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Ominous Divide : Shiite Iran v Sunni Gulf

Frederic Wehrey

What is the current state of Sunni-Shiite tension in the Gulf? How has it changed over the last 15 years?
 
            Sectarian tensions have become a major part of political life in the Gulf Arab states, particularly in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait. Shiites in each state suffer varying degrees of religious discrimination and political marginalization. Tensions are typically portrayed as a spillover effect of sectarian strife elsewhere in the region (the Iraq War, and, more recently, the Syria conflict) or Iran’s deliberate incitement of local Shiite communities in the Gulf. But they are only part of the story.
 
     The roots of Shiite-Sunni tensions in the Gulf are more complex and ultimately more local. They are deeply woven into the political fabric of individual states. Sectarian identities have been further sharpened by uneven access to political and economic capital, official and quasi-official discrimination, and the absence of truly inclusive governing structures. This is true in virtually every field: government bureaucracies, the security sector, the labor market, clerical establishments, the legal system, provincial development and so on. 
 
      The recent rise in tensions is particularly tied to the failure of reforms promised at the turn of the millennium that has left young Shiites deeply embittered and frustrated. Young activists claim that their generation is susceptible to sectarian mobilization because it is shut out of the social compact, deprived of access to economic and political capital, and instilled with a sense of “otherness.”
 
            During the Iraq War, Gulf regimes—particularly Bahrain and Saudi Arabia—increasingly viewed Shiite demands for reform as a security threat. Tensions reached an apogee after the 2011 Arab uprisings, when Sunni clerics and Gulf media attempted to portray initial demands for democracy as narrowly Shiite in character and inspired by Iran. This strategy created fissures within the reform movement by exacerbating Shiite-Sunni identities, as it implicitly highlighted the ruling families as arbiters over a fractious and divided citizenry.
 
            The war in Syria has amplified tensions. The “sectarianization” of that conflict—due to both Assad’s policies and outside intervention by Arab states and Iran—has rippled across the Gulf. Sunni clerics in the Gulf have demonized the Alawite regime and its allies, with blowback on local Shiites. Many Gulf Shiites are now ambivalent, if not opposed, to supporting the Syrian opposition, which is increasingly seen as anti-Shiite.
 
      The recent explosion of social media has deepened discord; it parallels the rise in sectarianism over the past 15 years. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have created a vast echo chamber for sectarian strife to reverberate from one corner of the region to the other. Social media is a real-time theater where audiences do not just observe but participate in ongoing conflicts in the region. The most strident purveyors of sectarianism are given disproportionate weight on social media.  
 
            Gulf regimes have been inconsistent—and even contradictory—in policing this toxic discourse. At one level, sectarianism in the media has a certain utility: It is a reminder of the monarchy’s value as the glue binding society together. Yet Gulf regimes also fear such vitriol will fuel a dangerous strain of Salafi extremism beyond their control. There are already signs of this happening.
 
            If Gulf political life had greater inclusivity and pluralism, then sectarian identities would be less politicized and less malignant. Social media and regional conflicts would also have less of a mobilizing effect on Gulf citizens. 
 
How has the tension affected the geopolitical balance between Iran and the Gulf states?
 
      The conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not driven primarily by a Sunni-Shiite divide or even Arab-Persian ethnic differences. The conflict is informed by two radically different models of government—each laying claim to Islamic legitimacy—and two very different visions of regional order.   
 
      Iran’s system has enshrined the role of religious authorities in political life and given people a partial say in governance through elections. The Saudi ruling family has effectively de-politicized its clerics and continues to abhor the principle of democratic elections.  
 
            The question of U.S. power in the region is also at the heart of the struggle: Iran sees a Middle East free from U.S. military influence, whereas Saudi Arabia historically has required some sort of external balancer to serve as a check against Iran—and Iraq. The two sides have also jostled for patronage of historically pan-Arab “portfolios,” such as the Palestinian cause. The al Saud see Iran’s involvement in this issue as tremendously threatening to its regional and even domestic legitimacy.
 
            Iran has generally tried to downplay sectarianism in its media and in the way it frames its role in the region. In its proxy conflict with Iran, Saudi Arabia has not pursued an explicitly sectarian foreign policy. But both states have ended up backing local actors that are in fact sectarian—and increasingly so in light of Syria’s war. Regardless of intent, the meddling of the two powers in weak and fragmented states is fueling a dangerous form of identity politics. Yet both sides are also capable of dialing back and tempering sectarianism. This played out in Lebanon after the 2006 war. It is happening again now in Bahrain, where Iran (and Hezbollah) have lowered the tenor of their criticism of Saudi policies. 
 
What are the implications for Western interests in the Gulf?
 
            The rise in sectarianism does not present an immediate threat to U.S. interests in the Gulf. Sectarianism is deeply embedded in the DNA of Salafi-jihadism and the al Qaeda worldview. Gulf funding and volunteers in the Syria conflict are creating new strains of al Qaeda-ism that could eventually threaten Gulf regimes and U.S. interests.  
 
            Gulf Shiites have not volunteered or provided funds to Syrian fighters to the same extent as Sunnis have. Indeed, Shiite clerics have assiduously warned against such activity. A few Shiite businessmen, particularly in Kuwait, have provided funding. But by and large, Gulf Shiites remain focused on their local rights—and within the framework of existing political process.   How long this restraint will last, given the current stalemate on reform, remains to be seen.
 
            U.S. and Western interests may eventually be threatened if Shiite opposition activity takes a more extremist turn. Already, activists from the February 14 Youth Movement in Bahrain have linked the U.S. Fifth Fleet with the repressive tactics of the ruling al Khalifa family. Whether and how this nascent anti-Americanism devolves into a more serious threat depends on how the United States is perceived as a neutral broker.
 
            U.S. officials should see sectarianism in the Gulf as a symptom, a wake-up call for meaningful political reform that could stave off more serious challenges to the monarchies down the road.
 
What are the broader implications for regional stability and even the modern map of the Middle East?
 
            The current sectarian tensions in the Gulf are not prompting a fundamental shift in the regional map. Historically, sectarian affinities were one set of identities that co-existed alongside other affiliations: national, ethnic, tribal/familial, local, urban, generational, and so forth. Looking at the Middle Eastern map in terms of sectarianism downplays the power of these other forces. For most Shiites in the Gulf, the existing nation-state remains the framework through which they conduct their activism.  
 
            There have been very few calls for secession or the creation of a united Shiite state encompassing Shiite communities in eastern Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and southern Iraq. A Shiite state enjoys little support, given the unique national histories of Shiite communities in each country, the religious and intellectual genealogies of their elites, and the power of familial and tribal bonds.
 
            Bahrain is one instance where sectarianism has contributed to a potential redrawing of the map. Since 2012, Sunni Islamists and regime hardliners have been calling for greater political and military union with Bahrain’s Sunni patron, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 
 
Iran has claimed the Arab uprisings are a continuation of its own 1979 revolution. What influence has Iran actually had on Shiites in the Gulf?
 
            Iran largely abandoned attempts to export its revolution to the Gulf in the 1990s. Gulf Shiite activists also distanced themselves from affiliation with the Iranian government, even while maintaining religious ties to Iranian clerics. Today, Gulf Shiite elites who embrace the Islamic Republic’s principle of velayet-e faqih and regard Supreme Leader Khamenei as their marja’ (clerical reference) do not enjoy wide support.   
 
            But for many Gulf leaders who came of age during that seismic event, the Iranian revolution remains the prism through which they view local Shiite activism. The phobia is partly strategic: Portraying Shiite protestors as Iranian-backed delegitimizes them and undermines the possibility of cross-sectarian cooperation between Shiites and Sunni liberals and reformists.  
 
            Iran is not backing Gulf Shiite activity to the extent that its notorious Qods Force is supporting Shiite militants in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. There may be scattered and episodic contacts between activists and elements of the Iranian government or Hezbollah. As is the case elsewhere in the region, Iran may have sleeper cells waiting to strike the oil infrastructure of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province or the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. But this does not imply that Iran is directing or orchestrating the post-2011 protests in the Gulf or that its support is crucial to their continuation. 
 
            Moving beyond the Iranian revolution’s long shadow in the Gulf, especially on sectarian relations, may be a matter of generational change. Many Shiite youth in the Gulf described themselves as post-ideological, post-sectarian and even post-clerical. Among the regimes, the ascendance of a younger generation of royalsfor whom the Iranian Revolution is less of a formative memory and sectarian dogma has less usefulness—may also change the dynamics. Yet these positive trends may also be offset by both the growing strength of Salafism among Sunnis and the new strain of sectarianism being bred by the Syria conflict.
 

Frederic Wehrey is a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Click here for information on Wehrey's new book, Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings.

 

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Political Cartoons I: The Arabs and Iran

            The following political cartoons reflect the Arab world’s growing alarm over the potential for progress on Iran’s nuclear program. The Gulf sheikdoms especially fear that a diplomatic deal will allow rival Iran to shed its pariah status and reemerge as a regional powerhouse — to their disadvantage.
 
            A figure representing Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wears a hand puppet representing President Hassan Rouhani and discards another puppet representing former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (Source: Kamiran Semdir for Al Jazeera)
 
            Figures representing Iran and the United States embrace each other with arms resembling machine guns. Signposts on both sides read “the Arabs.” (Source: Al Mezmaah)
 
             Iran marches towards a chair labeled “dreams of hegemony.” Iran’s right leg represents Syria. The left leg represents Hezbollah, a Shiite Lebanese militia and political party backed by Tehran. Hezbollah is currently supporting the Syrian regime against opposition forces. (Source: Syrian Change)
 
            Supreme Leader Khamenei holds Rouhani’s hand while telling Ahmadinejad to go home and let the new president have his “turn to play.” The donkey is labeled “[Nouri] al Maliki”, prime minister of Iraq. The yellow block bears Hezbollah’s logo and the orange block above it represents “Al Mayadeen TV,” a Lebanese channel. The red and white block represents Bahrain, where predominantly Shiite protestors have called for greater political freedom. The green block represents the Houthi rebels in northern Yemen, a Shiite group. (Source: Yasser Abu Hamid via Syria Change)

 

            A figure representing President Rouhani climbs a ladder to the Geneva nuclear talks while addressing an outstretched hand in a Syria-shaped well labeled “Hassan Nasrallah’s well.” Nasrallah is the secretary general of Hezbollah. Rouhani says “I have no time for you now!” (Source: Hassan Bleibel)
 
           A caricature of Secretary of State John Kerry says “my beloved friend… the Axis of Evil!” while reaching to shake hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. “My brother… the Great Satan!” the caricature of Zarif says. (Source: Hassan Bleibel via Entekhab News)
 
           The bar across the door reads “nuclear deal” and the substance seeping out from underneath is labeled “sanctions.” The stunned and confused figure facing the door has an armband labeled “Tehran.” (Source: Ashaq Al-Awsat)
 
Faris Al Sulayman, a research assistant at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, contributed to this roundup.
 

Political Cartoons II: Iran and the Arabs

            The following political cartoons illustrate Iranian views of Arab reactions to progress on solving the nuclear dispute. Many Iranians viewed the Geneva nuclear agreement as a victory for Tehran and a setback for the Gulf states.  

            An Arab representing the Gulf sheikhdoms is enraged over the Geneva nuclear agreement. He tries to pick a tool of destruction to sabotage the deal. (Source: Saeed Sadeghi for Edalat Press)
 
            The figure on the far right represents the Gulf states. He tags along with representatives of the world’s six major powers on their way to nuclear negotiations with Iran. The Iranian negotiator on the left appears to be puzzled by the Arab’s presence. The cartoon references Saudi Arabian Prince Turki al Faisal’s suggestion to include the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in talks with Iran. (Source: Peyman Alishahi for Fars News Agency)
 
            A figure representing a Saudi prince applies ice to his head, which aches from all the talk about the P5+1 talks with Iran and the GCC’s exclusion. (Source: Saeed Sadeghi for Fars News Agency)
 
            A figure representing Saudi Arabia pushes a shopping cart with a nuclear bomb presumably bought from its ally Pakistan. “We are not going to sit idly by and receive a threat there and not think seriously how we can best defend our country and our region,” Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz told the Times of London just before the Geneva talks. (Source: Javad Takjoo for Fars News Agency)

 

Faris Al Sulayman, a research assistant at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, contributed to this roundup.
 

Vienna Talks Preview: U.S. on Challenges

            On February 17, Obama administration officials outlined challenges facing upcoming nuclear talks between Iran and the world’s six major powers — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States. The parties are slated to meet in Vienna on February 18. “It’s probably as likely that we won’t get an agreement as it is that we will,” said a senior administration official. “But we have also said, and I just as firmly believe this, that these negotiations are the best chance we’ve ever had for diplomacy to resolve this most pressing national security challenge,” added the official. The following is the full text of the briefing.

 
Background Briefing by a Senior U.S. Official
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  These next days this week are the beginning of what will be a complicated, difficult, and lengthy process.  When the stakes are this high and the devil is truly in the details, one has to take the time required to ensure the confidence of the international community in the result.  That can’t be done in a day, a week, or even a month in this situation.  But our aim remains to move in a deliberate, concentrated manner to get the job done.
 
We don’t know if, at the end of these six months, we will be able to achieve a comprehensive agreement, though we aim to.  As President Obama has said, and I quite agree, it’s probably as likely that we won’t get an agreement as it is that we will.  But we have also said, and I just as firmly believe this, that these negotiations are the best chance we’ve ever had for diplomacy to resolve this most pressing national security challenge.  We absolutely want to ensure that the first step is not the only step or the last step.  We must build on the progress of the first step and get a final agreement, a comprehensive agreement, that addresses all of our and the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.
 
It’s important to note that since we finalized the Joint Plan of Action in Geneva in November, we have been working very hard with the European Union, the rest of the P5+1, our other international partners, and indeed, with the Iranians to move this process forward in some important ways.  First, we translated the JPOA, the Joint Plan of Action, into a set of technical understandings that went into effect on January 20th.  Iran made some very serious commitments regarding its nuclear program, and to date they have carried out those commitments.  Similarly, we made commitments to pause a limited number of sanctions, and we have kept our commitments. 
 
And as the implementation of the first step took effect, we’ve been consulting our friends in the region, as we always do, to make sure they’re up to speed on the process and where we’re going from here, as well as making sure the international community knows what has and what hasn’t occurred. 
 
We’ve also been working quite closely with the United States Congress.  Experts from the State and Treasury Departments have been briefing both members and staffers to make sure they have all the facts about what is in the Joint Plan of Action, what Iran has done, and what we have done in return.  Part of that discussion, of course, has been to address our concerns about passing any new sanctions legislation at this point.  And we think that members have been very receptive in these discussions.
 
Finally, our experts have already begun engaging with our EU and P5+1 counterparts to begin discussions about what the contours of a comprehensive agreement would look like.  Now we are ready to sit down with Iran and begin the much more difficult task of trying to negotiate this comprehensive agreement.  One topic, of course, that will be discussed in the first round is procedurally how these talks will progress – what the format will be, what the timing will be, how much will be done at the expert level, vice the political director or foreign minister level. 
 
Substantively, as we begin to talk more about what we will need to be part of any comprehensive agreement, it’s worth keeping in mind a maxim we’ve been repeating for some time and which is explicitly written into the Joint Plan of Action: that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.  As we dive into these discussions, it will be tempting for people to try to hone in on one or two issues or to try to figure out where the sticking points are.  But as we’ve made very clear, all of the issues must be addressed to the international community’s satisfaction during these negotiations for us to get a comprehensive agreement completed.  And some of these issues are well outlined in the JPOA.
 
As I said, we know this will be a long process.  Progress will be tough, and it may slower at times than any of us wishes.  There will undoubtedly be some ups and probably many downs.  As we prepare to sit down tomorrow to begin these comprehensive negotiations, we are clear-eyed, focused, and determined.  Now we’re going to see what we can get done.
  
 
QUESTION:  So last week it came out that Iranian oil exports have been increasing.  We’ve also seen that there’s this Russian-Iranian potential oil deal.  Today, the Iranians have been saying that perhaps there could be an exchange, an additional reactor created by the Russians in exchange for oil.  Are these things undermining your leverage in negotiating with the Iranians?  And how does this impact this process, if at all?
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  There are always events that take place that have some impact, but in what you’ve just outlined, I don’t see any in particular.  In the sense that there are always fluctuations in the oil markets, there are always fluctuations in the amount of oil that is being bought, even within the cap that is in the architecture of our sanctions.  So this is very much anticipated, and so we look at the aggregate over time.  And we’re quite satisfied with where we are.
 
Secondly, in terms of the oil-for-goods deal, or oil-for-a-second-Bushehr-reactor deal, I also note that that article says that it will be very complicated to put such an agreement together, and perhaps they can get it together by August.  I think that we will hear a lot of people hoping to put things together, but I think you have heard from the President of the United States, from the Secretary of State, from me, from my colleagues at Treasury, that the major parts of our sanctions are in place and our underlying sanctions architecture is in place both on the oil side, on the financial and banking side, and if people try to evade our sanctions, we will find them.
 
 
QUESTION:  What did you make of Ayatollah Khamenei’s comments today that he thought all this was a great waste of time, and that he wouldn’t stop the negotiations, and if they succeeded, which he thought was impossible, that would be great, but enmity would continue, which is probably less important.  But how did you interpret it?  Was he preparing Iranians for a long haul, or for failure, or what do you think?
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  You have to ask him what his intentions were.  But I think you know he made the statement he did today – President Obama has said that he believes this is a 50-50 proposition.  So I think, probably with all of you, we don’t have to worry about high expectations. 
 
And indeed, I think it is right to approach these negotiations with a sober frame of mind.  If this were easy to do, it would have been done a very long time ago.  It is extraordinary that we were able to take a first step, commitments of which are being kept by everyone.  We now have to build on that so that it is not the only step and it is not the last step.  But it is very complex; it is very difficult.  We are all committed to working as hard as we possibly can, as fast as we can, but this is a very detailed-oriented comprehensive agreement with very difficult decisions that have to be taken by everybody.  So I certainly think leadership all over the world is keeping expectations at the appropriate place – cautious, very cautious.
  
QUESTION:  You mentioned that you’ve been consulting closely with Congress.  And since the JPOA is supposed to expire (inaudible) concerns about pressure increasing (inaudible) or after the several weeks (inaudible) putting new sanctions bill on that, at that point, might have a veto-proof majority because we’re going into November midterms?  How do you think the domestic politics will play into the pressure that will be on your administration?
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Many people have brought up our midterm elections--and won’t that have pressure on what we do?  And I would say that throughout this process, the President, the Secretary of State have made – and policymakers in U.S. Government – have made decisions they thought served the national security interest of the United States.  If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have worked so hard to tell the Congress, “Please do not pass new sanctions legislation now.”  The politically easy thing to do would have been to say, “Okay.”  But that wasn’t, in the view of the President and the Secretary and all of us, the right thing to do. 
 
The right thing to do was to give diplomacy a chance.  And that is what we are intent on doing, and that is what we are going to continue to do.  We are grateful to the Congress for their leadership on putting sanctions in place.  They have had an important effect on this diplomatic process.  But just because something has worked in one circumstance doesn’t mean it works in the next circumstance.  And we have had a great deal of conversation, and the members of Congress have come to understand that we should get this space and time to give this diplomacy a chance.  And I’m very grateful for those choices.
 
 
QUESTION:  I have a question about the joint commission.  The narrative to this point has been there has been two tracks – the IAEA track which is looking at the PMD issues, and the diplomatic political track looking into the broader (inaudible) nuclear issues.  Those paths seem to have come to a confluence, and I’m curious to hear how you envision the joint commission working, in as much technical detail as you can provide, including how the IAEA will be participating in – at what level, et cetera.  And if you could just mention the joint commission’s role in clearing PMD issues specifically, that would be helpful.
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  The joint commission is not set up to clear away PMD.  That is, in the first instance, the IAEA’s job.  And they’re undertaking that.  And in fact, the more that Iran can do to meet their obligations with the IAEA, the better for the nuclear negotiating process around a comprehensive agreement.  So the two partner with each other, but they are not the same.  The JPOA says that we will be of assistance where we can in resolving past and present issues, which reflects possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program.  But we want to do that in service to the IAEA, and we don’t want to do the job that belongs to the IAEA.
 
The joint commission was set up as a mechanism, when necessary, if there are compliance issues with the JPOA or questions that need to get resolved.  So that’s what the joint commission is for.  So if Iran was not fulfilling a commitment they made or we weren’t fulfilling a commitment we had made, there would be a place to discuss those things, even while we are negotiating the comprehensive agreement, so that any compliance issues wouldn’t come to the comprehensive negotiation, but would have another mechanism for facilitation.  And it was anticipated that would happen at the expert level, and then come up to the political directors and up to foreign ministers if needed. 
 
So far, there hasn’t been need or a purpose for the joint commission to meet.  There needs to be content and substance for such a meeting.  The IAEA is preparing monthly reports to let us know how things are going.  We expect one of those shortly, and that – they have an – have taken on an enormous responsibility, for which we are very grateful, for the verification and monitoring mechanisms in the Joint Plan of Action.  And we’re very grateful that many member states have stepped forward to provide additional budget for the IAEA so they, in fact, can do their job.
 
 
QUESTION:  Are things outside of the nuclear issue included, such as ballistic missiles? 
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  The JPOA lists a variety of things that are part of a comprehensive agreement.  Included in the first or second paragraph of the JPOA is a reference to the UN Security Council resolutions, and those resolutions have to be resolved before a final agreement.  So they’re part of that.  In the UN Security Council resolutions, there is reference to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons. 
 
So to the extent that one has to resolve the Security Council resolutions in some way as part of the comprehensive agreement, there are many other things in the UN Security Council as well.  It talks about the suspension of enrichment…  So these issues have to be addressed in some way.  What that means, how they’re resolved, how they’re addressed is part of the negotiation. 
  
QUESTION:  In the last few weeks, the gaps between the U.S. rhetoric and the Iranian rhetoric looks vast.  I mean, everyone from Salehi to Rouhani say we’re not going to dismantle anything.  You’re testifying, saying we want major dismantlement.  Are you surprised by this rhetoric, or is this basically what you kind of thought would happen as you guys enter a negotiation and stake out your positions?
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Two things.  First of all, in Security Council Resolution 1929, operative paragraph 9:  “Decides that Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology, and that states shall take all necessary measures to prevent the transfer of technology or technical assistance to Iran related to such activities.”  So if one is addressing all Security Council resolutions, you have to address this in some way.  Again, how is part of the negotiation.
 
To your question about the rhetoric, we’re at the beginning of a negotiation.  People stake out where they hope it goes.  And then you sit down and you go to work. 
 
 
QUESTION:  If there is no substantial progress, how long does the JPOA stay in effect?  You can reboot after six months; you can reboot after a year.  What happens after a year?
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Our intent is to use these six months to negotiate a comprehensive agreement. 
 
 
QUESTION:  But how far along down the line are you?  I mean, 10 percent, 50 percent, 100 percent? 
   
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  The JPOA sets out in broad terms what needs to be addressed in a comprehensive agreement, so that’s good.  So we’re not starting from ground zero.  And I think one of the very important parts of the JPOA is it both dealt with a first step – things that Iran could do to, as you know, stop all 20-percent enrichment, make some changes in some of its facilities, stop the advance of their program, in ways that created space for the comprehensive negotiation.  But it also sets out in broad terms what we seek to accomplish – what Iran seeks to accomplish, what we seek to accomplish in a comprehensive agreement. 
 
And if you look at both the first two paragraphs of the JPOA and the last page, which lists what should be addressed in a comprehensive agreement, we have the beginning of a framework…We have had expert level meetings among the P5+1 and the EU in advance of today to begin to lay out all of the pieces that we think need to be addressed to make sure that we come into this and try to set the table.  Put everything down.  We don’t have any interest in having surprises.  We want to be transparent about our interests, and what we hope can get achieved, and I’m sure the same will be true of Iran.
 
 
QUESTION:  Should we be looking towards one-year or a six-month period realistically?
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  We should be looking at the six-month framework.  Quite frankly, I want to keep the pressure on ourselves to get this done…As time goes on, it doesn’t necessarily improve the likelihood of getting to an agreement.  And I think we all need to go to work.  We all need to try to do this in an intense and deliberate way, and give it everything we’ve got.
 
 
QUESTION:  Before the interim agreement, there was a lot of bilateral consultation between the United States and Iran.  Has there been the same level of bilateral preparation for this round or not?
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  What we did to – in the first step, as you all know, there was a behind-the-scenes, shall we say, bilateral track that went on for some time and then was folded into the P5+1 negotiations.  This time we’re not repeating that process.  Everything is open and transparent in the P5+1.  I would imagine that all of us, each of us, will have bilateral contacts.  Since the JPOA, since Foreign Minister Zarif and Secretary Kerry met, since we had our bilateral track, things have changed.  You all know that Secretary Kerry met again with Foreign Minister Zarif in Munich.  You know that the President of the United States called President Rouhani.  We all, when we need to solve problems, email with the Iranians.  My colleagues up here who work on the sanctions tracks have to work out tremendous number of details to do the repatriation of funds, to set up the humanitarian channel, and to do so they have to email with their Iranian colleagues. 
 
So we’re in a very different circumstance and a very different world.  If we have a concern, an issue, I know who I can contact to try to sort through that.  So it’s a different time.  Cathy Ashton will be at the center of this, the High Representative of the European Union, and we’ll coordinate this effort and be a major interlocutor in this process; along with Helga Schmidt, her deputy; with Abbas Araghchi; and then all of the political directors who will be part of this process on a regular basis, as will our experts. 
 
 
QUESTION:  What would you like to see the timing and pace of these talks be?  And do you expect to have any substantive talks this week, and if so what do you think you ought to start on?
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I’m sure we’ll have substantive talks this week.  We will try to lay out and I’m sure Iran will lay out all of the things that they want to make sure get resolved through a comprehensive agreement.  We’re basically setting the table for the negotiations. 
 
I think that you all probably know that Lady Ashton’s having dinner with Foreign Minister Zarif, which is her usual pattern.  And then we will start with Iran in a plenary – Foreign Zarif and Lady Ashton and the political director and the Iranian delegation at about 11 tomorrow morning at the UN…Then we will be having, I’m sure, very substantive conversations at the political director level, coordinated by Helga Schmidt and Abbas Araghchi. 
 
 
QUESTION:  My question is about what we heard yesterday from one of the Iranian negotiators, Ba'idinejad, regarding the centrifuges.  He was insisting that Iran is going to use its (inaudible) and it’s going to resolve them in the future – I don’t know how far is that future.  But I think I remember you saying at a Senate hearing that Iran should let go of some of its centrifuges.  Can you elaborate:  What is really the picture that the U.S. Administration had in mind regarding the centrifuges?
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  In the joint plan of action for these six months, Iran can only replace damaged centrifuges with like centrifuges.  So if a IR-1 is damaged, it can only be replaced with an IR-1, not with an IR-2 – IR-2m.  So for this six months it’s pretty clear what is allowed and what is not allowed, and no more – we’re not talking about increasing the number of centrifuges during this period of time. 
 
When we get to the comprehensive negotiation, we will have a lot of elements to discuss to give the international community confidence, and the number of centrifuges is one of those very critical elements… There are a lot of things we can do, and certainly the number of centrifuges is something that is of great interest to us, but I’m not going to negotiate it here.
 
QUESTION:  If you wanted to be very optimistic and we assume that everything went according to plan, both sides played well and agreed on everything, how soon can the Iranians expect the sanctions to be lifted?
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  That is a hypothetical if there was ever a hypothetical…In the Joint Plan of Action, some of the sanctions were lifted – the limited sanctions that we dealt with were lifted immediately, some of them were tied to events that took place, the dilution of 20-percent-enriched uranium. Some of them come at the beginning of the story, the middle, the end of the story.  The repatriated funds are metered out over the months, as is the conversion to oxide of some of the 20-percent-enriched uranium.
 
If you look at the JPOA, you can see that there’s a matching and a metering of both actions and relief.  And so I’m sure that we will look to that kind of pattern.  But everything is up for negotiation. 
 
 
QUESTION:  You said in the past that, as a former businesswoman, you wouldn’t rush into Iran with a six-month timeframe.  Are you satisfied – is the U.S. comfortable with the level of engagement that European companies have with Iran?  Or are there any concerns?...And if there’s no deal after 12 months, is it over? 
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So as Secretary Kerry has said, I think as the President has implied, we would, of course, prefer countries to wait to see where we get with a comprehensive agreement before rushing off to Iran.  There are areas, because of our limited sanctions relief, where business can begin again, and it’s perfectly legitimate for those businesses in the auto kit sector for instance, in petrochemicals, to see what they can do.  That business sector is open, within limits of what is written in the sanctions relief.

But what we don’t think is good for business and not good for Iran – it’s not fair, in our view, for the Iranian people for countries to go to Iran and say, “We want to get in line, so if a comprehensive agreement is reached we can be first in line.”  It raises people’s expectations, and the relief will only come if there is a comprehensive agreement. 
 
And I want to make sure that the Iranian people know that we want to provide that sanctions relief.  One of the reasons that we were glad to structure a humanitarian channel is because our sanctions never were on food or medicine or medical devices, but the Iranian people appeared to be having a hard time getting that.  I could imagine a lot of reasons for that.  But we wanted to do whatever we could to facilitate that the Iranian people directly got food and medicine and medical devices.  And so our Treasury Department has worked to facilitate humanitarian channels so banks don’t have to be afraid that they’re going to get sanctioned if they provide those things.  
 
So we certainly want – and I would say to the Iranian people this evening who listen to any of your reports that we hope they get sanctions relief.  And what it will take is the Iranian Government assuring the international community in very concrete, visible, verifiable ways that they will not obtain a nuclear weapon. 
 
QUESTION:  And 12 months?
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  We are committed to working as fast as we can.  And I don’t think answering that hypothetical serves the purpose of doing that at all.
 
 
QUESTION:  As far as an implementation of the first measures is concerned, are you satisfied with the pace and scope of Iranians’ implementation so far?  And are you going to talk about it tomorrow?
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Tomorrow is focused on beginning the negotiation of the comprehensive agreement, not to look backwards at the JPOA.  As I said, the IAEA will be providing a monthly report verifying the monitoring is done and all of that is taking place.  I think Dr. Timbie told me that, in fact, the daily access is now daily.  I know from Richard Nephew, who also works on the sanctions, that we’ve put pieces in place.  And obviously Adam Szubin here from Treasury – all of that is going forward.  So I think, gentlemen, you would say satisfied that things are being implemented.  Yes. 
 
 
QUESTION:  With the six countries within the P5+1 being pretty unified so far, are you confident this is going to continue to be the case over the next six months, 12 months?
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I do.  That’s not to say we don’t have national differences.  We always have.  But when it comes to the objective we have here, which is to give the international community confidence that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons effort in mind and objective to get a nuclear weapon and that, in fact, they have taken the steps necessary so that they cannot obtain a nuclear weapon, we are completely unified on that objective.
 
QUESTION: Then how do you get there?
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, there’ll be some differences.  But we have always worked through those differences, and that unity of effort has been critical in getting the JPOA.  And I think that you will find from every member of the European Union, the P5+1, a great sense of relief that, in fact, that first step was taken.  It was very difficult to achieve, and now we want to build on that.  And I don’t think anybody in the EU, the P5+1, wants to waste that very good step by not building on it further. 
 
 
QUESTION: Do you think this deal has improved the mutual trust between those two countries?  And do you also say something about heavy-water reactor in Arak, and if they promise to modify to light-water reactor, so would you satisfy with that in this issue?
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We have always said, and the President of the United States has said, we have decades of mistrust between our countries, and you don’t overcome that even with a very good first step of a nuclear agreement.  So we have a long way to go yet.  Do we understand each other perhaps a little bit better?  Yes.  Do we have ways to communicate with each other we’ve never had before?  Yes.  But we still have a very long way to go. 
 
And so any comprehensive agreement will be based on verification, will be based on monitoring, will be based on transparency, and will be based on concrete steps and actions that are taken that can be seen and visible and declared and understood and remove the concern that the international community has.  So it has to be very visible, very concrete, very transparent, very real.  And that’s probably true for both sides.
 

In terms of Arak, the heavy-water reactor, we hope to find an answer that is not a heavy-water reactor, which we think does not lend itself to a civil nuclear program.  And so we were pleased to see the head of the Atomic Energy Agency Dr. Salehi say that they were open to discussions of whether there were modifications that would be viable.  I think we have a long way to go in these discussions, but I think that we all have to be open to ideas and ways to address our concerns.

 

US Calls for Release of Iran Opposition Leaders

       On February 14, the U.S. State Department urged Iran’s government to release of former presidential candidates and Green Movement opposition leaders. Mir Hossein Mousavi (left) and Mehdi Karroubi (right) —a former prime minister and former speaker of parliament—remain under house arrest for their leadership of the Green Movement after the disputed 2009 election. The following is a statement by State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf.

Three Year Anniversary of the House Arrests of Iranian Opposition Leaders

             Three years ago today, the Iranian Government put former presidential candidates and opposition leaders Mehdi Karroubi, Mir Hossein Mousavi, and his wife, women’s rights advocate Zahra Rahnavard, under house arrest without formally charging them with any crimes.  We join the international community in condemning their continued imprisonment and the harassment of their family members, and in calling for their immediate release. 
            Iran’s constitution, its laws, and its international obligations guarantee its citizens minimum fair trial guarantees and provide that no one shall be subject to arbitrary arrest or detention.  The United States will continue to urge the Iranian Government to respect these obligations, and we renew our call for Iran to release all prisoners of conscience in its custody. 
 

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