vehicles move past a billboard displaying the faces of the six candidates running in the upcoming Iranian presidential election in the Iranian capital Tehran on June 16, 2024. (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)

In this episode of the Eurasian Connectivity podcast, Kamran Bokhari sits down with Vali Nasr, professor of International Affairs and Middle East Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies. Together, they discuss Iran’s presidential race after Raisi’s death, the future of Iran’s Supreme Leadership, and the shifting geopolitical landscape between Iran and Israel.

Kamran Bokhari:

Hello, everyone. This is Kamran Bokhari from The New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy with a new episode of Eurasian Connectivity. Today my guest is Professor Vali Nasr. He needs no introduction, but nonetheless it’s customary to introduce our guests. He is the Majid Khadduri Professor of International Affairs and Middle East Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and he’s also a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council of South Asia Center. He has served as the eighth dean of SICE between 2012 and 2019, and previously he was a senior advisor to US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke between 2009 and 2011. And today we will be discussing the politics and the geopolitics of Iran and I couldn’t think of anybody better than Vali. Thank you. Vali, welcome to the show.

Vali Nasr:

Thank you very much Kamran, and thank you for inviting me to the show.

Kamran Bokhari:

I appreciate it, that you have taken the time out. You are traveling, so I really appreciate you taking the time out while doing so. So let’s just dive right in. And I want to ask you about what do you make of the moment at hand? There is going to be a new president. And what do you make of the candidates list? What are you hearing about? It is very difficult, I understand, to make any prognostications about the outcome of elections, especially in Iran. But what are you seeing? Where is this going? Raisi is no longer, but who’s going to succeed him and what shall we expect from Iran?

Vali Nasr:

I think the very first thing that was interesting to watch was which of the hopefuls, people who signed up to running the elections, would actually be allowed to run, as the six people who have been picked was somewhat of a surprise. You do have people who want to step straight into Raisi’s shoes, in particular a former national security advisor and previous presidential candidate, Saeed Jalili, who is opposed to JCPOA, is a very dour, hard, dyed in the wood revolutionary, very hard line.

But the surprising two were a reformist candidate, Pezeshkian, who basically came out of nowhere. Nobody expected him to actually be approved to run. And he cuts for a very interesting figure. He is of Azeri background, so a Turkic speaker, was born in Tabriz, raised in Tabriz, but also speaks Kurdish and has connections to the Kurdish region. He’s a very clean person, known to be non-corrupt, he’s a surgeon, and he’s a very pious man. He is a tutor in the Quran. And for those who follow Shi’ism, he knows one of the most important texts of Shi’ism, the Nahj al-Balagha, which is the writings of the first Shia Imam by heart, and he’s an expert on it. So he does appeal, if you would, to reformists. He does appeal to the religious sector, and moderates and reformists actually are looking for him to make a good showing. He said that he would reappoint Foreign Minister Zarif as foreign minister and in fact on a television interview he had, he took Zarif with him as his foreign policy expert in that interview.

And the other very interesting figure is the former mayor of Tehran, the current speaker of Iranian Parliament, a Revolutionary Guard, previous candidate by the name of Qalibaf, who is a well-known character in Iran. And these two are expected essentially to raise the participation level in the election. As we know, the participation had sank very embarrassingly in the 2021 election when Raisi was elected, and then with the Parliamentary elections.

And I think the Islamic Republic, the Supreme Leader, I think all the powers that be, the deep state, if you would, in Iran wants the participation to go higher. It stabilizes the system. It gives a signal to the outside world that the Islamic Republic is not alienated from its people, that it has the backing of its people. But the higher the participation goes, the more there is a chance that the hardliners will not win, because they have a dedicated vote bank that votes regardless. But if other people begin voting, then their vote would matter less. Let’s say if the participation reaches around upper 50s and 60%, Pezeshkian could very well win. If it hovers around 50%, Qalibaf stands a very good chance to win. And we shall see.

The other question is whether it be the election will decided in the first round, then we’re going to have a runoff. If you have a runoff, then that has a whole different calculation in terms of how people will vote. You can have scenarios like 2009 or 1997 playing out. So in that sense, it’s interesting, although none of this has yet really ignited in a way to create excitement among those Iranians who basically have turned their back on the people who don’t see a sense in participating, et cetera. But as the first presidential debate happened, now we’re going to have to watch the other, I think four or five presidential debates. And on the 28th of June we will see.

But the elections are turning out to be more interesting than the last one, with more potentiality of a surprise than the last one. If Qalibaf becomes president, essentially their system will be readjusting. In terms of foreign policy, it will be more moderate. And in terms of domestic policy, Qalibaf, yes, he is charged of corruption, et cetera, against him, but he’s very competent and experienced manager. He was a very successful mayor of Tehran and he’s very capable with bureaucracy, et cetera. It’s definitely compared to the Raisi government. And if Pezeshkian becomes president, then we have a really bigger recalibration than that, because that is more like somebody who’s outside of the current purview of the power structure, would appeal to a broader cross section of the population and with potentiality for bigger change to actually the president.

Kamran Bokhari:

Thank you for setting the stage of what to expect on the domestic scene. So a followup on what you just said. So it’s very interesting that we know that the Guardian Council is the holder and keeper of who is able to run and who is not. And surely they did all the war gaming, and the math, and everything before they went ahead and approved the candidacy of both the mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and the reformist candidate, and especially the reformist candidate in the sense that they had to know that there is a good possibility that these guys could win. So what does that say about how the deep state, or the system itself, the establishment is looking at this and what does it say about how Iran is expected to move, especially after the past several years of a very hard line stance? So are we looking at another version of a Rouhani era emerging?

Vali Nasr:

I think that the points you raised are very interesting. Let me start by saying that there is no doubt that there is rethinking about what the last presidential election produced. If you’re the Supreme Leader or the elite in the state, you said, “Okay, in 2021, Raisi became president, then you had a very hard line Parliament.” With Raisi’s election, the entire system became uniformly hard line, conservative. Raisi purged, the bureaucracy purged universities, put ideological commitment above technocratic competence. And what was the result? The result was an incompetent government. It was policies that led to the protests over hijab in Iran. It was mishandling of that. And there was tremendous amount of disappointment with the competence and actual ability of Raisi to govern.

So foreign policy, ideology, everything aside, if you’re the Supreme Leader, first of all, you want a president who actually doesn’t make things worse, doesn’t alienate more people, doesn’t destabilize the country, doesn’t worsen an already bad economic situation. So I think looking at the potentiality of Pezeshkian and Qalibaf, I think there’s already an openness to basically moving back from the political bureaucratic alliance that Raisi brought to power. So there is some degree of recalibration in the works. And I think that’s probably the Supreme Leader’s first consideration.

Secondly, I think he wants the participation to go higher. The excitement that Pezeshkian’s candidacy, Qalibaf has created is with the hope that more people would vote that actually you don’t follow policies that is going to make the Islamic Republic more isolated from its people, its elections more meaningless. You want the opposite. That obviously risk the danger of having a reformist candidate take over. And let’s say, let’s look at Pezeshkian, it’s a very clever choice. He’s a very clean person. He is in many ways, very moderate, very reformist, but he’s also a religious man and he’s committed to the ideologies and religious views of the early revolution.

Many of the hardliners, even among these candidates who are running for president are hardliners, but they no longer are actually very exemplars of the morality of the early years of the revolution. For instance, the mayor of Tehran who’s a very hard line candidate, is accused of huge amount of corruption. Women criticize the fact that he has had multiple wives now, of divorcing, marrying somebody else, that money has disappeared from the coffers of the mayor’s office. And there is a certain cynicism towards these people who claim to be very ideologically right wing and very revolutionary, but in practice don’t represent any of the revolution’s values. Pezeshkian is the opposite. So I think the calculation is that even if Pezeshkian became president, then the system is willing to accept him. I don’t think the Supreme Leader wants a repeat of 2009, to have a candidate who might perform very well and then you have to steal the elections from him. That would only backfire under the system.

So if I were to read it now, I think the Supreme leader’s thinking that the highest priority is actually a president who can run the country, who can actually manage the economy. He believes Qalibaf is probably the best to do that and he believes that Pezeshkian can do it as well, and he was minister of health, et cetera, he’s been in the Parliament. And secondly, he wants basically to move the Islamic Republic back to where we would have greater popular support. So that’s what makes this election extremely interesting. The very first act of allowing Pezeshkian and Qalibaf to run already is counterintuitive to how everybody was forecasting the direction that the Supreme Leader was going.

Kamran Bokhari:

That’s a fascinating analysis of Pezeshkian’s and Qalibaf’s candidacy. So a followup to that, so this seems incongruent to the outcome of the Khobregan, the Assembly of Experts election and the parliamentary election in which we saw a significant number of younger generation ideologues, or hawkish, or we can call them far right elements who came to power even though the Qalibaf retained his speakership. So how do you see, let’s assume one of them Pezeshkian or Qalibaf becoming president, how do you see the relationship? With Qalibaf, it’s probably, we’ll have a better working relationship with Parliament because coming from Parliament. He would give up the speakership. But what about Pezeshkian? How will he work with this assembly of experts, this Parliament, and the general hawkish tenor of the regime when it comes to domestic politics?

Vali Nasr:

Well, none of it, neither Qalibaf nor Pezeshkian have to actually do anything with assembly of experts because that’s the one that’s, his sole job of that assembly is to select the next Supreme Leader. Their main issue would be the Parliament. Yes, both of them have experience in the Parliament. Pezeshkian was also a member of the Parliament for many years and Qalibaf has been its speaker. They will have a tough time. But the reality is that when Raisi was president, when the population was so disheartened with him and with the protests of 2022, the turnout and the elections for Parliament and Assembly of Expert produced the lowest possible turnout that any national election in Iran had had since 1979. It was impossible not to have the fire breathing firebrands coming to the Parliament and Assembly of Experts because in order to get moderation, you need more independence, more reformist, more secularist vote.

If they don’t vote, the dedicated hardliners who always vote will always produce the result. And I think the presidential election is an opportunity with the Supreme Leader to walk back or let’s say hit a reset button with the Raisi period. Now, you can’t also purge the Parliament right now, so one step at a time. Right now, following a strategy that seems to be to increase participation, to create enthusiasm among the population to participate, it is the surest signal that the Supreme Leader wants to walk back from the hard line of the hardliners taking over everything.

Now, nobody knows what the participation will be and whether it be in the 50 percentiles, or in a month’s time it might go even higher, but it’s very clear that the participation is right now likely to be more than it was for Raisi’s election in 2021. And again, that may still not produce Qalibaf or Pezeshkian, we really don’t know. But it’s very clear that by toying with a higher percentage participation, the Supreme leader is clearly opening the door for a more moderate president to take over Iraq.

And I think he wants to do that. It’s not a question of moderation or being a hard line. I think for him it’s a question of competence, that the hardliners have proven to be incompetent. They may be very ideological, they may be very excited in terms of their bombastic domestic and foreign policy arguments going after hijab, and going after nuclear deal, and all of that, but they can’t actually run the government. At end of the day, we forget it’s a country of 85 million people with the Supreme Leader’s top priorities actually, if the buses run on time, if people are happy with the performance of different government ministries. And if they’re not, that’s a bigger cause of instability than political issues.

Kamran Bokhari:

Well, this is a nice segue into my next question, which has to do with the fact that we are approaching, and then no one can tell when, but at some point the Supreme Leader himself, Khamenei, is going to pass the baton, or pass away, and the regime is going to elect a new Supreme Leader. And you’ve seen my report on this that was published back in April. And my sense is that the military is probably going to have a greater say, it already does in many ways, over the clergy. So I want you to give us your sense of how you see this change, this more substantive and significant change, because this would be the third Supreme Leader in the history of the Islamic Republic. And people have forgotten Khomeini, most people because that was so long ago. For 35 years we’ve had Khamenei leading from the helm. So how do you see the Islamic Republic moving towards that inflection point and beyond?

Vali Nasr:

The death of Raisi and the process of presidential election right now has really reopened that question in important ways. First of all, whether correctly or not, many people saw Raisi as an heir apparent. Otherwise, why would the Supreme Leader elevate him to the chief of the judiciary and then open the way for him to be president? And after all, the last time a Supreme Leader died, he was the president who stepped into his shoes. Now, that candidate, that name is no longer there. So basically one of the key people who was expected to replace the Supreme Leader is not going to be there.

Secondly, none of the people who are running for the presidency, with the exception of one cleric who is highly, highly unlikely to succeed, are actually candidates themselves. So Pezeshkian, or Qalibaf, or even the top hard line candidate, Jalili, none of them are clerics, so they’re not a candidate. So the issue of who would be right now most likely person to replace Khamenei is an open question.

And my sense is that the Supreme Leader and his secretariat, et cetera, will have to go back to the drawing board, because whatever plan of action they had in place before Raisi was killed is no longer valid. But I think he wants to first take care of the presidential election, have a government in place, stabilize Iran in that way, and then basically attend to how would that succession take place? I think you’re absolutely right. Iran is already by and large in the hands of the IRGC. And they will obviously have a big say in who succeeds Khamenei, because they have a lot at stake in there. Do they want a Supreme Leader that would take their powers away? Or do they want a Supreme Leader, which basically will become a rubber stamp for a state that’s run by the Revolutionary Guards?

And my sense is that they would prefer the latter. And I think we will see that there’s probably going to be a lot of secret behind the scenes back and forth between them and Khamenei going forward. And if Qalibaf is president, and he’s obviously a very powerful figure within the former Revolutionary Guard commanders, that would also play a very important role in Revolutionary Guards leveraging the process.

My sense is that unless Khamenei appoints somebody very clearly and ensures that that person will be put in place, that if Khamenei were to pass away, and let’s say if he passes away suddenly, unexpectedly, I don’t think he can actually guarantee who would replace him, because at that point the guards may play a different hand, they may block a certain person being elevated, the whole thing may fall apart, if you would, the idea of a smooth transition of somebody else may not happen.

We don’t have the figure of Ayatollah Rafsanjani today, who was very critical in basically putting Khamenei in the presidency. At that point in time, Iran was worried that Saddam may attack Iran again if they didn’t quickly put a Supreme Leader in place. That situation doesn’t hold right now. I think the Supreme Leader has his hands full right now trying to manage this process with the Revolutionary Guards breathing down his neck and with wanting to have their say. And I think the outcome of the presidential election is the first step in that direction. So that will tell us a lot about how the balance of play may be going forward.

Kamran Bokhari:

Following up on what you just said, obviously the IRGC has a disproportionate amount of influence and power in the Islamic Republic, but as I argue in my report, there is another military, the Artesh, the regular armed forces. And not only has there been a huge variance in the amount of influence the two institutions have, there’s also the idea that the civilian supremacy over the military applies more to the Artesh than it does to the IRGC. In fact, many interpret the Constitution to say that, “Because the IRGC is the force that is a guardian of the revolution, therefore they should have a role in politics.” Although this has been debated back and forth over the years. So do you see any role for the Artesh? Are they going to have a role in what happens next? Because obviously they have to defend this country if this country moves into a much more radical position, a hawkish position. And given that the geopolitical climate that the country finds itself in. So do they get a vote? What do you think is going on on that end?

Vali Nasr:

Well, you’re familiar with Pakistan. I mean I would say IRGC is like the army in Pakistan and the Artesh is like the Pakistan Navy or Pakistan Air Force. Who cares, right? In other words, when a force that is politically relevant and makes the decisions is IRGC because of where it’s situated, because of its power in the economy, because its access to power at the center. So if it’s a political debate about who replaces Khamenei, which Ayatollah is put in that position, the parlor game or the power game in Tehran’s halls of power, no, the regular military, the Artesh, I don’t think will have a say, not in the short term. If fighting breaks out and we end up in a situation where there is no smooth transition of power, and that they have uprisings or clashes in different parts of the country, yes, they will play a bigger role.

But in a way it’s not just that they are more under civilian control, they are also more professional at this sense. In other words, they are more like just the military. Whereas the IRGC is much more political, the aspects of it that are non-professional, with generals that are serving an enormous amount of political power. They command also vast areas of the Iranian economy, which is now directly run by IRGC from banking, telecommunications, trade, and et cetera. And then you have this slew of former IRGC commanders who obviously have tremendous amount of influence within IRGC, because a lot of their subordinates are still within IRGC, but also each of them has been given a perch at the highest levels of the state. And some of them are also very, very involved in the economy as private businessmen.

And these IRGC figures sit inside of networks that connects businesses inside, outside Iran, across the whole private sector, et cetera. And those nodes of power are not available to former generals from the Artesh. And so I don’t see them as a short-term political player unless there is actual fighting happening. But in the longer term, it’s a good question, actually, whether at some point we may not see a emerging of these two forces gradually, because there’s an incongruity between having two military forces like this side by side with very different kinds of profiles.

Kamran Bokhari:

That brings us to the broader geopolitical situation, Vali, and you’ve written on this, I saw your piece in foreign affairs on Iran’s proxy network or what Iran calls the axis of resistance, and you also did a podcast for foreign affairs on this topic. So we are now in an era where Iran is extremely, in a very aggressive manner, pushing into the Middle East. We see this with the risks that the Houthis are taking, although one would argue that Hezbollah is being cautious, and there is, “Okay, if Hezbollah is engaged in a war with Israel, then what will become of the Assad regime because of the role that the IRGC QF and Hezbollah play in propping up Assad?” There is the situation and the standoff inside Iraq with the US, especially with the militia attacks. So in the light of the domestic evolution that you just mentioned, and you described in great detail, how do you see Iran’s foreign policy evolving, moving forward?

Vali Nasr:

Well, we’re obviously at a particular inflection point, because you have the war in Gaza going forward, which we don’t know how it’s going to end and we don’t know if it’s going to spread to Lebanon yet. So these are pretty decisive unknowns, here. I think Iran is being aggressive, but at the same time it is also thinking that it needs to deploy a certain amount to deter Israel and the United States, but also to keep Israel bogged down, because it knows that Israel after Gaza is going to go after Lebanon, then it’s going to turn to Syria, and then it’s going to go after Iran. So it’s not that if Iranians didn’t do anything with Houthis or Hezbollah, that Israel would leave them alone, that they don’t believe.

They believe that only by showing their teeth and warning Israel about how dangerous expansion would be, that they may actually keep things tight, and also to scare the United States because they understand, whereas Israel may be willing to go to war, the United States definitely is extremely skittish about going to war, whether it’s Biden or it’s Trump. And therefore it benefits Iran to be menacing in order for its deterrence to work.

The second issue is that there’s going to be a presidential election in the United States, also creates certain uncertainty. In other words, it’s not clear what to expect of Trump. Everybody’s obviously forecasting his Middle East policy based on what he did in the last term. But that still doesn’t answer a lot of questions. How far is he willing to support Israel? How far is he willing to risk things with Iran? Is he genuinely interested in a nuclear deal like he claimed the first time around? And is he going to be as skittish about getting involved in a war or a confrontation with Iran as he was the last time? And it’s not only the Iranians also looking at what might happen in November in the US, all of Iran’s rivals and friends are also. So the whole picture in the Middle East could somewhat change around that time.

Also, as we already said, Iran is also preparing for succession. And in some ways that’s probably the most important thing, where the country’s focus is. And so what Iran does on the foreign policy environment, it is to both create space for the succession domestically, but also is very much driven by the need, for instance, to maintain certain degree of stability and not end up Iran in a war that would then complicate succession much more. And I don’t think the Revolutionary Guards also want to be involved in a bigger war when they want to basically be micromanaging what happens at the top inside Iran.

So it’s a very delicate balancing act. It’s true that Iran was responsible for tooling Hamas to be able to carry out October 7th, and he may see benefits in the way in which Israel has waged the war and Gaza and how much support it’s lost in the Arab world, how difficult non-normalization is, what kind of pressures are on the international community on Israel. All of these may be welcome. But Iran is right now reacting also to the realities that the Gaza war has created much more than it’s actually provoking them.

So I don’t see Iran’s foreign policy changing in a fundamental way, but I think they’re also as much the subject of what’s happening in the region, and are trying to react to it, and are trying to maintain their position in a very rapidly changing environment, where they don’t know exactly what the outcomes are. So I think it’s for that reason, for instance, that they are trying to protect and preserve the relations with Saudi Arabia and UAE as best they can, to try to cultivate as much support as they can with India, with Pakistan, with Russia, with China, and try to find a way to embed themselves in some kind of a broader support structure and not be isolated.

Kamran Bokhari:

My question was going to be about, based off of what you just said, there are so many things that are up in the air, the US election for one, that you mentioned, but there’s also nobody knows what will happen to the domestic politics of Israel considering what’s happening there, with the pressure mounting on Benjamin Netanyahu, and the disbanding of the war cabinet, and the departure of Eisenkot and Gantz from the government. So there’s a lot of movement happening there, but when all is said and done, we’re on the other side of the presidential election, and then there’s still a succession going on. We don’t know when that will happen. We’re on the other side of the US election, and hopefully we’re on the other side of war in Gaza. There’s still a reality, Vali, which is that Iran and Israel are the principal adversaries in the region.

And based on what happened a few months ago back in April, with the Iranians deciding to directly strike at Israel, and then we saw the relatively mild response from the Israelis, do you see a new dynamic taking place in this region regardless of domestic politics and other factors? Because Israel’s strategic posture will not change, and neither can we expect the Iranian posture to change. And they’re almost in this perpetual conflict and one cannot see where this conflict subsides. So what are your thoughts about the Middle Eastern chessboard with these two being the principle players?

Vali Nasr:

You’re absolutely correct. One thing is now very clear in the Middle East, is that these are the two main protagonists. These are the two most important military forces that see one another as enemies and are postured towards one another, and that the future peace and security in the Middle East is in their hands. The Arab world essentially is not going to decide this. In fact, both sides are wooing them and they’re going to carry out their fight in the Arab world. Both sides want Saudi friendship. Both sides want UAE friendship. Both sides want the Arab countries not to be neutral between them. And I think the direct attacks between Iran and Israel, aside from who used what and how severe it was, basically it was a new chapter, because they openly attacked one another directly. Particularly Iran showed that it’s willing and capable to hit Israel directly in a way that it had never done before, in this kind of an overt manner.

And for Israel now, Iran is basically a very large, big obstacle to what they want to achieve in the Middle East. The Israelis are of the belief that they can take care of the Arabs. There’s no Arab army that’s a threat to Israel. And they see that Palestinian issue essentially as short-run in the sense that it may take them two, three more years, even if it took that, and end of it, they’re going to have some kind of a normalization with Saudi Arabia, et cetera. So for them, what happened in Gaza is maybe a bump in the road to eventually normalizing with Saudis. And I don’t mean necessarily Israeli left or every Israeli, I mean basically the mindset of the Likud and the right-of-center in Israel that is going to be decisive in this strategic game.

Now, if Israel wants to have its way in Gaza and then at least if this government stays, it wants the West Bank, even if this government doesn’t stay, Israel wants their big chunks of the West Bank, there’s no commitment to a Palestinian state. And I think Israel is already of the mind that cannot tolerate Hezbollah’s threat on its northern borders. That ultimately means that Iran and Israel at some point are going to get into a direct confrontation. The prospects of that is going to keep the region on the edge. If you’re in the Gulf countries, and you want to invest in all these corridors, and you want to bring the World Cup and you want to invest in a very different kind of a future, the idea that potentially Iran and Israel may rain on your party is going to be there. Everything we think about the Middle East is going to be there while Iran and Israel are going to be potentially going to war with one another. We’re going to engage in cloak and dagger policies with one another over the next three, four years.

There’s a sense out there that somehow the Gaza war will finish soon and when it finishes soon, the Middle East can snap back to October 6th, in a way. And I think that’s basically unrealistic because as I said, Israel is determined perhaps not to really resolve the Palestinian issue other than through military means, because there’s no talk right now of a realistic way of getting to a two state solution, and the domestic scene in Israel is not receptive to it. And at the same time, also, Israel will set its eyes on definitely degrading, if not doing much more damage to Hezbollah, which could invite the direct confrontation with Iran.

And the only possibility, only ray of Hope in a way, is that if you have the right changes of government in Tehran and in Jerusalem, if Bibi goes and Iranians have a different kind of a president, that might create some degree of political space for the US, and Europe, Saudis, UAE, et cetera, to try to arrive at some kind of red lines between Iran and Israel, basically prevent this from being an unchecked, rampant escalation, which right now it is in other words. And that’s what makes it very dangerous, that there’s absolutely no red lines between them.

Israelis hit an Iranian consulate. Whether they intended or not, they basically set in motion a cycle of events that very quickly escalated and it required enormous amount of intervention on the part of the United States to prevent it from actually going overboard. So if that kind of a trigger scenario continues in the Middle East, we’re going to be in for a very difficult number of years. And then it may actually end up in a very bad result. And what I’m hoping is actually that there could be some kind of opening to basically pull the two sides back genuinely from the edge. And even though they both see each other as antagonistic and as one another’s prime enemy, but at least the possibility of something suddenly becoming war would not be there, that we wouldn’t be in the situation we were in April.

Kamran Bokhari:

That brings me to my last question, and once again, you’ve preempted my question, the United States. A lot depends on United States. Iran knows that. Israel knows that. In fact they both expect the United States to do certain things. Israel wants the United States to be an ally in confronting Iran. Iran wants the United States to be able to gain sanctions relief and achieve some form of acceptance, or of its regional influence, of the influence that it has amassed. What do you see? Because it’s very difficult for the United States to deal with an Iran that is in its current form.

So if assuming we have a relatively moderate presidency emerge soon and whatever comes in the form of the succession of the Supreme Leader, one cannot tell. But given this roadmap, where do you see the United States? Especially, and please assume that we will have, we’re not sure, but let’s assume that there is a second Trump term, because with President Biden, it’ll be business as usual. There’s going to be more continuity than change. Not to say that there won’t be any continuity under Trump, but there is this expectation that of what happened during the first term, we may see a replay of some of that. So how do you see the US role vis-a-vis Iran and the region as a whole?

Vali Nasr:

Very good point. We really don’t know what a second term under Biden might be and also what a second term under Trump might be. Not as if Biden really made headways with Iran on the nuclear deal. And actually when he came in the office, they decided they didn’t want to deal with Iran. He was just going to continue the maximum pressure strategy and lost very valuable time while you still had Rouhani as president, to get anywhere. But there’s a fundamental thing here. It’s not whether the United States likes Iran or doesn’t like Iran. The fundamental operative issue here is that the United States Republican or Democrat does not want a war with Iran. It does not want to be dragged back into a larger conflict in the Middle East if it can avoid it. It wants to still focus on China, it wants to focus on Russia, and it has higher priorities.

So if that remains the case, whatever modality you approach Iran with, you have to deal with it. And I don’t think Iran can any more be dealt with through a grand deal. There’s always a black swan scenario here, but that Iran can be, this is not something, again, like the nuclear deal of 2015 that’s going to change the scene. And even that deal was supposed to be a first step in gradually transforming Iran. And the United States needs to at least have some simple deals with Iran that it can abide by, it can stick to. It has difficulty doing that.

Even before October 6th, they finally made a deal with Iran that they’re going to give $6 million of Iran’s own money back to it, that Iran had to only use for medical or humanitarian issues. It would sit in a bank in Qatar, and Iran would have to first go buy the medicine, then submit the invoices to that, which is not giving Iran money. This basically was a highly constricted money and exchange for which Iran released three prisoners. Yeah, I know it’s the prisoner exchange that is awful, all of that. But the United States signed onto it. It’s a deal. And then as soon as October 7th happened, the US basically put that money under lock and key. First it said he was re-sanctioning, and then it decided not to use that language, basically told the Qataris to tell Iran, “Please don’t submit any invoices because then we’ll be forced to sanction.”

So in the eyes of Iran, the United States, yet again negated on a deal. Yeah, it’s a very small deal, but the US can’t even hold to a small deal. You cannot actually try to persuade Iran to do things differently gradually, one step at a time, unless you actually are willing to engage and have some simple wins. So maybe the pressure of imminent war between an Iran and Israel will actually focus the US’ mind around this issue in ways that it hasn’t been yet. The US is far more responsive to its own domestic pressures, which is the Israeli Lobby and Bibi Netanyahu have a lot to do with that, than it is to actually the Jewish strategic imperatives that is facing in the world, that the Middle East needs you to de-escalate with Iran in a meaningful way.

But the US basically, continuously under domestic pressure, is incapable of actually implementing that. So the only issue becomes that, “Okay, we are going to end up in a war with Iran.” And then at the same time, the United States not willing to do that either, because now it’s averse to that, Republican and Democrat. And so we have checkmated ourselves. The issue is not Iran alone, the issue is American foreign policy. The issue is America’s inability to show leadership and be able to do the kind of diplomacy and engagement with friend and adversaries that actually can change in a meaningful way the direction of things.

Kamran Bokhari:

Well, thank you so much, Vali. That was a fantastic stream of insights that you have shared with our listeners.

Vali Nasr:

Thank you.

Kamran Bokhari:

I really appreciate you going into the details and providing us with a rich analysis. There’s a lot to watch. You’ve given us a lot of food for thought. I know my mind is all over the place after listening to everything you said. And there’s a lot of work that every one of us needs to do. But we’re going to have to bring this conversation to a close. So folks, that was Professor Vali Nasr from SAIS, and we were discussing the domestic politics and the geopolitics of Iran in the days, and months, and years ahead. There’s a lot to watch out for, given where the Middle East is, given where the United States is, and Israel, and of course Iran. But for now, this is Kamran Bokhari signing off. We’ll be back with another episode. Until then, stay safe. Thank you.

Vali Nasr:

Thanks very much. Good being with you.

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