United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Speech by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon

The following are excerpts from National Security Advisor Tom Donilon’s speech about U.S. policy on Iran at the Brookings Institution on Nov. 22, 2011.

In January 2009, Tehran believed, and many in the region believed, that Iran was ascendant.  Internally, the Iranian regime faced no significant challenge to its legitimacy.  Regionally, Iran’s reach seemed to have expanded like never before, with Iran and its proxies, such as Hezbollah, actively threatening others across the region.
In contrast, the international community was divided on how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program.  Multilateral diplomacy had stalled and direct American diplomacy with Tehran had seemingly been taken off the table.  During that time, Iran went from having some 100 centrifuges for enriching uranium in 2003 to more than 5,000 centrifuges when President Obama took office.  Most troubling was the fact that many in the world had even begun to give Iran the benefit of the doubt, and instead blamed the United States for tensions over Iran’s nuclear program, thereby allowing Iran to escape accountability for its intransigence…
With the broad support of the international community, we have steadily increased the pressure on the Iranian regime and raised the cost of their intransigence.  Our approach has been multi-dimensional and has included five distinct yet mutually reinforcing lines of action.
First, we have led the way in organizing an unprecedented array of sanctions that have imposed a significant price for Iran’s behavior, and succeeded in delaying the Iranian nuclear program.
Second, we have led a concerted effort to isolate Iran diplomatically as never before, regionally and globally. Third, we have worked with partners to counter Iran’s efforts to destabilize the region, especially during the Arab Spring.
Fourth, we have steadily and substantially invested in and deepened our defense partnerships in the region, building a robust regional security architecture that blunts Iran’s ability to threaten and coerce its neighbors, especially our Gulf Cooperation Council partners.  We have enhanced our significant and enduring U.S. force presence in the region.  In addition, we have worked to develop a network of air and missile defenses, shared early warning, improved maritime security, closer counterterrorism cooperation, expanded programs to build partner capacity, and increased efforts to harden and protect our partners’ critical infrastructure…
And the fifth and final element of our approach—even as we keep the door to diplomacy open—President Obama has said repeatedly, as recently as last week: we are not taking any options off the table in pursuit of our basic objective. Taken together, our multi-dimensional approach has put us in a position where we can employ any option—or the full range of options—and continue to ratchet up the pressure and price for Iran’s intransigence…
The effect of these sanctions has been clear.  Coupled with mistakes and difficulties in Iran, they have slowed Iran’s nuclear efforts.  Sanctions and export control efforts have made it more difficult and costly for Iran to acquire key materials and equipment for its enrichment program, including items that Iran cannot produce itself…
In 2007, the then head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization boasted that Iran would have 50,000 centrifuges installed within four years.  We are now nearing the end of 2011 and the IAEA reports that Iran has installed 8,000 centrifuges, with perhaps 6,000 operating…
Put simply, the Iranian regime has not yet fundamentally altered its behavior, but we have succeeded in slowing its nuclear program.  The international community has the time, space and means to affect the calculus of Iran’s leaders, who must know that they cannot evade or avoid the choice we have laid before them…
At home, Iran is feeling tremendous pressure.  It is harder for banks that support Iran's nuclear programs and terrorism to engage in international finance.  Just recently, President Ahmadinejad called sanctions “the heaviest economic onslaught” in the country’s history.  “Every day our banking and trade activities and our agreements are being monitored and blocked,” he said.  “Our banks cannot make international transactions anymore.”
We’ve made it harder for the Iranian government to purchase refined petroleum and the goods, services and materials to further develop Iran's oil and natural gas sector.  According to the Iranian oil minister, the country is facing a shortage of $100 billion in investment and deals for the oil and gas sector—a shortage that will increasingly affect production and future revenues…
Iran’s economy is increasingly vulnerable. Inflation is around 20 percent.  Iran’s unemployment is persistently high.  Despite high oil prices, Iran will likely have negligible growth this year. These are the heavy costs that the Iranian regime has chosen to impose on its people, by flouting its international obligations.
These economic difficulties are one more challenge to a regime that has already seen its legitimacy suffer.  The brutal response to the Green Movement two years ago revealed the hollowness of a government that claimed to draw its legitimacy from populist and Islamic principles.  This is a regime that offers nothing to its young burgeoning population, and which employs intimidation and violence to remain in power—the same recipe for unrest that has fueled the Arab Spring.
Atop its isolation from the Iranian people, the regime in increasingly divided within and under great stress.  The Supreme Leader and President Ahmadinejad seem increasingly headed toward a confrontation over the direction of the country.  The Supreme Leader has even talked about consolidating his power further by abolishing the Office of Presidency. We see fissures developing among the ruling class. The regime is focused on silencing dissent and preserving its reign at all costs.
Just as the regime is increasingly isolated and losing its legitimacy at home, Iran is increasingly isolated in the region.  The regional balance of power is tipping against Iran. Next door, Iran has failed in its effort to shape Iraq into a client state in its own image.  In fact, Iraqis are moving in the opposite direction—building a sovereign, democratic state with a strong aversion to illicit outside interference.  Iraq and Iran have very different visions of their future.  One recent poll found that just 14 percent of Iraqis have a favorable opinion of Iran.  Even the supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, who has been strongly supported by Tehran, have an unfavorable opinion of Iran by a margin of 3 to 1…
Iran has failed in its efforts to intimidate the Gulf states into yielding to Iranian dominance.  Reassured by the regional defense and security architecture I described earlier, the Gulf Cooperation Council states are more united than ever and more willing to challenge Tehran.
Iran has failed in its cynical attempts to take advantage of the Arab Spring, which, to put it mildly, has been unkind to Iran.  This season of change clearly caught Iranian leaders flat-footed and unprepared.  The events from Tunis to Damascus have made a lie of Tehran’s claims that change can only come through violent resistance.  Meanwhile, the Iranian regime’s hypocrisy has been exposed as they purport to celebrate uprisings abroad while continuing to crush dissent at home.
Just like al Qaeda, Iran’s model of extremism, violence, and the denial of basic human rights is being repudiated by a generation that is now demanding their universal rights by taking to the streets across the Middle East and North Africa.  Indeed, young people in Tunisia or Egypt, Libya or Syria are not protesting in order to be more like Iran.
Not surprisingly, data and polling of public opinion consistently show that Iran’s image in the region has plummeted.  Whereas in 2006 Iran’s favorability in Arab countries stood at nearly 80 percent, today it is down to an average of under 30 percent.  Why?  The most common reasons given—Iran’s crushing of dissent at home, its meddling in the region, its threats to peace and stability of the region, and its dangerous nuclear pursuits.
Rather than looking to Iran, people in these Arab countries are looking in the opposite direction—towards universal rights, towards democracy. ..Finally, Iran is increasingly isolated from the international community.  More nations than ever before are imposing and enforcing additional sanctions and measures.  As Iran looks around the world, it finds fewer friends, fewer protectors, and fewer business partners.  Its leaders have taken a great nation and an ancient civilization and turned it into a pariah that is unable to integrate or engage with the world. ..
Three years ago, the Iranian leadership was largely united.  Today, Tehran is wracked with division.  Three years ago, the international community was divided on how to proceed.  Today, we have forged an unprecedented degree of unity with allies and partners that Iran must be held accountable.  Three years ago, it was uncertain whether additional pressure could be brought to bear on Tehran.  Today, the regime is subject to the broadest and strongest sanctions it has ever faced, contributing to the Iran’s fundamental political and economic weaknesses.
Iran’s leaders, and Iran’s leaders alone, are responsible for the predicament in which Tehran now finds itself.  And Iran’s leaders, and Iran’s leaders alone, have the power to choose a different course.  The onus is on Iran…
If Tehran does not change course, the pressure will continue to grow.  Working with allies and partners, we will continue to increase sanctions.  With our Gulf Cooperation Council partners, we will continue to build a regional defense architecture that prevents Iran from threatening its neighbors.  We will continue to deepen Iran’s isolation, regionally and globally.  And, again—even as the door to diplomacy remains open—we will take no option off the table.  For our focus and purpose are clear.  Pressure is a means not an end, and our policy is firm.  We are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, as President Obama has said, we stand with the Iranian people as they seek their universal rights.  Iranians deserve a government that puts their daily ambitions ahead of its nuclear ambitions.  They deserve a normal relationship with the rest of the world—including the United States—where the Iranian people benefit from the trade and ties that come from being integrated into the global economy.
Put simply, the Iranian people deserve a future worthy of their past as a great civilization.  And that day will come sooner when the regime in Tehran abandons its reckless pursuit of a nuclear program that does nothing for is people but which endangers the security of the world.


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