United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Rouhani Calls for National Consensus

      On December 7, President Hassan Rouhani called for national consensus on his goals to improve relations with the outside world and reinvigorate the economy. He also pledged to defend Iran’s nuclear program in a speech at Tehran’s Shahid Beheshti University.  “Nuclear energy is our absolute right, yes, but the right to progress, development, improving people’s livelihood and welfare are also our rights,” Rouhani told more than 1,000 students. Iran observes Students’ Day annually on December 7 to commemorate the 1953 killing of three University of Tehran students protesting a visit by U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon.

           Students groups from opposing political currents shouted slogans over each other. Some reformists called for the end of the “security atmosphere” and release of political prisoners, especially former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karroubi, the leaders of the opposition Green Movement. Conservative members of the Basij militia chanted “Death to America.” Rouhani tried to calm the students, arguing that Iranians need to tolerate each other before moving to solve complex foreign policy issues. The following are excerpts and a video clip from Rouhani’s speech.
Nuclear Program and Diplomacy
            “We need to strike the right balance between idealism and realism. There are those who want to close the gateways to this country. We know that is impossible… You all witnessed who became isolated after the Geneva agreement – the warmongers and those who don’t respect international law.”
            “Our centrifuges should spin, the economic life of people should spin too… Atomic energy, as well as nuclear technologies and enriching uranium are our rights.”
Domestic Infighting
            “This government is committed to all its promises, but we need internal consensus. We need to more tolerant, rational and avoid being too emotional… If we cannot solve a domestic issue of our own with calm, with reason and within the framework of the constitution by creating a consensus, if we cannot solve domestic issues, how can we claim we want to solve the complex issues of the region and the world?”
            “To take a step forward, it’s key to be more tolerant of differences, more rational and moderate in our beliefs.”
            The administration is “supporting entrepreneurship to develop a knowledge economy. The government set aside $1 billion for the Innovation Fund’s knowledge-based companies.”
            “We should create an environment that not only discourages people from leaving, but also encourages those who have left to come back to Iran.”
            “Indeed from the constitutional movement to now, students have played a key role in Iran’s journey towards independence and self-determination… Students have always been pioneers in pursuing freedom and offering constructive criticism.”


Poll: Americans Divided on Nuclear Agreement

            Some 43 percent of Americans disapprove of the interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program while 32 percent approve, according to a new poll by the Pew Research Center and USA Today. The remaining quarter of respondents did not offer an opinion. Half of the Democrats polled approve of the agreement compared to only 14 percent of Republicans.
      The survey found that 72 percent of Americans had heard either a lot or a little about the deal brokered in Geneva on November 23. Among those who heard a lot about it, 44 percent approve and 51 percent disapprove. Among those who heard a little, 36 percent approve and 45 percent disapprove.
      The agreement has not reduced broad skepticism towards the intentions of Iran’s leaders. Washington and Tehran have not relations for 34 years. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say Iranian leaders are “not serious” about addressing the international community’s concerns about their nuclear program.

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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
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