United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Report: Iran’s Missiles Raise Tensions in Gulf

            Iran has raised tensions in the Middle East by increasing the number, range and capability of its rockets and missiles, according to an updated report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Tehran’s “missile and rocket forces help compensate for its lack of effective air power and allow it to pose a threat to its neighbors and U.S. forces,” the report warns.
The interim agreement reached by Iran and the world’s six major powers in November could be a key step toward a “major breakthrough in eliminating this [nuclear] threat and laying the groundwork for broader easing of tensions in the region,” the report noted. But in the years potentially needed to reach an agreement and ensure full compliance, Tehran could develop conventional armed missiles that could hit key targets in the Gulf. The following is a summary of the report by Iran Primer author Anthony Cordesman and Bryan Gold.   

Iran and The Gulf Military Balance II: The Nuclear and Missile Dimensions
            The report shows that Iran’s current missile and rocket forces help compensate for its lack of effective air power and allow it to pose a threat to its neighbors and U.S. forces that could affect their willingness to strike Iran should Iran use its capabilities for asymmetric warfare in the Gulf or against any of its neighbors. At another level, Iran’s steady increase in the number, range, and capability of its rocket and missile forces has increased the level of tension in the Gulf, and in other regional states like Turkey, Jordan, and Israel. Iran has also shown that it will transfer long-range rockets to “friendly” or “proxy” forces like the Hezbollah and Hamas.
            At a far more threatening level, the report shows that Iran has acquired virtually every element of a nuclear breakout capability before the recently minted interim agreement was reached in Geneva, except the fissile material needed to make a weapon. This threat led to a growing “war of sanctions,” and Israeli and U.S. threats of preventive strikes. Concurrently, the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear programs cannot be separated from the threat posed by Iran’s growing capabilities for asymmetric warfare in the Gulf and along all of its borders.
It is far from clear that either the latest negotiations or sanctions can succeed in limiting Iran’s ability to acquire nuclear weapons and deploy nuclear-armed missiles; however, the report shows that military options offer uncertain alternatives. Both Israel and the U.S. have repeatedly stated that they are planning and ready for military options that could include preventive strikes on at least Iran’s nuclear facilities, and that U.S. strikes might cover a much wider range of missile facilities and other targets.
            A preventive war might trigger a direct military confrontation or conflict in the Gulf with little warning. It might also lead to at least symbolic Iranian missile strikes on U.S. basing facilities, GCC targets, or Israel. Moreover, it could lead to much more serious covert and proxy operations in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, the rest of the Gulf, and other areas.
Furthermore, unless preventive strikes were reinforced by a lasting regime of follow-on strikes, they could trigger a much stronger Iranian effort to actually acquire and deploy nuclear weapons and/or Iranian rejection of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and negotiations. The U.S., in contrast, might deem that it has no choice other than to maintain a military overwatch and restrike capability to ensure Iran could not carry out such a program and rebuild its nuclear capabilities or any other capabilities that were attacked.
            The end result is that Israel, the U.S., and Arab states cannot choose between preventive war and containment. Unless Iran fundamentally changes its present course, the choice is between preventive strike and containment, or containment alone. Preventive strikes may be able to delay Iran for a given period of time, but if Iran seeks to rebuild it nuclear capabilities, then Israel, the U.S., and Arab will have to strengthen their missile and other defenses, develop great retaliatory capabilities, and/or restrike every new Iranian effort towards nuclear weapons.
            Finally, Volume II: The Nuclear and Missile Dimensions shows that a nuclear arms race already exists between Israel and Iran - albeit one where only Israel now has a nuclear strike capability. The practical problem this raises for Iran - and for stabilizing this arms race - is that it will face a possible Israeli first strike option until it can secure its nuclear armed forces. This pushes it towards a concealed or breakout deployment, and an initial phase where it would have to launch on warning or under attack until it has a survivable force. It then must compete with powers with far larger stockpiles which include boosted and thermonuclear weapons until it can create a more sophisticated force of its own. The options will result in a high-risk arms race, particularly during its initial years, for all sides and do so regardless of the level of containment.
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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


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