United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Zarif Tries to Calm Nervous Gulf States

            Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tried to calm Gulf states nervous about the Geneva nuclear agreement and Iran’s regional aspirations. Zarif kicked off his first official tour of the Sunni sheikhdoms with a visit to Kuwait on December 1. “Be assured that the nuclear deal is in favor of the stability and security of the region,” he told the press after meeting with Sheikh Sabah Khaled al Sabah. Zarif also attended the Manama Dialogue Regional Security Summit in Bahrain and visited Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

            President Hassan Rouhani’s government has stepped up its outreach efforts to the Gulf since the interim nuclear agreement was brokered on November 24. Just four days after the negotiations concluded, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed visited Tehran to discuss three disputed islands in the Gulf. On December 4, Zarif visited the UAE and President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan accepted an invitation to visit Tehran.
            The monarchies fear a comprehensive deal on Iran’s nuclear program that would leave it with a residual capability to eventually build a bomb. But they are also concerned that an agreement could allow Tehran to shed its pariah status and reemerge as a Gulf powerhouse. The following are excerpted remarks by Zarif and Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al Khalifa.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
            “We believe that a new era has begun in ties between Iran and regional states which should turn into a new chapter of amicable relations through efforts by all regional countries.”
            Dec. 1, 2013 in a meeting with Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khalid al Hamad al-Sabah 
      “We believe that Iran and Saudi Arabia should work together in order to promote peace and stability in the region… This agreement cannot be at the expense of any country in the region. Our relations with Saudi Arabia should expand as we consider Saudi Arabia as an extremely important country in the region and the Islamic world… I am ready to go to Saudi Arabia, but it is just a matter of being able to arrange a mutually convenient time. I will visit it soon inshallah [God willing].
      “We expressed our appreciation for the very central and positive role that the [Omani] sultanate had played in facilitating these talks.”
            Dec. 1, 2013 to the press in Doha, Qatar
            “Iran’s ties with Oman are special… We feel that the relations among countries of the region should be built on mutual trust and enhancing the friendship bonds among them. The cooperation and common grounds in various theological, cultural, geographic, economic and political fields will help us build the ties.”         
            Atomic weapons are “illegal, immoral and non-human. We believe nuclear weapons harm our national security. We do not need any nuclear weapon at any level.”
Entering an arms race would be “a sort of suicide.”
            Dec. 2, 2013 in a meeting with Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said
Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al Khalifa
            “We’ve clearly seen a change in Iranian language. But I don’t think we have seen a very clear change of policy. Maybe there’s one that led to the interim agreement, which is something that we welcome, and will hopefully reach a good and sustainable comprehensive agreement. But we still have a problem, Iran-Bahrain. We haven’t seen any progress on that.”
            “I would like to see Iran send the very clear message by taking serious actions and steps that would allay the fears of the regional countries regarding interferences with internal affairs and supporting terrorist groups inside those countries.”

            Dec. 8, 2013 in an interview with Al-Monitor


Poll: Iranians Split on Syria Policy

            A slight majority of Iranians think their government is having a negative impact on developments in Syria, according to a newly released Zogby Research Services poll. The Iranian government, however, has been a staunch defender of Bashar al Assad’s government since the conflict erupted in early 2011. Tehran has reportedly provided military support, lent billions of dollars and sold discounted oil to Damascus. Iranians are also largely split on Tehran’s policies in Bahrain, Iraq and Lebanon.
Overall, Iranians see their government’s regional policy as motivated by protecting vulnerable Shiites and ensuring the Islamic Republic’s security. Majorities also think Tehran’s actions are primarily aimed at maximizing regional influence and creating a more stable Middle East. The following are excerpts from the poll results, based on face-to-face interviews with 1,205 Iranians conducted in August and September.

 Iran's Foreign Policy
Click here for the full report.

Poll: Iranians Prioritize Jobs and Political Reform

           Iranians want their government to focus on the economy and political reforms this year, according to a newly released Zogby Research Services poll. The top issues Iranians want addressed are expanding employment opportunities, advancing democracy and protecting personal and civil rights. Increasing rights for women and ending corruption are also high on the list.
            Priorities are largely consistent across most demographic groups, according to the poll report. But the top concern for men is expanding employment opportunities. And women’s top priority for government is increasing women’s rights.The following are excerpts from the poll results, based on face-to-face interviews with 1,205 Iranians conducted in August and September.

Click here for the full report.

US and Israeli Leaders Split on Nuclear Deal

           Top U.S. leaders defended the interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program while their Israeli counterparts criticized it at the 2013 Saban Forum in Washington. President Barack Obama, Secretary John Kerry, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman were among the key speakers at the Brookings Institution event, held from December 6 to 8.
            “For the first time in over a decade, we have halted advances in the Iranian nuclear program,” Obama argued. He emphasized that the United States had kept the main sanctions in place on the oil, finance and banking sectors. Kerry acknowledged that Washington may “may sometimes favor a different tactical choice” than Tel Aviv in dealing with Tehran. But he also claimed that Israel would be safer if the interim nuclear agreement is implemented.
            Netanyahu warned that a “nuclear-armed Iran would literally change the course of history” by undermining Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinians and peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan. He noted that “the Geneva agreement does not address” Iran’s alleged development of ballistic missiles and work on nuclear weapons. Lieberman described the interim deal as “unacceptable to me and the Israelis.” And he claimed that a regional nuclear arms race would have consequences “even more serious than a horror movie in Hollywood.” The following are excerpted remarks by the four leaders.  

President Barack Obama
Iran Negotiations
            “For the first time in over a decade, we have halted advances in the Iranian nuclear program.  We have not only made sure that in Fordor and Natanz that they have to stop adding additional centrifuges, we’ve also said that they’ve got to roll back their 20 percent advanced enrichment… We’re taking that down to zero. We are stopping the advancement of the Arak facility, which would provide an additional pathway, a plutonium pathway for the development of nuclear weapons…
            “Now, what we’ve done in exchange is kept all these sanctions in place -- the architecture remains with respect to oil, with respect to finance, with respect to banking.  What we’ve done is we’ve turned the spigot slightly and we’ve said, here’s maximum $7 billion out of the over $100 billion of revenue of theirs that is frozen as a consequence of our sanctions, to give us the time and the space to test whether they can move in a direction, a comprehensive, permanent agreement that would give us all assurances that they’re not producing nuclear weapons.”
            “We put in place an unprecedented regime of sanctions that has crippled Iran’s economy, cut their oil revenues by more than half, have put enormous pressure on their currency -- their economy contracted by more than 5 percent last year.  And it is precisely because of the international sanctions and the coalition that we were able to build internationally that the Iranian people responded by saying, we need a new direction in how we interact with the international community and how we deal with this sanctions regime.  And that’s what brought President Rouhani to power.  He was not necessarily the first choice of the hardliners inside of Iran.”
Secretary of State John Kerry
Iran Negotiations
            “As we enter negotiations for a final, comprehensive agreement, we absolutely do so with our eyes wide open, and, as yet, I have to say, unconvinced that Iran will absolutely make all the decisions, the hard decisions necessary to reach such an agreement.  But these negotiations will not be open-ended.  And given what we all know of its history – the history of Iran with respect to its nuclear program: a hidden mountainside site; unbelievable numbers of centrifuges; new, faster, speedier, more effective centrifuges, all the things that we know – we have a right to be skeptical, and that’s why this is not about trust, not about words; it’s about actions.  It’s about testing the process, testing their commitment.  This is about living up to verifiable, transparent, internationally accepted standards, and only diplomacy can get you to the place where you establish what that is.
            “As we negotiate, Iran will forfeit its entire stock of 20 percent enriched uranium, which Prime Minister Netanyahu highlighted in his 2012 speech at the United Nations, and which is relatively a short step away from weapons grade.
            “As we negotiate, Iran will be unable to grow its stock of 3.5 percent enriched uranium, or unable to stockpile or increase the number of centrifuges that are operating at Fordow and Natanz.  We will for the first time be able to inspect and go into the workshops and the storage facilities for these items.  As we negotiate, international inspectors will have unprecedented access to Iran’s key facilities, which we don’t have today.  We will have daily access to Fordow, daily access to Natanz, and regular access to the Arak heavy-water reactor site.  And they are required to give us the plans for that site. 
            “As we negotiate, the Arak facility, which is still under construction and which could have provided an alternative path to a bomb, will be prohibited from installing any new components whatsoever, or testing additional fuel.  As we negotiate, our Treasury Department will remain absolutely determined to enforce our core sanctions architecture, which has deprived Iran of more than $80 billion in oil revenue since 2012.  So in a year and half, we’ve deprived them of $80 billion, and in this deal we’re going to let $4 billion be released?  You think that makes a difference, while 25 billion – 15 to 25 billion will be put away, still escrowed, still deprived over the course of these six months?  And by the way, none of it happens all in one day; it happens seriatim, sequentially, as the process is implemented.  We also have prevented, as you know, access to the international banking system.  We will work with our international partners to ensure that that commitment does not waver.
            “As we negotiated, I’ve personally instructed every bureau at the State Department and each of our missions around the world to remain vigilant for any sign that any sanction is being skirted.  And as we negotiate, we will continue to be perfectly clear that, for Iran, the price of noncompliance, of failing to satisfy international concerns about the nuclear program, will be that we immediately ratchet up new sanctions, along with whatever further steps are needed to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, including – as President Obama just made clear – a military option, if that were necessary.
            “So there shouldn’t be an ounce of doubt.  This is a debate we shouldn’t be having.  The real question is what’s going to happen with the final agreement.  The United States stands squarely behind our Israeli friends and allies in the region and in the world.  And the result of all of these steps that we are taking is that Iran’s breakout time, the period required to produce enough weapons-grade material intended for nuclear weapons, will have been increased because of our diplomacy.
            “Now, we are obviously well aware that even a comprehensive agreement wouldn’t solve all our problems with Iran, and we don’t pretend that they do.  It wouldn’t address their support for Hezbollah.  It won’t deal with Syria – although it would have some impact, ultimately.  It doesn’t deal with other terrorist organizations, or their attempt to destabilize our partners throughout the region.  Whatever the outcome of the upcoming negotiations, Iran will still have much work to do.  But I am convinced that we have taken a strong first step that has made the world, and Israel, safer, even as we work to solve this problem once and for all.
“So once again, I want to emphasize:  A careful balance of strength and diplomacy gives us the best chance to reach our common goal, and to do so without having to resort to force.”
Israel’s View of Iran
            “Now, believe me, the United States fully understands that Israel perceives a nuclear Iran as an existential threat.  Why?  Because it is.  And we understand that.  And while we may sometimes favor a different tactical choice – tactical – the United States and Israel have always shared the same fundamental strategic goal.  As we move forward in this negotiation, we will continue to consult very closely with Israel, as with our other friends and allies in the region and around the world whose input is critical to us in this process…
“Now let me make something else clear.  I am convinced beyond any doubt that Israel becomes safer the moment this first-step agreement is implemented…
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Iran Negotiations
      “Our best efforts to reach Palestinian-Israeli peace will come to nothing if Iran succeeds in building atomic bombs. A nuclear-armed Iran would give even greater backing to the radical and terrorist elements in the region. It would undermine the chances of arriving at a negotiated peace. I would say it would undermine those peace agreements that we have already reached with two of our neighbors.
      “Just three days ago Iran's representative to the U.N. reiterated the regime's refusal to even recognize Israel. This came a fortnight after the ruler of Iran referred to Israel as a "rabid dog" and to us as not worthy of being called human. He said we were doomed to "failure and annihilation". And earlier in November, Khamenei called Israel "an illegitimate and bastard regime". So the Iranian regime's pursuit of nuclear weapons makes these remarks more than a simple matter of "sticks and stones". People tend to discount rhetoric from rogue regimes, from radical regimes.
            “They said, well, it's just talk, but talk has consequences. We've learned that in history, especially when the regime that makes these statements is actually building the capability to carry it out.
            “This same regime supplies its terrorist proxies, Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, with thousands of rockets, rockets that are aimed at Israeli civilians, rockets that are precision-guided munitions that are increasingly lethal and deadly. This is a regime committed to our destruction. And I believe there must be an unequivocal demand alongside the negotiations in Geneva for a change in Iranian policy. This must be part and parcel of the negotiations. In other words, I'm saying that what is required is not merely a shift and a diminution of Iran's capability and elimination of its capability to produce nuclear weapons, but also a demand to change its genocidal policy.
            “That is the minimal thing that the international community must do when it's negotiating with Iran.
            “And as you all know, it's not just about Israel. Iran continues to trample the rights of its own people, to participate in the mass slaughter in Syria, to engage in terrorism across five continents and to destabilize regimes throughout the Middle East…
            “I have expressed my concern since before Geneva that the sanctions would begin to unravel. I heard today that Iran's president said that in fact the situation in Iran economically is already markedly improved since the accords were announced. They haven't even been put in place yet. So steps must be taken to prevent further erosion of the sanctions. Because ultimately, the sanctions remain an essential element of the international effort to compel Iran to dismantle its nuclear military infrastructure: to take apart the centrifuges; to tear down the heavy water reactor; to eliminate the current stockpiles of enriched uranium; to cease the development of ballistic missiles and the work on weaponization, which by the way the Geneva agreement does not address.
            “None of these things that Iran insists it must have – none of them is necessary for a peaceful nuclear program.
            “So while Israel is prepared to do what is necessary to defend itself, we share President Obama's preference to see Iran's nuclear weapons program end through diplomacy. But for diplomacy to succeed, it must be coupled with powerful sanctions and a credible military threat…
            “We all agree that after a couple of years of tough sanctions, Iran finally began to negotiate seriously. Because of the pressure, what seemed impossible yesterday became possible today. We should not assume that more and tougher sanctions won't lead to a better deal. What seems impossible today could become possible tomorrow...”
Dangers of a Nuclear Iran
            “Preventing Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability is the paramount challenge of our generation because a nuclear-armed Iran would literally change the course of history.
            “It would threaten the peace and security of us all by arming the world's most dangerous regime with the world's most dangerous weapons. I think we've learned from history that regimes with unlimited appetites act out their fantasies and their made ideologies when they think they have the weapons of mass death or at least incalculable power.
            “That's what usually happens. Such power in the hands of such regimes unleashes the worst ambitions. It's not that they don't have diplomats – they do. They have diplomats, some of them even wear ties. They might speak English and they might make PowerPoint presentations where in the past they just spoke English and they spoke reasonably well. But when the powers behind the throne, the power on the throne is committed to a radical ideology and pursues it and talks about it again and again and again, then I say: Beware. We've learned in our experience, the experience of the Jewish people, to take seriously those who speak about our annihilation, and we will do and I will do what is necessary to protect the Jewish state and the future of the Jewish people.
            “Our best efforts, mine and those of President Obama, have yet to achieve the desired results. The jury is still out. Iran is perilously close to crossing the nuclear threshold. History will judge all of us on whether we succeed or not in rising to meet this greatest of all challenges.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman 
Iranian Threat
      “The biggest threat for them [Saudi Arabia] is not Zionism, not Jews, not Israel, but the radical movements in the Arab world like Sunni radical movements like al-Qaeda and of course the Iranian ambitions.”
      “The biggest threat from Iranians is not even to Israel, it is first of all to the [Saudi] allies, to the Gulf countries.”
      “In the end of day, it's our responsibility of our government and we will take all the decisions in a very responsible way. And you know me and you know also my philosophy in my private life and my political life: if you want to shoot, shoot; don't talk. And in the end of the day, it's our responsibility for the future, for the destiny of our citizens.”
            “We are in the beginning of a nuclear arms race...[whose] consequences are even more serious than a horror movie in Hollywood.”
Iran Negotiations
            “The centrifuges that were spinning before the agreement continue to spin today… It’s really a crucial and big difference between the two deals [on Syria’s chemical weapons and Iran’s nuclear program].”
             The interim agreement was “unacceptable to me and the Israelis” who “know what the Iranian intentions” are and sees their involvement in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan.
U.S.-Israel Tension
            “It’s impossible to conceal the disagreements between us and the Americans on this deal...it’s unnecessary to discuss those disagreements publicly. It’s unnecessary to discuss public disagreements publicly [on Iran]. I think to cool down the atmosphere is also very crucial today.”

Photo credits: Benjamin Netanyahu by US State Dept. derivative work: TheCuriousGnome (Benjamin Netanyahu on September 14, 2010.jpg) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsAvigdor Lieberman by Saeima derivative work: César [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


Zarif Defends Deal in Speech to Students

            On December 3, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif outlined the merits of the Geneva nuclear deal at a crowded Tehran University auditorium. “Those that are afraid of negotiations…that see themselves as too small, they think they are too weak. They don’t believe in the power of the people,” he told hundreds of students. Some hardliner students booed Zarif and criticized him for making too many concessions. But the majority of the crowd seemed supportive of the deal. Many students cheered for Zarif and reportedly shouted down jeering hardliners.
Zarif warned skeptics against listening to Washington’s claim that Tehran’s right to uranium enrichment was not included in the deal. He emphasized that Iran had not conceded its right and he challenged rejectionists to read the text of the deal for themselves. Zarif also reminded the audience that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave his full support to the negotiators and told Iranians not to call them “compromisers.”  The following is a Press TV report on Zarif’s speech and excerpted remarks on key issues.

Nuclear Program and Negotiations
            “Two points in the agreement refer to [uranium] enrichment, [stating] that there will be no solution to the nuclear issue without the enrichment [program].”
            “Without enrichment, any solution to Iran’s nuclear issue would be impossible. We will continue our five percent enrichment. In case we decide to resume 20-percent enrichment, we can simply do it by turning on the taps between two cascades. And within 24 hours, we can enrich uranium at the 20 percent level.”
           “We definitely don’t allow them [Western countries] to disrespect us in the [nuclear] negotiations. We truly hope [our] Iranian friends inside the country recognize this and do not say that the other party has disrespected us and that the negotiating team hardly survived. We need solidarity more than anything else with regard to this issue. We should not make any moves to counter the leadership’s [Khamenei’s] instructions… I am but a soldier of this (Islamic) system and the leadership.”
           “They [Western countries] said that the word ‘enrichment’ does not exist within the text of the document. Yes, the word of enrichment is not in the White House fact sheet; but if your basis and reference is the White House fact sheet, instead of the text of the agreement that your friends [the nuclear negotiating team] signed… do as you please… and refer to that (White House fact sheet).”
            “The Washington Post wrote that the White House lied in in the fact sheet it released, as it did not mention the right of enrichment that it had recognized… The White House had to respond to the Washington Post on why it had not told the Americans the truth, and now are you [students in the audience] are accepting the White House document [fact sheet] as proof?”
            “Our policy in the field of nuclear energy is that we do not want weapons, and we consider it harmful to our safety.”
            “I will stand up to the Western side, but I need your help.”
            “With regard to Arak (IR-40 heavy-water reactor), it is obvious that construction will continue there.”
            “Some are pushing to impose sanctions on Iran, and take other measures as well, but we should not underestimate our own abilities.”
            “The international system does not impose decisions on us and we should recognize that we can impose our views on international state of affairs.”
            “For eight years [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency] – eight years – I heard all kinds of lies, things against me, mocking, and did not speak a word. I expected our friends to give us eight weeks of time [before criticizing again]…without us even going to the negotiating table, they had already said that we had lost.”
Foreign Policy
            “In the sphere of foreign policy, we should put aside the disputes and replace them with rapport and friendship, because we are all aboard a single ship, if we are to succeed, we will succeed all together, and if we [are to] suffer harm, we will also suffer harm together.”
            “Today, [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu cannot introduce Iran as a threat to the world and even in the White House no one buys his opinion.”


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