United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

State of the Union: Obama on Iran

On January 20, President Barack Obama warned Congress that he would veto any new sanctions bill that “threatens to undo” diplomatic progress with Iran.  New sanctions would risk “alienating America from its allies” and push Iran to ramp up its nuclear program, he argued. The following is an excerpt from Obama’s State of the Union speech.

Our diplomacy is at work with respect to Iran, where, for the first time in a decade, we’ve halted the progress of its nuclear program and reduced its stockpile of nuclear material.  Between now and this spring, we have a chance to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran; secures America and our allies – including Israel; while avoiding yet another Middle East conflict.  There are no guarantees that negotiations will succeed, and I keep all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran.  But new sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails – alienating America from its allies; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again.  It doesn’t make sense.  That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress.  The American people expect us to only go to war as a last resort, and I intend to stay true to that wisdom.
Click here for the full text.

Geneva Nuke Talks: Limited Progress

On January 18, the world’s six major powers and Iran made limited progress in talks on Tehran’s controversial nuclear program. Representatives from Iran and the so-called P5+1 countries —Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States— met after five days of diplomacy that included meetings between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. “The mood was very good, but I don't think we made a lot of progress,” said French negotiator Nicolas de la Riviere. His Iranian counterpart, Abbas Araqchi said his team remains “hopeful” despite gaps in positions. The next round of talks is slated for February.

The two sides have twice extended self-imposed deadlines to reach a final deal. The goal is to conclude the framework of a deal by March and technical details by June 30. The following are excerpted remarks by officials on the latest round of diplomacy.
Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi
“It's too soon to say if we are able to make any progress or not. We are still trying to bridge the gaps between the two sides. We try our best, and as I have always said, as diplomats we are always hopeful.”
Discussions were “good” and “intensive.”
“We reviewed all subjects on the table and we had very serious and business-like negotiations.”
“We are still trying to bridge the gap between the two sides.”
“problems, chasms and differences also exist.”
“We remain hopeful, and I think that if the other side has the necessary good will and determination it will be possible to reach a deal.”
January 18 to reporters
European Union
“They had serious and useful meetings chaired by E.U. political director Helga Schmid and decided to meet again in early February.”
—January 18 in a statement
Top negotiator and political director Nicolas de la Riviere 
“The mood was very good, but I don't think we made a lot of progress.”
—January 18 to reporters
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov
“The meeting was very useful. We had detailed discussions. The talks will soon be resumed.”
—January 18 to reporters
Ministry of Foreign Affairs Arms Control Department Director General Wang Qun
Talks were “very pragmatic and in-depth… with existing consensus expanded.”
“Time is running short.”
“All parties must “adopt a pragmatic and a flexible approach” to reach “resolute political decisions.”
—January 18 to reporters

US, UK Leaders Rally Against New Sanctions

On January 16, President Barack Obama and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron urged U.S. lawmakers not to pass new sanctions legislation. New penalties from Congress would “put at risk the valuable international unity that has been so crucial,” Cameron warned at a joint press conference at the White House.

Cameron also acknowledged that he had called a couple of U.S. Senators to tell them about the U.K. position on sanctions— an extremely unusual step for a U.K. prime minister. U.K. officials said that Cameron also had plans to contact Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, who is working on legislation to require Congressional review of a deal, and Senator Mark Kirk, who has co-authored a bill that would impose new sanctions if talks falter. Cameron also reportedly has plans to speak with Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain.
During the press conference, Obama reiterated his threat to veto any new sanctions legislation. His comments come one day after a meeting with Democratic senators in which he reportedly clashed with Senator Menendez, who has co-authored a sanctions bill with Senator Kirk.  
The following are excerpted remarks by Obama and Cameron.
President Barack Obama
“I am asking Congress to hold off because our negotiators, our partners, those who are most intimately involved in this assess that it would jeopardize. My main message to Congress is just hold your fire.”
Congress “needs to show patience” while negotiations are underway because “the chances that this will become a military confrontation is heightened” if lawmakers try to pass new sanctions now.
“I will veto a bill that comes to my desk, and I will make this argument to the American people as to why I am doing so. I respectfully request for them to hold off for a few months to see if we have the possibility of solving a big problem without resorting potentially to war.”
“It’s my team that’s at the table. We are steeped in this stuff day in and day out. We don’t come to these assessments blindly.”

“If Iran proves unable to say yes [to a deal]… then we’re going to have to explore other options, and I would be the first to come to Congress and say we need to tighten the screws.”
“We may not get there, but we have a chance to resolve the nuclear issue peacefully.”
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron
"I have contacted a couple of senators this morning, and I may speak to one or two more this afternoon."
But the calls are "not in any way... to tell the American Senate what it should or should not do."
“It’s the opinion of the United Kingdom that further sanctions, or further threat of sanctions at this point, won’t actually help to bring the talks to a successful conclusion, and they could fracture the international unity.”
*Quotes via Bloomberg, Politico and CBS


U.S. Updates Iran Travel Warning

On January 16, the State Department warned that dual-national Iranian-Americans “may encounter difficulty in departing Iran.” Tehran does not recognize their American citizenship. The new travel warning, an update to one issued in May 2014, still cautioned that U.S. citizens may be subject to “harassment or arrest while traveling or residing in Iran.” The following is an excerpt.

The Department of State warns U.S. citizens to carefully consider the risks of travel to Iran. Dual national Iranian-American citizens may encounter difficulty in departing Iran.  U.S. citizens should stay current with media coverage of local events and carefully consider nonessential travel.  This Travel Warning updates the Travel Warning for Iran issued May 22, 2014.

Some elements in Iran remain hostile to the United States.  As a result, U.S. citizens may be subject to harassment or arrest while traveling or residing in Iran.  Since 2009, Iranian authorities have prevented the departure, in some cases for several months, of a number of Iranian-American citizens, including journalists and academics, who traveled to Iran for personal or professional reasons.  Iranian authorities also have unjustly detained or imprisoned U.S. citizens on various charges, including espionage and posing a threat to national security.  U.S. citizens of Iranian origin should consider the risk of being targeted by authorities before planning travel to Iran.  Iranian authorities deny the U.S. Interests Section in Tehran access to imprisoned dual national Iranian-American citizens because Iranian authorities consider them to be solely Iranian citizens; access to U.S. citizens without dual nationality is often denied as well.
The Iranian government continues to repress some minority religious and ethnic groups, including Christians, Baha'i, Arabs, Kurds, Azeris, and others.  Consequently, some areas within the country where these minorities reside, including the Baluchistan border area near Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Kurdish northwest of the country, and areas near the Iraqi border, remain unsafe. Iranian authorities have detained and harassed U.S. citizens, particularly those of Iranian origin.  Former Muslims who have converted to other religions, religious activists, and persons who encourage Muslims to convert are subject to arrest and prosecution.
The U.S. government does not have diplomatic or consular relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran and therefore cannot provide protection or routine consular services to U.S. citizens in Iran.  The Swiss government, acting through its Embassy in Tehran, serves as protecting power for U.S. interests in Iran.  The range of consular services provided by the U.S. Interests Section at the Swiss Embassy is limited and may require significantly more processing time than at U.S. embassies or consulates. The Iranian government does not recognize dual citizenship and will not allow the Swiss to provide protective services for U.S. citizens who are also Iranian nationals. 
Click here for more information.

Nuke Deal Could Boost US-Iran Relations

A nuclear deal could generate new opportunities for cooperation between the United States and Iran, according to a new policy brief by the Center for a New American Security. “Thirty-five years of animosity between the United States and Iran will not simply melt away,” the report says. But “a deal that truly resolves the nuclear issue can be a foundation for progress.” The following are excerpts from the full policy brief.

The prospect of a nuclear deal between the West and Iran has generated a robust debate about whether such an agreement might generate opportunities for U.S.-Iranian cooperation on a broader set of issues.  Any deal will address only the Iranian nuclear proliferation threat; even if successful, it will leave on the table many other unresolved sources of tension that have hobbled U.S-Iranian relations since the Islamic Revolution. The Obama administration has stressed that any deal regarding the “nuclear file” remains separate and distinct from the overall question of U.S. policy toward Iran. The lead U.S. nuclear negotiator, Ambassador Wendy R. Sherman, stated this clearly: “engagement on one issue does not require and will not lead to silence on others.” Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has been equally insistent upon compartmentalizing and isolating the nuclear question from the broader U.S.-Iran relationship. But these negative statements do not determine what may happen in the days and years after an agreement.

To be sure, any thawing of the relationship would face tremendous challenges. The two countries have not had formal relations since 1979. In the decades since, successive U.S. administrations have designated Iran a state sponsor of terrorism, and imposed sanctions based on a range of Iran’s activities apart from its nuclear proliferation. Both sides harbor long lists of grievances. Iran resents American support for the Shah and for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. The United States remembers the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and Iranian support for militants in Iraq. Resentments on both sides mean that powerful resistance in both political systems would oppose cooperation. Moreover, Israeli and Gulf partners, whose cooperation is vital for the achievement of other U.S. interests in the region, are likely to oppose any increase in U.S.-Iran cooperation.

Despite the challenges, however, there are a number of areas where Iranian interests align with those of the United States and its partners. Both have interests in maritime security and in the free flow of energy out of the Middle East. Both would prefer a stable Afghanistan with Taliban influence limited to the greatest extent possible. Both oppose the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and may be willing to work together against it.
Thirty-five years of animosity between the United States and Iran will not simply melt away even if Iran and the West can strike a nuclear deal. Resolution of the nuclear issue alone cannot untangle the violent web of politics in the Middle East. Significant resistance to increased cooperation with the United States will continue to be a central element of Iranian politics. Regional allies will remain wary of Iran either way. However, a deal that truly resolves the nuclear issue can be a foundation for progress.
Click here for the full report

Connect With Us

Our Partners

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Logo