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Thousands Suffer from Chemical Weapons Quarter Century Later

            The following article first appeared in Time magazine.

Robin Wright

           Hassan Hassani Sa’di has been dying from chemical weapons for almost 30 years. The Iranian still remembers the moment he realized Iraqi warplanes were dropping more than regular bombs. “I knew,” he says, “because of the smell of garlic.” It was the pungent and telltale aroma of mustard gas.
      Death from mustard gas is gruesome; so is survival. It hideously disfigures skin, sears lungs and mucus membranes, and often blinds. Unlike nerve gas, there’s no antidote. Sa’di, then an 18-year-old fighting in the Middle East’s grisliest modern war — the 8-year conflict between Iran and Iraq — survived the Iraqi attack on the strategic Fao Peninsula in 1985. Within hours, his body was badly blistered, and he had gone blind. “The last thing I remember is vomiting green,” he says, during an interview at the Tehran Peace Museum, a facility dedicated to education and the documentation of weapons of mass destruction.
      Iran is today the world’s largest laboratory for the study of the effects of chemical weapons, in part because of the sheer numbers of Iranian victims, but also because of a little-studied phenomenon called low-dose exposure. In 1991, a declassified CIA report estimated that Iran suffered more than 50,000 casualties from Iraq’s repeated use of nerve agents and toxic gases in the 1980s. Mustard gas — in dusty, liquid and vapor forms — was used the most during the war. It was packed into bombs and artillery shells, then fired at frontlines and beyond, including at hospitals.
            Years after the war, however, Iranian doctors noticed that respiratory diseases with unusual side-symptoms — corneal disintegration, rotting teeth and dementia, a combination synonymous with mustard gas — had started killing off veterans who had not always been on the frontlines. Civilians were also dying.
            So in 2000, the government launched a media campaign urging people who had been in certain areas during the war to report for check-ups. The ads didn’t specify why.
The troubling pattern was soon diagnosed as secondary contamination to mustard gas. “We may only have seen the tip of the iceberg. We may not yet have seen the majority of victims,” Dr. Farhad Hashemnezhad told me in 2002. “At least 20 percent of the current patients are civilians who didn’t think they were close enough to be exposed.”
            Numbers have since soared from the lingering, and unanticipated, effects of mustard gas. Dr. Shahriar Khateri, Iran’s leading expert on chemical weapons victims, now says 70,000 are registered, many from low-dose exposure that is now killing them.
            “We now know that the latency period can be 40 years,” says Khateri, who is unsure of his own fate. Khateri volunteered to fight at age 15 after his brother was killed in the war. He was gassed in 1987 during the battle for southern port of Khorramshahr. After the war, he went to medical school and co-founded the Society for Chemical Weapons Victims Support.
Iranian doctors say the final toll of Iraq’s chemical weapons could ultimately rival the 90,000 who died from toxic gases in World War I.
            In the meantime, Iran has struggled to tend to victims. Sa’di has had 8 surgeries to transplant or repair both corneas, but still has to hold his watch to his face, and sunlight is painful. He takes multiple medications to help breathe, but has a hacking cough. He does not work — the state gives him disability allowance — although he volunteers as an occasional docent at the Tehran Peace Museum to tell his story.
            In Tehran, chemical weapons victims often end up at Sasan Hospital, a grim facility that had been the American Hospital of Tehran before the 1979 revolution. Abolfazl Afazali is one of 22 patients struggling for life at Sasan when I visit in December. “One of my wishes,” he says, “is to be able to take a deep breath.”
            U.S. sanctions have complicated treatment, Iranian doctors say. Humanitarian goods are technically exempt, but international banks have often been unwilling to conduct financial transactions with Iran, even when legal, for fear of repercussions.
            Ahmad Zangiabadi represented Iranian victims at the 2013 conference of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which won the Nobel Peace Prize last year. He is no longer mobile, however. He sleeps sitting upright on the floor of his small apartment because the exertion of lying down and getting up is too much for his lungs. He is kept alive on an Airsep New Life Alert oxygen machine, which pushes oxygen into his lungs and makes a thudding sound with every breath. But he has had increasing trouble getting inhalers made by Spiriva and Glaxo Smith Kline. “Life has become a prison the past four months,” he says.
            The lingering impact of a war that ended in a 1988 truce, at a cost of an estimated 1 million Iranian and Iraqi casualties, still defines Iran’s worldview. It has been as important as economic sanctions in pushing Tehran to the negotiating table with the world’s six major powers on its nuclear program. As a result of the war, Iran suffers from “strategic loneliness,” explained Nasser Hadian, a University of Tehran political scientist.
            The primary lesson learned, he said, was that Iran had no allies even when it was a victim of weapons banned since World War I by international norms.Tehran felt a sense of isolation and betrayal after the United Nations verified Iraq’s repeated use chemical weapons, but the outside world still almost unanimously sided with Saddam Hussein. Iran’s neighbors aided him. Europeans and Russians sold him arms.
            The United States was complicit too. Washington provided Baghdad with intelligence on Iran’s equipment and troops strengths to help Iraq retake the Fao Peninsula in 1988. Iraq made widespread use of chemical weapons to win it back.
            The final tally of the war may still not be known for years, Khateri says. “Most of the men exposed to chemical weapons were not registered casualties at the time,” he says. “So almost every day there are new cases — 30 years after the war.”
 
This article is reposted from Time magazine.
 
Photo credit: Sajed.ir via Wikimedia Commons
 

 

Zarif: Sanctions Would Kill Nuclear Deal

            The following article first appeared in Time magazine. 

Robin Wright
      In a wide-ranging interview with TIME in Tehran on Dec. 7, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif spoke to writer and Iran expert Robin Wright about how the Geneva nuclear deal came together, how the government has to appeal to Iran’s own parliament not to undermine the interim pact, and how any new sanctions passed by the United  States Congress would kill the deal. The agreement, reached between Iran and six world powers in November, calls for a freeze on parts of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for an easing of sanctions. It is meant to pave the way for a final settlement between Iran and the international community on Iran’s nuclear program. Iran says the program is for civilian purposes only; world powers fear that it has a military component. Speaking in the ornate Foreign Ministry building, Zarif also indicated that Iran might not be wedded to Syria’s President Bashar Assad, a long-time ally, and he said that Iran hoped for a “duly monitored” democratic election in Syria. Iran’s most high-profile cabinet official warned that the deepening sectarianism playing out in Syria does not recognize borders and has implications “on the streets of Europe and America.”
 
What are biggest differences between Iran and the six major powers in making a permanent agreement? The biggest issues and obstacles?
            There are a number of issues. One is the removal of all sanctions – both U.N. Security Council sanctions as well as national and multilateral sanctions outside the U.N. – and second is the issue of Iran having an enrichment program.
            These are the two elements of the final deal that are going to be there. How we shape the final deal to include all these elements will be a matter for discussion. The two other members, Russia and China, may also have concerns but they are more confident about the peaceful nature of our nuclear program.
 
But what are the obstacles then?
            I don’t see any obstacles. I believe it’s rather straightforward. We can reach an agreement but there are some areas which are more difficult than others. One of those areas may be how we make sure that [Iran’s heavy water production plant at] Arak will remain peaceful. It is our intention that it will remain exclusively peaceful but how we give them the necessary assurances that it will remain peaceful that may be one of the more difficult areas.
 
Why do you even need Arak?
            Why do we even need Arak? Because we need to produce radio isotopes for medical purposes and even Arak alone is not enough for us. This was the technology that was available to us. Some people believe that we chose this technology because it provided other options. They’re badly mistaken.
            You see you have to look at Iran’s nuclear program from the perspective of denial, the fact that Iran was denied access to technology. And we used or we tried to get access to whatever was available to us and this technology was available to us. Other technologies were not. And we made a lot investment both in terms of human capital as well as in terms of material resources and we have reached almost the end game of getting this research reactor into actual operation. So it’s too late in the game for somebody to come and tell us that we have concerns that cannot be addressed. We have to find solutions. We believe there are scientific solutions for this and we are open to discussing them but that will be one of the more difficult issues.
 
Are you willing to accept a level of enrichment that is only for facilities that Iran has constructed?
            We are going to accept measures that would ensure that our program will remain exclusively peaceful but the rest will have to be decided in the negotiations in good faith. We have no intention of producing weapons or fissile material programs. We do not consider that to be in our interests or within our security doctrine.
 
What are the prospects that Iran will be part of the Geneva talks on Syria?
             If Iran is invited without preconditions Iran will be a part of the talks. I think people will decide to invite Iran if they are interested in having a helpful hand in finding a resolution to the Syrian tragedy and they will decide not to invite Iran to their own detriment. Iran believes that what is happening in Syria can have a huge impact on the future of our region and the future beyond the region. Because we believe that if the sectarian divide that some people are trying to fan in Syria becomes a major issue it will not recognize any boundaries. It will go beyond the boundaries of Syria. It will go beyond the boundaries of this region. You will find implications of this on the streets of Europe and America.

Did you or any other Iranian diplomats discuss Iran’s position on Syria with American diplomats?
            No, we didn’t except for a very, very brief sort of reference en passé in my first meeting with John Kerry.

Do you think it’s possible that the many different sides of the Syrian conflict and the outside parties to that conflict can find common ground?
            It’s up to the Syrians to decide; we can only help. We can only facilitate. And I think Iran will not be an impediment to a political settlement in Syria. We have every interest in helping the process in a peaceful direction. We are satisfied, totally satisfied, convinced that there is no military solution in Syria and that there is a need to find a political solution in Syria. If you want to prevent a void, the types of consequences that we are talking about, I mean if you want to avoid extremism in this region, if you want to prevent a Syria becoming a breeding ground for extremists who will use Syria basically as a staging ground to attack other countries – be it Lebanon, be it Iraq, be it Jordan,  Saudi Arabia, even Turkey – these countries are going to be susceptible to a wave of extremism that will find its origins in Syria and the continuation of this tragedy in Syria can only provide the best breeding ground for extremists who use this basically as a justification, as a recruiting climate in order to wage the same type of activity in other parts of this region.
 
Is Iran going to stick at the side of Bashar Assad?
            We will stick to the side of stability and resolution to Syria. But at the end of the day, we are not going to decide who will rule Syria. It should be the Syrian people to decide. We’re proposing that we should not give ourselves the role that the Syrian people should play.
 
We’re hearing that you’re still facing tough opposition in the Gulf and that Saudi Arabia doesn’t even want to see you yet.
            I was well received by every country in the Persian Gulf that I visited [on a recent trip]. I had extremely positive discussions both on regional issues, the fact that all of them welcomed the  Geneva agreement, the fact that all of them considered that as a positive development for security and cooperation in our region, the fact that everyone expected a new chapter in relations between Iran and countries on the southern shore of the Persian Gulf. And that was very encouraging for me.
            As for Saudi Arabia, I indicated to them that I was prepared to go to Saudi Arabia. Meetings were arranged. But there was a problem with the meetings. We could not arrange all of the meetings that should have been arranged. We decided to go at a time that was more convenient. It doesn’t mean a political problem between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Now we have differences. In every family you have differences of views, even between brothers and sisters. And we all have our differences. There are issues on which we have different opinions, different approaches, different strategies, different tactics. It wasn’t that they were not prepared to see me. 
               
But you did mention the deepening sectarian gap in the region personified by the differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
            We both have members of both sects among our population and it’s in our interest to avoid this, to have a cordial and brotherly relations between various Islamic sects. So for Iran and Saudi Arabia, it is important and very significant to reach a common understanding on how to avoid this and not to personify such a sectarian difference.
 
What opposition are you facing at home to the Geneva deal? And what are you doing about it?
            The most opposition here emanates from the lack of trust because we do not have a past on which we can build. It’s a psychological barrier to interaction that we need to overcome. The fundamental reason for opposition: they believe the West and particularly the United States are not sincere, are not interested about reaching an agreement. They believe that they will try to use the mechanism of negotiations in order to derail the process, in order to find new excuses. And some of the statements out of Washington give them every reason to be concerned. Now we know that Washington is catering to various constituencies and is trying to address these various constituencies. We read their statements in the light of their domestic constituency process. But not everybody in Iran does that. We believe that the U.S. government should stick to its words, should remain committed to what it stated in Geneva, both on the paper as well as in the discussions leading to the plan of action.
 
After all these negotiations, do you see the prospect for working together with the United States on other subjects, including Afghanistan?
            We have to wait and see whether the behavior that will be exhibited in the course of negotiations and implementation of our agreements on the nuclear issue creates the necessary confidence for us to move to other areas.
 
Is there anything different now between Iran and the United States after the talks in Geneva after the process that’s been launched?
            In terms of using these talks to foster confidence, I don’t think we have been very successful in that process. Because the talks have been followed by public statements that have not differed that significantly from statements that used to be made before the talks.  Basically in this day and age, you don’t have secret negotiations, everything is done is out in the open. You cannot pick and choose your audience. And that is one of the beauties of globalization and one of the hazards of globalization whichever way you want to say it. When Secretary Kerry talks to the U.S. Congress, the most conservative constituencies in Iran also hear him andinterpret his remarks. So it’s important for everyone to be careful what they say to their constituencies because others are listening and others are drawing their own conclusions.

What happens if Congress imposes new sanctions, even if they don’t go into effect for six months?
            The entire deal is dead. We do not like to negotiate under duress. And if Congress adopts sanctions, it shows lack of seriousness and lack of a desire to achieve a resolution on the part of the United States. I know the domestic complications and various issues inside the United States, but for me that is no justification. I have a parliament. My parliament can also adopt various legislation that can go into effect if negotiations fail. But if we start doing that, I don’t think that we will be getting anywhere. Now we have tried to ask our members of parliament to avoid that. We may not succeed. The U.S. government may not succeed. If we don’t try, then we can’t expect the other side to accept that we are serious about the process. 
 
What can you tell us about the back channel that began last March?
            I can tell you that we started discussing this issue on the sidelines of the P5+1 with various countries but with all the countries that were involved we have normal diplomatic relations. It may become more interesting when it involves the United States. That started a long time ago – probably three years ago. Our nuclear negotiator at that time, Dr. [Saeed] Jalili, met with [Undersecretary of State] Bill Burns on the sidelines of Geneva. And since then, there have been back and forth discussions between Iran and the U.S. inside and on the sidelines of P5+1. So that has taken place and I think with some positive outcome.
 
Did it make possible, did it facilitate Geneva?
            I think had it not been for bilateral discussions between Iran and various members of P5+1 we would not have had a positive outcome. Formal meetings of Iran plus six countries and [Senior E.U. foreign policy official] Cathy Ashton usually remain very formal. If you want to reach agreement you need to talk to all of these individually as well as collectively. So we did talk to all members of the P5+1 individually. But as it was not a big deal for us to talk to France or Russia or even the U.K. For the U.S., it was a different issue. And our discussions with the U.S. on the sidelines of P5+1 became a story in themselves.
 
How alive is that channel now?
            When my colleagues go to Vienna, probably they’ll have side discussions with the U.S. and that’s a very important channel. The U.S. is probably the most important player because it has the largest amount of sanctions against Iran, most of them or all of them illegal in our view. But nevertheless it has a lot of sanctions. It imposes a lot of sanctions on various countries that do business with Iran and that is why it has to do the most. In the resolution, it had a lot to do in the creation of the trouble so it has a lot to do in the resolution of the trouble. So that requires Iran and the U.S. to have a lot of discussions on the sides.
 
Would you have had Geneva without that back channel with the United States?
            Well, hypothetical questions: we would not have been able to reach an agreement without having discussed all various issues on the sidelines of P5+1 with various members, particularly the United States.
 

This article is reposted from Time magazine.

 

Robin Wright has traveled to Iran dozens of times since 1973. She has covered several elections, including the 2009 presidential vote. She is the author of several books on Iran, including "The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and transformation in Iran" and "The Iran Primer: Power, Politics and US Policy." She is a joint scholar at USIP and the Woodrow Wilson Center.

 

The Iran Deal: A Humanizing Breakthrough

Robin Wright

            In 1981, I stood at the foot of the plane that flew the 52 Americans held hostage 444 days in Iran to freedom in Algiers. They were all pasty-faced and captive-weary as they disembarked into the cold January night. It was after midnight. Tehran had delayed their departure until after Jimmy Carter was out of office, one final slap at the president who had propped up the last shah until the end and later welcomed him into the United States.
           Weeks of tough negotiations in Algiers to free the hostages had been complicated because Iranians and Americans did not meet face-to-face. They mediated (in three languages) through the Algerians.

      So the recent talks in Geneva between Iran and the world’s six major powers produced far more than a long-elusive deal to restrict Iran’s nuclear program. The new diplomacy also produced real human contact. U.S. and Iranian diplomats have spent more time together over the past three months than in the entire three decades since the American Embassy takeover. They are learning how to talk to each other all over again—often in the same language. Geneva laid the cornerstone to defuse 34 years of both overt and covert confrontation over a host of other issues too. The interaction may even help end the Iran jinx that has tainted or tormented all six American presidents since the 1979 revolution.
            The hostage crisis cost Jimmy Carter a second term. The Reagan administration was shamed by clumsy secret diplomacy during the Iran-Contra scandal, which was initiated to free a new set of American hostages in Beirut but which ended up with the indictment or dismissal of top White House officials. The first Bush administration’s stab at Arab-Israeli diplomacy, centered on the 1991 Madrid peace conference, was matched by deepening ties between Iran and Palestinian rejectionists.
            The Clinton administration considered military retaliation against Iran after the 1996 attack on a U.S. Air Force facility in Khobar, Saudi Arabia killed 19 Americans and injured another 350. A Shiite group with Iran ties was suspected. The second Bush administration’s “axis of evil” language sabotaged collaboration in Afghanistan after the Taliban’s ouster in 2001, while the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions inadvertently strengthened Tehran’s hand by toppling its two biggest regional rivals.
            In contrast, Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif were photographed laughing together across the negotiating table in Geneva. In the wee hours of November 24, they shook hands—more than just politely—after signing an agreement opening the way for six months of even more intensive contact. No one noted that Kerry wore a (bright red) tie, but Zarif didn’t, in deference to the revolutionary dress code banning ties as symbols of Western influence—the kind of colorful anecdote once trotted out to underscore deep differences.
            Debate will rage from Capitol Hill to the Persian Gulf over specifics of the interim deal. Many both at home and abroad are dissatisfied. Some may try to scuttle it. The volume will almost certainly go up as diplomacy intensifies.
            But the reality is that Iran’s nuclear program is now too advanced to either bomb or sanction totally out of business. A deal should have happened a decade ago when Iran had less than 200 centrifuges to enrich uranium, the fuel for both peaceful nuclear energy and the world’s deadliest weapon. Now it has near 19,000. Both sides were too stubborn back then.
The conventional wisdom claims Iran came to the negotiating table under pressure from unparalleled economic sanctions. True. But the unacknowledged truth is that the outside world also went into diplomacy under pressure from Iran’s growing capabilities. Otherwise, the world’s six major powers could have just kept squeezing the Islamic Republic. Tehran also now has nuclear knowledge that can’t be bombed out of existence.
            So, ultimately, even a military strike would require diplomacy to prevent Tehran from rebuilding. The core issue is as much Iran’s long-term calculations as its capabilities.
Diplomacy is not only about preventing war. It’s also about healing. President Nixon’s diplomacy ended 30 years of deadly tensions with China, which included Beijing’s arming, aiding and sending troops to North Vietnam. President Clinton resumed relations with a reunited Vietnam 20 years after the United States lost more than 58,000 lives in a war to keep the Communists from consuming the south.
            The sprawling American Embassy compound in Tehran is not likely to reopen anytime soon. But in pushing for a nuclear deal, Geneva started the long and painful healing that could eventually alter Tehran’s calculations—not only about its nuclear program.
 
 

Robin Wright has traveled to Iran dozens of times since 1973. She has covered several elections, including the 2009 presidential vote. She is the author of several books on Iran, including "The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and transformation in Iran" and "The Iran Primer: Power, Politics and US Policy." She is a joint scholar at USIP and the Woodrow Wilson Center.

 

Photo credit: U.S. State Department

 

Part I: Opposition to a Deal - The Gulf

Robin Wright and Garrett Nada

            The new diplomacy between Iran and the world’s six major powers faces growing opposition from key players in the Middle East, including the oil-rich and influential Gulf states. The Sunni sheikhdoms are nervous the Shiite theocracy will do a deal on its nuclear program that leaves Tehran with a residual capability to eventually build a bomb, either by retaining basic knowledge of a weapons program or controlling the pivotal fuel production for a weapon.
            More broadly, however, Saudi Arabia and the smaller monarchies fear that a diplomatic deal will allow rival Iran to shed its pariah status and reemerge as the Gulf powerhouse—to their disadvantage. Iran’s split with the West after the 1979 revolution had increased the influence of Saudi Arabia particularly as an alternative pillar of U.S. policy. A deal on Iran’s nuclear program could in turn lead to rapprochement with Washington that would diminish Gulf leverage.
            Tensions between Iran and its Gulf neighbors have not eased despite new President Hassan Rouhani’s call for improving relations between Tehran and Riyadh. “We are not only neighbors, we are brothers,” he said shortly after his election in June. “We have had very close relations, culturally, historically and regionally.” He emphasized this point in a tweet following his October 15 call with Qatar's emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani.
            But suspicions remain deep. After the Iranian and Saudi foreign ministers met this fall, Prince Saud al Faisal was openly skeptical. “What we want now is to see that desire materialize on the ground,” he said. “They preach what they do not practice, and practice what they do not say.”
            Opposition to a deal plays out on four levels:
            • Iran’s military capabilities.
            • The sectarian balance of power between Shiite Iran and the Sunni sheikhdoms.
            • The ethnic balance between Persians and Arabs.
            • Ties with the United States.
 
The Military Balance
            The Gulf sheikhdoms are concerned that even a nuclear capability – no bomb, but the ability to assemble a weapon in a short time – would change the strategic balance of power in Iran’s favor. 
 
      Iran currently has more conventional and unconventional troops than the six sheikhdoms in the Gulf Cooperation Council combined. Tehran has more than twice as many ground, air and naval forces as Saudi Arabia, its main rival and the largest of the GCC countries. But the GCC has a potential advantage in quality of armor, artillery and mobility. The six sheikhdoms collectively have more combat planes--666 fixed wing combat aircraft that are also more advanced than Iran’s 334 largely outdated planes. The Gulf navies collectively have some 598 crafts, while Iran has about 280. Iran’s forces would probably not be able to sustain a long campaign against GCC forces, especially if they were backed by the United States.*
 
            A nuclear capability would be a game-changer, however. The sheikhdoms are particularly concerned that Iran might use the mere knowledge of how to produce the world’s deadliest weapon to increase its regional leverage, intimidate rivals, promote its revolutionary ideology, and control the Gulf waters through which some 40 percent of the world’s oil flows.
As a result, Saudi Arabia and its neighboring sheikhdoms Gulf would prefer virtually the same limits on Iran’s program demanded by Israel, including closure of key facilities and an end to enrichment of uranium.
The Sectarian Balance
            The rivalry between the Gulf and Iran actually predates the 1979 revolution. It reflects the deepest schism within the Islamic world dating back to the seventh-century split between Sunnis and Shiites.
            Iran has the world’s largest Shiite population; it is the only country led by Shiite clergy. Both factors made it the de facto leader of the Shiite world politically, even though the key center of Shiite scholarship is in Iraq.
            Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam and the guardian of its two holiest sites. The Gulf sheikhdoms are all ruled by Sunni monarchies, but all have Shiite populations. Shiites are the majority in Bahrain, where many have been involved in protests against the government since 2011. Saudi Arabia has more than 2 million Shiites, many of whom live and work in the oil-fields of the restive Eastern Province.
             Both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have long claimed that Iran was trying to foment unrest among their Shiite minorities. “Clerical authorities in Iran still tend to act as if they lead the Islamic World--issuing ultimatums, intimidating their neighbors, and inciting dissidence and revolution,” Prince Turki al Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief, said in October.
            Numerically, Iran’s 79 million population is almost twice as large as the 45 million people who populate the six Gulf sheikhdoms, especially since the Gulf numbers include foreign residents. The Sunni monarchies are concerned that Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear capability might lead the Shiite theocracy to more actively support their brethren inside the Gulf sheikhdoms.

 
The Ethnic Balance
            Gulf fears about Iran also have roots in centuries-old competition between Arabs and Persians for regional dominance. Tensions played out most recently during the eight-year war between the Arab regime in Iraq and the Persians of Iran in the 1980s. It was sparked by rival claims on the strategic Shatt-al Arab waterway along their border, but it was more broadly about regional influence. The Iran-Iraq war still ranks as the bloodiest conflict in the modern Middle East, producing more than 1 million casualties.
            Again numerically, Iran’s Persians significantly outnumber the Gulf Arabs. Half of the sheikhdoms also have Persian minorities. The Gulf sheikhdoms fear that an Iran with even a nuclear capability would give the Persians greater leverage over key regional issues, from oil prices to control of transportation routes. Gulf Arabs even oppose calling the strategic waterway that divides Iran and the sheikhdoms the “Persian” Gulf because it implies Iranian control or influence.
            “The Iranian leadership’s meddling in Arab countries is backfiring,” Prince Turki said. “Arabs will not be forced to wear a political suit tailored in Washington, London, or Paris. They also reject even the fanciest garb cut by the most skillful tailor in Tehran.”
 
U.S. Ties
            Saudi Arabia has been one of two pillars of U.S. policy in the Arab world —along with Egypt—since the late 1970s. After Iran’s 1979 revolution, the United States had both strategic and economic interests in giving GCC forces a qualitative edge over Iran. It invested heavily in the modernization of Gulf militaries through arms transfers worth tens of billions of dollars. In turn, the Gulf’s defense strategy against revolutionary Iran has been based on close security ties with the United States.
            Iran’s new diplomacy—including the first meeting between the Iranian and American foreign ministers in September—has left the Gulf states feeling more vulnerable. The unprecedented phone call between President Obama and President Hassan Rouhani was especially unnerving for the ruling sheikhs, who view a potential U.S.-Iran rapprochement as harmful to both their relations with Washington and their own long-term interests. Abdullah al Askar, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Saudi Arabia's Shoura Council, reflected local sentiment. “If America and Iran reach an understanding,” he told Reuters, “it may be at the cost of the Arab world and the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia."
 
Robin Wright has traveled to Iran dozens of times since 1973. She has covered several elections, including the 2009 presidential vote. She is the author of several books on Iran, including "The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and transformation in Iran" and "The Iran Primer: Power, Politics and US Policy." She is a joint scholar at USIP and the Woodrow Wilson Center.
 
Garrett Nada is a senior program assistant at USIP.
* Based on “The Gulf Military Balance” report by Anthony Cordesman and Bryan Gold. Click here for Cordesman’s chapter on Iran’s conventional military.
* *Based on estimates derived from the U.S. State Department and CIA World Factbook figures
 
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Iran's Man on Wire: Javad Zarif

Robin Wright
 
            When Mohammed Javad Zarif left the United Nations in 2007, I asked what he had achieved in five years as Tehran's ambassador. "Not much," he said with a sigh. "A stupid idealist who has not achieved anything in his diplomatic life after giving one-sided concessions--this is what I'm called in Iran." He flew home depressed, faded into academia and vowed not to return to diplomacy.
            Over the past two months, however, Zarif has re-emerged to lead Tehran's boldest overture to the West since the 1979 revolution. Iran's charismatic new President Hassan Rouhani clearly commissioned the initiative, but his new Foreign Minister is the plan's architect.
 
      It's the comeback of a diplomatic lifetime. "A second chance," Zarif told me last month. And a huge risk. If he fails to make a deal limiting Tehran's nuclear capabilities--on Oct. 15, Zarif sat down in Geneva with the world's six major powers for a fresh round of negotiations--Iran could face punishing military strikes.
      The talks went well, Zarif and top E.U. diplomat Catherine Ashton agreed. The negotiators will reconvene on Nov. 7.
Skeptics claim Zarif is merely buying time with all this talking so Tehran can work on developing nuclear weapons. "We know that deception is part of the [Iranian] DNA," State Department Under Secretary Wendy Sherman, chief U.S. negotiator in Geneva, warned a Senate committee on Oct. 3.
 
            But Zarif has also built a following in Washington. "He doesn't play games," says Senate Select Committee on Intelligence chair Dianne Feinstein, who met Zarif in 2006 and was among a number of members of Congress who talked to him at the U.N. in September. "I think a deal is doable."
            Zarif has the ear of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and was approached by three of the six candidates in June's presidential election to be their prospective Foreign Minister. But he has also been lauded by the likes of Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Chuck Hagel when they were in the Senate. And he earned a University of Denver doctorate under the same professors who taught Condoleezza Rice.
            Zarif is not just the man of the moment, however. He helped create the moment by being at the heart of virtually every key deal Tehran struck with the U.S. for two decades, beginning in the late 1980s. He was the "invaluable" liaison in talks that freed dozens of foreign hostages seized by pro-Iranian militias in Lebanon in the 1980s, former U.N. official and hostage negotiator Giandomenico Picco says. And after the 2001 U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, U.S. diplomats credited the Iranian envoy with persuading the Afghan opposition to accept the U.S. formula for a new government in Kabul.
            The danger--to Zarif and to the chances of a deal--may be that Zarif actually has too many American contacts. He was fiercely grilled by hard-liners during his parliamentary confirmation. Just days before the Geneva talks, a conservative newspaper claimed Zarif had deemed "inappropriate" the phone call between Presidents Obama and Rouhani at the end of the U.N. General Assembly. Zarif said he'd been misquoted, but the stress triggered nervous spasms that sent him to the hospital. Winning over the powerful hard-liners in Iran's complex power structure will continue to pose a huge challenge to Zarif--and Rouhani.
             The real question," says Ryan Crocker, a veteran of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East who has dealt with Zarif since 2003, "is whether hard-liners in both Tehran and Washington sabotage whatever comes out of this effort to resolve the nuclear issue and improve U.S.-Iran relations."
 
      A host of issues will divide the two nations for years to come. But for the first time in 34 years, Zarif's frenetic diplomacy has spurred talk of détente between Tehran and Washington. When asked in New York City last month about the potential shape of future ties between Iran and the U.S., Zarif invoked the relationship between the U.S. and Russia, in which deep differences remain but communication and occasional collaboration continue nonetheless. It's a model far preferable to the military alternative. "This time," Zarif told me, "I can't afford to fail."
 
 
 
 
 
 
This article is reposted from Time magazine.
 
Robin Wright has traveled to Iran dozens of times since 1973. She has covered several elections, including the 2009 presidential vote. She is the author of several books on Iran, including "The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and transformation in Iran" and "The Iran Primer: Power, Politics and US Policy." She is a joint scholar at USIP and the Woodrow Wilson Center.

 

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