United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Iran Nuclear Talks Plow Ahead

            The following article was originally published as Viewpoints No. 54 by the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Michael Adler

            Despite a spiraling crisis in Ukraine and discontent in Israel and Saudi Arabia, the Iranian nuclear talks have hit their stride. A meeting this month in Vienna was the second round in a drive to hammer out a comprehensive agreement to guarantee that Iran will not seek nuclear weapons. Iran and six major powers talked through the nitty-gritty of intractable issues such as the right to enrich. A senior U.S. official described the discussion as “respectful, professional, and intense.” The official said the talks “dove more deeply and at a more detailed level into the substance of key issues more than we have ever previously,” even if both sides made clear that it was too early to expect any breakthroughs.

           Over a decade after Iran was discovered to be hiding nuclear work that could lead to a bomb and six months after a diplomatic breakthrough that ended frosty non-communication between long-time adversaries the United States and the Islamic Republic, the fact that there is serious dialogue is already an accomplishment.
 
            But there is a long way to go and not much time. The two sides are aiming for a final agreement by July 2014. The March 18-19 meeting in Vienna followed a first round in Vienna in February. These talks on a final agreement came after an interim accord reached last year that created the framework for negotiations. In a joint plan of action, Iran and the six major powers—the United States, Russia, China, Britain, Germany, and France—agreed that Iran would not expand its nuclear work during the time of the talks and, in return, would get partial relief from sanctions that have slashed its oil sales and crippled its economy. The two sides will meet again in April. The July deadline for reaching a resolution may be extended six months until next January.
 
            The most noteworthy aspect of the March round was that it was not affected by the escalating crisis in Ukraine, where Russia has annexed the Crimean peninsula and threatens to expand its intervention further. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who represented his country in Vienna, said after the talks that Russia might take “retaliatory measures” over Iran if it faced international pressure for its actions in Crimea. Moscow did not want to do this but “the historic importance of what happened in the last weeks and days regarding the restoration of historical justice and reunification of Crimea with Russia is incomparable to what we are dealing with in the Iranian issue,” he told the Russian Interfax news agency.
 
            Russia’s pulling back from unity with its other negotiating partners in the so-called P5+1 could scuttle the talks. The six powers have succeeded in bringing Iran to the negotiating table by presenting a united front, most notably over imposing United Nations sanctions. A reduction of this pressure due to a divide among the six could encourage Iran to hold out on making concessions toward a nuclear deal. Russia could signal its dissent from the P5+1 in a number of ways. For instance, it could help Iran sell more oil or deliver the S-300 missiles that would be effective against air attack and which Iran has bought but Moscow has refrained from actually shipping.
 
            Still, there would be costs for Russia in letting Iran off the hook. Russia is not doing the West a favor in joining the nuclear talks as an active participant. The fact is that Russia, like the United States, wants to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Iran is in Russia’s neighborhood, and Moscow does not want the Islamic fundamentalists it faces in central Asia to have potential access to Iranian nuclear weapons.
 
            Ukraine is not the only potential poison for the talks. Key U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia worry that the United States is so anxious for a deal with Iran that it will let the Islamic Republic retain a nuclear weapons capability, especially by continuing to enrich uranium. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia have said this is unacceptable, but the reality is that Iran is almost certain to be able to enrich after a final deal, even if its nuclear program will be reduced and closely monitored.
 
            Israel has made a lot of noise about this. The Saudi concern is every bit as deep, and this is certain to be a major topic when President Barack Obama visits the Saudi kingdom this month. Saudi Arabia, which had wanted the United States to act militarily against Iran’s nuclear program when tension was high, now fears a nuclear deal could be the first step in a rapprochement between Iran and the United States that would threaten Saudi interests. Riyadh is concerned about Iranian activity against it in the region, in places like Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen, and eastern Saudi Arabia, an oil-producing area where Shias live. The Saudis work actively against Iranian influence. The last thing they want to see is Tehran’s ability to project power enhanced by having the bomb.
 
            The question is whether the Iranian nuclear negotiations, already fragile in their chance of success, can be shaken by external factors or whether the United States and Iran are both too committed to reaching a nuclear deal for this to be denied. A deal is, of course, still a long shot. The two sides disagree sharply on all the key issues, and the political aims of the two sides also clash in the talks. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in Vienna that the P5+1 had discussed enrichment, the Arak reactor, civil nuclear cooperation, and sanctions at their meeting. The gaps between the United States and Iran on these matters are deep indeed. Iran wants to enrich; to keep its Arak reactor, which is under construction and would eventually be able to produce plutonium; to not dismantle the some 19,000 centrifuges it has installed; and to be freed from sanctions. The United States wants enrichment to be sharply cut back and for construction to stop on the Arak reactor.
 
            These are diametrically opposed points of view, and they could prove fatal to any agreement. But there are technical fixes, which, as one diplomat said, could be moved around to make the Rubik’s cube of a compromise align. A deal may be struck on enrichment, playing off a reduction in the number of the centrifuges refining the uranium, in return for close surveillance of not just the enrichment sites but the workshops where the centrifuges are made. The Arak reactor could be modified to be a light-water reactor, which is less of a proliferation risk than the currently planned heavy-water reactor. Still, the devil is in the details, which will make or break an accord.
 
            Details can, of course, bend to the will of diplomats who know that a comprehensive agreement is the only alternative to letting Iran get the bomb or having to bomb Iran. President Obama is anxious to avoid new conflict in the Middle East, and Iran needs to get rid of sanctions in order to save its economy. These two points of view give, in some sense, the talks their own dynamic, independent of international developments. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the U.S.-Iranian axis for the talks turned out to be more stable than the world crises spinning around it?
 
Michael Adler is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
 
Click here for a PDF version.
 

Zarif Condemns Attacks in Letter to U.N.

           On March 26, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sent a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon condemning attacks on Iranians in 2013 and 2014. Zarif sent the letter one day after Ban Ki-Moon decried the killing of one of the five Iranian border guards abducted in February.  A Sunni militant group, Jaish al Adl, reportedly claimed responsibility. The following is the full text of Zarif’s letter and Ban’s statement.

 

March 26, 2014
 
Excellency,
 
I have the unpleasant duty to draw your attention to the shocking news about the possible murder of one of the five Iranian border guards abducted on February 7, 2014 by an extremist terrorist group, in the border area between Iran and Pakistan. This is the latest in a series of similar terrorist atrocities against Iranian citizens, including diplomats and other officials and innocent civilians of Iranian and other nationalities, which include:
 
- Repeated explosions and terrorist attacks in our Eastern border in recent months, which have resulted in the murder of at least 12 soldiers;
 
- Two car-bomb attacks on the Iranian diplomatic and cultural premises in Beirut on 19
November 2013 and 19 February 2014, killing one diplomat and a dozen security guards and many Lebanese civilian bystanders;
 
- Abduction and murder of Iranian diplomatic personnel in Sana’a, including kidnapping of an Iranian diplomat, Mr. Nour Ahmad Nikbakht, on July 21, 2013, and brutal assassination of another, Mr. Abolghassem Assadi, on January 18, 2014; and
 
- Suicide attack on the Iranian Consulate-General in Peshawar, on February 25, 2014, killing two security guards and injuring many innocent Pakistani bystanders.
 
It is extremely regrettable that all available evidence indicate that these cowardly acts of terror targeting the Islamic Republic of Iran and its citizens have been perpetrated by State-sponsored extremist groups, with similar patterns of funding, coordination, support and direction. The entire international community should be alarmed by the regional and extra-regional ramifications of sectarian tension and extremist violence, which are being systematically organized, sponsored and orchestrated in various parts of our region. In fact, learning from recent history, a sober assessment of the medium and long-term implications of this dangerous trend will show that the very sponsors of such hatred, who for ill-conceived interests have hastily resorted to such shortsighted tactics to remedy their strategic miscalculations and failures, stand to lose the most from the sectarian and extremist violence that they are spreading.
 
Moreover, there is very little doubt concerning the inherent and reinforcing interrelationship in our region between perpetual war economy, extremist violence and terrorism on the one side, and drug trafficking and transnational organized crime on the other. The Islamic Republic of Iran has been in the forefront of the global campaign against drug trafficking, with narcotic seizures by Iran amounting to over three quarters of the entire confiscations throughout the world. Being in the first line of defense against this global menace has cost Iran dearly in blood and treasure, without any meaningful international cooperation to share the cost, provide technological assistance, or at least take a resolute stance against those who have exacted a heavy toll on Iran, its innocent civilians and brave soldiers. While our sacrifices help protect the entire humanity from the scourge of narcotics, the international community is simply not doing enough to help Iran in this never-ending struggle. Mere condemnation of acts of terrorism does not suffice.
 
In the last few days, all Iranians celebrated Nowruz -- recognized by the General Assembly as an international day of peace, neighborliness and solidarity -- sharing the sense of grief and desperate anticipation of the families and loved ones of these national heroes. While noting the efforts of the Governments of Pakistan, Lebanon, and Yemen, our hostages remain in captivity and the perpetrators of previous crimes have yet to face justice. The Iranian people have every right to demand more resolute global action, yielding practical results in bringing their hostages back home and in bringing to justice those responsible for the murder of their compatriots. A manifestation of this legitimate demand can be seen in the grass root one-million signature campaign organized by the Iranian youth, from all walks of life, calling upon you and other national and international authorities to take stronger measures to secure the early and safe return of their hostages. Through this letter, I join them in their dignified appeal to the global community.
 
I will be grateful, if you have this letter circulated as a document of the General Assembly,Security Council and the Human Rights Council.
 
Please accept, Excellency, the assurances of my highest consideration.
 
M. Javad Zarif
Minister for Foreign Affairs
 
 
New York, 25 March 2014 - Statement Attributable to the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General on the killing of an Iranian border guard
 
The Secretary-General condemns the killing of one of the five Iranian border guards who were abducted on 6 February in the country's southeast border region by a militant group. He expresses his solidarity with the Government and people of Iran, who are confronted with this appalling act amid the annual Nowruz celebrations held to commemorate in peace the start of a new year. The Secretary-General sends his condolences to the family of the slain guard. He calls for the perpetrators to be brought to justice. He hopes for the success of the ongoing efforts by the Government of Iran to achieve the release of those who remain captive.

 

VIDEO: Change or More of the Same for Iran?

            On March 26, the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars convened a panel of four experts to discuss prospects for Iran’s next five years. The speakers included:

Shaul Bakhash (moderator)
Clarence J. Robin Professor of History, George Mason University

Bernard Hourcade
Global Fellow, Wilson Center; and Senior Research Fellow Emeritus, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris, France

Bijan Khajehpour
Managing Partner, Atieh International
 
Roberto Toscano
Former Public Policy Scholar, Wilson Center; President, Intercultura Foundation; Former Italian Ambassador to India, 2008-2010; Former Italian Ambassador to Iran, 2003-2008
 
Robin Wright
Wilson Center-USIP Distinguished Scholar
 

The following is a video of the event.

 

Pix: Zarif and Ashton The Ups and Downs

             Iran’s tenuous relationship with the West has been illustrated by the ups and downs in the relationship between Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. The two have been the lead negotiators in the new diplomacy to find a peaceful resolution to Iran’s controversial nuclear program. But ending longstanding tension has proved difficult as illustrated in the following pictures and tweets.

            Zarif and Ashton participated in nuclear negotiations on March 18-19 and February 19-20 in Vienna (see last picture). Ashton also made a pivotal visit to Tehran on March 8 – the first by a senior E.U. official since 2008 – to explore stronger relations between Europe and Iran on non-nuclear issues (see third picture).

            But the visit wasn’t without controversy. Within two days hardliners had posted pictures of Ashton accusing her of hypocrisy for meeting with human rights activists in Iran, while Europe ignored Saddam Hussein’s gross human rights violations against Iranians and Iraqis, including the use of chemical weapons in the late 1980s (see second picture).
 
            Zarif reportedly canceled dinner with Ashton on the eve of the March nuclear talks, which has been past custom before other rounds of diplomacy, because of the domestic backlash to her visit. Nevertheless, the talks proved both “useful and substantive” and Ashton tweeted Nowruz greetings (see first picture).
 
Ashton Sends Nowruz Greetings to Zarif and Iranians
 
Hardliners Put Up Billboards Criticizing Ashton
 
Ashton Visits Tehran on March 8
 
Ashton and Zarif Lead Negotiations in Vienna on March 18-19
 
 
Photo credits: Robin Wright, European External Action Service via Flickr
 
 

 

Khamenei on Nowruz: Questions Holocaust

            On March 21, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei questioned the Holocaust in a controversial address at the Imam Reza shrine marking Nowruz, Persian New Year. The “Holocaust is an event whose reality is uncertain and if it has happened, it's uncertain how it has happened,” he said. Khamenei lauded Iran for progress in science and technology despite tightened economic sanctions. He also  argued that the United States had failed to achieve its goals in the Middle East, especially in Syria. The following are translated excerpts from Khamenei's semi-official Twitter account.

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