United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Rouhani’s US-Educated Cabinet

            Iran’s presidential cabinet has more members with PhDs from American universities than the U.S. cabinet itself, according to The Economist. President Hassan Rouhani’s cabinet starkly contrasts with that of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who preferred advisers with Iranian academic backgrounds. In the years following the 1979 revolution, Iran’s new political elite viewed Western educations with suspicion. But as of late 2013, Rouhani’s cabinet had more American PhD holders than the cabinets of France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, and Spain combined, according to The Atlantic. President Hassan Rouhani himself earned his master’s and doctoral degrees from Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland.

            The following are profiles of the six members of Rouhani’s cabinet who hold advanced degrees from American universities.

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.
            President Rouhani appointed Zarif Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2013. Since then he has taken steps to improve Iran’s ties with the international community, and acted as the chief negotiator in the 2014 nuclear talks between Iran and P5+1.
            Zarif speaks English with an American accent after receiving a B.A. and an M.A. from San Francisco State University, and an M.A. and PhD in international relations from the University of Denver. He completed his doctorate in 1988. Zarif joined University of Denver students, faculty and staff for a video conference on Iranian foreign policy in early 2014. He tweets in English at @JZarif.
Acting Minister of Science, Research and Technology: Mohammad-Ali Najafi
      Born in 1952, Najafi is a well-known reformist technocrat who has served in multiple Iranian administrations. He served as minister of education under President Hashemi Rafsanjani from 1989 to 1997, and as head of the Planning and Budget Organization under President Mohammad Khatami from 1997 to 2000.
      President Rouhani initially nominated Najafi as minister of education, but instead appointed him as head of the Cultural Heritage, Handcrafts and Tourism Organization after Najafi failed to win the parliament’s vote of confidence. Najafi resigned from his position in January of 2014 due to health issues, marking the first change in Rouhani’s cabinet. But in August 2014, he took on a new role as acting minister of science, research, and technology.
            Najafi attended Sharif University, and later pursued postgraduate studies in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1974 to 1978.
Minister of Communication: Mahmoud Vaezi
      Born in 1952, Vaezi served in several high-ranking positions in the foreign ministry from 1986 to 1999, including deputy foreign minister for European and American affairs under President Rafsanjani and deputy foreign minister for economic affairs under President Khatami. During his time at the foreign ministry he played a role in mediating the Karabakh dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
      More recently, he held a senior position at the Center for Strategic Research, a leading Iranian think tank formerly headed by Rouhani affiliated with the Expediency Council. Vaezi was briefly considered for the position of foreign minister in Rouhani’s cabinet before being appointed as minister of communication.
            Vaezi received his B.S. and M.S. in electrical engineering from Sacramento State University and San Jose State University. He began his PhD in international relations at Louisiana State University, but reportedly finished his degree at Warsaw University in Poland.
Minister of Industry: Mohammadreza Nematzadeh
      Born in 1945, Nematzadeh is an experienced technocrat. He served as minister of labor under President Mohammad-Ali Raja’i. He was later appointed as minister of industry under President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from 1989 to 1997, and then as deputy oil minister for petrochemical affairs under President Mohamed Khatami from 1997 to 2005. Nematzadeh managed Rouhani’s 2013 presidential campaign before his appointment as minister of industry.
      Nematzadeh received his B.S. in environmental engineering from California State Polytechnic University in 1968 and later studied industrial management at the University of California Berkeley.
Head of Atomic Energy Organization: Ali Akbar Salehi
      Born in 1949, Salehi was appointed as Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy (IAEA) by President Khatami in 1997 and remained in that position until 2005. He signed an IAEA protocol in 2003 which allowed agency inspectors greater authority to verify the country’s nuclear program. Despite President Ahmadinejad’s criticism of the decision to sign this protocol, he appointed Salehi as foreign minister. Salehi served from January 2011 to August 2013. Under President Rouhani’s administration, he was appointed as head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.
            Salehi received a B.S. in mechanical engineering from the American University of Beirut in 1971 and a PhD in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1977. He is fluent in English and Arabic in addition to his native Farsi.
Chief of Staff to the President: Mohammad Nahavandian
      Born in 1954, Nahavandian is an experienced technocrat. He received his PhD in economics from George Washington University and founded  the Islamic Research and Information Center, which reportedly partnered with more than 40 Islamic centers across the United States on culture and education. He became the deputy minister of commerce in 1993 and resigned in 2002 to serve as President Khatami’s economic advisor. Nahavandian was elected Deputy President of the Iran Chamber of Commerce in 2007, a position he held until Rouhani appointed him as his chief of staff.
            Nahavandian holds an M.A. in economics from Tehran University and a PhD in economics from the George Washington University. He obtained a green card while living in the United States, which generated controversy when he traveled to New York in 2005 for a science conference and reportedly delivered a message to then-U.N. Ambassador Zarif. Nahavandian was allowed to re-enter the U.S. despite his employment status with the Iranian government, which could have invalidated his green card.
Photo credits: Javad Zarif by Robin Wright, Mohammad-Ali Najafi by By Hamed Saber (Flickr: Dr. Ali Najafi) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, Mahmoud Vaezi via Ministry of Information and Communications Technology,  Mohammadreza Nematzadeh via Ministry of Industry and Mines, Ali Akbar Salehi via Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Mohammad Nahavandian via Elza Fiúza/ABr (Direct) [CC-BY-3.0-br (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/br/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons


Oman Nuclear Talks Yield Few Results

            Officials from Iran and world’s six major powers did not report any significant progress after holding talks in Oman. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton for more than 10 hours on November 9 and 10. But Kerry and Zarif only offered reporters a few words about their meetings. When asked if they were making progress, Zarif replied, “We will eventually.” Kerry said, “We are working hard. We are working hard.”
            The State Department described the talks as “tough, direct and serious.” And Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araqchi, said the two sides had neither made progress nor suffered a setback during the first two days of talks. “But we are optimistic that we can reach an accord” before November 24, said Araqchi, according to the Iranian Students News Agency.
            On November 11, following the trilateral session, Iran’s deputy foreign ministers Araqchi and Majid Takht-e Ravanchi met with their counterparts from P5+1 to discuss remaining issues on the table, including the removal of sanctions and limiting Iran's uranium enrichment. Officials made few comments on these discussions, but German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier noted that "we have never been this close to an agreement...this point is either the point of victory or defeat."
            The final round of nuclear talks will begin on November 18 in Vienna. The following are comments from U.S. and Iranian officials on the recent round of diplomacy in Oman.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
            “If the Western side can trust that our aim is peaceful and they don’t have political motives, now is a good time to set the framework of the agreement.”
            Nov. 8, 2014, according to the press
            “The Islamic Republic of Iran has always had a peaceful nuclear program and in line with the religious decree issued by the Leader banning use and stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction, WMD has no place in our defense doctrine.”
            “If Western countries are ensured that our nuclear program seeks peaceful ends and if they abandon political adventurism, this is a propitious time to hammer out a deal.”
            “There are some strong solutions, and what prevented an agreement were political reservations by the P5+1 negotiators; we still hope to reach a solution with all these technicalities.”
            Nov. 9, 2014 according to the press
            “It is important for the West to understand that sanctions have never contributed to the resolution of this issue, sanctions are not a part of a solution, sanctions are the most important part of the problem, they're illegal in nature, they must be removed, they have not produced any positive result.
            “The only thing that sanctions have produced for the West are about 19,000 centrifuges.”
            Nov. 10, 2014, according to the press
            “The issue of sanctions and its margins will fail to overshadow the will of the Iranian nation to preserve their rights in using peaceful nuclear energy.”
            Nov. 11, 2014, in a meeting with Omani Deputy Prime Minister Fahd bin Mahmoud
Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International Affairs Abbas Araqchi
            “After hours of discussions, we are not still in a position to say whether we have made progress, nor are we in the position to say there has been a setback.”
            “Every subject being mooted, entails lateral issues and complications like the technical, legal and political issues.”
            “We will keep making our efforts and the positive point is that all sides are serious and the demand to reach the deal is serious for all parties.”
            Nov. 10, 2014, according to the press
            “Negotiations and discussions during the past two days were very useful. But we are not still in a position to say that we have made progress. It’s yet to be done in the coming days. We would be available as much as needed here in Oman or in any other places before the deadline of November 24. We are still hopeful.”
            A deal will require “lots of goodwill by all parties and of course readiness to make difficult decisions.”
            “It’s a fact that based on a possible comprehensive solution all the sanctions should be lifted. Iran would certainly continue its enrichment, but the question is the capacity of this enrichment which should be determined based on our practical needs and that would be something we are very hopeful to come to at the end of these negotiations.”
            Nov. 10, 2014 to Press TV
            “All parties are serious about the talks and we intend to hold as many meetings as needed by the deadline.”
            Nov. 12, 2014, according to Mehr News
Deputy Foreign Minister for European and American Affairs Majid Takht-e-Ravanchi
            "We definitely are at a critical stage. There is not very much time left before Nov. 24 and the issues remain more or less the same."
            "If we cannot come to a conclusion by Nov. 24, I am sure that those who are performing an objective analysis of the situation definitely will not blame Iran for the possible lack of progress, because Iran has shown its determination to finish the job."
            "Enrichment is one [of the main points of contention], of course, and the sanctions, but we also talk about [the] Arak [research reactor] and a number of other things about which we have to come to an agreement. In our judgment the Americans do not want to appreciate what's happening on the ground in Iran as far as the nuclear capabilities and capacities are concerned. We have about 20,000 centrifuges, almost half of which are producing nuclear material, the other half are only spinning. We can't just turn back the clock and say, "now we are in 2005" and are offering what we have offered then."
            "You have to keep the status quo! But we are ready to accept some limits to our activities for a specific period of time. And after that specific time we need to be treated like any other member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)."
            Nov. 10, 2014 in an interview with
Spiegel Online
United States
State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki
            “We’re still very focused on making progress and seeing if we can get a deal done before the deadline in all of our meetings. There’s still time to do so. This was an opportunity to have follow-on discussions with Secretary Kerry, EU High Representative Ashton, Foreign Minister Zarif. They had two lengthy meetings yesterday; two today as well. The discussions have been tough, direct, and serious. And as you know, the political directors will continue to stay in Oman for a yet-to-be-determined amount of time. They’ll be reconvening, of course, for the already-announced round of meetings that are next week in Europe.”
            Nov. 10, 2014 in a daily press briefing


Obama Renews State of Emergency with Iran

             On November 12, President Barack Obama renewed the 35-year-old National Emergency with Respect to Iran, which gives the president broad powers to unilaterally impose sanctions or other punitive measures and regulate trade. President Jimmy Carter declared the state of emergency, which must be extended every year, in 1979 as a response to the U.S. hostage crisis. The following is the notice on the renewal and the text of Obama’s letter to Congress.

On November 14, 1979, by Executive Order 12170, the President declared a national emergency with respect to Iran and, pursuant to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (50 U.S.C. 1701-1706), took related steps to deal with the unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States constituted by the situation in Iran.  Because our relations with Iran have not yet returned to normal, and the process of implementing the agreements with Iran, dated January 19, 1981, is still under way, the national emergency declared on November 14, 1979, must continue in effect beyond November 14, 2014.  Therefore, in accordance with section 202(d) of the National Emergencies Act (50 U.S.C. 1622(d)), I am continuing for 1 year the national emergency with respect to Iran declared in Executive Order 12170.
This notice shall be published in the Federal Register and transmitted to the Congress.
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release November 12, 2014
Section 202(d) of the National Emergencies Act (50 U.S.C. 1622(d)), provides for the automatic termination of a national emergency unless, within 90 days prior to the anniversary date of its declaration, the President publishes in the Federal Register and transmits to the Congress a notice stating that the emergency is to continue in effect beyond the anniversary date. In accordance with this provision, I have sent to the Federal Register for publication the enclosed notice stating that the national emergency with respect to Iran that was declared in Executive Order 12170 of November 14, 1979, is to continue in effect beyond November 14, 2014.
Because our relations with Iran have not yet returned to normal, and the process of implementing the agreements with Iran, dated January 19, 1981, is still under way, I have determined that it is necessary to continue the national emergency declared in Executive Order 12170 with respect to Iran.





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.

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