United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Report: Iran Tightens Grip on Internet

            Iran's government is pursuing measures to increase its control over Internet access, according to a new report from the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. Authorities are developing a “National Internet” infrastructure that would allow state agencies to control and access all internet content inside Iran. The state is also filtering mobile phone applications, shutting down Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), and cracking down on online activists. The report’s findings indicate that President Hassan Rouhani’s rhetorical support for internet freedoms has not produced substantive changes in policy, as hardliners continue to pursue  stronger control over Internet access. The following are excerpts from the full report.

            Censorship and state control over the Internet in Iran is changing: it is becoming more systemic and less detectable, posing an ever-greater threat to Iranian users. Increasingly, the state is focusing on developing the technological infrastructure to effectively control access to the Internet inside Iran and covertly monitor its use. In effect, the state is attempting to create a wall around the Internet, and to serve as its sole gatekeeper, allowing or denying entry at will and gaining full access to the accounts of those whom it allows in.
            The intensification of state efforts reflects the fact that the Internet has increasingly emerged as one of the central battlegrounds between hardliners anxious to control all expression and access to information in Iran, and the majority of the population, who voiced their desire for greater openness and freedom with the election of the centrist Hassan Rouhani to the presidency in June 2013.
            Keenly aware of the Iranian citizenry’s embrace of the Internet, hardliners ensconced in the judicial, intelligence and security arms of the state and backed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei have ensured that the country’s Internet policies remain under their control, immune from electoral politics.
            The highest body responsible for overseeing the Internet is the Supreme Cyberspace Council. In charge of general policies, it was formed in 2012 under the direct orders of Khamenei, who views the Internet as a corrupting influence that must be strictly censored and controlled.
            The body that monitors cyberspace and is responsible for indexing the websites and mobile applications that are to be blocked by the Telecommunications Ministry, is the Working Group to Determine Instances of Criminal Content on the Internet. Formed in 2009, it works under the supervision of the Prosecutor General, and has 13 members. Six of these are members of the president’s cabinet. The remaining seven are comprised of representatives of the Intelligence Ministry, Guidance Ministry, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) agency, and other state organizations who are vetted and controlled by Khamenei. The members representing the elected administration are thus a permanent minority and not able to have a definitive impact on the decisions of the group.
            The Working Group has criminalized content that is supposedly contrary to “public chastity and morality,” “sacred Islamic principles,” “security and public peace,” and “government officials and public institutions.” These highly subjective and potentially all-encompassing determinations have given the hardliners free reign to take sweeping action based on their own interpretations and political proclivities.
            The state’s efforts to achieve control over digital communications in Iran have focused on three main areas. First, authorities are developing the technical infrastructure that will give various state agencies full control over Internet access inside Iran. This includes developing the Iranian National Information Network (or “National Internet”), which will allow the state to be the sole “gatekeeper” to the Internet inside Iran; providing government-issued SSL security certificates, which will enable undetected government access into accounts; and developing a national browser and operating system, which will ensure use of the government SSL certificates. Second, authorities are continuing their filtering activities, with a focus on mobile phone applications, which have become an increasingly central platform for Internet use in Iran. Third, hardliners in the Judiciary and the intelligence and security services are strengthening the state’s ability to target and prosecute online activists.
            Taken together, the development of the National Internet, the filtering of mobile applications and websites, and the intensified prosecution of online activists, indicate that the state has significantly increased intent—and capability—to stamp out online dissent.
            While the June 2013 election of Hassan Rouhani ushered in hopes for a change in the government’s Internet policies, the reality that state control over the Internet is increasing is a sober reminder that key centers of power in Iran remain committed to online repression.
            To be sure, Rouhani has rhetorically promoted Internet freedom; it is part and parcel of his overriding policy objective, namely, the economic revitalization and modernization of the country. Moreover, he has had some notable achievements. His unblocking of the WhatsApp mobile application in May 2014, and his granting of licenses to provide 3G and 4G services in the country, were both significant. Indeed, hardliners had long railed against fast Internet speeds (and the access to content not controlled by the State that such speeds would allow), and had relied on the practice of slowing down Internet speeds to the point where its use was rendered effectively impossible.
            Nevertheless, such support has translated into relatively few tangible policies, and hardliners in the intelligence, security and judicial branches and supported by Khamenei have been able to pursue their intensified control over the Internet.
Click here for the full report


Syrian & Iraqi Crises Pose Challenge to Iran

             The rise of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and the rebellion against the Syrian government has called Tehran’s close relationship between Baghdad and Damascus into question, according to a new paper by Jubin Goodarzi. The following is an excerpt from “Iran and the Syrian and Iraqi Crises,” Viewpoints No. 66, published by the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars.
             As an extremist Sunni movement that does not recognize Shi’as to be Muslim, the rise of ISIS has been an extremely ominous development for Iran. Moreover, ISIS has been able to take its campaign into Iraq (a country having a 1,500 kilometer common border with Iran) and to threaten the existence of the government in Baghdad—both of which are deeply disconcerting from Tehran’s perspective. Already there have been clashes along the Iran-Iraq frontier between ISIS and Iranian security forces since June 2014.
             Iran’s response since then has been swift and entailed taking a number of decisive steps. First, it dispatched elements of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force to Iraq in order to defend Baghdad, Samarra, and Karbala. Later, in August, according to reports, troops from the 81st Armored Division crossed the border to assist Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga units in fighting ISIS. Second, it sent Su-25 ground-attack planes and other aircraft to assist in the aerial bombardment of ISIS forces. Third, specialist technical units and drones were sent to engage in surveillance of ISIS communications and movements. Fourth, Iran immediately began to provide arms and ammunition to Iraqi forces fighting ISIS. Fifth, Iranian personnel also gave advice on military tactics and strategy to the Iraqi army, Shi’a militias and Kurdish peshmerga units. Their role seems to have been instrumental in lifting the siege of Amerli in September and Jurf al-Sakhar in October. Senior Iranian military officials have explicitly stated that Tehran would not tolerate an ISIS presence along its frontier.
             Tehran is determined to prevent an ISIS victory in Iraq since this would have major security implications for Iran. Such a development would pose a direct threat to Iran’s national security, endangering its western flank. It would also enable ISIS to encourage unrest in the Sunni-inhabited regions of Iran, leading to the destabilization of the Iranian state. The Islamic Republic is also concerned that recent developments may lead to the disintegration of Iraq, with Iraqi Kurdistan declaring independence. This could have negative political and strategic consequences for Iran in terms of a knock-on effect on Iranian Kurdistan. The Iranian Kurds could then opt to go their own way or join the newly-independent Kurdish state to the west. Tehran would also be concerned about a more prominent American and Israeli presence in Iraqi Kurdistan as both have established a foothold there since 2003. The disintegration of Iraq could lead to the destabilization of Iran in terms of a spillover of the hostilities across the border or providing impetus to Iranian minorities along the periphery to take up arms against the government.
             Overall, Iraq is of vital importance to Iran in several respects. First, having Iraq as an ally ensures Iran’s security to the west and enables Tehran to project its influence across the Arab East into Syria and Lebanon. Second, bilateral trade has been growing between Iran and Iraq in recent years, and its value stood at $12 billion in 2013. Finally, it is important to bear in mind that if the Assad regime in Syria falls, the value of Iraq will increase significantly for Iran.  

Click here for the full text.


Read Jubin Goodarzi's chapter on Iran and Syria in "The Iran Primer."


Iran Nuke Program 1: ABCs of Issues

      There’s no one single formula for a nuclear deal with Iran. The United States compares negotiations to solving a Rubik’s Cube™, because so many pieces are involved—and moving one moves all the others. (The world’s most popular puzzle has 43 quintillion permutations to solve it so all the colors match on the six faces.) These are some of the key issues in the Rubik’s Cube of a nuclear deal.



         CENTRIFUGES: Since 2002, Iran has built centrifuges to enrich uranium, which can fuel both peaceful energy and deadly bombs. Tehran claims it is only for medical research and energy. But Iran’s abilities far exceed its current needs; Russia provides fuel for Iran’s single nuclear reactor.
            Iran now has about 19,000 centrifuges—up from less than 200 a decade ago. The vast majority of these are first-generation “IR-1” centrifuges, but Iran has begun installing much more sophisticated “IR-2” models. About 10,000 are enriching uranium at Iran’s two enrichment facilities, Natanz and Fordow; the rest are installed but not operating. The more centrifuges or the more advanced centrifuges Iran has, the faster it can enrich uranium.

            A deal will try to reduce the number of Iran’s centrifuges. Outside experts suggest the goal could be to limit Iran to between 2,000 and 6,000 operating IR-1 centrifuges, and place constraints on research and development into more advanced machines.

          ENRICHMENT: Uranium enriched to 90 percent is the purest form to fuel a weapon. Prior to the November 24 “Joint Plan of Action” (JPOA) interim nuclear deal, Iran was enriching up to 20 percent level; under the JPOA, enrichment has been temporarily capped at five percent or less.
            A final deal could seek to limit enrichment to five percent or less.
          STOCKPILE: The larger the stockpile of uranium gas, the faster Iran could produce fuel for a bomb. Iran had 447 kg of uranium enriched at 20 percent before the interim deal went into effect in January. It has since begun “neutralizing” its 20 percent stockpile by diluting 104 kg to 3.5 percent enriched uranium and converting another 287 kg into uranium oxide powder. As of May, Iran had an estimated 56 kg of uranium gas enriched at 20 percent. It is due to dilute or oxidize all its 20 percent uranium gas by July 20.

            A deal could seek to limit the stockpile of 5 percent enriched uranium and require Iran to further reduce its stockpile of 20 percent uranium in oxide form. Iran may be allowed to keep some for research, but not enough to quickly build a bomb.

         NATANZ: Iran’s primary enrichment facility includes three underground buildings, two of which are designed to hold 50,000 centrifuges, and six buildings built above ground.
            A deal will try to limit the program at Natanz.
          FORDO: The smaller, underground enrichment facility near Qom includes two halls; each could hold 1,500 centrifuges. Iran claims Fordow is to enrich uranium up to 20 percent— only for research. But skeptics contend the deeply-buried site, designed to survive aerial bombardment, is intended to take 20 percent enriched material from Natanz and enrich it to higher levels for use in a nuclear weapon.
            A deal will try to end enrichment activities at Fordow, perhaps converting it to a research-only facility.
            ARAK: The small heavy-water reactor, begun in the 1990s, is unfinished. Iran claims it is to produce medical isotopes and thermal power for civilian use. But the design would also produce plutonium that, if chemically reprocessed, could provide an alternative fuel to uranium for an atomic bomb. Nine kilograms of plutonium is enough material to fuel one or two nuclear weapons. After completion, Arak would need to run for 12 to 18 months to generate that much plutonium.
            A deal will try to close Arak or redesign it in a way to substantially reduce plutonium output. A deal will also try prohibit Iran from building a reprocessing facility.
          INSPECTIONS and VERIFICATION: Any deal will require considerable transparency into the nature and extent of Iran’s civilian nuclear infrastructure, as well as possible past military dimensions of its program. A deal will also involve extensive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of Natanz, Fordow, Arak, centrifuge assembly facilities, uranium mines, research facilities—and possibly other sites—aimed at ensuring that Iran’s program remains solely for peaceful purposes.

             It may also cover access to sites suspected of past work on bomb components, such as Parchin military base. And it is likely to require Tehran’s acceptance of the IAEA’s “Additional Protocol,” allowing inspections at both declared and undeclared sites—and maybe other intrusive measures.

          IRAN’S RED LINES:
            Iran has its own configurations for the Rubik’s Cube of a deal. They include:
  • Preserving key elements of its nuclear program, including some uranium enrichment and research and development
  • Protecting Iran's "right" under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to a peaceful nuclear energy program to alleviate the drain on its oil sources and fuel modern development
  • Removing nuclear-related sanctions on Iran by the United States, European Union and United Nations


July 14 Update: Iran released the most detailed report to date explaining its practical needs for its nuclear program. It was posted on the quasi-official website NuclearEnergy.ir.


For more information, see:

David Albright and Andrea Stricker “Centrifuges: Key to Final Nuclear Deal
Robert Einhorn “Preventing a Nuclear Armed Iran

Photo credits: Rubik's Cube by by Lars Karlsson (Keqs) (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons [edited by Iran Primer], President.ir



Iran Nuke Program 2: ABCs of Sites

      The following is a rundown of Iran’s key nuclear sites. Each will be a subject at diplomatic talks between the Islamic Republic and the world's six major powers.






Bushehr Nuclear Facility
        The Bushehr facility contains Iran’s first nuclear power plant. Its light-water reactor was loaded with nuclear fuel in August 2010. It has an operating capacity of 1,000 megawatts. Bushehr was originally launched in 1976 under contract with a German company, but after the 1979 revolution, Washington opposed it on the grounds that weapons grade plutonium could be extracted from the reactor’s waste, allowing Iran to construct nuclear weapons. Iran says the plant is for power-generation purposes only and will be subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.
      The theocracy halted construction of the Bushehr reactor after the 1979 revolution, and it was badly damaged during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. But Tehran decided to revive the project in 1990 to provide energy. The contract was awarded to Russia’s Rosatom Corp. To address international concerns, Moscow agreed to supply the enriched uranium fuel for the power plant and take back its plutonium-bearing spent fuel. In February 2005, Tehran and Moscow signed an agreement designed to ensure Iran could not divert enriched uranium for a weapons program.  In September 2013, Russia transferred operational control of some key facilities to Iran.
Natanz Fuel Enrichment Facility
         This fuel enrichment facility is at the heart of Iran’s dispute with the United Nations. The National Council of Resistance of Iran, an exiled opposition group, revealed the existence of the facility in 2002. It is located just outside the city of Natanz, approximately 130 miles south of Tehran.
         The site consists of two facilities:
  • An above-ground pilot fuel enrichment plant (PFEP)
  • A larger, underground fuel enrichment plant with the capacity to hold up to 50,000 centrifuges (FEP). 
      Activities at Natanz were suspended in 2004 following an agreement negotiated by Britain, France and Germany. But Iran restarted its uranium enrichment at the FEP after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005. The international community is concerned that Iran may use the enrichment technology at Natanz for nuclear weapons. These activities were proscribed by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1696 in 2006. Iran rejects the legality of these resolutions.
            Iran has not installed new centrifuges at either of the Natanz sites since the implementation of the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action. And enrichment of uranium above five percent is no longer taking place at Natanz, according to a February 2014 U.N. report. About 160 kg of uranium enriched to 20 percent still remains at the site but some of the stockpile is being downblended or converted to uranium oxide, which could not easily be used to fuel a nuclear weapon. 
Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility
          The historic city of Isfahan is home to several nuclear-related sites, but the most significant facility is the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Plant. Isfahan also has a fuel fabrication laboratory, a uranium chemistry laboratory and a zirconium production plant. The conversion plant has been operational since 2006, and converts uranium yellowcake into uranium hexafluoride (UF6) for Iran's enrichment facilities. The facility can also produce uranium metal and oxides for fuel and other purposes.
Tehran Nuclear Research Center
      The Tehran Nuclear Research Center is a complex of several laboratories, including the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). The TRR produces radioisotopes for medical and research purposes. The United States supplied Iran with the 5-megawatt light-water reactor in 1967; it was fueled with highly enriched uranium (around 90 percent). In 1987, Argentina concluded a deal with Iran to change the core of the reactor so it could operate on low-enriched uranium (20 percent).
Arak Heavy Water Plant and Reactor
           The Arak nuclear facility includes a heavy water production plant, which has been operational since 2006, and a 40-megawatt heavy water reactor still under construction. The National Council of Resistance of Iran, an exiled opposition group, also revealed the existence of this facility in 2002.
      Heavy water production plants are not subject to traditional safeguards of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a signatory. Under the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocol, Tehran would be subject to declarations and complementary access for IAEA inspectors. Since Iran has signed but not yet ratified the Additional Protocol, the IAEA uses satellite imagery to monitor the facility. Iran's heavy-water-related activities are also proscribed by U.N. Resolution 1696, which Tehran rejects.
            In December 2013, Iran provided the IAEA with information and access to the plant. Approximately 100 tons of reactor-grade heavy water have been produced at Arak since 2006. 
Qom Uranium Enrichment Facility (Fordo)
      This secret uranium enrichment facility was made public in 2009 after the United States shared intelligence about it with allies, and Iran confirmed its existence. Construction of the uranium enrichment plant near the holy city of Qom began around 2006, but Tehran maintained that it was not required to report its existence under the safeguard obligations until six months before it became operational. The plant has a few installed centrifuges, but Iran stopped all work once the site was publicized. The facility is located on a mountain on what was reportedly a former Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ missile site.
           The facility’s revelation prompted concern that Iran intended to construct a potential breakout facility where it could make weapon-grade uranium for a nuclear bomb. Iran told the IAEA that the plant was intended to enrich uranium only to 5 percent, which is not enough for a nuclear weapon. The plant is believed to have room for 3,000 centrifuges for uranium enrichment.
            Parchin is a military complex about 19 miles southeast of Tehran. The IAEA suspects Iran may have conducted experiments related to nuclear weapons production. U.N. inspectors visited the site twice in 2005 but did not find anything suspicious. But the IAEA later received additional evidence about alleged experiments. “We didn’t have enough information [back then],” IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said in 2012. “Extensive activities have taken place” at Parchin that have “seriously undermined” the IAEA’s ability to investigate possible military dimensions of Iran’s program, according to a February 2014 report.
            Iran apparently undertook cleanup activities, according to satellite imagery analyzed by the Institute for Science and International Security. The IAEA noted that satellite imagery revealed “possible building material and debris” at Parchin in 2014.
Gchine Mine and Mill
            The Gchine mine is located in southern Iran in Bandar Abbas. The associated mill is located at the same site. According to the IAEA, it began production in 2004 and has an estimated production capacity of 21 tons of uranium per year. The IAEA has questioned the mine’s ownership and relationship to Iran’s military. In January 2014, Iran provided the IAEA with managed access to the mine.
July 14 Update: Iran released the most detailed report to date explaining its practical needs for its nuclear program. It was posted on the quasi-official website NuclearEnergy.ir.


Photo credits: NuclearEnergy.ir, Natanz via Iranian President's Office and The New York Times



Iran Nuke Program 3: ABCs from Khamenei

            Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has voiced his opposition to nuclear weapons on several occasions during the last decade. The following are excerpted remarks in reverse chronological order.


      “Even now that reason - including religious and political reason - has made it clear that the Islamic Republic is not after nuclear weapons, American officials bring up the issue of nuclear weapons whenever they address the nuclear issue. This is while they themselves know that not having nuclear weapons is the definite policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran."
      April 9, 2014 in a speech to the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran
      “We are against nuclear weapons not because of the U.S. or others, but because of our beliefs. And when we say no one should have nuclear weapons, we definitely do not pursue it ourselves either.”
      Sept. 17, 2013 in a meeting with Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders
            “Nuclear weapons are neither a #security provider, nor a cause of consolidation of political power but rather a threat to both. The events of the 1990s proved that possessing such weapons would not save any regimes including the Soviet Union. Today as well, we know countries who are faced with fatal torrents of insecurity, despite having nuclear bombs.
           “The bitter irony of our time is that the U.S. government has the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons and is the only government that has used them, while it bears the flag of anti-nukes struggle!”
            Aug. 30, 2012
            “We do not possess a nuclear weapon and we will not build one, but
we will defend ourselves against any aggression, whether by the U.S. or the Zionist regime, with the same level [of force].”
            March 20, 2012 in a speech marking Nowruz, Persian New Year
            “Nuclear weapons are not at all beneficial to us. Moreover, from an ideological and fiqhi (juridical) perspective, we consider developing nuclear weapons as unlawful. We consider using such weapons as a big sin. We also believe that keeping such weapons is futile and dangerous, and we will never go after them.”
            Feb. 22, 2012 in a speech to nuclear scientists
            “Islam is opposed to nuclear weapons and that Tehran is not working to build them.”
            February 2010 at a ship-christening ceremony
      “The Iranian people and their officials have declared times and again that the nuclear weapon is religiously forbidden in Islam and they do not have such a weapon. But the western countries and America in particular through false propaganda claim that Iran seeks to build nuclear bombs which is totally false and a breach of the legitimate rights of the Iranian nation.”
      June 4, 2009 in a speech marking the 20th anniversary of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death
      “Even though the Iranian nation does not have an atomic bomb and keeps no intention to possess the deadly weapon, the world acknowledges that it is a dignified nation because the dignity of the nation has emerged from its resolve, faith, good deed and bright goals.”
      Sept. 9, 2007 in a speech to Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders
            Iran “is not, and the westerners know it well, after a nuclear weapon, because it stands contrary to the country's political and economic interests as well as Islam's statute.”
            Jan. 18, 2006 to Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov’s visiting delegation
            “No sir, we are not seeking to have nuclear weapons… [to] manufacture, possess or use them, that all poses a problem. I have expressed my religious convictions about this, and everyone knows it.”
            Nov. 5, 2004 in a Friday sermon
            “The Islamic Republic of Iran, based on its fundamental religious and legal beliefs, would never resort to the use of weapons of mass destruction," Khamenei said recently. "In contrast to the propaganda of our enemies, fundamentally we are against any production of weapons of mass destruction in any form.”
            October 2003, according to the San Francisco Chronicle
July 14 Update: Iran released the most detailed report to date explaining its practical needs for its nuclear program. It was posted on the quasi-official website NuclearEnergy.ir.
Photo credit: Khamenei.ir via Facebook

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