United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

UN: Little Progress on Iran Nuclear Program

            Iran still has not provided information on key areas of investigation into the potential military dimensions of its nuclear program, according to a November 2014 report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog. Specifically, Iran failed to address two practical measures agreed upon in May 2014. These measures, which were supposed to have been completed by late August, could have helped determine if Iran carried out explosives tests and other activities related to nuclear weapons production.
           But the report also confirmed that Tehran is still complying with elements of the interim nuclear deal. Iran has not enriched uranium above five percent and it has converted or downblended all of its uranium enriched to 20 percent. Iran also has not installed any major components at the Arak heavy water reactor. The following are excerpts from the report.

            While the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material at the nuclear facilities and LOGs declared by Iran under its Safeguards Agreement, the Agency is not in a position to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.
            Iran and the Agency held technical meetings on two separate occasions in Tehran to discuss the two outstanding practical measures agreed in May 2014 in the third step of the Framework for Cooperation.
            Iran has not provided any explanations that enable the Agency to clarify the outstanding practical measures, nor has it proposed any new practical measures in the next step of the Framework for Cooperation.
            The Agency is ready to accelerate the resolution of all outstanding issues under the Framework for Cooperation. This can be realized only by increased cooperation by Iran and by the timely provision of access to all relevant information, documentation, sites, material and personnel in Iran as requested by the Agency. Once the Agency has established an understanding of the whole picture concerning issues with possible military dimensions, the Director General will report on the Agency’s assessment to the Board of Governors.
            The Agency continues to undertake monitoring and verification in relation to the nuclear-related measures set out in the JPA, as extended.

Five Practical Measures, agreed on 20 May 2014

1. Exchanging information with the Agency with respect to the allegations related to the initiation of high explosives, including the conduct of large scale high explosives experimentation in Iran.

2. Providing mutually agreed relevant information and explanations related to studies made and/or papers published in Iran in relation to neutron transport and associated modeling and calculations and their alleged application to compressed materials.
3. Providing mutually agreed information and arranging a technical visit to a centrifuge research and development center.
4. Providing mutually agreed information and managed access to centrifuge assembly workshops, centrifuge rotor production workshops and storage facilities.
5. Concluding the safeguards approach for the IR-40 Reactor.
Click here for the full report


Obama Wrote Khamenei on ISIS Threat

      President Barack Obama wrote a secret letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in mid-October to express concern about the growing threat of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, to the Middle East and the world. The message, which laid out a shared interest in combating ISIS, was the fourth letter Obama has sent since 2009, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The initial report said that Obama stipulated that cooperation on ISIS would be largely dependent on the result of ongoing nuclear talks between Iran and the world’s six major powers. But when asked about the letter in an interview with CBS, Obama said “we are not connecting in any way the nuclear negotiations from the issue of ISIL.” The two sides have until November 24 to reach a final agreement on Tehran’s controversial nuclear program. The latest series of talks, launched in October 2013, has featured the highest level engagement between the Islamic Republic and the United States since the embassy takeover, when 52 Americans were held for 444 days. 

            U.S. and Iranian leaders have sent letters to each other several times during the past decade. In 2006, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent a strange 18-page letter to President George Bush that declared the failure of Western democracy and criticized U.S. policies in Iraq as irreconcilable with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Ahmadinejad also sent a congratulatory letter to Obama after the 2008 presidential election and another message in March 2010.  Obama did not reply to either. But Obama did exchange letters with President Hassan Rouhani sometime after his June 2009 election.

            On November 12, a top Iranian official acknowledged the Obama-Khamenei correspondence. “This is not the first time that such a thing has taken place,” Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani said on state television, according to AP. “It had previously taken place and necessary response was given to some of them.” He said the latest letter focused on nuclear issues and that Iran responded saying that it cannot accept a “decorative” nuclear industry, implying that the United States wants to significantly curtail the program.

            Obama administration officials, however, have declined to comment on the contents of Obama’s most recent letter to Khamenei. But White House spokesperson Josh Earnest told reporters that U.S. policy on Iran had not changed. “The United States will not cooperate militarily with Iran in that effort [fighting ISIS],” he said. “We won't share intelligence with them. But their interests in the outcome is something that's been widely commented on - commented upon and something that on a couple of occasions has been discussed on the sidelines of other conversations.”

            On November 9, Bob Schieffer of CBS News asked Obama about the secret letter. The president responded:
             I tend not to comment on any communications that I have with various leaders. I'm-- I've got a whole bunch of channels where we're communicating to various leaders around the world. Let me speak more broadly about the policies vis-à-vis Iran. We have two big interests in Iran that are short term and then we got a long-term interest. Our number one priority with respect to Iran is making sure they don't get nuclear weapon. And because of the unprecedented sanctions that this administration put forward and mobilized the world to abide by, they got squeezed, their economy tanked, and they came to the table in a serious way for the first time in a very, very long time. We've now had significant negotiations. They have abided by freezing their program and, in fact, reducing their stockpile of nuclear-grade material or-- or weapons-grade nuclear material. And the question now is are we going to be able to close this final gap so that they can reenter the international community, sanctions can be slowly reduced, and we have verifiable, lock-tight assurances that they can't develop a nuclear weapon. There's still a big gap. We may-- may not be able to get there.
            The second thing that we have an interest in is that Iran has influence over Shia, both in Syria and in Iraq, and we do have a shared enemy in ISIL. But I've been very clear publicly and privately we are not connecting in any way the nuclear negotiations from the issue of ISIL. We're not coordinating with Iran on ISIL. There's some de-conflicting in the sense that since they have some troops or militias they control in and around Baghdad, we let them know, don't mess with us, we're not here to mess with you, we're focused on common our enemy but there's no coordination or common battle plan and there will not be because, and this brings me to the third issue, we still have big differences with Iran's behavior vis-à-vis our allies. Then, you know, poking and prodding at-- and-- and creating unrest and sponsoring terrorism in the region, around the world, their anti-Israeli rhetoric and behavior so that's a whole another set of issues which prevents us from ever being true allies...

           The letter is one of more than a dozen secret and public attempts at outreach by the Obama administration. The following is a chronology of direct U.S. engagement with Iran since Obama took office in January 2009.

Obama’s Engagement with Iran
Jan. 27, 2009: In Obama’s first interview since taking office, he told Al Arabiya that “it is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but where there are potential avenues for progress.”

March 20, 2009: President Barak Obama sent a Nowruz (Iranian New Year) message to the Iranian people and government that called for better relations. He also said that Iran’s place in the international community “cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions.”
Ayatollah Khamenei referred to Obama’s speech as deceptive. In light of recent sanctions, he said Iran would judge the United States by its actions and not by its words.
May 2009: President Obama sent a letter to Ayatollah Khamenei before Iran’s June presidential elections that called for improved relations through “co-operation and regional bilateral relations.” Khamenei briefly mentioned the letter in his Friday sermon.
September 2009: An Iranian news website reported a second letter sent by Obama to Khamenei again calling for talks between Tehran and Washington. Obama did not receive a reply.
March 20, 2010: Obama sent a second Nowruz message to the Iranian government and people. The message encouraged dialogue between the two countries.
March 20, 2011:  Obama sent a third Nowruz message to Iran, directed specifically at Iran’s youth. The President addressed Iran’s young people, saying, “your talent, your hopes, and your choices will shape the future of Iran, and help light the world. And though times may seem dark, I want you to know that I am with you.”
January 2012: Iranian lawmaker Ali Motahari claimed Obama called for direct talks with Iran and warned Tehran against closing the Strait of Hormuz in a letter. But administration officials denied that such a letter had been sent.
March 20, 2012: Obama sent a fourth Nowruz message to the Iranian government and people. The message accused Iran of having an “Electronic Curtain,” criticizing the Iranian government’s internet censorship.
Mid-2012: The Obama administration launched secret talks with Iran in Oman, but did not notify U.S. allies in the region until late 2013.
Feb. 2, 2013: Vice President Joe Biden said that the United States was prepared to hold direct talks with Iran to resolve tensions over its controversial nuclear program.
countries and criticized Iran’s human rights violations during post-election protests.
Feb. 7, 2013: Supreme Leader Khamenei rejected the offer by Vice President Biden for direct talks. “Some naïve people like the idea of negotiating with America. However, negotiations will not solve the problem,” he said in a speech to Iranian Air Force commanders.
March 18, 2013: Obama sent a fifth Nowruz message to Iran saying there could be a “new relationship” with Iran if it meets international obligations on its controversial nuclear program.
March 21, 2013: Khamenei said he is not opposed to direct talks with the United States in a speech marking Nowruz. But he is “not optimistic” about prospects for success if negotiations take place. He also claimed that the United States “doesn’t want the nuclear conflict to end.”
March 2013: The first secret meeting between top Obama administration and Iranian  officials was held in Muscat, Oman. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Jake Sullivan, foreign policy advisor to Joe Biden, led the delegations. At least four more meetings were held leading up to November 2013, when the world’s six major powers and Iran agreed on an interim nuclear deal.
August 2013: Obama reportedly sent a letter to President Rouhani through Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who visited Tehran shortly after Rouhani’s inauguration. The exact contents of the letter and Rouhani’s reply are unknown but Obama’s remarks hinted that they discussed the nuclear dispute and Syria.
Sept. 15, 2013: Obama confirmed in a televised interview that he had exchanged letters with President Hassan Rouhani. Obama indicated in the message that the U.S. is ready to “resolve the nuclear issue in a way that allows Iran to demonstrate that its nuclear program is for exclusively peaceful purposes,” according to the White House. He also warned that the window of opportunity for diplomacy will not remain open indefinitely.
Sept. 27, 2013: President Obama called Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in what was the first direct communication between a U.S. and Iranian presidents since the 1979 revolution. “The two of us discussed our ongoing efforts to reach an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program,” Obama said at a White House briefing.
March 20, 2014: Obama sent a sixth Nowruz message to Iran. “This Nowruz could mark not just the beginning of a new year, but a new chapter in the history of Iran and its role in the world—including a better relationship with the United States and the American people, rooted in mutual interest and mutual respect,” he said.
Mid-October 2014: Obama wrote Khamenei a letter outlining a shared interest in combating Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

Obama: Nuclear Deal an Open Question

            On November 5, President Barack Obama said that nuclear talks have been constructive but the main question is whether Tehran’s leaders “can manage to say yes to what clearly would be better for Iran.” In a press conference, he noted that a “sizable portion” of Iran’s political elite still finds it convenient to blame America for every ill. When asked if he has the power to unilaterally relax sanctions as part of a deal, Obama said he will wait to see if the world’s six major powers can reach a deal with Iran and then engage with Congress. “I don’t want to put the cart before the horse,” he said. The following are excerpted remarks by Obama.

QUESTION: Another deadline coming up is on your negotiators by November 24th. I’m interested what your current perspective is on how those negotiations are going. Also, if it is your feeling that you have the power to implement any type of agreement that’s reached without any action from Congress?
OBAMA: On Iran, because of the unprecedented sanctions that we put in place that really did have a crippling effect on Iran’s economy, they’ve come to the table and they’ve negotiated seriously around providing assurances that they're not developing a nuclear weapon for the first time.  And they have abided by the interim rules.  We have been able to freeze their program, in some cases reduce the stockpile of nuclear material that they already had in hand.  And the discussions, the negotiations have been constructive. 
The international community has been unified and cohesive.  There haven’t been a lot of cracks in our alliance.  Even countries where we have some differences, like Russia, have agreed with us and have worked with us cooperatively in trying to find ways to make sure that we can verify and have confidence going forward that Iran doesn't have the capacity to develop a nuclear weapon that could not only threaten friends of ours like Israel, trigger a nuclear arms race in the region, but could over the long term, potentially threaten us.
Whether we can actually get a deal done, we’re going to have to find out over the next three to four weeks.  We have presented to them a framework that would allow them to meet their peaceful energy needs.  And if, in fact, what their leadership says, that they don’t want to develop a nuclear a weapon -- if that is, in fact, true, then they’ve got an avenue here to provide that assurance to the world community, and in a progressive, step-by-step, verifiable way, allow them to get out from under sanctions so that they can reenter as full-fledged members of the international community.
But they have their own politics, and there’s a long tradition of mistrust between the two countries.  And there’s a sizeable portion of the political elite that cut its teeth on anti-Americanism and still finds it convenient to blame America for every ill that there is.  And whether they can manage to say yes to what clearly would be better for Iran, better for the region, and better for the world, is an open question.  We’ll find out over the next several weeks.
QUESTION: Sir, on whether or not you have the power unilaterally to relax sanctions to implement an agreement?
OBAMA:  There are a series of different sanctions.  There are multilateral sanctions; there are U.N. sanctions;  there are sanctions that have been imposed by us, this administration, unilaterally.  And I think it’s different for each of those areas.
But I don’t want to put the cart before the horse.  What I want to do is see if we, in fact, have a deal.  If we do have a deal that I have confidence will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and that we can convince the world and the public will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, then it will be time to engage in Congress.  And I think that we’ll be able to make a strong argument to Congress that this is the best way for us to avoid a nuclear Iran; that it will be more effective than any other alternatives we might take, including military action.
But that requires it being a good deal.  And I’ve said consistently that I’d rather have no deal than a bad deal -- because what we don’t want to do is lift sanctions and provide Iran legitimacy but not have the verifiable mechanisms to make sure that they don’t break out and produce a nuclear weapon.
Click here for a full transcript of Obama's remarks.

Former US Hostages: Their Thoughts on New Iran Diplomacy

            The United States marks the 35th anniversary of the American Embassy seizure in Tehran on November 4 — less than three weeks before the due date for a nuclear deal with Iran. The latest series of talks, launched in October 2013, has featured the highest level engagement between the Islamic Republic and the United States since the embassy takeover, when 52 Americans were held for 444 days. Iran still marks the takeover with an annual commemoration in front of the former U.S. Embassy. But this year's ceremonies were subdued compared to previous years.
            In fall 2013, The Iran Primer invited former hostages to comment on the new diplomatic effort, which, one year later, is still focused on ending the longstanding dispute over Iran’s controversial nuclear program. Their opinions varied widely. 

John Limbert, former political officer in 1979 and later the deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran in the Obama administration
      It's about time for new dialogue. Thirty-four years is long enough for us to be stuck on a road to nowhere. Now we are dealing with a delicate plant that will require very careful handling if it is not to rot or wither.
Bruce Laingen, former chargé d'affaires (senior U.S. diplomat taken hostage)
      Is it time for a dialogue with Iran?  The answer is easy: It is high time.  Talking with Iran is long overdue and should begin without conditions.
      It is obviously difficult for anyone who has not seen the specifics taken by the world’s six major powers and the Iranians, but both sides need clarity in their objectives . The absence of openness means that there must be some stepping back by both sides. 
      But given that the Iranians are the principal participant in the contest, the lead must come from them in greater transparency on long-range objectives.  Just what are the Iranian government’s real intentions in its nuclear agenda? It has long been lacking in clarity. The U.S. government needs to know better than we do now. Just where do the Iranians want to take their purposes and objectives? Tell us, please. We are weary of reading between the lines!   
Barry Rosen, former press attaché
      The apparent new dialogue, initiated by President [Hassan] Rouhani, is nothing but the change of the public face of the regime in Tehran in order to rid the country of the international sanctions that are crushing the economic and fiscal system of Iran. In order to accomplish the destruction of the sanctions, the regime is talking about a change in its nuclear program. Some hope that this is real and that Iran will show all its sites to the International Atomic Energy Agency and be a willing partner in lowering the or even halting the refinement of uranium, which Iran says is for peaceful nuclear energy.
      I believe that Iran's record is quite clear on nuclear refinement. The regime has consistently been enriching uranium at levels above what is need for nuclear energy, and thus one can only think that Iran is moving along in its plan to use its enrichment. Iran has used its facilities to add approximately 1,000 centrifuges to increase enrichment capacity.
     I can't see the regime in Tehran changing policy toward the United States for other reasons. The keystone of the Islamic Republic is still “Death to America,” no matter what is said in news reports. How will this regime be considered legitimate if it does a complete turn around and tries to build a relationship on maneuvering to destroy the sanctions without really moving itself away from its policy of a nuclear Iran. 
            Finally, the regime needs to address other issues besides human rights and support for terrorists groups like Hezbollah and the inhumane regime in Syria. From my personal perspective, Iran has never apologized for the takeover of the U.S. Embassy on November 4, 1979 and the 444 days of agony that our diplomats and military suffered and are still suffering today. Moreover, while all of this is going on, Iranians will gather at the former Embassy in Teheran to burn American flags and scream "Death to America" in five days from now.
William Daugherty, former third secretary (CIA case officer)
            As you may have already heard, Ahmadinejad was a wolf in wolf’s clothing; Rouhani is a sheep in wolf’s clothing. So before proceeding beyond the general discussion stage, there must be concrete evidence that [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei is fully behind not just discussions with the United States, but also achieving a permanent change in the relationship. That change must be composed of complete U.S. satisfaction with any agreements on the nuclear issues.  Moreover, there must be some substantial indication that Khamenei is capable of controlling the hardline factions that will oppose, perhaps violently, any agreement with the United States. 
      Without the two desiderata stated above, the United States should not proceed beyond a continuation of the dialogue, until and unless the Iranians come to an agreement that satisfies these two demands. 
      A significant component of the ability to manage the hardline opposition is evidence that the Revolutionary Guards leadership and higher echelons are either in accord with the agreement or that Khamenei is able to manage any dissent (or violence).  The Revolutionary Guards leadership have a huge personal stake in continuing the embargo because that is one source (through controlling and running the smuggling networks) of their not insignificant income. 
            In sum, I am fully supportive of a dialogue with the Iranians and reaching an agreement, provided that it includes the above. As an intelligence professional, I understand fully how difficult it is to obtain concrete proof of the willingness and ability of an opponent to change after nearly 34 years of blatant hostility, especially when that hostility includes terrorist actions that have killed nearly 300 Americans and wounded over 1,000 more (e.g., the Marine barracks in Beirut, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, at least one aircraft hijacking in December of 1984).  Not to mention the taking of hostages (both in the embassy and in Beirut, through Hezbollah), the desecration of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and other acts of terrorism against our allies (e.g., Israel, through Iran’s support for Hamas and two deadly bombings in Argentina). But absent such proof, there should be no agreement. 
Cmdr. Donald Sharer, former naval air attaché
            I feel the U.S. government has let us down. If the United States is so intent on relations with Iran, we don't have a chance of recouping 14.5 months of our lives, let alone the pain, agony and not knowing when we would die at their hands. We have been forsaken by our country for 30 years on seeking retribution and once again we will be shut out.  Thirty-two years I served, just to be kicked aside for a blatant act of terror. People in Washington D.C. should have been there.
Col. Charles Scott, former naval air attaché
      In my view, Iran's current attempt at “peaches and cream” diplomacy is a clever ploy to stall, as long as possible, while continuing to develop a nuclear weapon and its delivery means. The goal of Islamic fundamentalism is to eventually dominate the world. Let's not be suckered in by this ploy. Forget the sweet talk and demand specific action.
Lt. Col. David Roeder, former deputy Air Force attaché
            One of the most memorable quotes from newly-elected President John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural address was, “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”
             Likewise, it was President Reagan who often repeated the old Russian proverb “doveryai no proveryia” (trust, but verify) especially when meeting with then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
            One cannot help but wonder if those historic principals may have been on the mind of Kennedy's fellow Bay Stater John Kerry on October 3rd during a press conference in Japan.
            Responding to a reporter's question about the potential thawing of relations between the U.S. and Iran, our new Secretary of State opined that it would be “diplomatic malpractice of the worst order” not to see if Iran was truly willing to recognize almost universal international demands concerning its nuclear ambitions.
            Almost immediately, the Obama Administration asked Congress to delay its scheduled consideration of a new and reportedly tougher Iran sanctions bill.
            All this, of course, stems from the recent meeting of the U.N. General Assembly where we saw several newsworthy developments: the start of newly-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's so-called “charm offensive,” the closed door meeting between Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad [Javad] Zarif, President Obama's unprecedented “first blink” phone call to Rouhani after more than 30 years of public silence between the two nations and, finally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's impassioned warning that Rouhani is but a “wolf in sheep's clothing” and that Iran has consistently proven that it can never be trusted.
            While most of the main stream media has quickly endorsed the view that President Rouhani is a genuine “moderate” with whom meaningful negotiations might be possible, in my opinion that view appears to be more wishful thinking than cold, hard reality. It is also interesting to note that, as Middle East scholar Hussein Banai explained, “In an Iranian context, a 'moderate' means you don't pick fights with the ruling class and at the same time, you pander to popular grievances people have about that ruling class.” Stepping back and looking at Rouhani's history is, therefore, a critically important and revealing exercise.
            First of all, and perhaps most importantly, we must never forget that to call Iran an Islamic republic is, at best, a misnomer. Iran is first, last and always a militant Shiite theocracy and the 64-year-old Rouhani, unlike his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is a long-term, well-connected cleric within that environment.
            Second, under the Iranian political system, the elected President simply is not the power behind the former Shah's Peacock Throne and wouldn't have even been allowed to seek office unless he enjoyed the support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his Guardian Council.
            Thirdly, Rouhani has long served as the chief Iranian negotiator during numerous multinational and United Nations efforts to determine if the true Iranian dream is to become the Middle East's predominant nuclear power. While those negotiations have always purchased additional time for Iran's weapons research, they have otherwise gone absolutely nowhere!
            Whether or not Secretary Kerry's noble approach holds any promise for improved relations between Iran and the West, current U.S. foreign policy within the region - fragmented as it certainly is – places very little credibility on our side of the negotiating scale.
America is clearly in the process of reducing its presence in the Middle East as Kerry's and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagle's visit to Japan and President Obama's planned, but now canceled, tour of the Asian Basin clearly indicates.
            Writing in the September issue of Commentary magazine, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations Elliott Abrams wrote that “the administration's so-called 'pivot to Asia' is the supposed refocusing of American foreign policy away from the Middle East and onto the Far East.”
            Think about the potential consequences of that pull-out to our regional, but increasingly wary, allies. Even President Obama's own ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, recently commented “If it's a tactic, it is mindless; if it is a strategy, it is criminal.”
            Shortly before taking office in August, Rouhani was a principal participant in large anti-Israeli rally during which he described America's only democratic ally in the region as a “wound on the body of the Islamic world.” And finally, during his inaugural speech, Rouhani fully endorsed the Supreme Leader's ironclad position on Iran becoming a nuclear power.
            While he may be the epitome of an Iranian defined “moderate,” nothing has or is likely to change. Under most western definitions of the word, a “moderate”, Rouhani is not—not even close!
Sgt. Rodney (Rocky) Sickmann, former Marine guard
            These negotiations are frustrating. Frustrating that our government isn’t willing to hold Iran accountable for the inhumane, brutal and mental torture they put 52 Americans through for 444 days yet, in most recent negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear program, they chose to negotiate even when Iran still offers no concessions. Iran has always depended on intimidation and terrorism to stay in power and during our 444 days in captivity Iran learned one thing: Terrorism on the United States works
      It is time. It’s time to start from the beginning on November 4, 1979 – the day we were taken hostage. That day dramatically reshaped the politics of the US and Iran and it’s time for Iran to be held accountable for their illegal actions and pay reparations consistent with the historical amounts established by the court.
            How can our nation ever make progress unless the US addresses the core issues within this terrorist country? We need to work within certain parameters to ensure the negotiations not only further the interests of the US, but also protect all Americans and our future generations. We need to demonstrate that the US will not tolerate the terrorism Iran began on November 4, 1979. We must hold them accountable and only then do then do I agree that negotiations towards a nuclear program solution would be successful.
*Titles and rank reflect positions during the 1979-1981 hostage crisis.

Photo credit: William Daugherty via Armstrong Atlantic State University


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Iran Sanctions: Which Way Out?

            With the deadline for a nuclear deal looming in less than a month, Iran and the world’s six major powers face tough decisions. The following article, originally published in August 2013, addresses sanctions relief, one of the key issues in negotiations.

Ali Vaez

      The United States has imposed several layers of sanctions against Iran—for widely diverse reasons—dating back to the 1979 revolution. Tehran now wants relief from sanctions as part of any diplomatic deal on its controversial nuclear program. But lifting sanctions is often harder than imposing them—and varies depending on the issues, origins and methods imposed.
What types of sanctions has the United States imposed on Iran?
            Sanctions have been the policy tool of choice used by six presidents to deal with Iran. Since the 1979 revolution, the White House has issued 16 executive orders and Congress has passed nine acts imposing punitive sanctions on Iran in four waves.
            The first wave of U.S. sanctions, from 1979 to 1995, was a response to the U.S. embassy hostage crisis and Tehran’s support for extremist groups in the region.
            The second wave of sanctions, from 1995 to 2006, sought to weaken the Islamic Republic by targeting its oil and gas industry and denying it access to nuclear and missile technology. U.S. sanctions also targeted any company in a third country that invested in Iran’s energy sector, a move to compel allies to adopt a unified stance against Iran.
            The third wave, from 2006 to 2010, was imposed chiefly due to concerns over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, but also included punitive measures for Iran’s human rights violations. Sanctions targeted almost every major chokepoint in Iran’s economy.
            The latest wave of sanctions since 2010 includes some of the toughest restrictions the United States has ever imposed on any country. They target Iran’s Central Bank and its ability to repatriate oil revenues  as well as many transportation, insurance, manufacturing and financial sectors.
            The first two waves of sanctions were unilaterally imposed by Washington. But the last two included similar measures imposed by U.S. allies and the United Nations, generating almost a global sanctions regime against Iran.
What would the United States need to do to lift sanctions?
      The standard for lifting U.S. sanctions is high. The president could nullify the White House executive orders imposed over the years. But nearly 60 percent of these sanctions have also been codified into law by Congress, which puts amending or repealing sanctions beyond the president’s control. Congress would also have to take action.
      For example, executive orders banning U.S. trade with Iran –under Executive Orders 12957, 12959 and 13059-- were subsequently written into the law when Congress passed the Iran Freedom Support Act in 2006 and the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act in 2010. Similarly, sanctions on Iran’s energy and petrochemical sector under Executive Order 13590 and human rights violators under Executive Order 13606 were subsequently codified into law through the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012.
            The president could still exercise his waiver authority to exempt countries, entities and individuals from sanctions. He could also mandate greater flexibility in determining violations and enforcing penalties. The Clinton and Bush administrations opted for the latter option and never determined any country in violation of U.S. sanctions, which could have damaged relations with US allies.
What steps would Iran have to take to get sanctions lifted?
            Sanctions have become so extensive and so intricately woven that the United States will probably have a hard time offering significant or tangible relief unless Iran reverses major aspects of its domestic and foreign policies. The same applies to the 34-year-old state of emergency on Iran, which gives the president broad powers to unilaterally impose sanctions or other punitive measures.
            The 16 executive orders and nine Congressional acts are also not tied only to the nuclear issue. More than 80 percent of the sanctions are linked to Iran’s broader foreign or domestic policies. As such, not all have the same standards to be lifted.
            On Terrorism: Restoration of U.S.-Iran trade relations would first require that the United States remove Iran from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, which Tehran has been on since the list was created in the 1980s. And the requirements are stiff. Tehran would notably have to cut ties to Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite militia and political party that Tehran helped create in the early 1980s, as well as several other movements that use violence.
            Tehran would also have to provide assurances – and proof -- that it had abandoned international terrorism and support for extremist groups. The White House would then have to certify to Congress that Iran had not provided support for terrorism for at least six months, timing that could delay implementation of any diplomatic deal. Congress could block Iran’s removal from the list through a joint resolution , which would in turn be subject to a presidential veto. Congress could override the veto with a two-thirds majority, however.
            On Human Rights: Ending sanctions imposed for human rights violations under the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act would require Iran to take several steps, including:
                 •  unconditional release of all political prisoners;
                 •  conducting a transparent investigation into the killings, arrests and abuse
                      of protestors after the disputed 2009 presidential election;
                 •  ending human rights violations;
                 •  and establishing an independent judiciary.
            On the Nuclear Program: The United States has no clear criteria for removing these sanctions. The basic demands by the world’s six major powers include:
                 •  halting all enrichment of uranium up to 20 percent,
                 •  neutralizing the current stockpile of uranium enrich to 20 percent
                 •  mothballing the new enrichment facility build into the mountains of Fordo.
                 •  accepting maximum level of transparency and intrusive inspections,
                 •  resolving all the outstanding issues with the International Atomic Energy
                 •  and abiding by the six UN Security Council resolutions demanding
                      suspension of uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities.
            But most US sanctions are multipurpose. For example, termination of measures under the Iran Sanctions Act , which is at the core of U.S. sanctions, requires:
                 •  that the president to certify that Iran has ceased efforts to design, develop or
                      acquire nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, as well as ballistic missile
                 •  that Tehran has been removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of
                 •  and that Iran poses no significant threat to U.S. national security interests or
                      its allies.
What obstacles would the White House face in lifting sanctions from Congress, political lobbies, public opinion or other players?
      Lifting U.S. sanctions could be complicated by politics, particularly discordant views between the White House and Congress. Some lawmakers seem less interested in a diplomatic resolution--or less convinced of its feasibility. They are not swayed by the views of U.S. allies. Others would actually prefer to impose additional sanctions.
      So in Washington’s highly politicized climate, Congress may not easily defer to the president on sanctions relief, especially given powerful lobbies on the issue.
      Easing sanctions may also not automatically alter or increase international trade with Iran, given economic realities and business wariness. Sanctions have significantly altered basic trade and consumption patterns that may be hard to change—and may limit or delay any benefits to Iran. Some companies and countries that have shifted away from Iran over the years are unlikely to rush back without solid assurances that sanctions relief is not just temporary. Uncertainty would make them hesitant to re-engage.
            For example, one possibility in a diplomatic deal would be short-term suspension of sanctions—as an interim step—so the two sides have time for building confidence between each other and for winning political support at home for concessions. One of Iran’s top priorities is to get sanctions relief so that it can export more oil, which accounts for up to 80 percent of its export earnings. But the international oil industry may hesitate to reengage during a short-term suspension. Iranian crude also has specific characteristics that would require reconfiguration of refineries, an expensive step without prospects of an enduring deal.
            All in all, the nature of multi-purpose and multi-layered sanctions has confused their strategic purpose, while constraining Washington’s ability to respond to positive actions with requisite nimbleness. Over time, as they has simultaneously grown and ossified, the sanctions have become a less-than-optimal tool to advance negotiations in a diplomatic process where a scalpel, rather than a chainsaw, is required.
Would the United States remove the diverse sanctions in the same way?
            The timing and means of removing sanctions will almost certainly vary.
                 •  Politically sensitive sanctions--notably for Iran’s human rights violations and
                      support of militant groups--are unlikely to be on the menu in the near future.
                 •  Restrictions on oil and financial transactions are the crown jewels of the
                      sanctions regime in the eyes of Western policy makers. Neither Washington
                      nor its European Union partners are likely to suspend them without significant
                      Iranian guarantees about Tehran’s nuclear concessions.
            But the reality of suspending sanctions is also not easy either. For instance, both the president and Congress would have to act to allowing Iran to reach its previous petroleum exports , including:
                 •  revoking Executive Order 13622,
                 •  using national security waiver to permit other states to buy more oil from Iran
                       under the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012,
                 •  permitting financial transactions with Iran’s energy, shipping and port sectors,
                      which are all declared “entities of proliferation concern” under the Iran
                      Freedom and Counter-proliferation Act of 2012,
                 •  waiving sanctions under TRA and IFCA to allow the provision of insurance and
                      reinsurance for shipping Iranian oil,
                 •  and waiving the ban on repatriating Iran’s oil revenue under TRA. Waivers need
                      to be renewed every 120 or 180 days.
            Almost all Iranian major energy and shipping companies are also blacklisted by the Treasury Department, either as entities supporting terrorism (under Executive Order  13224) or for being involved in proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction under Executive Order  13382. Foreign companies will be more than reluctant to work with these companies unless they are delisted.
            The only remaining option would be to suspend other sanctions that tangibly affect Iran’s economic well-being. The United States could allow Iran to import or export specific goods that produce revenue or help Iran’s manufacturing sector.  The P5+1 world major powers – the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia--chose a similar route in the February and April 2013 negotiations with Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Their offer to relax sanctions on Iran’s petrochemical sales and gold trade was meaningful, but it was not proportionate to the concessions expected from Tehran.  
            Given the complexities, another U.S. option might be to focus on European sanctions, which are more elastic and lack clear criteria for termination. Their repeal requires a unanimous decision by all 28 member states of the European Union. Building consensus, however, is not always a straight forward enterprise in Europe. Also, there is now so much overlap between the U.S. and EU sanctions that a unilateral EU removal of sanctions might have little impact on the ground. One-sided EU concessions also risk being seen by Tehran as a tactical ploy to maintain U.S. sanctions in place indefinitely.
            Diplomatic talks are expected to resume in the fall. The challenge for world’s six major powers will be devising a package of incentives, including some degree of sanctions relief that is achievable both politically and legally while also genuinely addressing Iranian concerns. The challenge for the new Iranian government will be to respond in kind.
Ali Vaez is the International Crisis Group’s senior Iran analyst.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Pete Souza photo of Barack Obama

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