United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Obama and Rouhani Exchange Letters

             President Barack Obama confirmed in a televised interview that he has exchanged letters with President Hassan Rouhani. This is the most significant direct communication between the United States and Iran in years— and at the highest level since Rouhani’s election in June. The revelation comes just a week before the two men will both speak at the U.N. General Assembly on September 24.

      President Obama “indicated that the U.S. is ready to resolve the nuclear issue in a way that allows Iran to demonstrate that its nuclear program is for exclusively peaceful purposes," said White House spokesman Jay Carney on September 18. "The letter also conveyed the need to act with a sense of urgency to address this issue because, as we have long said, the window of opportunity for resolving this diplomatically is open, but it will not remain open indefinitely," Carney said.
            The exact timing and origin of the exchange – first reported in Iran – are still unknown. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif first acknowledged the existence of private messages on September 9 during a visit to Iraq. He implied that the messages were primarily about Syria, Iran’s closest ally in the Middle East. Syria, ironically, may be bringing Washington and Tehran together. Tabank news website and Fars News Agency reported that Iran replied to Obama’s proposal to “turn a new page” in relations. Iranian agencies claimed that President Obama passed the letter to Rouhani through Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said during his visit in late August.
            In Washington, National Security spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan was asked about the letters but neither denied nor acknowledged their existence. She echoed President Obama’s previous remarks on Iran. Should President Rouhani’s government “choose to engage substantially and seriously to meet its international obligations and find a peaceful solution to this [nuclear] issue, it will find a willing partner in the United States,” Meehan told the Los Angeles Times in early September.
            Several days later, President Obama acknowledged the letter exchange in an interview with ABC that also covered Syria. “I think what the Iranians understand is that the nuclear issue is a far larger issue for us than the chemical weapons issue, that the threat against Israel that a nuclear Iran poses, is much closer to our core interests,” Obama said in the interview that aired on September 15. The following are excerpts.
            Have you reached out personally to the new president?
            I have.  And he’s reached out to me.  We haven’t spoken– directly.  But…
            Yeah.  And I think what the Iranians understand is that– the nuclear issue – is a far larger issue for us than the chemical weapons issue [in Syria], that the threat against Israel, that a nuclear Iran poses, is much closer to our core interests, that a nuclear arms race in the region is something that would be profoundly destabilizing.
            And so my suspicion is that the Iranians recognize they shouldn’t draw a lesson that we haven’t struck, to think we won’t strike Iran.  On the other hand, what they should draw from this lesson is that there is the potential of resolving these issues diplomatically. 
            You think they’re there?  You think they believe that?
             I think they recognize, in part, because of the extraordinary sanctions that we placed on them, that the world community is united when it comes to wanting to prevent a nuclear arms race in the region.  And you know, negotiations with the Iranians is always difficult.  I think this new president is not gonna suddenly make it easy.  But you know, my view is that if you have both a credible threat of force, combined with a rigorous diplomatic effort, that, in fact you can strike a deal. And I hold out that hope.
            Obama revealed the private communication at a critical juncture, barely a week before the U.N. General Assembly opening. Iran is also set to meet with the U.N. nuclear watchdog on September 27 in Vienna. And E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton hopes to schedule a new round of nuclear talks between Iran and the world’s six major powers — the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.
            “On the nuclear issue, the endgame should be a win-win,” Rouhani told state television in early September. “A win-lose game is meaningless. We are ready for this game. This job will begin in New York.” The Iranians have planned an ambitious schedule of events around the U.N. General Assembly. But not all of the dates and times have been publicized.
            • September 24: President Rouhani is scheduled to address the general assembly just hours after Obama’s speech.
            • September 26: Rouhani is set to address the Asia Society, global non-profit that aims to forge closer ties between Asia and the West.
            • Foreign Minister Zarif and E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton are scheduled to discuss the next round of nuclear talks. Ashton hopes to set a date for the talks.
            • British Foreign Minister William Hague’s office has indicated that he may meet Zarif. The meeting would be the first direct diplomatic encounter in two years. Britain withdrew its Tehran embassy after Iranian security forces reportedly allowed mobs to storm the compound in November 2011.
            • Iran’s delegation will almost certainly meet with the Russian one to discuss Syria and nuclear talks.
Photo credits: President Barack Obama By Elizabeth Cromwell (http://chesh.org/barack/DSC_0010.JPG) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons and President Hassan Rouhani via President.ir

Rouhani to Guards: Stay Out of Politics

      On September 16, President Hassan Rouhani warned the elite Revolutionary Guards to stay out of politics. The Guards, Iran’s most powerful military organization, should “belong to the entire nation,” he told leaders at the 20th National Assembly of Commanders and Officials.
      Rouhani praised the organization's rising economic power and asked it to help the government with national projects. The new president seemed to pick his words carefully to avoid provoking the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which has increased its political influence during the last several years. The IRGC and its volunteer paramilitary, the Basij, were responsible for harsh crackdowns on the massive protests following the disputed 2009 reelection of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. IRGC veterans held some 80 out of 290 seats in parliament during Ahmadinejad's second term from 2009 to 2013. The percentage in the current parliament is unknown. But veterans are thought to retain significant influence. The following are excerpts from Rouhani’s address.

Military and Politics
            The Revolutionary Guards Corps “should be far from political currents, because its place is higher than these partisan games and currents. It should not be attached to a side or party.”
            The Guards “should belong to the entire nation, because if a day comes when the unity of the nation is needed, [what] will bring the entire nation onto the field under the banner of Islam is Sepah [the Guards].”
Military and Economy
            “Sepah, which is to protect and be at the front line of defending the revolution, today has a huge responsibility on its shoulders in this field, with the immense capacities at its discretion, in various situations, [and] can take action.”
            “Sepah has manpower, equipment and planning [capabilities], and must act on this situation of the economy which the enemy has targeted… [and] take charge of large national projects.”
Military and Security
           “The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps is a corps of peace, stability and security in the region. Our discourse is of democracy, stability, unity, fraternity and fighting terrorism in the wide region.
           “All Iranian citizens, Muslim and non-Muslim, should feel security and peace when they see an IRGC member should consider him their protector.”
           “Whoever Syrian citizens vote for to rule their country, we’ll agree with it.”
           “The Guards do not seek military domination over the region. It [claiming Iran is directly helping the Syrian army] is a mistake by the West, which thinks Iran is after military domination over the region."
            “The arrogant [powers] have, with the excuse of the use of chemical weapons, initiated the topic of attacks against Syria, and are after the consolidation of the interests of the Zionist regime and weakening the resistance front.
           “Democracy should be the basis. In Syria, in Iraq, people’s opinion and vote should rule, in Palestine too. As the Supreme Leader had emphasized, all Palestinian refugees should have the right to return to their country and take part in a referendum.”
Photo credits: President.ir

Rouhani Meets Russian, Chinese Leaders

            President Hassan Rouhani met with his Russian and Chinese counterparts in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on September 12 and 13. Rouhani’s visit to the Kyrgyz capital for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit was his first official trip abroad since taking office in August.
Rouhani discussed the Syrian crisis in his first meetings with President Vladimir Putin and President Xi Jinping. Russia, Iran and China are three of the Syrian regime’s most important backers. Tehran and Beijing have both supported Moscow's initiative to transfer Syria's chemical weapons to international control.
      Iran is key to Russian and Chinese interests in the Middle East. Putin and Xi both reiterated their strong support for Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy in their meetings with Rouhani. Rouhani and Putin agreed that they could do much more to promote bilateral trade and economic relations. Beijing, on the other hand, has been increasing trade and cooperation with Tehran. China has remained one of Iran’s biggest oil customers despite reducing its purchases to avoid U.S. sanctions. The following are excerpted remarks by the three presidents.

Iran: President Hassan Rouhani
            “Russia’s initiative on Syria, as well as steps taken by the Syrian government gave us hope that we would be able to avoid a new war in the region.
            “Regarding the Iranian nuclear issue, we want the swiftest solution to it within international norms.
            “Russia in the past has taken important steps in this sphere and now is the best opportunity for new steps from your side.
            “I declare that only if there is political will, if there is mutual respect and mutual interest, and only if the rights of Iran's people are ensured, can we guarantee the peaceful character of Iran's nuclear program.
            Sept. 13 in a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin
            “The majority of U.N. member states, including the 120 Non-Aligned movement members, have dismissed the sanctions against Iran as illegitimate, illegal and politically motivated.
            “These sanctions are an uncivilized move and a dangerous precedent [and they are] aimed at disrupting the trend of Iran’s development [and have] targeted the ordinary and innocent [Iranian] citizens mercilessly.
            Iran is committed to the Non-proliferation Treaty based on its “legal commitments, religious and moral tenets and strategic considerations.”
            The Islamic Republic insists on the “inalienable right of all NPT member states to enjoy peaceful nuclear technology.”
            Sept. 13, 2013 in a speech to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization
            “There are many ways to expand Iranian and Chinese relations in bilateral, regional and international fields that the two countries must consider.
            “Iran–China ties have always been based on friendship, and are growing.
            “Iran and China have common stances in most of the regional and international issues. Iran is prepared to begin cooperation and effective and constructive action with China in regional matters, particularly in resolving the Syrian crisis.” 
            Sept. 12, 2013 in a meeting with President Xi Jinping
Russia: President Vladimir Putin
            “We know to what extent international affairs turn upon the Iranian nuclear problem. But we in Russia know also that Iran is our neighbor, a good neighbor. You don’t choose your neighbors, and we had cooperated, are cooperating and definitely will cooperate a lot.
            Sept. 13, 2013 in a meeting with President Hassan Rouhani
China: President Xi Jinping
      “China will ask United Nations to consider a diplomatic solution as the sole solution to the crisis gripping the Arab state.”
      Sept. 12, 2013 in a meeting with President Hassan Rouhani

Photo credits: @HassanRouhani via Twitter and President.ir

What to do now? Iran Torn on Syria

Alireza Nader

            Iran has mixed feelings and conflicting interests in the Syrian crisis. Tehran has a strategic interest in opposing chemical weapons due to its own horrific experience during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. For years, President Saddam Hussein’s military used chemical weapons that killed thousands of Iranian soldiers. So Iran actually shares interests with the United States, European nations and the Arab League in opposing any use of chemical weapons.
But the Islamic Republic also has compelling reasons to continue supporting Damascus. The Syrian regime is Iran’s closest ally in the Middle East and the geographic link to its Hezbollah partners in Lebanon. As a result, Tehran vehemently opposes U.S. intervention or any action that might change the military balance against President Bashar Assad.
On one hand…
  Iran opposes the use of chemical weapons based on its own experience. Iran is a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention while Syria is not.
  Tehran wants to reduce tensions with the West in order to lift sanctions.
  Iran is reportedly spending millions of dollars per month  to support the Assad regime while its own economy suffers from sanctions, unemployment and inflation.
  The United States has sanctioned Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards Quds Force for helping Syria suppress anti-government protests.
On the other hand…
 Tehran opposes military intervention by outside powers in the Middle East.
  Syria is Iran’s closest ally in the region and part of the “resistance front” against Israel.
  Syria is a key conduit for transferring arms and supplies to Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which deters against an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
  Iran has invested millions of dollars in Syria’s economy and provided training to its army.
Syrian rebels are overwhelmingly Sunni and are hostile to Shiite Iran.
            The Iran-Syria alliance is more than a marriage of convenience. Tehran and Damascus have common geopolitical, security, and economic interests. Syria was one of only two Arab nations (the other being Libya) to support Iran’s fight against Saddam Hussein, and it was an important conduit for weapons to an isolated Iran. Furthermore, Hafez Assad, Bashar’s father, allowed Iran to help create Hezbollah, the Shiite political movement in Lebanon. Its militia, trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, has been an effective tool against Syria’s archenemy, Israel.
      Relations between Tehran and Damascus have been rocky at times. Hafez Assad clashed with Hezbollah in Lebanon and was wary of too much Iranian involvement in his neighborhood. But his death in 2000 reinvigorated the Iran-Syria alliance. Bashar Assad (left, with Supreme Leader Khamenei) has been much more enthusiastic about Iranian support, especially since Hezbollah’s “victorious” 2006 conflict with Israel.
            In the last decade, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have trained, equipped, and at times even directed Syria’s security and military forces. Hundreds of thousands of Iranian pilgrims and tourists visited Syria before its civil war, and Iranian companies made significant investments in the Syrian economy.
            Fundamentalist figures within the Guards view Syria as the “front line” of Iranian resistance against Israel and the United States. Without Syria, Iran would not be able to supply Hezbollah effectively, limiting its ability to help its ally in the event of a war with Israel. Hezbollah wields thousands of rockets able to strike Israel, providing Iran deterrence against Israel— especially if Tel Aviv chose to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. A weakened Hezbollah would directly impact Iran’s national security. Syria’s loss could also tip the balance in Iran’s rivalry with Saudi Arabia, making the Wahhabi kingdom one of the most influential powers in the Middle East.
            In the run up to a U.S. decision on military action against Syria, Iranian leaders appeared divided.

      Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei  and hardline lawmakers reacted with alarm to possible U.S. strikes against the Assad regime. And Revolutionary Guards commanders threatened to retaliate against U.S. interests. The hardliners clearly viewed the Assad regime as an asset worth defending as of September 2013.
      But President Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani adopted a more critical line on Syria. “We believe that the government in Syria has made grave mistakes that have, unfortunately, paved the way for the situation in the country to be abused,” Zarif told a local publication in September 2013.
             Rafsanjani, still an influential political figure, reportedly said that the Syrian government gassed its own people. This was a clear breach of official Iranian policy, which has blamed the predominantly Sunni rebels. Rafsanjani’s words suggested that he viewed unconditional support for Assad as a losing strategy. His remark also earned a rebuke from Khamenei, who warned Iranian officials against crossing the “principles and red lines” of the Islamic Republic. Khamenei’s message may have been intended for Rouhani’s government, which is closely aligned with Rafsanjani and seems to increasingly view the Syrian regime as a liability.
             Regardless, a significant section of Iran’s political elite could be amenable to engaging the United States on Syria. Both sides have a common interest: preventing Sunni extremists from coming to power in Damascus. Iran and the United States also prefer a negotiated settlement over military intervention to solve the crisis. Tehran might need to be included in a settlement given its influence in Syria. Negotiating with Iran on Syria could ultimately help America’s greater goal of a diplomatic breakthrough, not only on Syria but Tehran’s nuclear program as well. 
Alireza Nader is a senior international policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

Read Alireza Nader's chapter on the Revolutionary Guards in "The Iran Primer"

Photo Credits: Bashar Assad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei via Leader.ir, Syria graphic via Khamenei.ir Facebook
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Zarif TV Interview in English on Nuke Talks

            On September 11, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif discussed nuclear talks and the Syrian crisis in an interview with Press TV, Iran’s English-language news channel. The interview was reproduced on YouTube in two parts. Zarif speaks English fluently after receiving two degrees from San Francisco State University and a doctorate in international relations from the University of Denver.

            "We believe that our region has enough difficulty and is in enough turmoil not to be engulfed in a war in which chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction are used; and that is why Iran has been pushing for a region free from weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East."
            "I hope with the Russian proposal and the opportunity that had been created by the acceptance by Syria of the Russian proposal, others will stop creating excuses to push for a war, to beat the drums of war."

            "We believe that nobody has the right to take the law into their own hands, that is to say that the United States does not have any legal claim to act at the same time as the prosecutor, the judge and unfortunately the executioner in dealing with these issues particularly in light of the U.S.'s own record of supporting a regime, that of Saddam Hussein that used chemical weapons not only against Iranian soldiers and civilians, but against his own people in Halabja."

            "I think that a number of groups, people inside the United States, and interests outside the United States, wanted to put the president of the U.S. - whom I believe was reluctant to start the war - into a trap. A trap which he had unfortunately laid down for himself; and that was to get him involved in a war in order to address a hypothetical issue of the use of chemical weapons by the government of Syria."



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