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The following transcript is of an interview by Fareed Zakaria with Thomas Erdbrink, The New York Times’ Tehran Bureau chief and Karim Sadjadpour, senior associate for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Erdbrink discussed Iran’s debate over cooperating with the United States on the P5+1 deal, while Sadjadpour explained Khamenei’s position on the deal.
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The New York Times’, Thomas Erdbrink, on Iran's internal struggles over nuclear deal
Senior Associate for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Karim Sadjadpour, on whether Khamenei will scuttle the Iran nuclear deal
Thomas Erdbrink, New York Times Tehran Bureau Chief on Iran’s internal debate over the P5+1 deal: “We must look beyond only the deal. This is also about which direction Iran will take. We are looking at a very divided Middle East, at a weakened Saudi Arabia, at problems across the region, and Iran being the only stable state. Now, for 37 years, Iran has opposed the United States, because of its ideology. People have a feeling that this ideology should be corrected, that maybe the hate towards the United States must be lowered down, that “the Great Satan” should be a “lesser Satan,” maybe. And this will have consequences, because will Iran cooperate with the United States in the region? That is what the current debate is really about, because the nuclear deal, I think Iran will accept that.”
Sadjadpour on the Supreme Leader's position on the P5+1 deal: “I think the Supreme Leader's position on this nuclear issue has been - has been quite classic Khamenei, in that he's been non-committal. He has refused to put his imprimatur on this deal and has been very Machiavellian. You know, what's interesting is that both the supporters and the opponents of the nuclear deal believe the Supreme Leader agrees with their position.”
FULL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN GPS HOST: Despite all of the controversy, despite all of the grandstanding, on Thursday, Congress's chance to vote down the Iran deal ended - rather quietly, I might add. But don't forget, there is another side to this deal. Now, Iran's government has to agree to it, and the Supreme Leader, who will give the ultimate thumbs up or thumbs down, said earlier this month that he wants his parliament to vote on it. According to the New York Times, the head of that parliament said there would be more drama in the Iranian legislature than there was in the U.S. Congress. A parliamentary vote is expected in early October. So will the hardliners of the Islamic Republic enter into a deal with what they call “the Great Satan?” I have two Tehran watchers joining me today.
Thomas Erdbrink is in Tehran, where he is The New York Times' bureau chief. And Karim Sadjadpour is in Washington, D.C., where he is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment. Thomas, let me start with you. You wrote a really terrific piece in The New York Times outlining the incredible push and pull that is taking place in Iran. Rouhani says this deal is going to begin the process of normalizing relations with the U.S. Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, says, no, not at all, this is a complete one-off. There are people who were predicting there would be direct flights between Tehran and Washington and New York within a month or two. Now, there are people saying, oh, no, no, this won't happen for years. And at the center of this question, which you pose but don't quite answer in your piece is this all an act? And where does Khamenei stand in all this? Where does the Supreme Leader of Iran stand?
THOMAS ERDBRINK, NEW YORK TIMES: Well, Fareed, I must say that while writing this piece, I felt sort of lost because I've been reporting from Iran for 13 years and it's getting harder and harder to really try and get grip and see what Iran's leaders actually want. As you said, on one hand, we have Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who, in the past three speeches, has been saying really nasty things about the United States. He says the United States will continue to be “the Great Satan.” And he says it is time now, after the nuclear talks, to continue the fight with America. And then, on the other hand, there’s President Rouhani, a man elected by the people here on a platform of promising more freedoms, a better economy, and, first but not foremost, very important to him, better relations with the United States. And he is saying this nuclear deal is a new beginning. So these are two very conflicting narratives, and in all honesty, I don't know in which direction this is going.
ZAKARIA: Karim, you follow this very closely. And Thomas reports that one of the more troubling signs is that for the last week or two, Iranian state TV has been, night after night, airing very fiery denunciations of the deal. What do you think we should read into that?
KARIM SADJADPOUR, CARNEGIE ENDOWMENT: Well, I think, as Thomas put it very well, Fareed, there is this inherent tension between the national and economic interests of Iran, the Iranian people, and then the revolutionary ideology of the Islamic Republic. And I think the Supreme Leader's position on this nuclear issue has been - has been quite classic Khamenei, in that he's been non-committal. He has refused to put his imprimatur on this deal and has been very Machiavellian. You know, what's interesting is that both the supporters and the opponents of the nuclear deal believe the Supreme Leader agrees with their position.
ZAKARIA: Thomas, what is the argument that the hardliners make? And you talk to some of these people. Is it that they feel that this deal - you know, I mean, in America, the hardliners felt that America gave away too much - is it their feeling that Iran was taken to the cleaners, or that Iran made too many concessions?
ERDBRINK: Absolutely. And a former nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, he actually went in front of the parliament commission that is currently reviewing this deal, and he said, there are more than 100 of our red lines crossed, which means in Iran's ideological lingo that, yes, basically, we have been taken to the cleaners. Now, note, not everybody thinks that the deal is bad. Velayati - he's a very important foreign policy adviser to Supreme Leader Khamenei. He has said, no, this is a good deal, and Mr. Jalili should basically shut up, because in his term in office as senior negotiator, he has not managed to cut any deal, whereas Mr. Rouhani's team has done so. So - but we must look beyond this. We must look beyond only the deal. This is also about which direction Iran will take. We are looking at a very divided Middle East, at a weakened Saudi Arabia, at problems across the region, and Iran being the only stable state. Now, for 37 years, Iran has opposed the United States, because of its ideology. People have a feeling that this ideology should be corrected, that maybe the hate towards the United States must be lowered down, that “the Great Satan” should be a “lesser Satan,” maybe. And this will have consequences, because will Iran cooperate with the United States in the region? That is what the current debate is really about, because the nuclear deal, I think Iran will accept that.
ZAKARIA: Karim, let me give you my thought and tell me if it's right, which is, at the end of the day, they'll accept - they'll pass this deal because Rouhani is the most popular figure in Iran, it seems to me, from what I am reading. He has, you know - there is enormous sense of hope and expectation. For him - for that hope to be dashed, to be, you know, shattered by the rejection of this deal, would be something that Khamenei would not want to do. He is, yes, he's a theocrat, but he's also a canny politician. So they'll, at the end of the day, grumbling, accept this deal. Does that make sense to you?
SADJADPOUR: That makes perfect sense to me, Fareed. Khamenei doesn't want to stand between Iranians and economic deliverance. But when the deal is passed and it's implemented, I think he will work very hard to totally emasculate Rouhani, as he has done with Iran's previous three, four presidents. Khamenei's modus operandi has always been to wield power without accountability. So he wants a president who has accountability without power. He'll want to weaken Rouhani and blame him when popular expectations of the deal are not met.
ZAKARIA: Thomas Erdbrink, Karim Sadjadpour, thank you for really fascinating insights.