United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Zarif on Nuclear Deal, US Relations

Robin Wright (for The New Yorker)

Three months after Iran dismantled large parts of its nuclear program, in compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—the international nuclear deal—the country’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, declared last week in New York that the United States is falling seriously short of its commitments. … In an interview last week, Zarif discussed various sticking points in relations between Washington and Tehran. 

Click here to read the interview on The New Yorker website.

Part I: Are Iran’s Missiles a Threat?

Michael Elleman
 
Iran test-fired several ballistic missiles in March 2016 and one in October 2015. Why? What is Iran’s goal? Is there any significance to the timing?
 
Ballistic missiles have been a key pillar of Iran’s overall defense and deterrence strategy since its 1980-1988 war with Iraq. For Tehran, missiles provide the capacity to strike targets throughout the region, something its air forces would struggle to achieve. But while ballistic missiles serve the deterrence mission by threatening their use before or during a military conflict, they are often featured in Iran’s rhetoric when seeking to intimidate or coerce its regional rivals. As a consequence, ballistic missiles are heralded by the leadership, prominently displayed in military parades, and featured during military exercises. Test launches are often broadcast on state-owned television. 
 
It is therefore no surprise that Iran unveiled its newest missile, the Emad, in October 2015, and fired a few Shahab-3 missiles shortly after the Great Prophet war games in March 2016. It also showcased on state-television a network of tunnels used to protect its missile forces. The Shahab-3 missiles and the tunnels have been around for more than a decade, so Iran revealed no new capabilities in 2016. 
 
The Emad, tested in 2015, is a modified version of the medium-range Ghadr missile. The modification includes a new nosecone, outfitted with four-small winglets at the base of the warhead. Presumably, the winglets are designed to steer the warhead during re-entry into the atmosphere with the purpose of bettering accuracy. Mastering the technologies needed to make the Emad missile capable of delivering a warhead to a specified target with precision will take many years, possibly 10 or more. Whether Iran has ambitious plans to perfect this capability, or the emergence of a missile seemingly designed for conventional missions, not nuclear ones, is unclear, though it seems likely both objectives serve Tehran’s needs.
 
It is interesting to note that the Emad was the first medium-range missile Iran has publically tested since 2013. Indeed, Iran has launched, on average, between two and three medium-range missiles every year since 2006, except in 2014, when no missiles were tested. Tehran may have opted to not undertake potentially provocative action during the nuclear negotiations, which would explain the hiatus in testing. The resumption of flight tests is likely to represent a return to past practices. 
 
What are the capabilities and range of these missiles?
 
Iran maintains the largest and most wide-ranging ballistic missile arsenal in the region.  With roughly 200-300 Shahab-1 and -2 missiles (Scud-B and –C, respectively), Tehran can range targets as far as 500 km (310 miles). This places all of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and oil-rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia within reach. Iran has converted some of its Shahab-2 missiles into Qiam missiles. The Qiam uses a detachable warhead, which reduces its vulnerability to the missile defenses deployed in the region.
 
Iran also possesses up to 100 Shahab-3 and Ghadr missiles, both of which are derived the Nodongs imported from North Korea. Dissatisfied with the performance of the Shahab-3/Nodong missiles that were limited to a range of about 1,000 km (620 miles), Iranian engineers replaced the steel airframe with a lighter-weight, aluminum-alloy structure, lengthened the propellant tanks, reduced the warhead mass and rearranged some internal components to extend the missile’s reach to 1,600 km (just under 1,000 miles). The modified version is called Ghadr.  

Shahab-3 by JamesMartinCNS on Sketchfab

 
The Shahab and Ghadr missiles are all liquid-fueled systems. Iran is developing a two-stage, medium-range missile based on solid propellant. The Sajjil-2 has an estimated range of 2,000 km (1,240 miles), though it has yet to reach operational status. The Sajjil-2 has not be tested since 2011, and appears to have encountered technical difficulties, though it is unclear precisely what is troubling the development efforts.
 
These Shahab, Qiam, Ghadr and Sajjil-2 systems lack the accuracy needed to be militarily decisive when armed with conventional warheads. They could sow terror and potentially weaken the resolve of states in the region if used against cities and critical infrastructure. These missiles could also disrupt, though not halt operations at key military facilities, such as airfields. Incorporating satellite-guidance systems (e.g. Global Positioning Satellite, or GPS, receivers) would improve accuracy, but by now more than about 25 percent, not enough to enhance the military effectiveness of the missiles.
 
Iran fields a family of increasingly accurate, heavy-artillery rockets with ranges of up to 250-300 km (155-190 miles). The Fateh-110, for example, flies on a trajectory that remains within the earth’s atmosphere during its entire flight. Small winglets mounted just below the warhead section can thus steer the rocket to its target with greater precision. In principle, the Fateh-110, or its variants, Khalij-Fars and Hormuz, could be accurate enough to strike point-targets reliably. However, in practice, there is little evidence that these rockets have achieved the design goal. This will likely change as Iran continues its efforts to enhance their performance and reliability. 
 
The Fateh-110 range capacity (roughly 210 km, or 160 miles) is not enough to reach across the Gulf, though it is capable of hitting Kuwait or the eastern emirates of the UAE. Consequently, Iran is developing a 300-km (190 mile) version, called Fateh-313. The status of this effort is not known.
 
The Fateh rockets, like the Shahab, Qiam and Ghadr missiles are all inherently capable of delivering a nuclear payload, if Iran were to acquire an atomic weapon. However, size and weight restrictions would make fitting a nuclear warhead onto the Fateh rockets more challenging. The international community broadly defines “nuclear capable” as any system that can deliver a 500 kg payload to 300 km, which is coincidentally the threshold limits used by the Missile Technology Control Regime, or MTCR.

What countries would be within range? Do these missile tests indicate a greater threat to these countries?
 
Iran’s missiles are capable of reaching targets throughout the Gulf region, all of the Levant, including Israel, Turkey and portions of the south eastern corridor of Europe. The missiles recently tested, including the Emad, do not extend Iran’s reach beyond the capabilities it possessed a decade ago. Iranian officials are on record insisting that the country has no requirement to build missiles that fly further than 2,000 km (1,240 miles). It remains to be seen if Iran will adhere to these declared limitations.
 
What defenses do U.S. allies and partners in the region have to counter Iran?
 
The United States has deployed at least six Patriot PAC-3 missile-defense batteries to the Gulf. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have their own Patriot capabilities, while Qatar is in the process of purchasing Patriot. The UAE has procured two Theater High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) units, with the first scheduled to be operational in late 2016.  Qatar, and possibly Saudi Arabia have discussed the purchase of THAAD as well.  The U.S. Navy has Aegis, ballistic-missile defense capable, ships patrolling in the Gulf.
 
Patriot systems provide defense against short- and medium-range missiles and can protect high-value assets. THAAD, and Aegis, intercept missiles above the atmosphere, and can defend large areas against short-, medium- and intermediate-range missiles.   When operated together, Patriot and THAAD provide two-layers of defense, which substantially enhances defense performance.
 
The United States and its Gulf partners are working together to integrate the many missile defense components deployed throughout the region. Progress has been slower than desired, though joint efforts to create a Shared Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, as outlined at the U.S.-GCC Summit at Camp David in 2015, are encouraging.
 
How do Iran’s offensive and defensive capabilities compare with those of its neighbors?
 
The United States and the Gulf states each have advanced and capable air forces with experience operating together, in both military exercises and during conflict. Iran’s antiquated air force would find it difficult to generate the number of sorties to have much of an impact on U.S. and Gulf state operations. The relative weakness of Iran’s air force severely limits its capacity to strike targets on the Arabian Peninsula, leaving Tehran dependent upon ballistic missiles for extra-territorial attacks.
 
Iran’s ground-based air defenses, however, are improving. The acquisition of the S-300 air-defense system from Russia will significantly improve Iran’s defensive capabilities.  

How has Iran’s missile program evolved in recent years? What is the status of Iran’s intercontinental ballistic missile program?
 
During the past decade, Iran has focused on improving the accuracy and reliability of its missiles, with little attention to increasing range. The Fateh-110 program, and the recent unveiling of the Emad missile are consistent with this focus on enhancing the military potential of its missile forces. There is no credible evidence to suggest that Iran is developing an intercontinental-ballistic missile, or ICBM. 
 
Iran, however, is developing a satellite-launch capability. The Simorgh rocket, which Iran reportedly tested in April 2016, has a first stage large and powerful enough to serve as a springboard for an ICBM. An ICBM based on Simorgh technology would be very large and cumbersome to deploy as a military system. If Iran were to transform its Simorgh into an ICBM, it would take a handful of years, and would not likely become operational before 2020. No country has ever converted a liquid-fuelled satellite launcher into a long-range missile, primarily because the operational requirements diverge enough to make the transformation impractical. 
 
Michael Elleman, a consulting senior fellow for missile defence at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a former U.N. weapons inspector, is co-author of “Iran's Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A Net Assessment.”
 

Click here to read Elleman’s chapter on Iran’s ballistic missile program.  

 

Click here for recent remarks by U.S. and Iranian officials on the missile tests.

 

 

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Part II: US, Iran Disagree on Missiles

Top U.S. officials have argued that Iran’s recent missiles launches are inconsistent with U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which bans Iran from testing ballistic missiles designed to be capable of carrying nuclear warheads. On March 24, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned two Iranian companies for supporting Tehran’s ballistic missile program. On April 1, President Barack Obama acknowledged Iran has followed the letter of the nuclear agreement, but added that “the spirit of the agreement involves Iran also sending signals to the world community and businesses that it is not going to be engaging in a range of provocative actions that might scare business off.” 
 
Iranian officials, however, have countered that its missiles are intended for defense purposes. “Secretary Kerry and the U.S. State Department know well that Iran’s missile and defense capabilities are not open to negotiation,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on April 10. He has questioned the West’s focus on Iran’s military advancements while calling attention to large arms purchases by U.S. partners in the Gulf. “Indeed, our military budget, for all the alarm raised by the West whenever we test a new system, is a small fraction of what is spent by our neighbors, which have a fraction of our territory or population to defend,” he wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post. The following are recent remarks by U.S. and Iranian officials on the March 2016 and October 2015 missile tests.

United States
 
President Barack Obama
 

“So let me say broadly that so long as Iran is carrying out its end of the bargain, we think it’s important for the world community to carry out our end of the bargain.”

“Iran, so far, has followed the letter of the agreement. But the spirit of the agreement involves Iran also sending signals to the world community and businesses that it is not going to be engaging in a range of provocative actions that might scare business off. When they launched ballistic missiles with slogans calling for the destruction of Israel that makes businesses nervous. There is some geopolitical risk that is heightened when they see that taking place.
 
“If Iran continues to ship missiles to Hezbollah, that gets businesses nervous.  And so part of what I hope happens is we have a responsibility to provide clarity about the rules that govern so that Iran can, in fact, benefit, the Iranian people can benefit from an improved economic situation. But Iran has to understand what every country in the world understands, which is businesses want to go where they feel safe, where they don't see massive controversy, where they can be confident that transactions are going to operate normally. And that's an adjustment that Iran is going to have to make as well.”
April 1, 2016, in a press conference
 
 

Secretary of State John Kerry
 
“[The U.S. and its partners are] prepared to work on a new arrangement to find a peaceful solution to these issues [ballistic missile tests].”
April 7, 2016 in the press
 
 
State Department Under Secretary for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon
 
“I believe it [the missile tests] violated the intent of [U.N. Security Council Resolution] 2231.”
 
“Iran is intent on pursuing a ballistic missile program… It sees it not only as part of its larger strategic weapons program, but it also plays a larger political role in Iran, especially in the aftermath of the JCPOA.”
April 5, 2016 in a Senate hearing

Admiral Bill Gortney, commander of the U.S. Northern Command
 
“Iran’s continuing pursuit of long-range missile capabilities and ballistic missile and space launch programs, in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions, remains a serious concern,”
April 14, 2016 in a prepared statement for a House hearing
 
Iran
 
Foreign Minister Javad Zarif
 
“The missile tests are our right. We have made it very clear that these will not be used other than in self-defense. They’re not designed to be capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
 
“What do you expect, Iran to lie dead? You've covered the Iran-Iraq war, you remember missiles pouring on Iranian cities with chemical weapons. You remember we didn't have any to defend ourselves. Let's not re-open that chapter. We do not want offensive weapons to be used in an offensive way. We have said that we will never use them other than in self-defense. I have challenged people to make the same statement. Everybody who is accusing Iran of provocation because of our missile tests should make the simple statement that I have made, our Revolutionary Guard commanders have made—that Iran will never attack any other country. Pure and simple. By the way, that's the legal obligation of every country, to say that.
 
“Here I think you owe us. U.S. planes were giving Saddam Hussein intelligence to hit our civilians with chemical weapons. We don't owe anybody anything on defense.”
— April 21, 2016, in an interview with The New Yorker
 
“During the intensive negotiations over complex issues surrounding Iran’s nuclear energy program, my country insisted at every turn that our defenses were not on the table.”
“It is against this backdrop that we develop and test our indigenous defensive capabilities. We have no other choice, as we continue to face major hurdles in fulfilling our military hardware needs from abroad, even as our neighbors procure such hardware in mind-boggling quantities. Indeed, our military budget, for all the alarm raised by the West whenever we test a new system, is a small fraction of what is spent by our neighbors, which have a fraction of our territory or population to defend.”
April 20, 2016, in an op-ed in The Washington Post
 
“Secretary Kerry and the U.S. State Department know well that Iran’s missile and defense capabilities are not open to negotiation."
“There would be no JCPOA for defense issues.”
April 10, 2016, in a meeting with the Estonian foreign minister
 
“The US needs to view regional issues more seriously than raise baseless and threadbare allegations against Iran…Mr. Kerry should ask US allies where the Islamic State’s arms come from.”
April 10, 2016, in response to Sec. Kerry’s comments on Iran’s ballistic missile program

Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Major General Hassan Firouzabadi
 
“We studied the details of the nuclear agreement and didn’t see anything but its text and don’t have any information about its spirit.”
“Therefore, the US arrogant expectations and excessive demands are ungrounded and unacceptable and no one in the Islamic Republic of Iran cares about them.”
April 5, 2016, according to the press
 
Deputy Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Brigadier General Massoud Jazayeri
 
“The U.S calculations about the Islamic Republic and the Iranian nation are fully incorrect.”
“The White House should know that defense capacities and missile power, especially at the present juncture where plots and threats are galore, is among the Iranian nation's redlines and a backup for the country's national security and we don’t allow anyone to violate it.”
 April 4, 2016, according to the press
 
Deputy Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp Hossein Salami
 
“The US is not qualified to make comments about our defense power,”
“Our missile capabilities will never be negotiated or compromised.”
April 9, 2016, in the press
 
 

  

Kerry and Zarif on Nuclear Deal Disputes

On April 22, Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif held a closed-door meeting in New York to discuss disagreements that have emerged during the implementation of the nuclear deal. Iranian officials have alleged that the United States is not fulfilling its obligations under the deal since Iran still faces financial restrictions that limit sanctions relief. Secretary Kerry, however, has emphasized that the United States is not “standing in the way” of companies seeking to do legitimate business in Iran. The following are Kerry’s and Zarif’s remarks to the press before their meeting on April 22.

Kerry and Zarif

 

SECRETARY KERRY:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Let me just say a few words, if I can.  I’m very pleased to be meeting with Foreign Minister Zarif today to continue our discussions about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action implementation.  We had a very productive meeting earlier in the week.  We exchanged a lot of thoughts.  We talked about some challenges, and so I think we both decided that it was important to do some homework.  And we’ve come back today to follow up on that conversation.

First, I want to say something about one of the issues that we have been discussing.  As President Obama has said, as Secretary Jack Lew has said, and as I have said, and we have said it repeatedly, the United States is not standing in the way and will not stand in the way of business that is permitted with Iran since the JCPOA took effect.  And I want to emphasize we lifted our nuclear-related sanctions, as we committed to do, and there are now opportunities for foreign banks to do business with Iran. 
 
Unfortunately, there seems to be some confusion among some foreign banks, and we want to try to clarify that as much as we can.  Among the nuclear-related sanctions that were lifted were those that prevented Iran from engaging with non-U.S. banks, including getting access to Iran’s restricted funds that were previously held overseas. 
 
Now, we have no objection – I want to make this clear.  We have no objection and we do not stand in the way of foreign banks engaging with Iranian banks and companies, obviously as long as those banks and companies are not on our sanctions list for non-nuclear reasons.  But the nuclear sanctions permitted non-U.S. banks to engage with business activity and companies in Iran, and it allows them to provide access to funds and financing, and it allows Iran, importantly, to have access to its own funds. 
 
We also – I want to say that we understand that banks and businesses have complicated business decisions to make, and they have to make them.  But that is why the State and the Treasury Department have been actively engaged with partner governments and the private sector in order to clarify those sanctions that have been lifted.  And if banks or any company has any question about this, we’re happy to answer those questions.  They shouldn’t just assume that activities that were not permitted before the JCPOA are not permitted at this point in time.  And so they shouldn’t also assume that activities still prohibited by the primary embargo are also prohibited for foreign actors.  That’s not the way that works.
 
So when in doubt – my message: when in doubt, ask. 
 
Now, we recognize it is going to take some time for companies to feel confident in reengaging with Iran, and in all fairness, that is due to concerns other than sanctions.  And Iran, as we have said in a candid conversation, also has a certain amount it needs to do to modernize its own banking system to begin to do things to – that it hadn’t done during the years that it was operating under sanctions, and that would facilitate this process. 
 
But I want to make clear the United States is committed to doing our part as we believe it is in our interest to ensure that the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement that we reached, that it is in fact working for all participants.  And just as we have upheld our commitments, we’re going to continue to work with Iran to verify that they uphold theirs also.  It is mutuality that was created in this, and it’s important that we make sure there is mutuality in its implementation.
 
FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF:  Thank you, Secretary Kerry.  I think what is important for everybody to understand is that the JCPOA was a balanced agreement, and Iran has implemented its part of the bargain and we hope that with this statement by Secretary Kerry and other steps that were taken by the United State, now we will see serious implementation of all JCPOA benefits that Iran should derive from this agreement so that we can ensure that agreement is a way for addressing international problems, that sanctions and pressure won’t resolve international problems, but negotiations, talks, dialogue in fact are the way to address international problems.
 
We hope that the statement made today by Secretary Kerry will begin to open the difficult path that has been closed because of concerns that banks had about the U.S. approach towards implementation of the commitments under the JCPOA.  We will continue to have differences with the United States.  Our differences are very serious in a good number of areas.  We will – but we have decided together with P5+1 to address this issue, and we want to show that P5+1 and Iran have been able to resolve a very serious, difficult issue through negotiations, and I believe we should take the necessary steps in that regard.  And I hope that by – through serious action so that the Iranian people can see the benefits of implementation of JCPOA, we can move forward with the long-term implications for this very important agreement, which should create the foundations and not the ceilings for resolution of international issues.  Thank you.
 
SECRETARY KERRY:  The foreign minister just mentioned one thing I just want to make clear so we’re both on – addressing it.  The foreign minister is correct; there are differences and some of them are obviously serious differences.  Those have to be the subject of future discussion.  But it’s important for people to understand that an agreement is an agreement, and we need to separate, even as we are working to resolve those other differences.  And nothing that I said diminishes the United States commitment to helping to resolve those differences and certainly to continue to work for the peace and stability of the region.  Thank you.

Photo Credits: U.S. Department of State via Flickr Commons
 

 

Obama on Iran at GCC Summit

On April 21, President Barack Obama assured leaders from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries that the United States will “deter and confront external aggression” against them. “Our nations committed to continuing to interdict illegal Iranian arms shipments in the region, impose costs on Iran for its ballistic missile program, and oppose Iran's destabilizing actions in the region,” he said. But the president told reporters that the greatest area of “tactical” differences between Washington and the GCC centered on how to deal with Iran. Several GCC countries have accused Iran of meddling in their domestic affairs and supporting terror.

Some GCC allies warned against being “naïve” regarding Iran. Obama, however, argued that the nuclear deal is proof that dialogue could work. He also called for building a strong defense against Iran while reaching out to “the more reasonable forces in Iran so we don’t see an escalation in proxy fights across the region.”

The president arrived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on April 20. Before the summit, he met with King Salman for two hours and had a “very open and honest discussion” that covered issues that the two differ on, according to Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor. The following are excerpted remarks by Obama and administration officials on Iran.
 
President Barack Obama
 
“Well, I think that a lot of the strain [between Washington and the GCC] was always overblown.  The fact of the matter is, is that the friendship and cooperation that exist between the United States and the Gulf countries has been consistent for decades.  During the course of our administration, the GCC countries have extensively cooperated with us on counterterrorism, on curbing the financing of terrorist activities.  They are part of the counter-ISIL coalition that has made progress both in Syria and in Iraq.”
 
“In Yemen, we now have a cessation of hostilities that allows us to build a peace process that can relieve the suffering of the people inside of Yemen.  That would not have happened had it not been for the GCC-U.S. cooperation.  We would not have gotten an Iran deal to get their nuclear weapons had not the GCC been supportive of it.
 
“So what is true between the United States and the GCC, as is true with all of our allies and friends, is that at any point in time, there are going to be differences in tactics.”
 
“I think it is no doubt true that when we entered into the negotiations with Iran around the nuclear deal, there was concern that in the interest of getting the deal done, we would somehow look the other way with respect to their other destabilizing activities.  And in fact, what we are able to report is not only have we seen Iran do what it was supposed to do under the deal and the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon is greatly reduced, but what we’ve also seen, what the GCC has seen, is our continued cooperation in, for example, interdicting Iranian efforts to arm the Houthi militias inside of Yemen. That, I think, has created some confidence.
 
“But one of the things, at a time when the region is so fraught with so many different problems and challenges, is the need for more consistent institutionalized communication at every level of government.  And that’s part of what we’ve been able to achieve through these two summits.  And my hope is, is that it will continue into the next administration.  I think it has been highly useful, because the possibilities of misunderstanding increase when there’s so much activity taking place.
 
“I’ll give you one last example.  Inside of Iraq, there are understandable concerns about Iranian influence in the Iraqi government at a time when the Iraqi government is also critical for us fighting ISIL.  It was very important I think for us to describe our assessment that Prime Minister Abadi is in fact effectively fighting against ISIL and trying to reach out to Sunnis inside of Iraq, while acknowledging that there are significant problems in terms of government stability inside of Baghdad.  And that’s a reason for us not to withdraw, but rather to get more involved in helping to stabilize areas like Anbar, where we’ve not cleared out ISIL but the towns that they were governing have been left devastated.  If we want Sunni communities to be able to rebuild themselves and to get back into the lives they were leading before ISIL took over, then we’re going to have to help the Iraqi government respond.”
 
“Obviously, ultimately it's up to the Iraqis to make these decisions.  It's not up to us, it's not up to the Iranians, it's not up to GCC countries.  It's up to the Iraqi people to determine the government that they form.”
 
“Probably the biggest area where there's been tactical differences has been with respect to Iran.  And the issue is not the need for shared cooperation to deter against Iranian provocations -- on that, we're all agreed.  I think that there has been concern, even when we were working on the Iran nuclear deal, that if we were in discussions with them about these issues, that somehow Iran would feel emboldened to act more provocatively in the region.
 
“And what I've said to them is we have to have a dual track.  We have to be effective in our defenses and hold Iran to account where it is acting in ways that are contrary to international rules and norms.  But we also have to have the capacity to enter into a dialogue to reduce tensions and to identify ways in which the more reasonable forces inside of Iran can negotiate with the countries in the region, with its neighbors, so that we don't see an escalation of proxy fights across the region.
 
“And I think that that view is one that is consistent with how many in the GCC view it, but because there's been so much mistrust that's been built up -- in part because of Iranian provocations -- that people are cautious and want to make sure that nobody is naïve about what Iran may be doing to stir up problems in other countries.
 
“And what we've consistently shown them is we're not naïve.  But as I pointed out, during the height of the Cold War, both Democratic Presidents like John F. Kennedy and Republican Presidents like Ronald Reagan still negotiated with the Soviet Union.  Even when the Soviet Union was threatening the destruction of the United States, there was still dialogue so that we could find ways to reduce tensions and the dangers of war and chaos.  And that's the same approach that we have to take.  Even as Iran is calling us "The Great Satan," we were able to get a deal done where they got rid of their nuclear stockpiles, and that makes us safer.  That's not a sign of weakness, that's a sign of strength.”
—April 21, 2016, to the press
 
“I thanked our GCC partners for their support of the comprehensive deal that has now cut off every single one of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon.  That makes the region safer.  We’ll remain vigilant to ensure that Iran fulfills its commitments, just as we will fulfill ours.
“Even with the nuclear deal, we recognize collectively that we continue to have serious concerns about Iranian behavior.   Our nations committed to continuing to interdict illegal Iranian arms shipments in the region, impose costs on Iran for its ballistic missile program, and oppose Iran's destabilizing actions in the region.
 
“At the same time, as I said at Camp David last year, none of our nations have an interest in conflict with Iran.  We welcome an Iran that plays a responsible role in the region -- one that takes concrete, practical steps to build trust and resolve its differences with its neighbors by peaceful means and abides by international rules and norms.” 
—April 21, 2016, to the press with King Salman after the GCC summit
 
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes
 
Rhodes: The President and Sheikh Al-Sabah [of Kuwait] also exchanged thoughts on how to approach Iran's troubling behavior in the region, but also agreed on the importance of engaging Iran with the aim of moving it toward a different, improved relationship with the Gulf. 
 
Question: Ben, Saudi and Gulf leaders feel like the Iranian regime really poses an existential threat to them.  So do you think their fear is irrational?  What do you say in these meetings?  And do you understand their frustration that they’re being asked to reach out to a country that is recognized as a state sponsor of terrorism and make nice with them?
 
Rhodes:  So we made very clear to the leaders last night and today on the subject of Iran that our partners, our friends in this region are in the room with us here, and Iran, on the other hand, has in many ways been confrontational not just to the countries here in the GCC, but to the United States as well, and that we share their concerns about Iran's ballistic missile program, its destabilizing activities in the region, its ongoing support for terrorism. 
And, in fact, many of the capabilities that we're developing on the defense side through this process are focused on countering Iranian actions.  So when you talk about the ability to have enhanced missile defense systems, maritime interdictions, training of Special Forces -- all of these deal with the type of asymmetric threats that we see emanating from Iran in different parts of the region.  And we've been able to have from the United States and several of our partners a number of interdictions, for instance, of Iranian weapon shipments at sea just in recent weeks.
 
At the same time, I think the point the President makes is that there has to be an opening to have a political resolution to these conflicts, that the perpetual nature of the violence that we see in Yemen, in Syria, in Iraq is not in the interest of anybody, and that in order to resolve these conflicts there has to be a diplomatic effort with the Iranians.  So in Syria, to the extent to which we can bring the Iranians to the table in supporting a political process, that is going to make it more likely that a political process can succeed.
 
In Iraq, obviously Iran has a series of relationships in Iraq.  They have a degree of influence in Iraq, but that should not cause us to disengage.  On the contrary, that I think raises the interest of the United States and the Gulf partners to support the Iraqi government and to remain engaged inside of Iraq.
 
So in all these different places, we have a similar assessment of the fact that Iran is engaged in destabilizing activities.  We also just think that even as we are vigilant, even as we develop capabilities to counter Iranian actions, we have to have an openness to pursuing diplomatic solutions or else the region is just going to see a perpetuation of the conflicts that have already caused so much suffering and instability.
 
Question: Do you think it's irrational for the Saudis to worry that they’re no longer the U.S.’s key ally?
 
Rhodes: Well, I think on the core of the relationship, that remains very solid, and that includes our commitment to Saudi Arabian security and sovereignty.  They are a country with whom we share significant interests in this region.
 
So we certainly understand this is their neighborhood.  They’re worried about Iran and what its agenda is, and the actions that they’ve taken.  Our point is simply that that concern with Iran should not foreclose the potential for diplomatic engagement if there’s an ability to resolve problems. And a recent example of course is the nuclear deal where, despite all of our concerns about Iran’s behavior, we were able to see a significant rollback in the Iranian nuclear program because we pursued a diplomatic process.
 
Question: Ben, I want to ask you about investment in not just armament and airplanes, but also investment in Special Forces and that sort of attack strategy for our Gulf partners.  How does the conversation happen so that the President can get them away from, say, F-15s and more towards real steel on the ground, if you will? 
 
And a second question is, does the President take his own advice, which is to say, listen, if he wants the Saudis and others to engage with the Iranians directly, will he take a trip to Tehran or maybe engage with them directly?
 
Rhodes:  Well, first of all, your question is exactly the topic that we’re focused on in terms of military capabilities.  And we really initiated this process in Camp David, and since then, we’ve had a working group that meets regularly to review and develop these defense capabilities.  Ash Carter had a meeting here yesterday with the defense ministers to focus on this.  And we’ve seen some progress in terms of the types of capabilities that GCC countries are investing in.  We’ve aimed to expedite the transfer of certain capabilities to them.
 
And here’s where the focus is:  The large-scale weapons systems that we’ve sold over many years that are important to Gulf security are not necessarily the capabilities that are best designed to deal with the threats that we face.  So, for instance, if you look at conflicts as diverse as Syria or Yemen, the ability to have a significant Special Forces capability makes a big difference.  And so we’re working to enhance and train and support the development of Gulf Special Forces, and that will be critical in dealing with the types of conflicts that we’ve seen here in the region.
 
The threat that they see from Iranian weapons shipments going to different groups in the region is best confronted by maritime interdiction capabilities.  And this is often kind of small boats, not large naval movements.  So we’ve been working to develop their maritime capacity.
 
Iran has a ballistic missile program and has an active cyber program.  And our ability to work with the GCC to have an interoperable missile defense system will guard against that ballistic missile threat, give them greater assurance in their own security, just as they will want to have cyber defenses in the event of any Iranian cyber intrusion.
 
So we’ve made progress in each of those areas.  We’ve worked to enhance Gulf capabilities in each of those areas.  We have also worked to support interoperability between the GCC countries.  And all of that is going to make them better prepared to deal with these threats.  So these meetings are an opportunity to review that progress and determine what additional steps can be taken to expedite that process. 
Oh, Iran.  Yes.  Well, I think the trip to Cuba was probably enough in terms of breaking a longstanding taboo.  With respect to Iran, I think our approach has been that we will engage with the Iranians where we see an opportunity to make progress.  The main vehicle for that engagement has been Secretary Kerry with Foreign Minister Zarif, not just on the Iranian nuclear issue but on Syria and other regional issues.
 
The President has always indicated that he is willing to engage the Iranian leadership if he believes that that can make progress on different issues.  He’s spoken to President Rouhani on the phone.  The fact of the matter is we haven't seen from the Iranians I think a desire for that level of engagement. They’ve really focused on the channel between our foreign ministers.  And so that's where I think it's most likely to continue.
 
But that speaks to what we're trying to foster, which is a dynamic where we can have a diplomatic dialogue with the Iranians on issues related to these regional conflicts.  Precisely because Iran has had a role in these areas, we would like to try to move them in a more constructive direction.  And that requires some amount of dialogue.  It also requires vigilance in the type of military capabilities.
 
Rhodes: So it’s important now that the U.S., our Gulf partners are reinforcing the importance of this opportunity, and we’re strongly urging Russia to use its influence and, frankly, Iran as well, to try to sustain what has been an opening for the Syrian people to enjoy a greater degree of calm than we’ve of course had the last several years. …
 
So the specific Supreme Court decision dealt with a question of separation of powers.  And it determined that a bill that was passed through Congress and signed by the President could serve as a means for victims of terrorism to seek assets from the Iranian government.  We, of course, very much support the efforts of those families. …
 
So given Iran’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, and given the various financial tools that we have to hold them accountable to designated individuals, we believe that part of that is allowing for this type of process to go forward.  The problem with the JASTA legislation is it applies to all countries.  It would suggest that the principle of sovereign immunity does not hold for countries.  And again, that opens the door to potential blowback on the United States. …
 
Question: You shared the Saudis' assessment with Iran and sharing those fears, but you also mentioned a new and improved relationship with the Gulf.  How far are the Gulf partners willing to go?  Obviously something that this afternoon session will be focused on, but what indications have you gotten from the Gulf partners that they are willing to bring Iran into the fold?
 
Rhodes:  Yes, I mean, look, I think we share the assessment of Iranian behavior.  We do think that it's imperative that we're focused on the fight against ISIL and that we can have an openness to diplomacy and engagement with Iran in the service of resolving regional conflicts.  I think we've gotten thus far from the Gulf countries and the Saudis yesterday certainly a lot of concerns about Iran, but an openness to that engagement.  They have not expressed an opposition to the notion that they would have some diplomatic contact or dialogue with the Iranians.
 
I do think that they're very skeptical, and I think that's not a surprise to anybody.  Our point is simply that we can put ourselves in a position of strength, we can do that in part from the development of the capabilities that I talked about.  At the same time, the best way to try to resolve these issues and encourage Iran to move in a more constructive direction is a mix of standing up to Iran when it's necessary but also being open to diplomacy where we can make progress. 
 
And the fact of the matter is, Iran itself is not monolithic.  There are elements of the Iranian system that are more invested in conflict and that there are elements of the Iranian system that are more open to diplomacy.  And part of what we've indicated is it's important for us to work with those inside of Iran who are more open to a constructive relationship, rather than to allow the hardliners there to dominate the regional engagement.

—April 21, 2016, during the U.S.-GCC summit 

 

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