United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Iran Primer's Blog

Kerry: Talks Aim to Extend Breakout Window

            On April 8, Secretary of State John Kerry testified on diplomatic efforts to solve the Iranian nuclear dispute at a budget hearing before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Kerry said he remains “agnostic” over whether the world’s six major powers and Iran can agree on a final deal before the July 20 deadline. Kerry noted that Tehran could produce enough fissile material to produce a nuclear bomb in about two months. When asked if U.S. negotiators were aiming for a breakout window of a year, Kerry replied, “So six months to 12 months is - I'm not saying that's what we'd settle for, but even that is significantly more.” The following are excerpts from Kerry’s remarks at the Foreign Policy Budget Hearing.

 

Secretary Kerry’s Opening Remarks: 

From day one this Administration has made it a foreign policy goal to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. 
 
To achieve this goal we have been clear that we will use all the elements of our national power, including direct negotiations with Iran, the very kind that we are engaged in as I speak.  We are approaching these talks seriously and with our eyes wide open.  That’s why as we negotiate we continue to enforce sanctions on Iran not affected by the Joint Plan of Action – not just incidentally over its nuclear activities, but also because of its support for terrorism.  And we will press the case on human rights and its record wherever we can.  And we will continue to urge Iran to release our American citizens – Amir Hekmati, Saeed Abedini – and we will work to help find Robert Levinson.  All three should be home with their families, and that is consistently raised by us with any Iranian official when we engage. 
 
Secretary Kerry’s Responses to Questions:
 
I think it's public knowledge today that we're operating with a time period for a so-called breakout of about two months. That's been in the public domain.
 
So six months to 12 months is [a longer breakout window]- I'm not saying that's what we'd settle for, but even that is significantly more.
 
If they're [Iranians] overtly breaking out and breaking an agreement and starting to enrich and pursue it, they've made huge consequential decisions. And the greater likelihood is we are going to respond immediately.

 

Dust Storms Cloud Iran’s Future

David Michel

            Iran is, literally, being blown away. Stifling dust storms frequently now envelope both big cities and rural towns across much of Iran, the world’s 17th largest country. They threaten to disrupt crucial parts of public and economic life, education, commerce, public health, agriculture, trade and transportation. Swirling clouds – of windblown silt, soil, and sediment—already affected 23 of Iran’s 31 provinces in 2013, according to Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar, head of the country’s Environmental Protection Organization. 
 
     Iran’s massive dust storms could also spill well across Iran’s borders, generating serious regional consequences and tensions. Dust clouds veiled Tehran for 117 days of the Iranian year which ran from March 2012-March 2013. And blinding sand storms blocked roads across the eastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan last summer, isolating nearly 60 towns and villages.   
 
     Dust storms regularly arise in arid and semi-arid regions around the world.  Indeed, the Islamic Republic sits in the center of a Northern Hemisphere “dust belt” stretching from the west coast of North Africa, through the Middle East, and across South and Central Asia to China. Winds gusting over the open, level landscape of Iran’s dry plateaus, deserts, and salt flats readily pick up loose soil and sand, lifting bits of dirt and grit into the atmosphere and carrying it tens, hundreds, or even thousands of miles away.  
 
           Nationwide, erosion annually strips thousands of tons of surface soil and sediment from every square mile of the country. The resulting dust storms can close roadways, rail lines, and airports; choke crops; clog machinery; and cloak cities in debilitating air pollution, endangering public health.
 
            Yet nature is not the only culprit stirring up the dust clouds that blot the country’s horizons. Iran’s own water and land management practices have worsened environmental conditions that exacerbate dust storms. So too, Iran’s neighbors have made equally detrimental policy choices, with damaging regional repercussions. And lurking behind these national and international pressures, global climate change may further increase drought and desertification across Iran and southwest Asia, potentially intensifying future dust and sand storms.    
 
Darkness at Noon
 
     With 90 percent of its territory classified as arid or semi-arid, Iran’s climate and topography render it naturally susceptible to dust storms. According to Iran’s National Action Programme to Combat Desertification and Mitigate the Effect of Drought, over 77,000 square miles of the country across 19 provinces are subject to significant wind erosion. The Islamic Republic typically suffers more than 500 dust storms annually, mainly in the spring and summer months as temperatures mount and rainfall wanes. In recent decades, the southwestern provinces have experienced anywhere from 60 to 130 distinct dust “events” every year. 
 
           In eastern Sistan region, the town of Zabol can experience up to 80 dust storms in a year. The dry gusts, known to the locals as the “120 day wind” because they last throughout the summer, produce gales up to 75 miles per hour. Storms in the Sistan Basin can grow so intense they have been measured to contain more than 250 kilograms of dust per cubic meter of air. (For a roughly equivalent measure of density on a more familiar scale, imagine six pounds of dust whirling around the space inside a standard men’s shoebox.)
 
           These thick dust storms can wreak serious damage. Billowing dust can reduce visibility to 100 yards or less, shutting down air and road traffic. Shops and schools close. Searing, sand-bearing winds blow down power lines. Grit-filled machines grind to a halt. Drifting dust buries crops and farmland, suffocates livestock, and fills wells and irrigation canals. One analysis of the area around Zabol estimated that the lost economic activity and physical damages from dust storms cost the city $100 million between 2000 and 2005. 
 
           Far more troublingly, Iran’s dust storms also impose serious public health risks. If inhaled, fine dust particles can penetrate deep into the lungs. They can cause infections, respiratory difficulties, and cardiovascular problems. The World Health Organization (WHO) has formulated specific guidelines about exposure to concentrations of airborne dust, soot, or other tiny pollutants, called “particulate matter,” that can threaten human health. 
 
      Studies of several Iranian cities have found particulate pollution routinely shooting far above these guidelines during dust storms. In the southwest city of Ahvaz, dust storms during the summer of 2010 increased daily pollution levels to between 13 and 16 times the WHO standards, causing an estimated 1,131 deaths and more than 8,100 hospital visits. An analysis of hospitals in Kermanshah province in western Iran calculated that every 10 percent rise in dust concentrations swelled the number of cardiac patients by 10 percent, respiratory patients by 5 percent, and deaths from heart disease by 3 percent.   
 
Spreading Dust Bowls
 
            Iran’s dust storms appear to be growing more frequent and severe. Compared to the past 30 years, the number of dust storms striking the Islamic Republic jumped markedly between 2000 and 2009, soaring by as much as 70 to 175 percent in the western provinces. Dust storms also increasingly occur in areas not as vulnerable as in the past. They have more than doubled in parts of the northeast – around Sabzevar – and in the northwestern provinces, especially East Azerbaijan, West Azerbaijan, and Kurdistan.
 
            These increases parallel regional climate changes. Over the past half century, much of Iran has become increasingly arid. Average temperatures have warmed up to nine degrees (five degrees Celsius) since 1960, while annual rainfall has dropped across much of the country, according to Iran’s Second National Communication to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. 
 
            Further global warming could exacerbate these trends. Iranian studies have projected that average temperatures could climb almost two degrees (about one degree Celsius) by 2039, while precipitation across the country could drop by 9 percent. A hotter, more arid climate would further dry the soil, creating more loose dust and sand to be swept away by the wind.
 
Reaping the Whirlwind
 
            Climate pressures, though, are by no means the only factors driving Iran’s dust storms. Particular Iranian agricultural, land, and water management policies substantially aggravate the environmental stresses that worsen dust conditions. For example, over-grazing livestock are dramatically degrading much of the countryside, according to Iran’s Forestry, Rangelands, and Watershed Management Organization. Iran is now raising more than twice as many head of livestock as the land can sustainably support. Too many livestock grazing the same pastures have denuded the land of the grasses and other vegetation that hold the soil in place. Some 166,000 square miles of the nation’s rangelands are now in poor condition, and growing expanses of barren ground are in turn exposed to dust-generating winds.
 
      Another problem is that Iran has cut down more than 20 percent of its forest cover since the 1950s to clear more land for farming and for burgeoning cities. Deforestation has removed trees that offer natural wind breaks to blunt the dust storms’ blasts.
 
      Government policies have contributed to Iran’s dust crises. Water management choices in the country’s northwest have transformed Lake Urmia, the great salt lake straddling the provinces of East and West Azerbaijan, into a nascent dust emissions hotspot. Dams and diversions on the rivers feeding Lake Urmia –to provide water for irrigation, industry, and other uses – have significantly diminished the flows entering the lake downstream. Reduced river flows, combined with recurrent drought in the region, have drastically lowered the lake’s water levels.
 
 
       In the past two decades, Lake Urmia, once the largest in the Middle East, has lost 60 percent of its surface area, shrinking from around 2,300 square miles in the 1990s to about 890 square miles today. As a result, winds that used to ripple the lake’s shallow saltwaters now blow over dry land, carrying off clouds of salt-loaded silt from the desiccated lakebed. These so-called “white” or “saline” dust storms are particularly damaging to surrounding agricultural areas because the windblown salt coats crops, harming their growth, and contaminates soils, decreasing their productivity.
 
            Similar strains weigh on the marshes and salt lakes – called Hamouns – of the Sistan Basin on the eastern border with Afghanistan. Water levels in the shallow Hamoun system, nourished by the Helmand and other smaller rivers coming in from Afghanistan, fluctuate naturally, depending on regional precipitation and snowmelt in the basin. But here too, water withdrawals for irrigation and the development of Iran’s Chah Nimeh reservoir, together with prolonged drought, have cut water flows into the Hamouns. Water levels in the lakes have plunged, uncovering growing patches of dry lakebed. As a result, satellite observations and data on the ground show that dust storms in the area are increasing as the Hamouns dry up.
 
Dust Diplomacy
 
       Lake Urmia and the Sistan Basin highlight the regional nature and international implications of Iran’s dust challenge. Though particular storms may originate in Iran, the repercussions reach the neighbors as well. The prevailing winds sweeping over Lake Urmia, for instance, can loft dust thousands of feet into the air and carry it northward 150 miles or more into Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Likewise, the Sistan Basin represents a major dust source for all of southwest Asia, and storms starting in the Hamouns can spread salt-laden sediment across Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. 
 
            Iran is also vulnerable to dust storms born beyond its borders. By tracking satellite images and analyzing the mineral composition of windblown dust particles, scientists can determine where dust storms begin. Their studies indicate that Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia are significant sources of dust storms affecting Iran. Even as far from the frontier as Tehran, 90 percent of the dust shrouding the capital during the dust storms of 2009-2010 originated in the deserts of Iraq and Syria, according to a study by experts at Iran’s Sharif University of Technology.
 
            Dust storms bind Iran together with its neighbors in a reciprocal relationship. Iran’s land and water policies fuel dust storms that blow across borders, especially Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran has dammed and diverted waters from numerous streams and tributaries that run from its territory into the Tigris-Euphrates, including the Alwand, Karun, and Sirwan rivers that flow into Iraq. And falling water levels in the Hamouns – and their effects on Sistan dust storms – depend on water flows from the Helmand River, which Iran and Afghanistan share.
 
      So too, land and water use decisions by the neighboring countries generate dust storms that can blow into Iran. Many Iranian experts worry that growing water demands and new dams and diversions by Iraq, Syria, and especially Turkey may dry out portions of the Tigris-Euphrates Basin, increasing desertification and promoting dust storms that could push deep into Iran. 
 
      Iran and its neighbors recognize their interdependence and have agreed to cooperate in recent years. In 2009, Iraq and Iran inked an accord under which Iraq was to dampen the dust threat by pouring either a biological or an oil-based mulch onto dust sources in the desert. In 2011, they signed a deal to jointly fund a $1.2 billion project to cover 3,860 square miles of Iraqi desert with mulch to stabilize the sand. Yet little has come of these agreements and the Iraq-Iran deal has never been fulfilled. In 2010, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Qatar, and Turkey concluded an agreement in Tehran to exchange information, technology, and experience for reducing dust storms. But that, too, is only a beginning.
 
            Iran’s leadership is clearly thinking about environmental issues. On March 5th, 2014, National Tree Planting Day, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, urged all parts of the government, and all Iranians, to cooperate to protect the environment and resolve the dust storm challenge. And on March 29, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted a reminder for people to turn off their lights for “Earth Hour” 2014.
 
David Michel is director of the Environmental Security Program at the Stimson Center, a non-partisan think tank in Washington D.C.
 
Photo credit: Tehran Pollution by Matthias Blume [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, Zayandeh River by Adam Jones [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, Lake Urmia by NASA via Flickr, Khamenei.ir
 

 

Congress Rejects Iran’s UN Envoy Pick

             On April 7, the Senate unanimously passed a bill by Ted Cruz (R-TX) barring known terrorists from obtaining visas to enter the United States as representatives to the United Nations. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s nomination of Hamid Aboutalebi as U.N. ambassador spurred the legislation. Aboutalebi was allegedly a member of the Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line, the group that seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979 and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.
            Cruz introduced the bill on April 1 and argued that it would be “unconscionable” for the United States “to host a foreign national who showed a brutal disregard for the status of our diplomats when they were stationed in his country” in the “name of international diplomatic protocol.”
           
State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf called the nomination “extremely troubling” in remarks to the press on April 2. “We're taking a close look at the case now, and we've raised our serious concerns about this possible nomination with the government of Iran. But we do take our obligations as host nation for the United Nations very seriously,” she said. Representative Doug Lamborn (R-CO) has introduced companion legislation, H.R. 4357 for consideration. The House would need to approve the measure before sending it to President Obama to sign it into law. On April 8, White House Spokesperson Jay Carney said the administration shares the Senate's concerns and that the U.S. government had informed Tehran that the "potential selection is not viable." The following is a statement by Cruz and the full text of S. 2195.  

 
S. 2195
AN ACT
 
To deny admission to the United States to any representative to the United Nations who has been found to have been engaged in espionage activities or a terrorist activity against the United States and poses a threat to United States national security interests.
 
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,
 
SECTION 1. VISA LIMITATION FOR CERTAIN REPRESENTATIVES TO THE UNITED NATIONS.
 
Section 407(a) of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Years 1990 and 1991 (8 U.S.C. 1102 note) is amended--
 
(1) by striking ``such individual has been found to have been engaged in espionage activities'' and inserting the following: ``such individual--
 
``(1) has been found to have been engaged in espionage activities or a terrorist activity (as defined in section 212(a)(3)(B)(iii) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(3)(B)(iii)))''; and
 
(2) by striking ``allies and may pose'' and inserting the following: ``allies; and ``(2) may pose''.
 
Passed the Senate April 7, 2014.

 

 

US Briefs on April Vienna Nuke Talks

      On April 4, the U.S. State Department provided a briefing on the upcoming nuclear negotiations between Iran and the world’s six major powers – Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States. The two sides are scheduled to meet on April 7 in Vienna, Austria. A senior Obama administration official compared the talks to solving a Rubik’s cube and said the two sides are looking to start drafting the final agreement in May. “We can’t look at any one issue in isolation, but rather will have to consider what package we can all agree to that will meet the objectives that we have,” said the official. The briefing was released amid news reports that the U.S. Treasury has granted a license to Boeing to sell spare aircraft parts to Iran. The following are excerpts from the State Department briefing.

 
Background Briefing Senior Administration Official
on the Upcoming P5+1 Talks on Iran’s Nuclear Program
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  We head back to Vienna for this round of talks clear-eyed about the challenges ahead and determined to keep making progress on these very difficult issues.  We will have more topical discussions like we had in March, with both sides laying out their positions and trying to better understand where each of us are on the various issues.  This process has been helpful in setting the table as we prepare to dive much more deeply into what a comprehensive agreement might actually look like on paper and what everyone might be able to agree to. 
 
As always, these political director conversations follow on the tremendous work of our experts, who have been and are still now in Vienna meeting with their counterparts and will be doing so through probably mid-day on Saturday.  And they have had quite intense, and from the initial readouts I’ve gotten, continue to be productive and constructive conversations.  As we’ve said, putting this agreement together will really be like solving a Rubik’s cube.  We can’t look at any one issue in isolation, but rather will have to consider what package we can all agree to that will meet the objectives that we have.
 
We are looking to ensure we have the right combination of measures in place to ensure Iran cannot acquire a nuclear weapon and that it’s program is exclusively peaceful.  As we work to bridge the gaps that exist to see if we can find that right combination, the pace of our work will intensify even more than it is today. 
 
 
QUESTION:  First off, about the reports that have resurfaced of a possible Iran-Russia $20 billion oil-for-goods deal.  And in the past, the White House and other senior Administration officials have expressed concern that this would be a serious concern, but they have also said that there is no sign of Russia or anyone else violating the oil sanctions.  So could we find out from you what is your latest on that?  What information do you have about that deal possibly going ahead? 
 
And related to that, has the problems – have the problems with Russia over Crimea bled over into the Iran negotiations at any level?  We’ve seen some remarks from Sergei Ryabkov, that suggested that in the aftermath of the last talks that Russia might play the Iran card against the U.S. in this Crimea-Ukraine issue.
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  On the Russia-Iran oil-for-goods, we’ve seen reports that you all have written on the purported deal or potential for a deal between Russia and Iran.  We do not have any information to suggest this deal has been culminated or implemented or begun to be executed or finalized.  We’ve been very clear about our concerns with both parties regarding this or any similar deal.  If such a deal were to happen, it appears it would be inconsistent with the terms of the P5+1 plus European Union Joint Plan of Action and could potentially trigger U.S. sanctions against the entity and individuals involved in any related transaction.  But we have conveyed this directly to all parties, as we do in any situation that we see developing where there might be concerns of sanctionable activity. 
 
Regarding Russia and its illegitimate action in Crimea, which we still do not and the international community does not recognize as legal and legitimate – we believe in the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, including Crimea.  It has not had any appreciable or substantive impact on the negotiations.  As I said at the end of the last round, Sergei Ryabkov was constructive, professional, and very much focused, as were all the members of the P5+1 and the European Union on our work.  My understanding is in the experts talks that have been ongoing the same is true.  And I’m aware of the remarks, obviously, that Sergei made after the last round.  We have all understood privately that we have to be very mindful of the tremendous responsibility that the United Nations has given to the P5+1 and the European Union to try to reach an agreement with Iran, and that has to be the focus of our attention. 
 
QUESTION:  Thank you for doing this one, Senior Administration Official.  (Laughter.)  I’m just wondering – I mean, I know that there’s been this goal to do it within a year, but I mean, how far along do you really think you are in terms of – I know you say it’s a Rubik’s cube, you’ll need to fit all the pieces together.  But do you find that you’re making progress towards that goal?  And I mean, are you confident that you’re going to be able to finish it within the year?  I guess that’s my main question.
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Elise, we are committed to – all of the parties are committed to not finishing this in a year but finishing this in the six-month frame of the Joint Plan of Action by July 20th.  And I’m absolutely convinced that we can, though the real issue is not about whether you can write the words on paper, do the drafting; it’s about the choices that Iran has to make, and some of them are very difficult.  And in order to ensure that they will not obtain a nuclear weapon and that the international community has the assurances it needs that their program is entirely and exclusively peaceful, they will have to make some significant changes and some significant choices.  So this will be about the decisions that Iran makes, but the drafting is certainly doable.
 
QUESTION:  But how close are you?  Not – I don’t expect at this point in the process that you would be close to a deal.  But in terms of how the negotiations are progressing, do you see --
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  We have – we set out a work plan of how we were going to proceed to get to a comprehensive agreement, and we are on pace with the work plan that was set out.  We were very conscious that we were going to use the March and April rounds to go over every single issue that we believed had to be addressed in a comprehensive agreement and make sure we understood each other on those issues, both at a macro level as well as at a technical level, because this is a highly, highly, highly technical agreement.  And that’s why – pardon me while I take a sip of water, the allergy season has gotten to me.  That is why it’s so critical that our experts spend quite a bit of time in conversation going through the technical details of what each other means by what they are saying. 
 
So we are on pace with that work plan, looking toward beginning drafting in May and as we get through this month and begin to start to work that process.  So we’re on pace with the work plan that we all set out with each other. 
 
QUESTION:  I wanted to follow up on the question. And the fact that you just said that you’re not going to start drafting until May, I mean, my understanding is that there are still some pretty serious fundamental disagreements on some of the main things expected from the beginning would be difficult, namely enrichment, R&D, the scope of that, how much uranium they’re going to be able to keep and what level at that to keep at any given time.  How much progress have you made in the last few weeks in overcoming the differences on those very difficult issues which are going to be the ones that ultimately decide success or failure of this whole process?
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, I think I’ve told you all before so you won’t be surprised to hear me say again that I’m not going to negotiate in public.  What I will say is that we understand each other very well.  We know where we can see points of agreement.  We know where the gaps are that have to be bridged.  But I’ve also said this is a Rubik’s cube, and where one makes progress on one element may mean there’s more trade space on another element.  So it’s very – it’s literally impossible to say okay, I can see a way forward here without understanding its impact on the way forward there.  So it has to be looked at in its entirety, not just element by element. 
 
QUESTION:  But if I can just follow up quickly, even though – I mean, stepping away from the Rubik’s cube analogy for a moment, what percentage of the issues would you say that you’ve managed to reach some kind of understanding and what percentage remains difficult?  And I realize that some – there could be 2 percent of the issues that are unresolved, and those could ultimately break the deal. 
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, I think you’ve answered your own question, which is the percentages don’t matter, even if I could give you a percentage, which I can’t.  But the percentages don’t matter because the Joint Plan of Action says nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and I would add to that nothing is agreed till everyone agrees to it. 
 
So it doesn’t matter, exactly as you said.  Even if you got agreement on everything but there were two last sticking points, you have to resolve those two last sticking points.  As we finished the Joint Plan of Action, there were a handful of brackets, and until you resolved all of those brackets, there was no agreement, even though you’d resolved a great deal of the text.  So it only matters when you get to an agreement. 
 
QUESTION:  Hi.  Thanks.  I was wondering – the last round of talks the U.S. negotiations team didn’t go to Israel after the talks to brief, while that usually used to be the case.  I was wondering if there’s any plan to do it now. 
 
And the second question:  There was – there were reports that the U.S. gave Iran some kind of a proposal about transforming the Arak reactor from a heavy-water reactor to a light-water reactor.  Can you say anything about that? 
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So we maintain very close consultations with a number of partners and countries of interest all around the world, including Israel.  And sometimes that means that I’ve traveled with my team to brief.  Sometimes that means we do it by a video conference or phone or meetings here in Washington.  So there are a variety ways, but that close consultation with Israel and with a number of other countries continues on a regular basis, and will for this round as well. 
 
In terms of proposals about the Arak reactor, I’m not going to discuss any specifics in these briefings, as you can imagine.  This is a negotiation, and that means it has to stay in the room.
 
QUESTION:  Hi.  I think this is sort of a variation on the theme that others have spoken on before.  The Iranians said at the close of the last negotiations that we’ve done the framework planning, we’ve done the technical stuff, and the next time we’re going to get down to real issues.  But it doesn’t sound, from what you’re saying, that that’s necessarily the case, that you’re still – at least until the first of May, you’re still kind of laying the table.  Is that – would that be a fair assessment? 
 
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  No.  Well, Karen, when you lay the table, you get down to real and serious issues.  I think Minister Zarif laid out the issues that we held discussions on in the last round, and believe me, they were quite substantive discussions, quite detailed, quite technical.  And in those discussions, one begins to – in fact begin to see the areas of agreement and the areas where there are still gaps that have to be overcome. 
 
So I would say we’ve been getting down to the serious business even in the last round.  We will do that on all of the remaining issues as well as revisit some of the issues from the last round, because we sent our experts away with a set of work products that we wanted from them to try to be able to advance our discussions further.  So all of this work is quite substantive, quite detailed, quite technical, and meant to make the actual drafting an easier process. 
 
QUESTION:  The Iranians have made several comments over the past couple of weeks basically saying under no circumstances will we give up the Arak reactor and things along those lines.  Are those things that you just consider part of the chaff as the negotiations go on, or to what extent do you feel that you have to clarify those issues with the negotiators when you sit down? 
 
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  We’re quite direct and quite straightforward with each other, so I don’t think there’s any mystery about positions.  And what we are focused on is what is discussed in the room, not what anyone says on the outside. 
 
QUESTION:  Hi.  Thank you for doing this.  Just – I don’t want to beat this to death, but but when you say you’re getting down to drafting, does that mean that that’s when the give-and-take of finding out how much concessions people are willing to make is going on, or will that be more in June than in May?
 
And a second question:  What is your assessment at this point about how the sanctions regime overall is holding up?  And do you see any signs that the Iranians might be using the time you’re taking to lay the table to determine just how much they’re going to have to give in terms of where the sanctions regime is in May or June?
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So what I would say, Michael, is from day one, we were already testing each other, looking at assumptions, seeing where there might be areas of agreement, areas that had to be bridged.  So that give-and-take starts the moment you begin a discussion.  The negotiations have been going on since before the Joint Plan of Action over the comprehensive agreement, and the Joint Plan of Action, in fact, laid a framework for the comprehensive agreement.  So give-and-take has been going on for months now.  So we’re not talking about, all of a sudden, this is going to start one day.  It began many months ago.  And all of it set a frame and all of it set the conditions for a comprehensive agreement.
 
So I don’t think you can say we’re going to wait until May or going to wait until June or going to wait until July.  It is constant.  It is constant.  And it’ll get refined and refined and refined until we hope we can reach a comprehensive agreement that ensures that Iran will not obtain a nuclear weapon and that the international community is assured that its program is entirely and exclusively peaceful.
 
As far as the sanctions regime is holding up, I think that it is.  We gave limited, targeted relief for the six-month period of the Joint Plan of Action.  We have fulfilled our commitments in that regard.  And that is all moving forward in the way that had been agreed to.  And so Iran is getting that limited targeted relief, and I’m sure that Iran is assessing what it needs for the future, how it needs it, and what impact that has on getting to a comprehensive agreement, just as we are assessing it from the other side of the table.
 
QUESTION:  Can I just – a quick follow-up?  If the give-and-take has started, do you already have an idea about how likely it is that you’re going to get an acceptable package and get compromise on those key terms that make up the Rubik’s Cube?
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I go back to what I said a moment ago:  Until everything is agreed, nothing is agreed.
 
QUESTION:  Hello, hi.  Thanks for doing this.  I have just a couple questions, one on levels of Iranian oil exports.  There are reports that those export levels are rising, have been rising rapidly the past few months.  Is it still your understanding that this level is within what’s allowed by the JPOA?  And what are you – are you coordinating not only with China but also countries like Japan and the ROK and India, who have shown quite an appetite for Iranian oil?
 
And then also, how do you expect this issue of the Iranian ambassadorial nomination to the UN, Mr. Aboutalebi, to impact the nomination – the negotiations?  I know Marie has said that they’re separate, but realistically, given the importance of congressional involvement and the fact that so many members of Congress have expressed outrage about this, what’s your level of concern that this could be an issue going forward?  Thank you.
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  In terms of the oil exports, as we have always said, we expect there to be fluctuations.  They go up and down month to month.  What we care about is the aggregate over the period of time that’s agreed to.  We have had teams talk to each of the remaining importers of Iranian oil, and we feel comfortable that in fact, they will meet the target that we have, and there’s nothing to lead us to believe otherwise at this time.  We, of course, keep continuous eye on this and in continuous discussion with all of the importers.
 
In terms of the report that there is a possible nomination for the Iranian permanent representative at the United Nations, we of course have seen these reports.  If in fact this possible nomination were in fact the person nominated, it would be extremely troubling, as both our deputy spokesperson has said and as the White House spokesperson has said.  We are taking a close look at this case now and we have raised our serious concerns about this possible nomination with the Government of Iran through a variety of channels that we use to convey our concerns.
 
QUESTION:  Yes.  I just wondered – I’ve got two or three questions, actually.  The first one:  In recent days in Washington, there have been suggestions that there should be some kind of a threat of use of force by President – by the President of the United States to strengthen any kind of agreement that is going to be reached, hopefully.  Is that a new development?  Is that going to change attitudes in Iran, do you think?  A.
 
B, on the issue of Russia and how they’re going to play this Iranian card or not playing the Iranian card, I just wondered, you said, if they do come with – on that agreement about this huge deal on oil exports and so on, you said it would be inconsistent with Iran +5 talks and its aims.  If that happens, what will be the position of the United States within the P5+1? 
 
And a third question:  The third question is about these reports from Iran that Iran is actually having trouble getting its hands on the money that was supposed to be released under the Geneva agreement.  Have you heard that?  Can you confirm that?  And do you know why that – there’s a problem there?  Thank you.
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Sure.  I think you’re referring to a report about a Brookings Institution publication, and we very much value all of the think tanks in Washington, D.C.  Obviously, members of Congress, leaders and thinkers all over the world who have suggested things to us in the negotiation have put down on paper their ideas about how things go forward, and all of this is a very valuable input to our thinking through this negotiation.  I would point out, just for a factual matter, I think the way that particular report is written, as you said, is that Congress would take such action if Iran pulled out of a negotiated agreement.  So it’s really something that I think they were discussing down the road.  But regardless, we listen to all variety of voices with very, very different positions because this is tough, this is difficult, and we’re happy to hear everybody’s ideas.  
 
In terms of the Russia for oil deal, if it – a Russia-Iran oil deal, if it happened, we would take a look at the deal, and if it in fact was sanctionable, we would take the appropriate action.  All of the members – rest of the members of the P5+1 and the European Union are well aware of the implications if such an agreement were to occur. 
 
And third, your question about Iran having trouble getting their hands – you’ll have to ask the Iranians for their comments on that.  The United States, the European Union, we have done everything that we made a commitment to do in the Joint Plan of Action and our teams have been working very hard to facilitate everything that was required in the JPOA. 
 
 
QUESTION: I have a question about a few reports which we’re seeing there about Congress going to move towards a new set of sanctions, non-nuclear terrorism related, on Iran.  Al-Monitor also reported on this first.  And I wanted to see if the – you’re aware of this move, and if yes, how do you think or how the Administration think it’s going to affect the talks with Iran?
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  We’ve seen reports that folks are considering some additional legislation that are non-nuclear related.  I can’t comment on legislative proposals that I haven’t seen.
 
# # #
 
 

Paper: Change or More of the Same for Iran?

      On March 26, the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars convened a panel of four experts to discuss prospects for change in Iran during the next five years. The Middle East Program then published a compilation of short papers based on their presentations. The following are excerpts.

 
Shaul Bakhash (moderator)
Clarence J. Robin Professor of History, George Mason University
 
           Rouhani faces formidable obstacles in his cautious, measured attempt to reorient Iran’s foreign policy, to reintroduce sensible management of the economy, and to restore to Iranians some measure of political freedom. Critics on the right are already sniping at his attempt to reach an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program with the P5+1countries. The judiciary and the security services deliberately seek to undercut his political liberalization measures and have blocked the release of a larger number of political prisoners. Any attempt to curtail the role of parastatal organizations in the economy, to reduce subsidies, and to attract foreign investment to Iran will be firmly resisted. It remains to be seen whether this time, a mildly reformist president will manage to carry his agenda to completion, or whether the pattern of the past will be repeated and a reformist president’s initial successes will be undercut or reversed by a conservative reaction.
 
Bernard Hourcade
Global Fellow, Wilson Center; and Senior Research Fellow Emeritus, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris, France
 
            The role of political factions changed after Rouhani developed political consensus among different factions. The cabinet is de facto a coalition of several factions supporting the new government and the policy of dialogue under the leadership of the Supreme Leader. Within the current context of this complex national unity government, further complicated by issues of sanctions and the potential nuclear deal, the minority of Islamist hardliners (mainly the Resistance Front/Paydari) have become the new real opposition.
 
            These Islamic “Tea Parties” are very active but comprise no more than one-third of the current Majles. They are supported by some preeminent policymakers, clerics, and members of the Pasdaran and Basij, and they have strong networks, efficient newspapers, and media connections. Their criticism of the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, specifically on human rights and Syria, remains within the framework of legitimate opposition in any republic. They are a traditional “democratic” opposition and currently do not have the clear support of the Supreme Leader, who trusts President Rouhani.
 
            The core—or the weak center—of the current parliament is made up of “independents.” They are local MPs but also policymakers who do not want to support any radical faction (reformist or radical Islamist). In the political context of 2012, choosing this political path was a way to oppose the Islamist hardliners (Resistance Front/Paydari) and even the United Front of Conservatives (Motahed) majority, a group close to the Supreme Leader. Most of them strongly support the new policies of “moderation” and dialogue.” Both groups are open to globalization but also linked to the Islamic cultural values—and political networks—of the Islamic regime. They are good representative of the new middle bourgeoisie.
 
            The main question at stake in the next parliamentary elections will be the emergence—or not—of a political group able to sustain the current imposed consensus supporting the international opening of Iran. A positive strong majority supporting the new policy is necessary for the new economic and political emergence of Iran and to give the international community confidence to lift economic sanctions following political agreement on the nuclear issue.
 
 
Bijan Khajehpour
Managing Partner, Atieh International
 
            Iran is at an important juncture in its economic development. The positive outlook of sanctions relief and a number of reasonable economic and monetary policies have the potential to return the country to a positive economic outlook. However, one should not expect a fast-paced economic recovery, not only because the current economic crisis is very deep, but also because the social and political consequences of fast-paced economic growth would not be manageable in a political constellation like Iran’s. In other words, economic recovery should be managed in a way that does not lead to a new wave of populism that can feed itself from disappointed social classes. 
 
            All indications show that the new government understands how to draft and implement sustainable policies; however, the success of these policies will also depend on continued sanctions relief and a gradual normalization of Iran’s relations with Western powers.
 
 
Roberto Toscano
Former Public Policy Scholar, Wilson Center; President, Intercultura Foundation; Former Italian Ambassador to India, 2008-2010; Former Italian Ambassador to Iran, 2003-2008
 
The Optimist Perspective
            Among Iranian citizens, there is a very high margin of convergence on the goal of attaining the status of “normal country”—meaning a country that is not isolated, is not considered a pariah and a threat, is modern economically, and is respected politically. At the same time, there is also the awareness that such a goal cannot be attained without normalizing relations with the United States. In Iran, there are many reasons for grievance against Washington (from the 1953 coup against Mohammad Mossadeq to the present sanctions), yet what strikes any visitor to Iran, and especially American visitors, is that there is no widespread anti-Americanism, but, rather, a generalized attitude of positive interest and even friendliness.
            The nuclear issue, which was the main stumbling block to the normalization of relations with the United States and with the world, is turning out to be a fundamental step toward that goal. The main obstacle is now the most promising occasion.
 
The Pessimist Perspective
            The president of Iran is actually more of a prime minister (in a presidential type of system) than a president, since the real head of state and government is the Supreme Leader. If it is true that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is allowing and supporting Rouhani’s actions, there are also signals that he did not sign a blank check but reserves the right not only to oversee but also to curtail and even stop, if needed, the whole process. There is nothing new in this: Khamenei both allowed and limited, and in some cases stopped, very different political formulas that he thought were necessary at a given stage in Iran’s politics—from Rafsanjani’s normalization of the state and economy to Khatami’s reformism to Ahmadinejad’s populism.
 
            Khamenei is allowing movement but remains ready to hit the brakes. In the meantime, he is sending out warning signals not to go too far and also not to abandon some fundamental “identity markers” for the Islamic Republic. Such markers include opposing the release of Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi and artificially reviving the Holocaust issue (highly damaging for Iran and highly unpopular within Iranian public opinion) in order to mark the limits of normalization with the United States and also to shift to a more moderate line on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
 
Robin Wright
Wilson Center-USIP Distinguished Scholar
 
            Iran has made a strategic recalculation of its foreign policy because the nuclear deal is in many ways about a lot more than just the nuclear deal. It’s really about securing the Islamic Republic’s future.
 
            First, the strategic recalculation reflects changes in the regional balance as well as the U.S. role in the Middle East and South Asia. The Iranians now believe a Salafi circle is surrounding them, which has changed their thinking in very fundamental ways. They no longer see the United States as the threat or the challenge to their interest. They now see the United States as, in some ways, a country with which they have common national security concerns.
 
            The second reason that Iran is in the midst of a strategic recalculation relates to its economy. Tehran’s mismanagement, corruption, and the growing economic gap motivate Iran even more than economic sanctions do.
 
            The third reason that Iran will continue to reach out to the foreign community—and to a lesser degree to the United States—is because Iran believes it is strategically lonely. Iranians think they are a minority ethnically on every single border.
 
            The fourth reason for this opening to the outside world is demography. The majority of Iranians have now been born since the revolution; the majority of voters have been born since the revolution.
 
            The fifth factor is that their goals are fairly realistic. Iran now thinks in terms of breaking sanctions, not ending them.
 
            Finally, the biggest question is whether the Supreme Leader, who has ultimate power in Iran’s bifurcated political system, is really on board. He has so far allowed the process to continue. The negotiating team gives him very detailed descriptions of discussions with the world’s six major powers. There are reportedly some issues he cares about, while on others he is not as deeply involved.
 
            The bottom line is that there is a genuine prospect for a nuclear deal, but probably with real limits. Iran’s goal is not to improve relations with the United States. Its goal is to better its place in the world, improve the economy, and create an enduring following. Iran’s next agenda, after a nuclear deal, may be bettering relations in the Arab world. Tehran is deeply worried about the growing Shi’ite-Sunni divide, which is arguably deeper than at any point since the original schism in the 7th century, in part because it ripples globally. In the past, tensions have been local or regional, but now the divide spreads right across the Islamic world. And the Iranians want to prevent what they think will isolate them even further than they are now.
 
Click here for the full text.

 

Connect With Us

Our Partners

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Logo