United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Rouhani Meets Russian, Chinese Leaders

            President Hassan Rouhani met with his Russian and Chinese counterparts in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on September 12 and 13. Rouhani’s visit to the Kyrgyz capital for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit was his first official trip abroad since taking office in August.
     
Rouhani discussed the Syrian crisis in his first meetings with President Vladimir Putin and President Xi Jinping. Russia, Iran and China are three of the Syrian regime’s most important backers. Tehran and Beijing have both supported Moscow's initiative to transfer Syria's chemical weapons to international control.
      Iran is key to Russian and Chinese interests in the Middle East. Putin and Xi both reiterated their strong support for Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy in their meetings with Rouhani. Rouhani and Putin agreed that they could do much more to promote bilateral trade and economic relations. Beijing, on the other hand, has been increasing trade and cooperation with Tehran. China has remained one of Iran’s biggest oil customers despite reducing its purchases to avoid U.S. sanctions. The following are excerpted remarks by the three presidents.

 
Iran: President Hassan Rouhani
            “Russia’s initiative on Syria, as well as steps taken by the Syrian government gave us hope that we would be able to avoid a new war in the region.
            “Regarding the Iranian nuclear issue, we want the swiftest solution to it within international norms.
            “Russia in the past has taken important steps in this sphere and now is the best opportunity for new steps from your side.
            “I declare that only if there is political will, if there is mutual respect and mutual interest, and only if the rights of Iran's people are ensured, can we guarantee the peaceful character of Iran's nuclear program.
            Sept. 13 in a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin
 
            “The majority of U.N. member states, including the 120 Non-Aligned movement members, have dismissed the sanctions against Iran as illegitimate, illegal and politically motivated.
            “These sanctions are an uncivilized move and a dangerous precedent [and they are] aimed at disrupting the trend of Iran’s development [and have] targeted the ordinary and innocent [Iranian] citizens mercilessly.
            Iran is committed to the Non-proliferation Treaty based on its “legal commitments, religious and moral tenets and strategic considerations.”
            The Islamic Republic insists on the “inalienable right of all NPT member states to enjoy peaceful nuclear technology.”
            Sept. 13, 2013 in a speech to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization
 
            “There are many ways to expand Iranian and Chinese relations in bilateral, regional and international fields that the two countries must consider.
            “Iran–China ties have always been based on friendship, and are growing.
            “Iran and China have common stances in most of the regional and international issues. Iran is prepared to begin cooperation and effective and constructive action with China in regional matters, particularly in resolving the Syrian crisis.” 
            Sept. 12, 2013 in a meeting with President Xi Jinping
 
Russia: President Vladimir Putin
            “We know to what extent international affairs turn upon the Iranian nuclear problem. But we in Russia know also that Iran is our neighbor, a good neighbor. You don’t choose your neighbors, and we had cooperated, are cooperating and definitely will cooperate a lot.
            Sept. 13, 2013 in a meeting with President Hassan Rouhani
           
China: President Xi Jinping
      “China will ask United Nations to consider a diplomatic solution as the sole solution to the crisis gripping the Arab state.”
      Sept. 12, 2013 in a meeting with President Hassan Rouhani

 
 
 
 
 
 
Photo credits: @HassanRouhani via Twitter and President.ir
 

What to do now? Iran Torn on Syria

Alireza Nader

            Iran has mixed feelings and conflicting interests in the Syrian crisis. Tehran has a strategic interest in opposing chemical weapons due to its own horrific experience during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. For years, President Saddam Hussein’s military used chemical weapons that killed thousands of Iranian soldiers. So Iran actually shares interests with the United States, European nations and the Arab League in opposing any use of chemical weapons.
           
But the Islamic Republic also has compelling reasons to continue supporting Damascus. The Syrian regime is Iran’s closest ally in the Middle East and the geographic link to its Hezbollah partners in Lebanon. As a result, Tehran vehemently opposes U.S. intervention or any action that might change the military balance against President Bashar Assad.
 
On one hand…
  Iran opposes the use of chemical weapons based on its own experience. Iran is a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention while Syria is not.
  Tehran wants to reduce tensions with the West in order to lift sanctions.
  Iran is reportedly spending millions of dollars per month  to support the Assad regime while its own economy suffers from sanctions, unemployment and inflation.
  The United States has sanctioned Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards Quds Force for helping Syria suppress anti-government protests.
On the other hand…
 Tehran opposes military intervention by outside powers in the Middle East.
  Syria is Iran’s closest ally in the region and part of the “resistance front” against Israel.
  Syria is a key conduit for transferring arms and supplies to Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which deters against an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
  Iran has invested millions of dollars in Syria’s economy and provided training to its army.
Syrian rebels are overwhelmingly Sunni and are hostile to Shiite Iran.
            The Iran-Syria alliance is more than a marriage of convenience. Tehran and Damascus have common geopolitical, security, and economic interests. Syria was one of only two Arab nations (the other being Libya) to support Iran’s fight against Saddam Hussein, and it was an important conduit for weapons to an isolated Iran. Furthermore, Hafez Assad, Bashar’s father, allowed Iran to help create Hezbollah, the Shiite political movement in Lebanon. Its militia, trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, has been an effective tool against Syria’s archenemy, Israel.
      Relations between Tehran and Damascus have been rocky at times. Hafez Assad clashed with Hezbollah in Lebanon and was wary of too much Iranian involvement in his neighborhood. But his death in 2000 reinvigorated the Iran-Syria alliance. Bashar Assad (left, with Supreme Leader Khamenei) has been much more enthusiastic about Iranian support, especially since Hezbollah’s “victorious” 2006 conflict with Israel.
            In the last decade, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have trained, equipped, and at times even directed Syria’s security and military forces. Hundreds of thousands of Iranian pilgrims and tourists visited Syria before its civil war, and Iranian companies made significant investments in the Syrian economy.
            Fundamentalist figures within the Guards view Syria as the “front line” of Iranian resistance against Israel and the United States. Without Syria, Iran would not be able to supply Hezbollah effectively, limiting its ability to help its ally in the event of a war with Israel. Hezbollah wields thousands of rockets able to strike Israel, providing Iran deterrence against Israel— especially if Tel Aviv chose to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. A weakened Hezbollah would directly impact Iran’s national security. Syria’s loss could also tip the balance in Iran’s rivalry with Saudi Arabia, making the Wahhabi kingdom one of the most influential powers in the Middle East.
            In the run up to a U.S. decision on military action against Syria, Iranian leaders appeared divided.

      Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei  and hardline lawmakers reacted with alarm to possible U.S. strikes against the Assad regime. And Revolutionary Guards commanders threatened to retaliate against U.S. interests. The hardliners clearly viewed the Assad regime as an asset worth defending as of September 2013.
      But President Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani adopted a more critical line on Syria. “We believe that the government in Syria has made grave mistakes that have, unfortunately, paved the way for the situation in the country to be abused,” Zarif told a local publication in September 2013.
             Rafsanjani, still an influential political figure, reportedly said that the Syrian government gassed its own people. This was a clear breach of official Iranian policy, which has blamed the predominantly Sunni rebels. Rafsanjani’s words suggested that he viewed unconditional support for Assad as a losing strategy. His remark also earned a rebuke from Khamenei, who warned Iranian officials against crossing the “principles and red lines” of the Islamic Republic. Khamenei’s message may have been intended for Rouhani’s government, which is closely aligned with Rafsanjani and seems to increasingly view the Syrian regime as a liability.
             Regardless, a significant section of Iran’s political elite could be amenable to engaging the United States on Syria. Both sides have a common interest: preventing Sunni extremists from coming to power in Damascus. Iran and the United States also prefer a negotiated settlement over military intervention to solve the crisis. Tehran might need to be included in a settlement given its influence in Syria. Negotiating with Iran on Syria could ultimately help America’s greater goal of a diplomatic breakthrough, not only on Syria but Tehran’s nuclear program as well. 
 
Alireza Nader is a senior international policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
 

Read Alireza Nader's chapter on the Revolutionary Guards in "The Iran Primer"

Photo Credits: Bashar Assad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei via Leader.ir, Syria graphic via Khamenei.ir Facebook
 
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Zarif TV Interview in English on Nuke Talks

            On September 11, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif discussed nuclear talks and the Syrian crisis in an interview with Press TV, Iran’s English-language news channel. The interview was reproduced on YouTube in two parts. Zarif speaks English fluently after receiving two degrees from San Francisco State University and a doctorate in international relations from the University of Denver.

            "We believe that our region has enough difficulty and is in enough turmoil not to be engulfed in a war in which chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction are used; and that is why Iran has been pushing for a region free from weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East."
            "I hope with the Russian proposal and the opportunity that had been created by the acceptance by Syria of the Russian proposal, others will stop creating excuses to push for a war, to beat the drums of war."

            "We believe that nobody has the right to take the law into their own hands, that is to say that the United States does not have any legal claim to act at the same time as the prosecutor, the judge and unfortunately the executioner in dealing with these issues particularly in light of the U.S.'s own record of supporting a regime, that of Saddam Hussein that used chemical weapons not only against Iranian soldiers and civilians, but against his own people in Halabja."


            "I think that a number of groups, people inside the United States, and interests outside the United States, wanted to put the president of the U.S. - whom I believe was reluctant to start the war - into a trap. A trap which he had unfortunately laid down for himself; and that was to get him involved in a war in order to address a hypothetical issue of the use of chemical weapons by the government of Syria."

 

 

Obama: Shifting Language on Iran?

            On September 10, President Barack Obama warned that inaction in the face of Syria’s use of chemical weapons would embolden Iran. Obama presented Tehran with two options during his address to the American public. Iran “must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon or to take a more peaceful path,” he said. But Obama’s remark contrasted sharply with his tougher language during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency between 2005 and 2013.
            Before President Hassan Rouhani’s June 2013 election, Obama repeatedly emphasized that all options — including a military option — were on the table for stopping Iran’s nuclear program. He also highlighted Tehran’s lack of transparency. Iran has taken “the path of denial, deceit and deception,” he said in March 2012. The following are Iran-related excerpts from Obama’s remarks on Syria.

 
            “If fighting spills beyond Syria’s borders, these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel. And a failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran, which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon or to take a more peaceful path.”
            Sept. 10, 2013 in a national address
 
            “You know, one reason that this [Russian initiative] may have a chance of success is that even Syria's allies like Iran detest chemical weapons. Iran, you know, unfortunately was the target of chemical weapons at the hands of Saddam Hussein back at the Iraq-Iran War.”
Sept. 9, 2013 in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer
 
            “I think it’s important to recognize that Assad does not have significant military capabilities relative to us… His allies do, though – Iran, Hezbollah. They could carry out asymmetrical attacks against our embassies, for example, in the region.
            “But we don’t actually think that they want to do something like that. Keep in mind that Iran was the country probably last subjected to large-scale chemical weapons use, by Saddam Hussein. So there’s a real aversion to chemical weapons inside of Iran. I don’t think either Iran or Hezbollah thought that what Assad did was a good idea. And you know, for us to take a limited proportional although significant strike on Assad’s capabilities to degrade them I don’t think would prompt them to get involved.”
            Sept. 8, 2013 in an interview with Gwen Ifill for PBS
 
            “Syria doesn't have significant capabilities to retaliate against us. Iran does. But Iran-- is not going to risk a war with the United States over this. Particularly given that our goal here is to make sure that chemical weapons are not used on children.”
            Sept. 9 2013 in an interview with MSNBC’s Savannah Guthrie
 

Rouhani Cabinet: Profiles

            Rouhani’s cabinet reflects a dramatic shift in the balance of power. After one month in office, the top officials are now outlining the policies of Rouhani’s administration.
            The majority of the ministers -- 15 of 18 who were immediately confirmed -- were ministers or senior bureaucrats during Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s presidency between 1989 and 1997. They are largely centrists known for pragmatic outlooks. Some of Rouhani’s ministers strongly criticized government corruption or tough security policies during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency between 2005 and 2013.
            Rouhani’s cabinet contrasts sharply with his predecessor’s. Many of former President Ahmadinejad’s ministers were former Revolutionary Guards members or lacked relevant experience for their positions. The following are profiles of eight leading cabinet officials, including remarks on key issues.

Minister of Foreign Affairs: Mohammad Javad Zarif
      Born in 1960, Zarif was Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations from 2002 to 2007. He is widely regarded as one of Iran’s most savvy diplomats. Zarif served as deputy U.N. ambassador from 1989 to 1992 and then as deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs until 2002.
      Zarif has been involved in both formal and informal talks with the United States. In 2001, he was Iran’s emissary to U.N. talks on the future of Afghanistan after the Taliban’s ouster. U.S. envoy James Dobbins credited Zarif with preventing the collapse of the conference due to last-minute demands by the Northern Alliance to control the new government. As an ambassador, Zarif attempted to improve relations with the West, including the United States.
      Zarif speaks English with an American accent after receiving two degrees from San Francisco State University and a doctorate in international relations from the University of Denver.
 
            “The approach of moderation in the [Rouhani] administration’s foreign policy will be based on realism, self-belief and self-awareness in order to build mutual understanding and confidence with the purpose of upgrading the country’s capacity as well as its security and development.”
            Aug. 13, 2013 in a speech to parliament
            “Iran, as a victim of chemical weapons, cannot in any way tolerate the use of chemical weapons. Iran is also not prepared to tolerate a group of countries… invading the region [Syria] under an excuse… and drag it into the abyss of violence and conflict.”
            Aug. 30, 2013 on Facebook 
 
Minister of Defense: Hossein Dehqan
      Born in 1957, Dehqan is a former Revolutionary Guards commander and deputy defense minister. He joined the Guards shortly after the 1979 revolution and became commander of the Tehran unit in 1980. Dehqan reportedly commanded contingents in Lebanon and Syria from 1982 to 1984. He was appointed commander of the Revolutionary Guards air force in 1990 and became deputy chief of the Join Staff in 1992.
Dehqan served as deputy defense minister under former President Khatami from 1997 to 2003.
            Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made Dehqan the head of the Martyr’s Foundation in 2005. But Dehqan was replaced after Ahmadinejad’s first term. He became chair of the Expediency Council’s Political, Defense and Security commission in April 2010. Dehqan reportedly has a doctorate in public administration from the University of Tehran.
 
            “Defense diplomacy can solve a considerable part of the international issues. Thus, we will try to have interactions first with our neighboring countries and then with other countries in the field of defense. We will also have cooperation with various countries in different fields, including export of defense products.”
            Aug. 25, 2013 to the press
            “Sowing the seeds of warmongering and violence has never resulted in lasting peace and security. [The United States wants to launch strikes] to rebuild the shattered morale of terrorists [in Syria], weaken the operational capability of the Syrian armed forces and change the balance of operation in the favor of takfiris [Islamic extremists].”
            Sept. 2, 2013 to the press
 
Minister of Economy: Ali Tayebnia
      Born around 1960, Dr. Tayebnia is a professor economics at the University of Tehran. He previously served as Economic Commission secretary from 1997 to 2000 and then deputy head of the Presidential Office for Planning under former President Khatami until 2005. He returned to his position as Economic Commission secretary and held it until 2007. Tayebnia, an expert in curbing inflation, has reportedly favored a national income tax to reduce government dependence on oil revenue. 
 
 
            “Building cheap houses for people is a sacred mission. However, the previous government raised the market liquidity from $22 billion to $145 billion in order to develop the Mehr Housing Scheme.
            “The [Ahmadinejad] government demanded a loan from the central bank for its subsidies plan. The biggest mistake the government made was that it did not repay its loan to the central bank.
            “The subsidies plan has a $3.2 million budget deficit. We must either not pay the share of production and medicine, which is not rational, or put extra pressure on the energy sector, which is not in people’s interest.”
            Aug. 25, 2013 in his first official statement
 
Minister of Intelligence: Mahmoud Alavi
      Born in 1954, Alavi is a former deputy defense minister. The mid-ranking cleric served in parliament from 1981 to 1988 and from 1992 to 2000. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed him to head the political ideology office of Iran’s army in 2000. He remained in that position until August 2009.
      The Guardian Council reportedly disqualified Alavi from running for parliament in 2012 for “lack of adherence to Islam.”  He has spoken out against the securitized atmosphere in Iran. Alavi is currently a member of the Assembly of Experts, the powerful body charged with monitoring the supreme leader and selecting his successor.
 
            “There are countries in the world that pay lip service to countering terrorism and consider themselves the flag-bearers and pioneers of the movement, but when we see their track record, it turns out that they are the initiators of state terrorism.”
            Aug. 31, 2013 at a memorial ceremony for victims of terrorism
            “God willing, we will solve the unnecessary fear of all those who did not commit any violations and those who did not do wrong [after the disputed 2009 elections]. We guarantee they will not encounter any problems [returning to Iran].”
            Aug. 21, 2013 at a press conference
 
Minister of Oil: Bijan Namdar Zanganeh
      Born in 1953, Zanganeh was oil minister under reformist President Mohammad Khatami from 1997 to 2005. He reportedly helped attract billions of dollars in foreign investment to Iran’s oil and gas industries. Zanganeh expanded the petrochemical and gas sectors. He promoted the use of gas domestically, allowing Iran to export more oil.
      Zanganeh earned a graduate degree in civil engineering from the University of Tehran in 1977. He went on to serve as agriculture minister from 1983 to 1988 and energy minister from 1988 to 1997. Zanganeh intermittently taught management and economics classes at multiple universities.
 
            “My first action will be to bring the country’s oil production capacity back to 2005 levels… I don’t mean output should be immediately returned to its past level because it may not be possible due to sanctions. But stable production capacity should be created so that we will be able under any circumstances to benefit from oil for our domestic needs.”
Aug. 11, 2013 in an interview with Shana, the oil ministry’s news website
            “The problem we are facing now in the petroleum industry is not finance, but management problems. One of my objectives in the petroleum industry will be to bolster management.”
            Aug. 27, 2013 in remarks on state television
 
Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance: Ali Jannati
      Born around 1949, Ali Jannati is a former ambassador to Kuwait and former governor of Khuzestan province. He is the son of Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a hardline cleric who chairs the powerful Guardian Council. But the younger Jannati is reportedly aligned with former President Rafsanjani’s centrist camp.
      Jannati ran Rafsanjani’s office in 1988 while he was parliamentary speaker. Jannnati was appointed governor of Khorosan province during Rafsanjani’s first presidential term between 1989 and 1993. Jannati served as ambassador to Kuwait from 1998 to 2005. And he was appointed deputy interior minister for political affairs in 2005 under Ahmadinejad. But he was reportedly ousted for his close connections to Rafsanjani in 2006.
 
            “If a publication has made a criticism which has not been to our liking, we should not immediately bring out our sword and cut it down. We should rather correct ourselves. In the same way that when we see our faults reflected in the mirror, we should not break the mirror, we should break ourselves.”
            July 29, 2013 in an interview with Behar newspaper
            “People in all fields have been struggling. Our friends in cinema, literature, music, and the press have all been dealing with the same issues. I imagine that ultimately, this new government will have to make changes at a very basic level.
            “If we approach the situation with an open mind and treat media as a kind of 'fourth estate' that exists to make our institutions more democratic, we can work together towards more government transparency.”
            Early August 2013 interview with Ghanoon newspaper
 
Minister of Justice: Mostafa Pourmohammadi
      Born in the holy city of Qom around 1960, Pourmohammadi is a former interior minister. The conservative cleric earned a degree in Islamic law equivalent to a doctorate before becoming the Revolutionary Court’s prosecutor in 1979. He left the position in 1986 to serve as deputy intelligence minister.
      Human Rights Watch and other organizations have alleged that Pourmohammadi played a role in the 1988 prison massacres and the 1998 chain murders of dissident intellectuals. But he has denied involvement. Pourmohammadi remained deputy intelligence minister until 1999.
            In 2005, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appointed Pourmohammadi interior minister. He held the position for three years and was then named head of the National Inspection Organization. He played a major role in uncovering a 3 billion rial ($120,000) embezzlement case connected to the Iran Insurance Company. Pourmohammadi was a vocal critic of Ahmadinejad’s economic reform plan, especially subsidy removal.
 
            “The common corruption between Iran’s top managers is threatening almost all sectors of the country. We are suffering from this corruption in several fields from politics to economy. I think we must ratify a new process for investigating managers and politicians in order to reduce management corruptions in Iran.”
            May 4, 2013 in remarks to journalists
            “Many of the country’s problems are due to parallel [structures]. We already have too many court cases. One of our problems is the long process and, unfortunately, a lot of abuse and crime.”
            Sept. 8, 2013 in an interview with Mashregh News
 
Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council: Ali Shamkhani
      Born in 1955, Shamkhani served as defense minister under reformist President Mohammad Khatami between 1997 and 2005. Shamkhani is an Arab from Ahvaz near the Iraqi border who commanded the Revolutionary Guards Navy during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. As Khatami’s defense minister, Shamkhani played a leading role in improving relations between Iran and Persian Gulf sheikhdoms. In 2004, Shamkhani received Saudi Arabia’s highest medal, the Order of Abdulaziz al Saud, from King Fahd for his efforts. Shamkhani directed the Iranian Armed Forces’ Center for Strategic Studies from 2005 until his appointment by Rouhani.
 
            “Our defensive strategy is one of deterrence. We have never started a war against anyone. And we wouldn't do so in the future. But it is also our natural right to prevent anyone from encroaching on our security. We have sustained great losses from our war with Iraq, and we could not neglect this experience.”
            November 1998 in an interview with Robin Wright for the Los Angeles Times
 
 
Photo Credits: Mahmoud Alavi via Hassan Rouhani’s official Facebook page, Hossen Dehqan via Ministry of Defense, Bijan Zanganeh via Ministry of Petroleum, Mostafa Pourmohammadi via President.ir, Ali Tayebnia via President.ir Ali Jannati via President.ir
 

         

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