For the Obama administration, what happened in the aftermath of Iran’s 2009 election when mass protests broke out in Tehran and Iran’s other major cities was a surprise. Karim Sadjadpour started his talk on Thursday, Feburary 25, 2010 in Burkle Center for International Relations by recalling the reaction of the new American administration toward the sudden events in Iran in 2009. As an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Sadjadpour had extensive experience researching on current events in Iran. He explained that Iran caught the attention of the Obama administration because of Iran’s involvement in more than one problem in the region: its support for Hamas further complicated the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; its oil production and geopolitical position directly affected global energy security; and its nuclear program posed a threat to the region’s stability and Obama’s agenda to promote nuclear non-proliferation. Sadjadpour pointed out that the Obama administration realized neither dialogue nor a military strike as a solution. By choosing to engage with Iran, President Obama repeatedly sent Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, private letters to show the United States’ willingness to resolve bilateral tension. The primary question of the United States at that time was why Iran was not cooperative and constructive in its relation with the United States. If Iran only reacted to President Bush’s hostile rhetoric, its policy might change after Obama took office. However, if Iran’s policy is driven by the revolutionary ideology since the 1970s, Iran-U.S.’ relation would not improve. Amid trying to answer these questions as Khomenei revealed little interest in dialogue in his letter to Obama, protests broke out in Tehran after the 2009 election and caught the U.S. government by surprise as the Obama administration had been focusing on external issues such as Iran’s uranium enrichment. The administration immediately condemned Iran government’s crackdown on dissident. By fall 2009, the U.S. Government realized that all moderates and pragmatists in the Iranian government had been purged and meaningful compromise was impossible. The U.S. still thought that protests in Iran were spontaneous. However, six months after the election, the protests were still strong. As a result, the Obama administration remade its policy to facilitate political reform in Iran.
Khomenei’s iron fist rule
Sadjadpour characterized Khomenei as being consistent with his cynicism and sinister in his speeches since the revolution. Khomenei saw the need of isolation as the only way his power could grow. Iran needed the U.S. as their adversary for the Islamic Republic to thrive. Khomenei thought that the Shah was overthrown because he showed that he was weak. Therefore, not looking weak is a lesson that Khomenei got out of the Iranian Revolution. Moreover, the Shah’s elites were educated abroad therefore they could live abroad after the collapse of their government. However, the Islamic Republic elites had no where to go if their government was overthrown. Their lack of escaping options urged them to further cling to power and maintain heavy-handed policies.
The fate of Iranian opposition
Sadjadpour revealed the generational gap in the opposition as its leaders sought changes within the system while many of its participants wanted a change of the system. The Obama administration had to consider how to dialogue with the Tehran regime without damaging the opposition. Sadjadpour illustrated that Khomenei’s regime was a military dictatorship as Khomenei did not have legitimacy within the clergy class. Instead, he gained his power through cultivating his support within the Revolutionary Guards. Asked why the U.S. intelligence lacked foresight and could not see the coming of the opposition in Iran to foster a timely policy to support the opposition, Sadjadpour answered that intelligence in Iran was very difficult to obtain as Iran was particularly isolated. The opposition also faced other tremendous challenges. The military could not side with the opposition despite some possible support within the army because most military units were located out of the city while the Revolutionary Guards which paid absolute loyalty to Khomenei were located in major urban areas. As protests against the election results waned, the opposition’s leadership had to consider the next stage of their movement. However, as Khomenei had to sacrifice his legitimacy as standing above all politics to protect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, everything in Iran would not be the same.