United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Iran Primer's Blog

Geneva Nuke Talks: Latest from Iran, P5+1

On Feb. 23, 2015, Iran and the world's six major powers - Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States - concluded another round of talks on Iran's controversial nuclear program in GenevaAtomic Energy Organization chief Ali Akbar Salehi and U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz joined the talks for the first time to provide technical expertise, but Secretary of State John Kerry noted that their presence was "no indication whatsoever that something is about to be decided." Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the two sides held "good discussions" but that "there is a long way to reach a final agreement." The following are quotes from officials on the status of the nuclear talks.

Iran

President Hassan Rouhani 
 
Allegations that Iran is pursuing a secret nuclear program are a "big lie." 
 
“We first turned to Europeans to get the [uranium enrichment] technology; If we wanted to conceal [our activities] we wouldn’t raise these issues with a Western country." 
  — Feb. 23, 2015, according to the press 
 
“A polling has shown an overwhelming majority of the public supporting the nuclear talks with the 5+1; this is important that a path where the government moves is supported by the public. 
  — Feb. 23, 2015, at an economic conference in Tehran 
 
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif 
 
The inclusion of Moniz and Salehi reflected a need "for higher level people with all-embracing command over all issues." 
  — Feb. 22, 2015, according to the press 
 
Tehran will not accept a "incomplete and vague" nuclear accord, but rather a "complete agreement." 
 
“No other deal will be made before a complete agreement is clinched." 
 
“The deputies had good discussions, but no particular agreement has been made on the issues (at hand).” 
  — Feb. 23, 2015, according to the press 
 
"We had serious talks with the P5+1 representatives and especially with the Americans in the past three days ... But still there is a long way to reach a final agreement." 
  — Feb. 23, 2015, according to the press 
 
Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Marziyeh Afkham 
 
The Islamic Republic of Iran has announced that we will accept an agreement in a single phase and all its details should be clear and it should contain no ambiguities.” 
 
We believe only when all the dimensions of the agreement are clarified the time will be ripe for announcing the agreement.” 
  — Feb. 18, 2015 in a press conference 
 
Deputy Foreign Minister Seyyed Abbas Araqchi 
 
"We will continue the negotiations as long as there is a language of respect…, but we will surely leave the table if this (bullying) approach is extended to the negotiating table." 
 
"Kerry's statements about the nuclear talks were repetition of (US President Barack) Obama's last week statements and these remarks have always been repeated and we believe that they do not influence the negotiations." 
 
"Both the US and other G5+1 members have experienced that political and media pressures will never make the Islamic Republic of Iran change its methods, demands and stances in the negotiations." 
 
"Summing up the discussions, we cannot claim that progress has been made in the talks, we still have differences, but the negotiating sides are seriously and resolutely following up the negotiations to reach a solution although they have not achieved comprehensive solutions over key issues." 
  — Feb. 23, 2015, according to the press 
 
United States

Secretary of State John Kerry 
 
The presence of Iranian Atomic Energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi and U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz is no "indication whatsoever that something is about to be decided...There are still significant gaps." 
 
The president "is fully prepared to stop these talks if he feels that they're not being met with the kind of productive decision-making necessary to prove that a program is in fact peaceful." 
  — Feb. 21, 2015, according to the press
 
"The P5+1 remains united on the subject of Iran. There is absolutely no divergence whatsoever in what we believe is necessary for Iran to prove that its nuclear program is going to be peaceful into the future."
  — Feb. 21, 2015, in a meeting with British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond
 
“President Obama has made it clear that Iran will not obtain a nuclear weapon. Since late 2013, we have been testing whether that goal can be achieved through determined multilateral diplomacy. The so-called P5+1 talks have made considerable progress but have not yet reached a satisfactory consensus on all critical questions. During our deliberations, for the first time in a decade, we’ve halted the progress of Tehran’s nuclear program and even rolled it back in key respects. We will know soon whether we will be able to reach a verifiable and comprehensive plan to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is wholly peaceful. We will continue to consult closely with you as our efforts progress. Although I cannot predict the outcome, I do believe that an agreement of the type we seek would advance America’s interests and that of our allies in the Middle East, strengthen the global nonproliferation regime, and serve the cause of international stability and peace.”
 
“On Iran, sure it’s controversial. But we are daring to believe that diplomacy will provide a better alternative to ridding Iran of nuclear weapons than a war, or going first to the threats that lead to confrontation.”
  — Feb. 24, 2015, in a testimony to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
 
"In the Iran negotiations, we are not complete; I don’t know if we’ll get there.  But I know that trying is the essence of United States leadership, to find out whether or not there is a way with diplomacy to succeed in preventing a country from getting a nuclear weapon.  And that we owe it to our citizens and the world to prove our willingness to try to do it peacefully before we have to make other choices, if we did."
  — Feb. 25, 2015, in remarks to the House Appropriations Committee on Foreign Operations
 
Russia
 
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov
 
"We are satisfied to see every new meeting achieve further progress."
 
"There is a growing confidence that an agreement will be reached by the assigned deadline - in other words, June 30."
  — Feb. 24, 2015, according to the press
 

Photo credit: John Kerry via State Dept Flickr (US Government work)

Media Ban on Khatami

On February 16, judiciary spokesperson Gholamhossein Mohseni-Eje’i confirmed that former President Mohammad Khatami’s name has been banned from mention in the media. Mohseni-Eje’i did not name Khatami, president from 1997 to 2005, by name, instead referring to him as “the leader of the reformist government.” The spokesperson did not say exactly when the order had gone into effect but emphasized that the judiciary has the ability to rule on issues regarding “the leaders of the sedition,” a term that refers to Khatami as well as opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi, his wife Zahra Rahnavard and Mehdi Karroubi.

But Iranians have taken to social media sites Facebook and Twitter, both of which are blocked in Iran, to protest the ban. A campaign using the hashtag, “We will be Khatami’s media,” has been launched. Its Facebook group (cover photo below) had more than 39,000 likes as of February 23, and its Twitter account had more than 272 followers.

The death of Khatami’s sister, Fatemeh, and the large turnout for her funeral on February 22 posed a challenge to the ban. She had served on the city council of the family's hometown of Ardakan. Several prominent leaders issued statements or sent condolences to Khatami, so newspapers did publish his name.

Shargh, a reformist-leaning daily, published a story (left) on President Hassan Rouhani offering condolences to Khatami.

Many people have continued to post pictures and comments in support of the reformist president. The following are some examples from Twitter.
 
 
The caption below reads “Remember hope.”
 
Some people posted pictures of both Khatami and Mousavi, one of the leaders of the Green Movement protests following the disputed 2009 presidential election.
 

Report: Saudi-Iranian 'Cold War' in Yemen

Regional competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia has aggravated unrest in Yemen, according to a new publication by Peter Salisbury from the Chatham House Middle East and North Africa Programme. Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of using the Houthis, a Zaydi Shiite group based in northern Yemen, as a proxy to further Iranian interests. Although Yemen's conflict is driven mostly by local causes, the "perceived, and often exaggerated, roles of external players continue to affect the calculations of the Yemeni players and of different regional actors." The following are excerpts from the full report.

Whatever the eventual outcome of the ongoing international negotiations concerning Iran’s nuclear programme, tensions regarding Iran’s role in the region go far beyond the non-proliferation agenda of the international community. The competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia for regional influence is exacerbating a number of existing disputes in the region, where the two powers are backing different sides.
 
Among the areas where Iran’s interests appear to collide with those of Saudi Arabia is Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, which borders the Kingdom and occupies much of the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen’s travails during and since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 have often been overlooked by the Western media. Interest in the country has largely been limited to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Yet the most important development in Yemen since 2011 has been the rise and expansion of a group commonly known as the Houthis. As of early 2015, this military and political movement effectively controlled the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, having pressured the country’s transitional president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, a key US ally in the war against Al-Qaeda, into submitting his resignation.
 
This paper seeks to shed more light on the Houthis’ rise, and on how Yemen fits into wider regional competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It argues that primary drivers of tension and conflict are local, but the perceived (and often exaggerated) roles of external players continue to affect the calculations of the Yemeni players and of different regional actors.

Founded as a revivalist movement for the Zaydi form of Shia Islam that is largely unique to northern Yemen, the Houthis have transformed themselves over the past decade into a formidable militia. According to diplomats in Riyadh, Washington and London, the group is backed by Tehran, as part of Iran’s efforts to expand its network of proxies across the region – a line largely taken at face value by Western and regional media. The concerns of external actors go beyond regional power dynamics, with Riyadh nervous – as is Cairo – about the effect that a Houthi takeover of the west coast of Yemen would have on the Bab al Mandeb strait, which is a conduit for around 5 per cent of all world oil trade. The US administration, meanwhile, is primarily concerned with maintaining a regime in Sana’a that is both able and willing to cooperate with ongoing efforts to weaken and ultimately destroy AQAP, which Washington views as being among Al-Qaeda’s deadliest ‘franchises’. (In January 2015, notably, AQAP claimed responsibility for the violent attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris.)

Yemeni and Western officials believe that Iran’s ties with anti-establishment groups in Yemen go beyond the Houthis, repeatedly claiming that Tehran has close ties with leading members of Al Hirak al-Janoubi, or the Southern Movement, a coalition of secessionist groups that want to split Yemen down pre-unification lines. Regional security officials have similarly worried about the impact that southern secession would have on maritime security in the Indian Ocean, and what increased Iranian influence in southern Yemen would mean for a stretch of water that is crucial to Gulf trade. None the less, to characterize either group as a true ‘proxy’ of Iran that shares Tehran’s wider goals is to oversimplify the relationships involved – and overstate the degree to which such claims can be substantiated.

The bigger issue for Saudi Arabia and the United States in the short and medium term will be how to achieve a working relationship with a key power broker in a strategically important country that is unlikely to feel the need to serve their interests in the way that past regimes in Sana’a have – but which will require the financial backing of its much wealthier neighbours, above all Riyadh, to prevent its economic collapse, leveraging fears of an influx of economic migrants into the Gulf states.

Claims of Iranian involvement

Western and Yemeni officials have long accused Iran of backing the Houthis. An article in the Financial Times in February 2014 quoted a Yemeni official as claiming that Iran and its Lebanese proxies provided direct financial and logistical support, as well as military advisers, to the Houthis, a view that, according to the newspaper, was supported by US officials. In January 2013 the New York Times reported on a briefing given to one of its reporters by US officials, who cited the Yemeni authorities, that an arms shipment seized by Yemeni security forces off the country’s south coast had originated from Iran. The article stated that the officials cited believed that the shipment of ‘contraband’ was intended for insurgents within Yemen, although they declined to provide fuller details. Despite repeated requests from local and international journalists, neither Sana’a nor Washington further corroborated these claims.

A large question mark remains over the extent to which Tehran or Hezbollah have funded or armed the group, which relies on local support and taxation in order to remain sustainable. In conversation with the author of this paper, a Sana’a-based journalist and analyst, many diplomats and officials have given a more nuanced view of the group, conceding that external support has been centred more closely on internal capacity building – which is more valuable, in the view of many analysts, than simple cash payments. One Sana’a-based analyst points to the south, where Hirak has failed to achieve any kind of leadership structure or internal cohesion, and where alleged Iranian support has largely been limited to funding. The Houthis are notable in Yemen for cohesive internal management of security and administration, which, in the view of another analyst, ‘can only’ have come about through some form of external support.

This marks a change in tone from 2010, when diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks pointed to scepticism among US officials in Sana’a that the Houthis were heavily backed by Tehran and Hezbollah, or even that they were part of a regional proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. ‘We are fighting on behalf of you, the Americans, and Israel,’ the then President Saleh is reported to have told one US ambassador, of the war he oversaw with the Houthis between 2004 and 2010.

US officials were apparently more concerned that Saleh was diverting US-funded troops and equipment, meant to combat Al-Qaeda in the south of the country, to the fight against the Houthis. Of a ship that Sana’a claimed to be carrying arms from Iran bound for the Houthis, one dispatch noted: ‘sensitive reporting suggests that the ship was carrying no weapons at all’. The US government provided satellite imagery of Houthi positions during the sixth and final war in Sa’dah, but only once Saudi Arabia entered the fray.

Yemeni and Western officials have also accused Ali Salem al-Beidh, the former southern president who had backed unification but who then led the 1994 attempt at secession, of maintaining close ties with Iran. ‘Iran is training militants who are aligned with a separatist movement in southern Yemen, while Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, is providing some funding and media training to the group,’ the Wall Street Journal reported in June 2013, pointing to al-Beidh’s Hirak faction and citing Yemeni and Western officials – but again giving few substantive details.

The reality of Hirak is of course more complex than a simplified narrative of an Iranian proxy. The movement is a multi-stranded organization which many domestic and regional actors have attempted to co-opt in order to further their own causes and position themselves during Yemen’s political transition. ‘Overtures [have been] made by [former president] Saleh through his party the General People’s Congress (GPC),’ Al Jazeera reported of attempts by various groups to co-opt Hiraki factions, adding that Hirak factions had also been approached by representatives of Yemen’s then transitional president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and claiming that Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were among the regional governments making a play for influence in the south.

Analysts who study Hirak closely argue that there is little evidence that Iran or other external actors have provided direct military training to militant Hiraki factions, or training and support to the group’s leadership, in the way that they likely have the Houthis. Rather, assistance has been limited to funding key leaders – perhaps explaining why the Houthis have been so successful and Hirak so ineffective.

Beyond these claims, officials in Sana’a claim that the Houthis’ and al-Beidh’s television stations – Al Masira and Aden Live respectively – are both run from a Hezbollah-owned building in Beirut. (Sources at Aden Live dispute this assertion, saying that the two broadcasters’ offices are in different tower blocks several minutes’ walk from one another.) Two diplomatic sources provided the author of this paper with some anecdotal evidence pointing to open lines of communication between Tehran and the Houthis during the 2014 siege of Sana’a. According to these sources, Tehran instructed Houthi leaders to abandon plans to target foreign interests in the Yemeni capital, although this claim could not be verified at the time of writing and the author agreed not to disclose details relating to the issue in full.

A number of civil society activists who took part in Yemen’s 2011 uprising, including Houthi supporters and southern separatists, say that they were flown to Beirut by Iranian representatives during and after 2011. They compare the training they were given there to the ‘capacity building’ provided to civil society organizations by Western NGOs and government-backed schemes.

Tehran has limited itself to voicing sympathy for the Houthis, stopping short of claiming them as a proxy. In September 2014 Ali Akbar Velayati, a close associate of Ayatollah Khamenei, was reported to have said that Tehran ‘supports the Houthis in their rightful struggles’. Others have been less circumspect. Alireza Zakani, an Iranian Majlis deputy who according to regional media is close to Khamenei, made claims in the Iranian press that the Houthi takeover of Sana’a was a ‘victory for the regime in Tehran’, adding that Iran now controlled four capitals: Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus and Sana’a.

It is difficult to conceive that the group, isolated for much of its existence in the mountainous northern interior, would have been able to evolve an organized and tactically assiduous fighting force without some external support. It is less difficult to believe that it was able to arm itself, however. Yemen is awash with weapons and is a major hub for the arms trade, meaning that claims that arms are being shipped to the country become something of a moot point.

Many Yemenis highlight the sharp irony of US and Saudi claims of Iranian ‘interference’ in Yemen, in the context of the support provided by both Riyadh and Washington to the autocratic Saleh for much of the last decade of his rule, and having worked in close cooperation with his regime on counterterrorism operations from 2003 onwards. Saudi Arabia also backed Saleh’s earlier efforts to install Salafists in place of Zaydi imams in mosques in northern Yemen, as well as his fight against the Houthis – for which the US also provided some intelligence support – catalysing the group’s rhetoric against foreign intervention.

Since the Houthi takeover of Sana’a, it has become increasingly clear that the Houthis’ principal sponsor was not an external actor but rather ex-president Saleh, who has encouraged his tribal and military allies to either stand aside or support the Houthi campaign, and whose loyalists make up a significant proportion of the ‘popular committees’ that have patrolled the streets of the capital since September 2014.
 
Click here for the full report
 
Tags: Reports

UN: Questions Remain on Nuclear Research

On February 19, the U.N. nuclear watchdog reported that Iran has yet to provide explanations regarding possible military dimensions of its nuclear program. Tehran was due to address two practical measures by late August, which could help determine if it carried out explosive tests and other research related to nuclear weapons production. But Iran has not fully cooperated with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on these and other outstanding issues, so the agency “remains concerned” about possible undisclosed activities with military dimensions.

The report, however, also showed that Iran has continued to fulfill its commitments under the Joint Plan of Action, the interim nuclear deal that went into effect in January 2014. Iran has not enriched uranium above the five percent level, and it has downblended or converted its stock of 20 percent enriched uranium. Uranium would need to be enriched to more than 90 percent for use in a weapon. Tehran also has not installed any major components on the Arak heavy water reactor. The following are excerpts from the report.
 
Main Developments
 
• The Director General held talks with the Foreign Minister of Iran, HE Mohammad Javad Zarif on 7 February 2015. They agreed on the importance of continuing the dialogue between the Agency and Iran at all levels. The Director General also stressed the need to resolve, as soon as possible, all outstanding issues related to Iran’s nuclear programme.
 
• Iran has not provided any explanations that enable the Agency to clarify the two outstanding practical measures, nor has it proposed any new practical measures in the next step of the Framework for Cooperation.
 
• The Agency has continued to undertake monitoring and verification in relation to the
nuclear-related measures set out in the Joint Plan of Action (JPA), as further extended.
 
• Since the JPA took effect, Iran has not enriched UF6 above 5% U-235 at any of its declared facilities and all of its stock of UF6 enriched up to 20% U-235 has been further processed through downblending or conversion into uranium oxide.
 
• Enrichment of UF6 up to 5% U-235 has continued at a rate of production similar to that indicated in the Director General’s previous reports. The amount of such nuclear material that remains in the form of UF6 enriched up to 5% U-235 is 7952.9 kg.
 
• No additional major components have been installed at the IR-40 Reactor and there has been no manufacture and testing of fuel for the reactor.
 
• Iran has continued to provide the Agency with managed access to centrifuge assembly workshops, centrifuge rotor production workshops and storage facilities.
 
Click here for the full report.
 

Khamenei: Iran Can Resist Sanctions

On February 18, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged Iranians to “resist sanctions” and not allow Western countries to place conditions on the country's nuclear program. In a public speech, Khamenei warned that Iran can impose sanctions on the West if necessary. “Iran has the world’s largest total reserves of oil and [natural] gas, the gas that the world and Europe are in need of,” he emphasized. The following are excerpts with a video posted on Khamenei’s quasi-official YouTube channel claiming that the U.S. government is “ignorant” about Iran and its negotiating position.

Sanctions and Nuclear Talks
 

“The enemy is using the lever of sanctions to the hilt and their goal is to stop our people's progress.”

“I believe that if we allow them [Western countries] to dictate to us on the nuclear issue, they will still keep the sanctions in place because what they are against is the very foundation of our revolution.”

“Serious work must take place. We can withstand the sanctions and neutralize and foil the enemy's goals. If we don't, the enemy would proceed and place conditions on our nuclear program and impose sanctions.”
 
“If sanctions are to be the way, the Iranian nation can also do it. A big collection of the world's oil and gas is in Iran so Iran if necessary can hold back on the gas that Europe and the world is so dependent on.”
 
 

ISIS

“They [U.S. officials] wrote a letter to the Iranian foreign ministry promising not to support Daesh [Islamic State], not knowing that the evidence in photographs of their military assistance to Daesh was already in the hands of the revolutionary forces.”

 

The following video was also published on Khamenei’s YouTube channel on February 18.
 

 
*Translations via Reuters and Press TV
 

Connect With Us

Our Partners

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Logo