Cliff Kupchan serves as Head of the Russia and CIS Team and Director of Europe and Eurasia at Eurasia Group. Prior to joining the Eurasia Group, he was vice president and senior fellow at the Nixon Center.
Why should Americans care about Iran?
Americans should care about Iran because it is a country with a population of seventy million in the heart of the Middle East that has long aspired to dominate the region and become a nuclear power. Through both angles, Iran could pose a significant — if not severe — challenge to U.S. national interest. A nuclear Iran would directly pose a threat to U.S. security and allies. An Iran that dominates the region would, in a similar fashion, dominate the interests of Saudi Arabia and of the smaller Arab states that are very close allies of the U.S. Iran over the medium and long-term is a significant problem.
Is there a direct security threat to the United States itself or just our allies?
Currently the direct security threat is to our allies in the Arab Middle East and to Israel. That is essentially the range of Iran’s current missile capability. However, Iran is working on a longer-range missile capability, an intermediate range missile, that could reach Europe. These guys are good; eventually they will develop an ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) that could reach the United States. So, as we think over the next five to ten years about really significant threats that could really change the world we live in, Iran has got to be at the top of anybody’s list.
What is the history of the U.S.-Iran relationship?
Well, it’s a hall of mirrors reflecting bad pictures. It began during the 1979 hostage crisis, where any kind of trust between the U.S. government and the new Islamic republic of Iran was broken. It went quickly downhill from the absence of trust; it’s really that bad. The U.S. tilted towards Saddam in the vicious eight year Iran-Iraq war — Saddam Hussein — further alienating Iran and especially alienating the young revolutionary guards or elite soldiers that were fighting that war, that will now play a very prominent role in Iran’s government.
Relations became briefly better during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami in the 1990s, a relatively liberal, rather courageous politician. After Khatami came the ultraconservative and radical Ahmadinejad. He began again enriching uranium or producing the basic substance you need to make a nuclear weapon and was very oppressive on human rights. Relations with the U.S. and the European Union with Iran plummeted drastically to the very low and dangerous point that we stand today.
Are the tool the U.S. and our allies are using working?
Working is a tricky word. If you define working with the most stringent terms — in the terms that Israelis’ use to define “working” — then the answer is, “No, they failed.” That standard is: Have sanctions changed Iranian nuclear policy? And the answer is no. Iran continues a “peddle to the metal” nuclear policy. They’re building quickly and making uneven, but significant, progress.
Have sanctions slowed the nuclear program? Yes. Have sanctions degraded Iran’s overall power projection capability? Definitely. Have recent sanctions, targeting Iran’s ability to export oil, have the capability to be tremendously effective? The answer is Yes.
It is likely that Iran’s revenue from oil exports will fall by at least 4.5 billion dollars a month, as of the middle of 2012. So, it depends on what you mean by work. In my view, sanctions have been much more effective than anyone thought possible. Whether they will change Iran’s nuclear policy remains to be seen.
Is there a danger with sanctions that were affecting Iranians more than the regime?
Sanctions are a blunt instrument — nobody likes to use sanctions. I would say that there is a danger that we are affecting ordinary Iranians and the Iranian middle class. I wouldn’t say there’s a great danger, in my judgment, that we’re affecting them more than the regime. I do think there is a likelihood that we’re affecting them almost as much as the regime, because targeted sanctions is an oxymoron — there are no sanctions that are really targeted. If you deny letters of credit to a country, you deny letters of credit to everybody in the country. One of the tragedies of this generally effective sanctions regime is that it has hurt the middle class, and the middle class are the backbone of the so-called green movement. The green movement is the opposition movement which rose up, reared up its head in 2009, to a greater extent than any other time since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979. So, it’s like chemotherapy — you can destroy a lot of good tissue while you hit the bad tissue. And that’s how sanctions work.
Is a nuclear Iran inevitable? Are we just slowing the inevitable?
In my judgment, the advent of a nuclear Iran is inevitable. But there are lots of nuances hidden within that claim. Iran will continue with its nuclear program. It began under the Shah, and there is no member of the reform movement that I’ve met that opposes the nuclear movement. Iranians want a nuclear program. Most want it for civilian purposes, some want a bomb.
Now, Iran will move forward with that program. I don’t think sanctions will cause them to abort that program. It may delay the program, it may slow down the program, they’ll bob and weave, but they’ll continue. The intriguing part of this issue is what a nuclear capable Iran will look like in ten years time. Iran’s economy is failing; it is really beginning to fail. In the years I’ve studied Iran, I don’t think I’ve seen Iran’s economy in this much trouble. They’re going to hemorrhage oil exports revenue, inflation for food stuffs is running 40-50%, the currency — called the rial — has lost roughly 50% of its value since last August. This regime is being faced with a choice between a nuclear weapon and an economy—and they’re choosing a nuclear weapon.
Now, over the medium-term — the next four or five years — that is going to significantly exacerbate deep fissures in the Iranian system; between the regime and the clergy, between the regime and the population, between the regime and the oppositions. And this country — whose population is basically very pro-American, counter-intuitively in many respects, but it really is — is going to rise up, and we’re going to see indigenous regime change. In other words, the Arab Spring will become the Persian Spring. Nobody can predict exactly when.
Then what do you have? Then you have a much more pro-Western regime with nuclear weapons. Do we really care about France’s nuclear weapons? No. So I think this is going to have a short-term ending in the near-term, but it could take a real twist for the better in the longer term.
As interactions with Iran escalate, is there a danger that there’s no other option other than a direct military conflict?
There are always other options to military conflict. The danger is that group-think, the mutually reinforcing anxiety among elites in the U.S. and Israel — will increase the chances of, and possibly cause, a military attack. Again, in my judgment, a military attack is a loser. It’s mainly a loser because there’s a limited amount of damage that even the U.S. could do to Iran’s nuclear program. Iran has a significant number of centrifuges — machines that spin very quickly to produce nuclear material — that are hidden; we don’t know where they are and we can’t take them out militarily. They could easy reconstitute their program in a cave and build a bomb very quickly if they were attacked. So I can’t see — unless Iran runs directly towards development of a nuclear weapon — how and why a military attack is in the interest of the United States.
Have the more direct moves we’ve made been more effective or have then been less effective?
Look, we’ve got a proxy war going on right now. A war beneath the surface; between Israel and the U.S. on the one hand, and Iran on the other. It’s kind of two-dimensional. The first is cyber war, which involves the well-known Stuxnet virus and a new virus called Flame. The Stuxnet virus did succeed in slowing down the Iranian nuclear program by roughly a year. It took out about a 1,000 Iranian centrifuges out of about 5,000 in operation at the time — it was pretty effective. They overcame that, but the Israelis and Americans, who are allegedly behind this — no one really knows who is doing these things — are getting pretty good at these things. I think we’re going to see more of them and Iran is going to continue to have problems in losing the cyber war.
The other aspect of this proxy, or hidden war, that is going on is Israel — or whoever is doing this — killing Iranian nuclear scientists; and Iran allegedly going after Israeli diplomats. Now it’s hard to gauge the effect of that; but no country, especially a rudimentary nuclear power like Iran, has a large supply of highly skilled top-level nuclear scientists. So that too can slow down Iran’s nuclear program. Stop, no; slow, yes.
But that’s sort of where this two-clock image comes back into play. There is a nuclear clock running and an indigenous regime change clock running. The really question here is, which clock is going to go “ding” first? Right now, I think this rather malevolent regime is going to get a nuclear weapon, so the nuclear clock is likely to go “ding” first. But the more we slow that down, the more the competition between the clocks comes into play, and the more interesting this whole thing gets.
And going to 2013, what NATO initiatives do you see basically exacerbating conflict with Russia?
Well, the North American Russian Communication Association initiative, which is the code word for “problem,” is national missile defense. So far, attempts to create a joint missile defense program between NATO and Russia have failed; the Russians claim that NATO really isn’t interested in jointly developing missile defense and they’re not willing to give Russia a key to the system. The fundamental problem here is that, unlike a lot of the issues we have with Russia, which are overlaid with Russia’s craving for prestige from its lost image when it was the Soviet Union, in national missile defense we have a much different problem in that when the two militaries run their calculus, their mathematics come out with really different answers on whether NATO’s planned ballistic missile defense program threatens Russia’s missiles or not. The Russians honestly believe it does. But it’s one thing to talk Vladimir Putin out of seeing the U.S. as an existential enemy; it’s another thing to prove to Russian generals that their math is wrong — it’s a whole lot harder!
So I think that moving forward, national missile defense is going to be a very thorny problem. It could turn out to be, like NATO enlargement, a problem that really sets back relations between Russia and the West.
As far as the tools we have at our disposal to deal with Russia, where does NATO lie? Is that one of our more effective tools?
The bottom line is we don’t have good tools to deal with Russia. What we’ve got in Russia is what I call a floater state; it’s a state that isn’t really anchored in the international system right now. It’s somewhere between the West and China; it kind of does what it wants when it wants. It doesn’t really have interests that are either Eastern or Western; it’s an Eastern and a Western state. The Russians couldn’t care less what we think about Russian autocracy and Russian domestic politics. Mr. Putin, who I’ve met with on numerous occasions, is a very headstrong, very confident leader. When you criticize him, he just says, “Bring it on.” He just enjoys the joist; he enjoys the fight. He’s his own guy.
So, you know, I think we’ve got a regional power that is going to be set by economic problems, but is very capable of aggressive action on the world stage. I think that in the next five, ten years, Russia — largely because of its energy wealth, which is not going to go away and is going to be able to pay for a lot of arms and influence — is going to be a factor to be reckoned with.
How do Russians view the United States?
The amazing thing about Russian public opinion of America is that it is kind of like a light switch for the government. The government can turn it on or turn it off. During the campaign, Putin turned it on. He ran on anti-Americanism. The polling data showed that Russians really didn’t like Americans, and it really helped him. Now he’s turned it off, and the numbers are down again. So it’s very manipulative. That, in my judgment, is dangerous because if things get bad, it is something that Mr. Putin and the elite know that they can use on demand. It’s kind of like a movie on demand. They can just dial it up. In a crisis, that can make things worse real quick.