The recent adoption of a new round of UN Security Council sanctions against Iran, followed by bilateral measures from both the United States and the EU, are the latest attempt by the international community to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. At an event hosted by Carnegie Europe and moderated by its director, Fabrice Pothier, Carnegie’s Karim Sadjadpour and International Herald Tribune columnist Roger Cohen discussed the domestic and political challenges facing Iran and the impact of international sanctions on the Iranian regime.

The Iranian Opposition

  • Green Movement in Disarray: The massive repression of street protests after the 2009 Iranian presidential election has left the opposition Green movement demoralized and in a state of disarray, Sadjadpour explained. While popular will for sweeping political, social, and economic reform remains very strong, the movement lacks strategic leadership. Sadjadpour outlined several weaknesses that have hampered the effectiveness of the Green Movement: 

    • Inability to Harness Discontent: The Green Movement’s leadership has so far failed to unite the many disaffected sections of Iranian society—particularly those that have seen their economic interests harmed by the current regime—into a single cohesive opposition movement.
    • Poor Tactics: Given the Green Movement’s non-violent posture, and its promotion of tolerance and democracy, street protests are not the best means of expression. These protests expose the movement to government forces who are ready and able to employ violence and terror.
  • Desire for Representative Government: The large number of people who mobilized on behalf of the opposition demonstrated Iranian society’s desire for some form of representative government, a recurring historical trend in the country since the constitutional revolution of 1906, stated Sadjadpour. 
  • Fear and Disaffection: The regime’s brutal repression of the Green Movement instilled fear in the Iranian people, Cohen stated, but it did not alleviate the concerns that drove the protests in the first place. Disaffection remains widespread, particularly among younger Iranians, many of whom saw elections as a chance to influence the government every four years. That idea has now been crushed, and the general perception is that the supreme leader and Revolutionary Guard are the real holders of power in Iran.

The Iranian Regime

  • The Revolutionary Guard: Throughout his tenure as supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei has progressively privileged the Revolutionary Guard over the clergy, seeking legitimacy in the barracks, not in the seminaries, Sadjadpour said. This has consolidated the economic and political power of the Revolutionary Guard, particularly in the area of foreign policy.
  • Weakening of the Supreme Leader: The position of supreme leader has traditionally been a privileged one whose occupant can wield power while still remaining above the fray of daily politics, Sadjadpour explained.  However, by supporting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad so forcefully after the elections, Khamenei has changed the dynamic. Indeed, Cohen commented, Khamenei himself became the target of the general public’s wrath after the election, with crowds in Tehran chanting “death to Khamenei.”
  • Anti-Imperialism and Globalization: The current generation of Iranian leaders came of age intellectually and politically in the 1960s and 1970s, when anti-imperialism was the dominant trend, Sadjadpour said. As a result, they still view the West through a confrontational lens and use a zero-sum approach in their relations with the West. The Green Movement, and the generation of younger Iranians it represents, seems to have a different outlook, which espouses engagement and confidence building in order for Iran to attain its rightful role in the international community. On that basis, he concluded, the Green Movement would seem more willing to participate in international negotiations on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The View From Washington

In Washington, Sadjadpour maintained, three historical analogies are often invoked to capture the character of the Islamic Republic and assess its future trajectory:

  • 1970s China: The first analogy suggests a similarity between current U.S.-Iran relations and U.S.-China relations in the 1970s. According to this view, despite confrontational rhetoric, the Iranian leadership is actually very pragmatic and favorable to rapprochement with the United States. A bold American gesture, akin to President Nixon’s trip to China, could possibly bring about significant change. However, following the Obama administration’s unprecedented—and un reciprocated—overtures to Iran, this analogy has lost much of its appeal in Washington.
  • Nazi Germany: The second analogy compares Iran with Nazi Germany. The Iranian regime is believed to be messianic, deeply ideological, and apocalyptic. In this view, U.S. policy would best be served by taking “pre-emptive” military action. This analogy does not reflect the current administration’s views on Iran.
  • The Soviet Union: The third analogy draws a parallel with the Cold War-era Soviet Union. According to this view, while the Iranian regime might not be fully messianic, its anti-American views are an entrenched part of its identity and inherent to the spirit of the 1979 revolution. The prospects for pursuing a policy of engagement with Tehran are therefore unlikely. In this context, the best policy option is to adopt a containment strategy that encourages dialogue with Iran while waiting for the regime to collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions.

Regional Politics

  • Iranian Soft Power: Iran, Sadjadpour explained, plays an important role in most political and security issues in the Middle East, from Afghanistan and Iraq to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and energy security. Iran sees itself as a regional counterweight to the United States, embroiled in a zero-sum game for power and influence in the region. With Obama in office, U.S. popularity has increased regionally while Iran’s and Ahmadinejad’s has decreased, Sadjadpour said.
  • Contrast with Turkey: Over the past decade, Turkey has carefully cultivated relations in the Middle East. As a result, Sadjadpour stated, Arab foreign direct investment in the country has increased tenfold and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now the most popular political leader in the Arab world. By contrast, Iran has offered support to extremist groups such as Hizbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, which has led to support from the anti-American and anti-Israeli portion of the Arab world, but has also earned Iran the hostility of many Arab leaders.


 When President Obama came to office he brought some fresh ideas on how to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Cohen said. However, he added, the international community has fallen back on the same “carrot-and-stick” formula of sanctions and negotiations. Cohen argued that sanctions are ineffective; Iran has been subjected to them for decades and has established effective tactics to mitigate their effects. Moreover, Western policy debate seems devoid of any real understanding of the complexity of Iran’s society and political system. In this context, the Turkish and Brazilian diplomatic proposal for a nuclear fuel swap offers an interesting alternative, which deserves serious attention.