United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Garrett Nada's Blog

Iran in 2016

Garrett Nada

2016 is a pivotal year for Iran, with implementation of the nuclear deal expected in January and high-stakes elections in February. Tehran’s ability to reengage with the international community will hinge on its compliance with the agreement. The parliamentary election could determine Iran’s direction on foreign and domestic policy. And the Assembly of Experts election could have a profound impact on the selection of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s successor.   
 
Nuclear Deal
 
Iran has made significant progress toward completing its key commitments under the nuclear deal. It has moved most of its low-enriched uranium out of the country, uninstalled thousands of centrifuges, taken steps to increase transparency, and specified its plan to convert the Arak reactor so that it can’t produce weapons-grade plutonium. Implementation Day, the next major milestone under the deal, will occur when the U.N. nuclear watchdog confirms Iran’s compliance.
 
Iran appears to be on track to meet its responsibilities as early as January. “We can say that everything is set for the final step, which is removing the core part [of the Arak reactor]” and replacing it with a new one, a spokesman for Iran’s atomic energy agency said on December 29.
 
On Implementation Day, the United Nations, the European Union and the United States will terminate, suspend or cease application of nuclear-related sanctions. Iran will be able to access the international financial system, repatriate some billions of dollars  in frozen assets abroad, and fully return to the oil market.
 
Iran is required to ensure its nuclear program—particularly uranium enrichment and research and development—remain within the parameters of the deal. On enrichment capacity, it must not exceed that of 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges. It will also only be able to enrich uranium to a maximum 3.67 percent, which is well below the level needed for a nuclear weapon. Iran must also allow the IAEA increased access to monitor its facilities.
 
Domestic Politics
 
On February 26, Iran will hold elections for parliament and the Assembly of Experts. About 12,000 candidates--a new record for the Islamic Republic--have registered to run for parliament’s 290 seats. More than 1,200 of them are women, also a record. The candidates must still pass the Guardian Council’s vetting process. Hardliners have dominated parliament for the last decade. The Rouhani government could gain more leverage to implement social, economic and political reforms if centrists and reformists win more seats than hardliners. A change in the balance of power would leave hardliners in control only of the judiciary.
 
The Assembly of Experts election is also critical. The 86-member body, popularly elected every eight years, has the authority to appoint and dismiss the supreme leader. It has never seriously questioned the actions of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini or the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But given Khamenei’s advanced age, 76, the next assembly is likely to select his successor. The current assembly is made up largely of elderly clerics. Again, centrists or reformists are hoping to gain seats. Hassan Khomeini, grandson of Iran’s late revolutionary leader, has increased the buzz around the election by registering to run. He has close ties to both centrist and reformist political elites.
 
Regional Issues
 
For Iran, the trajectory of the Syrian civil war is the most pressing foreign policy issue in 2016. In December, the U.N. Security Council endorsed a road map to end the five-year-old conflict. In January, representatives from the Syrian government and opposition are due to meet in Geneva. The goal is to broker a ceasefire and establish “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance” within six months. Elections are to be held, in accordance with a new constitution within 18 months.
 
 
The peace process has the potential to significantly impact Tehran. Syria and Iran have been close allies since the 1979 Iranian revolution. Iran has significant investments in the Syrian economy, and it has played a key role in training and equipping its military. Syria is also an important hub for Iranian influence in the Arab world. It is Iran’s conduit for sending arms and aid to its close ally Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia and political party. Additionally, Syria is home to several Shiite holy sites frequented by Iranian pilgrims. So Iran has an interest in ensuring that a friendly government, whether or not it includes President Bashar al Assad, continues to hold power in Damascus.
 
For Iran, fighting ISIS and other extremists groups is also a top priority. A ceasefire between the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime could potentially allow pro-government forces, aided by Iranian military advisors, to better focus on ISIS. Iran has lost at least eight generals in Syria in the past year and half. “That shows that we are serious about fighting Daesh. We consider ISIS and extremism to be a threat to all of us in the region,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told The New Yorker in December. Iran has a strategic interest in destroying the group, which has come within 25 miles of its border and destabilized its western neighbor, Iraq.
 
Iran is also interested in countering ISIS off the battlefield. In December, President Hassan Rouhani stressed the importance of countering the group’s extremist interpretation of Islam. “Today, more than ever, it is necessary that Islamic countries cooperate with each other and with more effort provide the true face of Islam, which is based on beneficence, kindness, compassion, and respect for the rights of all,” he said, in a message to heads of Muslim states marking the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed. “In this regard, collaborative partnership of Islamic nations in fight against extremism and violence will be an inevitable necessity.”
 
Tehran also has stake in the ongoing war in Yemen. Iran has supported the Houthis, a Zaydi Shiite movement that has controlled the capital, Sanaa, since September 2014. In December, peace talks between the rebels and President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government, supported by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, ended with no resolution. They talks coincided with a fragile ceasefire that then collapsed on January 2. A new round of talks is planned for mid-January.
 
The recent row between Saudi Arabia and Iran over Riyadh’s execution of dissident Sheikh Nimr al Nimr has the potential to negatively impact both the Syrian and Yemeni peace processes. On January 2, Saudi Arabia announced the execution of the Shiite cleric along with 46 other individuals, mostly Sunnis convicted of al Qaeda attacks in the kingdom a decade ago. Nimr was an outspoken critic about Riyadh’s neglect of its Shiite minority; he supported anti-government protests launched in the Eastern Province during the Arab Spring. Nimr’s execution prompted protests in Iran, where protestors ransacked the Saudi Embassy and tried to attack the Saudi Consulate in Mashhad.
 
On January 3, Saudi Arabia severed its diplomatic relations with Iran. Bahrain and Sudan followed suit. The United Arab Emirates downgraded its relations and Kuwait withdrew its ambassador. Both Riyadh and Tehran traded barbs as officials from European countries, the United Nations, the United States and regional powers urged calm. The U.N. envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, flew to Saudi Arabia to assess the impact of the dispute on efforts to end the Syrian civil war. Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir assured him that Saudi Arabia would not allow its dispute with Iran to interfere with the peace talks.
 
Economy
 
Iran’s economic outlook for 2016 is positive overall. In December, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicted that its real domestic product (GDP) could grow 4 percent to 5.5 percent from March 2016 to March 2017, Iran’s next fiscal year, if sanctions are lifted. The nuclear deal’s implementation, expected as soon as January, will trigger the lifting or suspension of nuclear-related U.N., E.U. and U.S. sanctions.
 
Iran is expected to reap economic benefits from sanctions relief in the near term. It will likely try to quickly repatriate its frozen assets. The U.S. Treasury estimates Iran will have $56 billion in available funds. Some countries, including major E.U. countries, will take steps to boost trade, while companies will try to develop consumer markets as soon as possible. Iran received some 60 foreign delegations between March and November, according to deputy economy minister Mohammad Khazaei. But some risk-averse European companies may hold off on investing in or building an Iranian market to until they are confident that the nuclear deal will hold. U.S. companies will still be prohibited from trading with Iran. So Iran’s economy is unlikely to recover overnight.
 
The IMF has also warned that “comprehensive reforms to the business environment” will be needed to “ensure that the expected lifting of economic sanctions has a significant impact on confidence and investment and places the economy on a higher and more inclusive growth trajectory.” The World Bank has also highlighted the need to reduce influence of state-owned companies and reform the finance sector.
 
Low oil prices are likely to be a key obstacle to significant economic growth for Iran in 2016. Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh has said that Iran would boost its production by about 1 million barrels per day--to 3.8 or 3.9 million--within a few months after sanctions are lifted. But even with an increase in market share, oil profits may prove sparse if prices remain low. In December, the price of Iran’s heavy crude oil fell below $30 a barrel for the first time in almost 20 years. Brent crude oil futures, the international benchmark, were down to $37.22 per barrel in early January. And prices are expected to remain low in 2016.
 
One of the factors behind the slump is Saudi Arabia’s flooding of the market. By producing more than 10 million barrels per day, Riyadh is ensuring that Iran’s profits from oil sales will be relatively minimal. Given the heightened tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the dynamic is likely to continue into 2016.
 
Another factor will be the implementation of Rouhani’s six-month stimulus package, approved in October. It aimed to inject cash into the stagnant economy and stimulate growth before sanctions are lifted. Some experts have warned that the move could increase inflation and jeopardize Iran’s economic recovery. But government officials have outlined precautionary measures to avoid a rise in inflation.
 
Unemployment, which stood at 10.8 percent at the end of 2015, will be a key challenge for the government. Youth unemployment was 25 percent. Some 40 percent of women with higher education were jobless. Foreign investment could, however, help create some jobs.  
 
The following are some key events expected during the first half of 2016.
 
Early January: Syrian President Bashar al Assad is reportedly scheduled to visit Tehran.
 
January: Iran expects to complete the preliminary steps necessary to begin implementation of the nuclear deal sometime in January. The United Nations would terminate nuclear-related sanctions. The European Union and the United States would terminate, suspend or cease application of certain sanctions as well.
 
Mid-January: Yemen’s government and Houthi rebels are scheduled to reconvene for another round of peace talks.
 
January 25: U.N. Syria mediator Staffan de Mistura will convene peace talks in Geneva. Representatives from the Syrian government and opposition are to attend. 
 
Late January: President Hassan Rouhani is scheduled to visit the Italy and the Vatican. 
 
Feb. 11: Iranians will mark “Revolution Day,” which commemorates the day Iran’s army sided with the people against the shah in 1979. Hundreds of thousands of people turn out each year to celebrate the victory of the Islamic Revolution.
 
Feb. 26: Iran will hold elections for parliament and the Assembly of Experts, the body tasked with appointing and dismissing the supreme leader. A second round of elections is expected in March.
 
March 20: Iranians will celebrate Nowruz, or Persian New Year, which marks the first day of spring. Iran will also begin a new fiscal year.
 
May 5-8: Iran is scheduled to holds its 20th International Oil, Gas, Refining and Petrochemical Exhibition in Tehran. 
 
Garrett Nada is the assistant editor of The Iran Primer at USIP.
 
Photo credits: Syrian peace talks by U.S. State Department via Flickr; Hassan Rouhani via President.ir 
 

 

Iran and the World in 2015

Garrett Nada
 
Iran went from being a pariah to a player in international affairs in 2015. The turning point was the final nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers brokered in July. It “changed the way the international community looked at Iran,” Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif said in December. The deal, just five months old, has already helped pave the way for Iran’s comeback on the international scene.
 
Nuclear Deal
 
On July 14, Iran and the world’s six major powers —Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States— reached a final deal on Tehran’s controversial nuclear program. Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran is to curtail its nuclear program and increase transparency in return for sanctions removal. The deal, subsequently endorsed in a U.N. Security Council resolution, culminated 20 months of intense and difficult negotiations.
 
 
On October 18, Adoption Day, Iran and the so-called P5+1 countries began taking steps to prepare for the deal’s implementation. In an October 21 letter to President Rouhani, Supreme Leader Khamenei approved the deal under certain conditions. But he warned that any new sanctions on Iran would be considered a violation of the agreement.
 
In November, the U.N. nuclear watchdog confirmed that Iran was removing centrifuges at the Natanz and Fordo facilities. In December, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a long-awaited report on Iran’s past nuclear activities. The IAEA concluded that Iran had worked on a “range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device,” despite its denial of any work on a nuclear weapons program. The most “coordinated” work was done before 2003, but some activities continued until 2009. The IAEA board of governors voted to close the probe on Iran’s past activities on December 15.
 
Iran aims to fulfill its commitments under the deal as soon as January 2016. So “Implementation Day” —when certain U.N., E.U., and U.S. sanctions will be lifted or suspended —is also expected to occur in January.
 
United States
 
At the close of 2015, the future of U.S.-Iran relations was uncertain. The nuclear deal had not changed the anti-American rhetoric in Iran. Indeed, the pace of vitriol noticeably increased. “U.S. officials seek negotiation with #Iran; negotiation is means of infiltration and imposition of their wills,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in September, captured in a string of tweets on his English-language account.  
 
Hardliners in Parliament took a particularly tough stand. On November 2, 192 out of 290 lawmakers signed a letter vowing not to abandon the slogan “Death to America (also translated as “Down with the USA”),” first popularized after the United States took in the ailing shah in 1979 and Iranian students seized the American embassy. On the 36th anniversary of the takeover, in November 2015, hardliners in parliament declared, “The honorable nation of Iran will under no circumstances be willing to put aside the ‘Death to America’ slogan because of the agreement on the nuclear issue; a slogan that has become a symbol of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the entirety of struggling nations have held Islamic Iran as a model for their own fight.”
 
The conflicting signals out of Tehran reflected a wider debate over the nature of Iran’s relationship with the United States. Hardliners were aggressive against their own government officials over contact with the United States after the nuclear deal. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s brief handshake with President Obama at the United Nations in September caused a firestorm. In an Instagram post, lawmaker Hamid Rasaee likened the encounter to embracing Satan (see below). The text reads, “Mr. Zarif! Did you sign the nuclear deal with the same hand?”
 
The supreme leader also counseled against further engagement with the United States. Despite the limited U.S. sanctions relief, he warned in November for Iranians to “seriously avoid importing consumer goods from the United States.” Khamenei also cautioned against getting sucked into the U.S. agenda in the Middle East. “U.S. goals in the region are diametrically opposed to Iran’s goals. Negotiation with the U.S. on the region is pointless,” he said in a speech on November 1. Two day later, Khamenei warned that Washington has attempted to “beautify” its image and “pretend” that it is no longer hostile to Iran. The United States “will not hesitate” to destroy Iran if given the chance, he said.  
 
President Rouhani took a softer line. In an interview with CBS, he said the “Death to America” chant “is not a slogan against the American people.” He said it was a reaction to longstanding U.S. support for the shah as well as Saddam Hussein during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. “People will not forget these things. We cannot forget the past, but at the same time our gaze must be towards the future,” Rouhani said. He acknowledged the potential for future talks. “Many areas exist where in those areas it's possible that common goals, or common interests, may exist,” he told CBS. Hardliners have been concerned that the Islamic revolution will be compromised by Rouhani’s willingness to engage with the United States again. 
 

Rouhani also indicated an openness to discussing the detention of U.S. citizens in Iran, a key point of contention. “If the Americans take the appropriate steps and set them free, certainly the right environment will be open and the right circumstances will be created for us to do everything within our power and our purview to bring about the swiftest freedom for the Americans held in Iran as well,” Rouhani told CNN on September 27, when he was in New York for the U.N. General Assembly. As of December, four Iranian-Americans were detained, including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, businessman Siamak Namazi, former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, and Rev. Saeed Abedini. A fifth American, former FBI agent Robert Levinson, has been missing since 2007, when he was last sighted on an Iranian island.  

Europe
 
In 2015, the European Union began exploring ways to build on the nuclear deal. E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini expressed a desire to integrate Iran into a regional framework to solve crises in the Middle East and to work cooperatively to confront the threat of the Islamic State (ISIS). Key E.U. member states began upgrading their diplomatic relations with Tehran. More than a dozen European nations reached out to Iran with high profile visits and phone calls with top officials. Representatives from European businesses also began flocking to Iran in anticipation of sanctions relief and the reopening of one of the Middle East’s largest markets.
 
Some of Iran’s old trade partners were the first to reach out. German vice chancellor and economics minister Signmar Gabriel arrived in Tehran on July 20, becoming the first high ranking Western official to visit after the July 14 announcement of the nuclear deal. Despite taking a tough stance during the nuclear negotiations, France also moved quickly. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius met with officials in Tehran just 15 days after the nuclear deal was signed. Italian officials visited Tehran in early August seeking to boost trade relations. 
 
On August 23, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond traveled to Tehran to reopen the British Embassy, which had been closed since 2011. The Iranian embassy in London was reopened the same day. In a joint press conference with Hammond, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that Iran and Britain had “entered a new phase of relations based on mutual respect.” Hammond was the first British Foreign Secretary to visit Iran in 12 years.
 
After receiving invitations from Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and French President Francois Hollande, President Rouhani scheduled visits to Italy, the Vatican, and France from November 14 to 17. It would have been his first trip to Europe as president. But it was postponed in light of the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris.
 
Russia
 
Russia and Iran strengthened their relationship in 2015, largely due to shared interests in supporting the Assad regime in Syria and countering Western powers. In January, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Tehran and signed an agreement with his counterpart Hossein Dehghan to expand military ties. “Iran and Russia are able to confront the expansionist intervention and greed of the United States through cooperation, synergy and activating strategic potential capacities,” Dehghan said.
 
In April, Russian President Vladimir Putin removed five-year-old restrictions on shipping S-300 surface to air missiles to Iran. Russia began transferring the systems to Iran in November. One of Putin’s aides predicted a major growth in Iran-Russia weapons contracts after international sanctions are lifted as part of the nuclear deal. “Considering the fact that this is a large country [Iran] with large military forces, we are talking very big contracts, worth billions,” said Vladimir Kozhin in December.
 
Also in April, Russia announced the implementation of an oil-for-goods barter deal with Iran. Iran would export up to 500,000 barrels of crude oil to Russia per day in exchange for goods an equivalent value. But as of late 2015, implementation was stalled due to low oil prices.
 
In September, Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria began sharing intelligence related to the fight against ISIS. Russia carried out its first air strikes in Syria on September 30 and continued to bomb targets through the end of the year. Moscow said it was targeting terrorist groups, including ISIS and the Nusra Front. But U.S. officials reportedly said Russia was targeting CIA-backed rebel groups. In mid-October, Russia and Iran coordinated to help pro-government forces retake Aleppo and the surrounding countryside from rebel groups. The commander of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards Qods Force, Qassem Soleimani, reportedly visited Moscow twice in 2015 to discuss Syria policy and strategy with Putin.
 
On November 23, Putin arrived in Tehran to discuss the Syrian crisis, the fight against ISIS and implementing the nuclear deal. Putin’s visit, his first in eight years, was timed to coincide with an international gas summit. Putin and Rouhani signed seven memoranda of understanding. Russia and Iran agreed to facilitate travel for their citizens to either country. The other memoranda were related to health, railways, banking and insurance, power generation and transmission, and groundwater exploration. 
 
China
 
In 2015, Iran and China took steps to increase cooperation across several sectors. On trade, China remained Iran’s biggest oil buyer in 2015. It bought 536,500 barrels per day of Iranian crude from January through October. From January through October, Iran reportedly extended crude oil contracts with its top two Chinese buyers into 2016 and shopped for other potential buyers. The energy hungry giant is positioned to remain a key investor in Iranian oil and gas infrastructure. In November, China’s state-owned railway proposed a high-speed rail link that would carry passengers and cargo between the two countries.
 
Iran was accepted as a founding member of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Bank (AIIB) in April. The entity was seen as a potential rival to the largely U.S.-led Word Bank and Japan-led Asian Investment Bank. In October, Iran purchased 2.8 percent of shares in the AIIB. Tehran also intends to join the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) New Development Bank established in July.
 
Iran is also likely to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2016. In July, the groups’ secretary general said Iran’s membership request would be placed on the agenda after implementation of the nuclear deal begins, currently expected in January. Membership would further cement Iran’s place in the Russian and Chinese economic spheres.
 
A string of high-level contacts in 2015 indicated that Beijing and Tehran aim to ramp up military cooperation as well. In October, the deputy chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army led a delegation to Tehran. Admiral Sun Jianguo said it aimed to “further promote friendship, deepen cooperation and exchange views with Iran on bilateral military ties and issues of mutual concern.” In November, Iran’s air force commander, Brigadier Hassan Shah Safi, met his counterpart in Beijing and toured state companies manufacturing aircraft and air defense hardware. In December, a high-ranking Chinese military delegation visited Tehran to discuss naval cooperation.   
 

South and Central Asia

Iran had greater success strengthening ties with its eastern neighbors in 2015. India and Pakistan were among the first countries Zarif visited after the nuclear deal’s announcement in July.
 
India remained Iran’s top oil buyer after China in 2015. As of October, it was India’s seventh largest supplier. Before international sanctions severely curtailed Iran’s exports around 2010, it was India’s second largest supplier. “India has been a friend of Iran in difficult times, and we don’t forget that,” Zarif told reporters in New Delhi in August. India moved to secure its interests in Iran’s natural gas reserves, the second-largest in the world. In December, a consortium of Indian companies reached an initial agreement to develop the Farzad B gas field under a $3 billion contract. Tehran and Delhi were also reportedly discussing a plan to build a $4.5 billion undersea gas pipeline to connect southern Iran to western India.
 
In an effort to increase bilateral trade of other goods, India and Iran signed a memorandum of understanding in May to develop the strategically important Chabahar port on Iran’s southern coast. In October, India said it was ready to invest some $196 million in Chabahar, but stipulated that investments would depend on the price of Iran’s natural gas. India and Iran both aim to seal the deal by January. Just 44 miles west of Pakistan’s Gwadar port, Chabahar could help India expand trade ties into Central Asia. India would also be less dependent on land routes through Pakistan to Afghanistan.
 
India-Iran economic cooperation is likely to continue expanding in 2016, when both are expected to become members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The intergovernmental group, founded in 2001, promotes cooperation among its six member states and six observer states in the political, economic, cultural, security and science spheres. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Rouhani actually met on the sidelines of a BRICS/SCO summit in July. 
 
Tehran was also keen on strengthening ties with Islamabad. Zarif visited Pakistan three times in 2015. In April, Zarif discussed the Yemeni crisis and Iran-Pakistan border security with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and other top officials. The shared 500-mile border runs through the homeland of the Baloch —a Sunni ethnic group that has waged a decades-long insurgency against both countries.
 
In August, Zarif met with Sharif in Islamabad again. Zarif said they discussed ways to increase cooperation “in sectors ranging from oil to gas, energy, transportation and others.” Security cooperation was also high on the agenda again. Islamabad assured Iran of its resolve to start work on its part of the gas pipeline. Iran completed its part of the $1.5 billion project in 2013, but Pakistan stalled due to international sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program.
 
In December, Zarif visited Islamabad for the fifth Heart of Asia – Istanbul Process Ministerial Conference aimed at helping bolstering regional security and economic cooperation with a focus on Afghanistan. Representatives from 14 countries participated.
 
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani visited Tehran in April. He and Rouhani announced plans to enhance security cooperation to counter ISIS and drug smuggling. They agreed to expand economic cooperation, especially regarding trade, transit, energy, industry and mining. Both countries had a shared interest in shoring up security along their porous 585-mile border. Smugglers have long taken advantage of the difficult terrain to sneak drugs into Iran. In 2015, however, Tehran became increasingly concerned about the possibility of a border attack by ISIS. In November, Iran conducted exercises near the border to simulate one. 
 
 
Garrett Nada is the assistant editor of The Iran Primer at USIP.
 
Photo credits: P5+1 officials in Vienna by US Dept of State via Flickr Commons; Rouhani photos via President.ir
 

 

Iran and the Region in 2015

Garrett Nada
 
Tensions between the Islamic Republic and the Arab world deepened in 2015, exacerbated by the wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. President Hassan Rouhani’s top priority after securing the nuclear deal in July was to improve relations with Tehran’s neighbors. Iran made limited progress in upgrading ties with its neighbors in South and Central Asia. But overall, Shiite Iran instead was isolated, especially as Sunni nations increased cooperation among themselves. 
 
 
 
 
Syria
 
In 2015, Iran sent more Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), including top generals, to help Damascus fight both rebels and extremist militant groups, including the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Nusra Front. Brigadier General Hossein Salami told Iranian state television that Iran was helping Syria build a new force with recruits from Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Pakistan. But the intervention took a growing toll. Iran lost at least four IRGC generals in Syria in 2015. From October 1 and December 15, IRGC combat fatalities reportedly totaled more than 100.
 
By October, Syrian President Bashar al Assad had the advantage in the balance of forces against the rebels, according to General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He estimated that less than 2,000 Iranians were operating in Syria. But Iran also organized militiamen from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and other countries to aid Syrian government troops. The Fatemiyoun military division, composed of Afghan refugees living in Iran and Syria, was reportedly the second largest foreign military force fighting for the regime, after the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah.   
 
But Tehran also appeared interested in diplomacy on Syria. Foreign Minister Zarif and a delegation of Iranians joined peace talks in October. Representatives from 17 countries, the United Nations, and the European Union participated in the talks. The decision to include Iran, backed by the United States, marked a major change after two earlier failed peace initiatives in 2012 and 2014. They held a second round in November.
 
 
For Iran, the two key issues were the fate of President Bashar Assad and the role of the opposition. The Syrian president “is the Islamic Republic of Iran's red line because he was elected president by the Syrian people,” said Ali Akbar Velayati, the supreme leader’s foreign policy advisor. Tehran views many of the rebel militias, some backed by the West, as terrorist groups.
 
Iraq
 
After ISIS came within 25 miles of Iran’s border in January 2015, Iran deployed more military advisors to Iraq to help fight the extremists. In March, General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s elite Qods Force, directed an assault by Iraqi military and Shiite militias in Tikrit. Tehran touted its role. Pictures of Soleimani on the frontlines were widely shared on social media. In October, General Dunford said that there were more than 1,000 Iranian troops in Iraq.
 

But Iran also suffered losses of senior personnel in Iraq. An IRGC commander, Reza Hosseini Moghadam, was killed by ISIS snipers in Samarra. Jassem Nouri, a seasoned commander who served in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, was killed near Ramadi. A Qods force commander close to Soleimani, General Sadiq Yari, was killed while fighting ISIS in Tikrit.  

 

Gulf Countries and Yemen
 
Relations between Iran and the Sunni sheikhdoms in the Gulf soured further in 2015. New Iranian outreach to the Gulf nations failed to stem the slide. In September, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries —Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates —accused Iran of interference in their domestic affairs by harboring fugitives, supporting terrorist groups and inciting violence. Shiite Iran and its Sunni neighbors also supported rival actors in the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts. In a sporadic war of words, Tehran accused Saudi Arabia of supporting terrorist groups, including ISIS and al Qaeda. Riyadh accused Iran of sending thousands of militants to Syria, further fueling Shiite-Sunni tensions.
 
In Yemen, Iran supported the Houthis, a Zaydi Shiite movement that has controlled the capital, Sanaa, since September 2014. Tehran condemned Saudi Arabia after it launched an air campaign, with support from other Gulf states, against Houthi rebels in March 2015. In a reflection of the tensions, the IRGC commander alleged in April that the kingdom was on the “edge of collapse” and that its air campaign was “shameless.” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the Saudi intervention a “genocide.”
 
Riyadh countered that Iran was responsible for exacerbating the Yemeni conflict. “Iran has relations with the Houthis, as it provides them with weapons and specialists, and Iran is one of the main reasons behind the war in Yemen,” Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir said in October. In his address to the U.N. General Assembly, Jubeir said Riyadh wanted good relations with Tehran, but also called on it to stop interfering in Arab affairs.
 
Saudi-Iran tensions flared again in September when hundreds of pilgrims – including more than 400 Iranians – died in a stampede during a Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's two holiest cities.
 
Bahrain
 
Bahrain’s troubled relationship with Iran was a microcosm of tensions between the Gulf states and Tehran. Their relations have been troubled since predominantly Shiite Bahraini citizens protested the Sunni-dominated government and monarchy in 2011 during the Arab Spring. Manama has routinely accused Tehran of meddling in its domestic affairs. Iran has denied interfering, saying that it only generally supports opposition groups seeking greater rights for Shiites. In February, Bahrain’s interior ministry published a list of 72 individuals whose nationality had been revoked over “intelligence, security, terrorism and allegiance issues.”
 
Bahrain announced in July that it had foiled an arms smuggling plot by two of its citizens with ties to Iran. Citing hostile Iranian statements, Manama withdrew its ambassador from Tehran. Iran’s foreign ministry urged Bahrain to deal with its own domestic issues and have a serious national dialogue instead of playing a “blame game.” In August, Bahraini authorities arrested five people for alleged links to Iran in connection with a bombing that killed two policemen.
 
In October, Bahraini security forces reported they had found a large weapons cache including 1.5 tons of C4 explosives. Bahrain’s foreign affairs ministry said it recalled its ambassador in Tehran “in light of continued Iranian meddling in the affairs of the kingdom of Bahrain ... in order to create sectarian strife and to impose hegemony and control.” The foreign ministry also gave Iran’s acting charge d’affaires three days to leave Bahrain.
 
In November, Bahrain arrested 47 members of a group allegedly tied to “terror elements in Iran.” A public prosecutor said five individuals had communicated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. They were stripped of their citizenship and sentenced to life imprisonment. 
 
Turkey
 
Iran’s relationship with Turkey in 2015 was characterized by both rivalry and cooperation. The biggest challenge facing the two was how to resolve the Syrian crisis. Ankara sought the removal of President Bashar al Assad while Tehran significantly upped its military presence in Syria to shore up his regime. Turkey also supported Saudi Arabia’s air campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Iran, widely seen as a backer of the Zaydi Shiite movement, condemned the intervention as a violation of Yemeni sovereignty.
 
In March, Turkish President Recep Erdogan accused Iran of trying to dominate the region and foment sectarianism. “Iran has to change its view. It has to withdraw any forces, whatever it has in Yemen, as well as Syria and Iraq and respect their territorial integrity,” he said at a press conference. Several Iranian lawmakers called on their government to cancel Erdogan’s April visit to Tehran, and one said Erdogan was trying to rebuild the Ottoman Empire.
 
Despite tensions, Erdogan made the trip. He and Rouhani signed eight agreements and focused on boosting economic cooperation. The two have been close trade partners for years. Iran accounts for some 20 percent of Turkey’s gas imports. A bilateral preferential trade agreement went into effect in January. Throughout 2015, the two sought ways to double their annual bilateral trade volume to $30 billion. Turkish Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek said the nuclear deal, announced in July, was “great news” for the Turkish economy and bilateral trade.
 
In December, the gulf between Turkey and Iran seemed to widen further. Erdogan again accused Iran and Iraq of pursuing sectarian policies in an interview with Al Jazeera. He justified the presence of Turkish troops in northern Iraq by citing the local needs of Sunnis for arms and self-defense training. “What will happen to Sunnis? There are Sunni Arabs, Sunni Turkmen and Sunni Kurds? What will happen to their security? They need [a] sense of security,” said Erdogan. Turkey also joined a 34-state coalition of solely Sunni states, led by Saudi Arabia, to fight terrorism. Shiite Iran’s exclusion from the group highlighted the deepening sectarian divide.
 
South and Central Asia
 
Iran had greater success strengthening ties with its eastern neighbors in 2015. India and Pakistan were among the first countries Zarif visited after the nuclear deal’s announcement in July.
 
India remained Iran’s top oil buyer after China in 2015. As of October, it was India’s seventh largest supplier. Before international sanctions severely curtailed Iran’s exports around 2010, it was India’s second largest supplier. “India has been a friend of Iran in difficult times, and we don’t forget that,” Zarif told reporters in New Delhi in August. India moved to secure its interests in Iran’s natural gas reserves, the second-largest in the world. In December, a consortium of Indian companies reached an initial agreement to develop the Farzad B gas field under a $3 billion contract. Tehran and Delhi were also reportedly discussing a plan to build a $4.5 billion undersea gas pipeline to connect southern Iran to western India.
 
In an effort to increase bilateral trade of other goods, India and Iran signed a memorandum of understanding in May to develop the strategically important Chabahar port on Iran’s southern coast. In October, India said it was ready to invest some $196 million in Chabahar, but stipulated that investments would depend on the price of Iran’s natural gas. India and Iran both aim to seal the deal by January. Just 44 miles west of Pakistan’s Gwadar port, Chabahar could help India expand trade ties into Central Asia. India would also be less dependent on land routes through Pakistan to Afghanistan.
 
India-Iran economic cooperation is likely to continue expanding in 2016, when both are expected to become members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The intergovernmental group, founded in 2001, promotes cooperation among its six member states and six observer states in the political, economic, cultural, security and science spheres. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Rouhani actually met on the sidelines of a BRICS/SCO summit in July. 
 
Tehran was also keen on strengthening ties with Islamabad. Zarif visited Pakistan three times in 2015. In April, Zarif discussed the Yemeni crisis and Iran-Pakistan border security with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and other top officials. The shared 500-mile border runs through the homeland of the Baloch —a Sunni ethnic group that has waged a decades-long insurgency against both countries.
 
In August, Zarif met with Sharif in Islamabad again. Zarif said they discussed ways to increase cooperation “in sectors ranging from oil to gas, energy, transportation and others.” Security cooperation was also high on the agenda again. Islamabad assured Iran of its resolve to start work on its part of the gas pipeline. Iran completed its part of the $1.5 billion project in 2013, but Pakistan stalled due to international sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program.
 
In December, Zarif visited Islamabad for the fifth Heart of Asia – Istanbul Process Ministerial Conference aimed at helping bolstering regional security and economic cooperation with a focus on Afghanistan. Representatives from 14 countries participated.
 
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani visited Tehran in April. He and Rouhani announced plans to enhance security cooperation to counter ISIS and drug smuggling. They agreed to expand economic cooperation, especially regarding trade, transit, energy, industry and mining. Both countries had a shared interest in shoring up security along their porous 585-mile border. Smugglers have long taken advantage of the difficult terrain to sneak drugs into Iran. In 2015, however, Tehran became increasingly concerned about the possibility of a border attack by ISIS. In November, Iran conducted exercises near the border to simulate one. 
 
 
Garrett Nada is the assistant editor of The Iran Primer at USIP.
 
Photo credits: Syria talks by US Dept of State via Flickr Commons; Erdogan and Rouhani and Ghani and Rouhani via President.ir;   
 

 

Anti-Americanism Grows in Iran — Again

Garrett Nada

The nuclear deal, announced in July, has not changed the anti-American rhetoric in Iran. Indeed, the pace of vitriol has noticeably increased. “US officials seek negotiation with #Iran; negotiation is means of infiltration and imposition of their wills,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in September, captured in a string of tweets on his English-language account 

Hardliners in Parliament have also taken a tough stand. On November 2, 192 out of 290 lawmakers signed a letter vowing not to abandon the slogan “Death to America (also translated as “Down with the USA”),” first popularized after the United States took in the ailing shah, in 1979. The U.S. decision led students to seize the American embassy and more than 50 hostages. On the 36th anniversary of the takeover, in 2015, the hardliners declared, “The honorable nation of Iran will under no circumstances be willing to put aside the ‘Death to America’ slogan because of the agreement on the nuclear issue; a slogan that has become a symbol of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the entirety of struggling nations have held Islamic Iran as a model for their own fight.” 

The former U.S. Embassy in Tehran is a focal point of anti-U.S. demonstrations. Iran also still holds mass rallies on the November 4 anniversary of the takeover. It even has a committee – complete with logo – charged with choreographing the events in front of the old embassy compound and televised nationally. 
 
 
In September, a branch of Revolutionary Guards, which controls the embassy, unveiled an enormous plaque quoting 100 anti-U.S. epithets by revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini. He called the United States an “infidel,” “oppressor,” “colonizer,” “criminal,” and “bully.” It was widely noted by Iranians on social media.
 
The conflicting signals out of Tehran reflect a wider debate over the nature of Iran’s relationship with the United States. Hardliners have been particularly aggressive against their own government officials for contact with the United States since the nuclear deal. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s brief handshake with President Obama at the United Nations in September caused a firestorm. In an Instagram post, lawmaker Hamid Rasaee likened the encounter to embracing Satan (see below). The text reads, “Mr. Zarif! Did you sign the nuclear deal with the same hand?”
 
As the final arbitrator on all issues, Supreme Leader Khamenei’s comments have been particularly striking.
 
In a July 18 sermon, Khamenei chastised a string of U.S. presidents. “From the beginning of the Revolution until today, five other U.S. presidents died or were lost in history dreaming that they would force the Islamic Republic to surrender. You too will enjoy the same fate,” he said, apparently referring to President Obama. “You too will never achieve the dream.”
 
In November, the supreme leader’s office released the following video clip, “Satan’s Confessions,” which was based on the sermon.   
 
 
The supreme leader also has counseled against further diplomacy with the United States. Despite the end of sanctions, he warned in November for Iranians to “seriously avoid importing consumer goods from the United States." He also cautioned against getting sucked into the U.S. agenda in the Middle East. “U.S. goals in the region are diametrically opposed to Iran’s goals. Negotiation with the U.S. on the region is pointless,” he said in a speech, on November 1. On November 3, Khamenei said that the “Down with the USA” slogan still has strong support in Iran and does not mean death to the American nation, but rather “death to American policies” and “death to Arrogance.” He also warned that Washington has attempted to “beautify” its image and “pretend” that it is no longer hostile to Iran. The United States “will not hesitate” to destroy Iran if given the chance, he said.   
 

President Rouhani has taken a softer line. In an interview with CBS, he said the “Death to America” chant “is not a slogan against the American people.” He said it was a reaction to longstanding U.S. support for the shah as well as Saddam Hussein during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. “People will not forget these things. We cannot forget the past, but at the same time our gaze must be towards the future,” Rouhani said. He acknowledged the potential for future talks. “Many areas exist where in those areas it's possible that common goals, or common interests, may exist,” he told CBS. Hardliners have been concerned that the Islamic revolution will be compromised by Rouhani’s willingness to engage with the United States again. 

 

Garrett Nada is the assistant editor of The Iran Primer at USIP.

 

Click here to see pictures of the November 4 rallies.  

 

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Photo credit: Hassan Rouhani by Robin Wright 

 

 

Iran’s Growing Toll in Syria

Garrett Nada

Iran’s involvement in Syria is growing. So is the Iranian death toll.
 
For decades, the Islamic Republic has been a pivotal ally of the Assad dynasty and a source of arms, military advisers, and billions in financial aid. But it stepped up support after the uprising began in 2011. It helped create the National Defense Forces, a group of some 80,000 Alawites, Shiites and regime loyalists who bolster the Syrian army. In 2013, Tehran reported the first deaths in Syria. Iran’s support for the regime of President Bashar al Assad became even more critical to the regime’s survival after the 2014 rise of ISIS. By 2015, Iran was losing senior Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) commanders deployed to aid Syrian government troops. In October, two generals, as well as several other Iranian troops, were killed. At least eight have been killed since 2013.
 
The presence of Iran and its allies, such as Hezbollah, has helped tip the military balance. “I think the balance of forces right now are in Assad’s advantage,” Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in October. He estimated that there were less than 2,000 Iranians operating in Syria and more than 1,000 in Iraq.
 
Brigadier General Hossein Hamedani is the best known IRGC officer to be killed. He was a hero of the Iran-Iraq war. He was held in such high esteem that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei paid a visit to his grieving family. Iran claimed that he was killed by ISIS on October 8. Brigadier General Reza Khavari, a senior IRGC commander of the Fatemiyoun Division, was killed in Hama province, in central Syria, on October 22. A bodyguard to former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was also killed in October. In April, Major General Hadi Kajbaf was killed near a rebel-held town south of Damascus.
 
Iran has repeatedly claimed that only a small number of troops are in Syria—and only in an advisory role. Iranian media reported that they are helping devise strategy against “takfiri” forces, referring to al Qaeda affiliates, the Islamic State (ISIS) and other extremist Sunni groups challenging the Damascus government. (Takfiri is a name for Muslims who accuse other Muslims of apostasy).
 
“We do not have a direct role in the fighting,” Iran’s ambassador to Syria, Mohammad Reza Shaybani, told The Guardian in September. In October, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told The New Yorker, “We haven’t changed the nature of our presence in Syria. It continues to be military advisers, and no more.”
 
But in early October 2015, Lebanese sources claimed that hundreds of Iranian troops entered Syrian in preparation for a major ground offensive. In mid-October, Qassem Soleimani, the IRGC commander of the elite Qods Force, was seen touring the front lines as pro-government forces amassed for a major campaign in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. The Syrian army was bolstered by hundreds of troops from the Lebanese militia Hezbollah and Iran as well as Russian air power, according to Reuters.
 
Iran has also organized militiamen from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and other countries to aid Syrian government troops. Between January 2013 and August 2015, funerals had been held for some 121 Afghan nationals and 20 Pakistani nationals who died fighting in Syria, according to Iran expert Ali Alfoneh. More have reportedly died since then. The Fatemiyoun military division, composed of Afghan refugees living in Iran and Syria, is reportedly the second largest foreign military force fighting for the regime, after the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah.   
 
Iran has cultural as well as strategic interests in Syria, which is home to some 50 Shiite shrines and holy places. They have been sites of Iranian pilgrimages for centuries. Iran has committed to defending Shiite holy places from Sunni extremists. It called for volunteers to protect shrines in May 2013, after Sunni rebels reportedly ransacked the Damascus shrine of Hojr Ibn Oday, who was revered in early Shiite history. 
 
Iran is particularly attached to the Sayyidah Zaynab Shrine, near Damascus, another hallowed site for Shiites. Iranians have volunteered to protect the gold-domed structure, which houses the remains of Zaynab, who was the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammed and daughter of Ali, the fourth leader of the early Islamic empire. Shiite literally means “follower of Ali.” In June, Iranian state media noted that 400 volunteers or “martyred defenders” of the shrine had been killed.
 
The following is a rundown of some of the higher ranking Iranians and IRGC members who have been killed in Syria.
 
Nov. 16, 2015: First Lieutenant Imam Khazaeinejad was reportedly killed “in combat with ISIS.”
 
Nov. 9, 2015:  IRGC Major Mohammad Tahan from the Ghaem al Mohammad unit was reportedly killed. IRGC Commander Major General Ali Jafari wrote a letter of condolence to his family.
 
Nov. 9, 2015:  Major Mousa Jamshidian was reportedly killed. He was in the IRGC 8th Najaf Ashraf Armored Division. 
 
Nov. 3, 2015: Colonel Ezzatollah Soleimani was killed in Aleppo. Prior to his deployment to Syria, he was commander of the Hazrat Bani Hashem Brigade 44. Seyed Ali Hosseini Alemi from the Fatemiyoun Division and Captain Seyed Sajjad Hosseini from the Khordad 15 Artillery Division were also killed in Aleppo province.  
 
Oct. 25, 2015: IRGC Third Lieutenant Mohammad Zahiri was reportedly killed near Aleppo.
 
Oct. 24, 2015: IRGC member Milad Mostafavi was reportedly killed in Aleppo fighting ISIS.
 
Oct. 23, 2015: IRGC members Mostafa Sadrzadeh was reportedly killed in Aleppo fighting ISIS. Sajjad Tahernia and Ruhollah Emadi were killed near Aleppo.
 
Oct. 22, 2015: Brigadier General Reza Khavari, a senior IRGC commander of the Fatemiyoun Division was killed in Hama province, which is in central Syria. Mohammad Estehkami Jahromi, from the IRGC’s 33th Airborne Special Forces Brigade, was also killed.
 
Oct. 19, 2015: Basij force commander Nader Hamid reportedly died from his wounds several days after a clash with rebels in Quneitra province. Mehdi Alidoust, a member of the IRGC 17th Ali Ibn Abu Taleb Division, was killed
 
Oct. 17, 2015: IRGC commander Muslim Kheizab is reportedly killed while on an advisory mission in Syria.
 
Mid-October 2015: Abdollah Baqeri Niyaraki, an IRGC commander and who previously served as a bodyguard of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was killed defending a religious site near Aleppo with Amin Karimi.
 
Oct. 13, 2015: Colonel Farshad Hasounizadeh, the former commander of IRGC's Saberin Special Brigade, and Hajj Hamid Mohktar-band, the former commander of IRGC Hazrat Hojjat 1 Brigade, was killed in southern Syria.
 
Oct. 8, 2015: A top IRGC commander, Brigadier General Hossein Hamedani, was killed during an attack by ISIS near Aleppo.
 
 
Late August 2015: Ahmad Hayari, commander of the Shoush Basij Imam Hossein Brigade, was killed in Latakia, an Assad regime stronghold in northwest Syria. 
 
July 11, 2015: IRGC Colonel Qassem Gharib and Colonel Abduk Karim Ghavabish were killed in Syria. 
 
April 2015: IRGC Major General, Hadi Kajbaf, was killed near a rebel-held town south of Damascus along with three other Iranians, including a mid-ranking Shiite cleric.
 
Jan. 18, 2015: IRGC Brigadier General Mohammad Ali Allahdadi was killed in an alleged Israeli airstrike on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
 
Oct. 9, 2014: IRGC Brigadier General Jabbar Darisavi was killed near Aleppo.
 
May 26, 2014: Abdollah Eskandari, a retired senior IRGC Brigadier General, was killed while fighting south of Damascus, according to Iran’s defense ministry.
 
November 2013: IRGC Commander Mohammad Jamalizadeh was killed in Syria.
 
Oct. 31, 2013: Western media outlets aired video footage of IRGC members engaged in combat. 

August 2013: IRGC Brigadier General Esmail Haydari was killed in Syria.
 
Feb. 12, 2013: IRGC Brigadier General Hassan Shateri was killed while traveling from Damascus to Beirut.
 
Jan. 28, 2013: Ali Asgari Taqanaki, a Qods Force operative, was killed in Damascus. It was the earliest record of an Iran national to die in combat, according to Ali Alfoneh.
 
Garrett Nada is the assistant editor of The Iran Primer at USIP.
 
Photo credits: Zaynab Shrine via Wikimedia Commons [public domain];   

 

 

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