United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Report: Nuclear Deal Could Boost Rouhani

            A successful nuclear deal between Iran and the world's six major powers would allow Rouhani and other centrists to increase their influence in Iran’s political system, according to a new research paper by Hossein Bastani in the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House. But failure to reach a deal would empower hardliners in the judiciary and security establishment who disapprove of engagement with the West. Bastani warns that if Rouhani and others who favor improving ties with the outside world “again suffer failure in striking a face-saving deal, they will never be able to return to the sphere of foreign policy in Iran.” The following is a summary of the key findings of the research paper.

            One of the key questions about the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme is how powerful President Hassan Rouhani really is within Iran’s unique political system, and whether he and his colleagues have the ability to implement an international nuclear agreement despite their powerful opponents. As the country’s chief nuclear negotiator in 2003–05, Rouhani agreed to suspend uranium enrichment and open nuclear facilities to International Atomic Energy Agency inspections, but Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, unhappy with the attitude of the Western powers towards Iran, halted the implementation of these arrangements.
            Rouhani and his associates emphasize that their objective is the resolution of the economic, administrative and international crises arising from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s two presidential terms. In this context, they regard their highest priority as being the conclusion of an agreement with the international community over the nuclear dossier – which has been, in their view, the major source of Iran’s economic problems in the past few years.
However, the president is faced with opposition within the ranks of some of the most influential state institutions: the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and Basij volunteer militias, the intelligence-security apparatus, the judiciary and the parliament.
            There is no doubt that Ayatollah Khamenei expects Rouhani to strive to achieve the removal of the sanctions against Iran, but he does not seem interested in sharing responsibility for any retreat from the nuclear programme. If he comes to the conclusion that the political costs of nuclear talks far outweigh the economic benefits they can bring, he will once again put an end to them.
            Should that happen, it will strengthen Ayatollah Khamenei’s convictions about the dangers of any rapprochement with the West and about the potential for moderation in foreign policy. This impact could be even stronger than that of the failure of the 2003–05 nuclear talks.
            Ultimately, if those in Iran – such as President Rouhani – who favour interaction with the international community again fail in their efforts to strike a face-saving deal, they will never be able to return to the sphere of foreign policy in Iran. The departure of Rouhani’s team from the political scene during the most sensitive stage of the nuclear issue would lead to the return to Iran’s foreign policy apparatus of forces that oppose external engagement.
Click here for the full report

Iran Nuclear Talks: The Final Push

            Iran and the world’s six major powers have only a few days to reach a deal that will ensure Tehran’s controversial nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful. Both sides are now intensifying their efforts to meet the November 24 deadline for an agreement. Leaders on both sides have noted that there has been progress on key issues and remain hopeful that a deal can be reached before the deadline.
Both Iranian and U.S. officials, however, have claimed that each other’s governments will be at fault if a deal is not reached. “If [a deal] does not happen, the responsibility will be seen by all to rest with Iran,” Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman warned on October 23. “It is not clear if negotiations will reach a conclusion within the specified time frame” unless the other side gives up its “illogical excessive demands,” Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi said on October 27 (click here for the latest remarks by U.S. and Iranian officials).
The following is a summary of the last three weeks of diplomacy and a rundown of the three possible outcomes of the November talks — a deal, no deal or an extension.

November 7: E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton met with political directors from the P5+1 countries — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States.
November 9 and 10: Secretary of State John Kerry and Ashton met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Muscat, Oman.
November 11: Political directors from the P5+1 and Iran met in Muscat, Oman.
November 18: The final round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 began in Vienna. Zarif and Ashton met on November 19, and Kerry arrived in Vienna to join the discussions on November 20. Kerry and Zarif both delayed their departures from Vienna in order to continue negotiations.
A Deal:
            The temporary Joint Plan of Action states that goal of the negotiations “is to reach a mutually-agreed long-term comprehensive solution that would ensure Iran’s nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful.” The following are excerpts from an article by Joe Cirincione on six issues pivotal to an accord. 
1. Limiting Uranium Enrichment
      Iran’s ability to enrich uranium is at the heart of the international controversy. The process can fuel both peaceful nuclear energy and the world’s deadliest weapon. Since 2002, Iran’s has gradually built an independent capability to enrich uranium, which it claims is only for medical research and to fuel an energy program. But the outside world has long been suspicious of Tehran’s intentions because its program exceeds its current needs. 
A deal may generally have to include:
      •reducing the number of Iran’s centrifuges,
      •limiting uranium enrichment to no more than five percent.  
      •capping centrifuge capabilities at current levels.
2. Preventing a Plutonium Path
      Iran’s heavy water reactor in Arak, which is unfinished, is another big issue. Construction of this small research reactor began in the 1990s; the stated goal was producing medical isotopes and up to 40 megawatts of thermal power for civilian use. But the “reactor design appears much better suited for producing bomb-grade plutonium than for civilian uses,” warned former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Los Alamos Laboratory Director Siegfried Hecker.
            In early February, Iranian officials announced they would be willing to modify the design plans of the reactor to allay Western concerns, although they provided no details. 
3. Verification
      The temporary Joint Plan allows more extensive and intrusive inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities. U.N. inspectors now have daily access to Iran’s primary enrichment facilities at the Natanz and Fordow plants, the Arak heavy water reactor, and the centrifuge assembly facilities. Inspectors are now also allowed into Iran’s uranium mines.
           A final deal will have to further expand inspections to new sites. The most sensitive issue may be access to sites suspected of holding evidence of Iran’s past efforts to build an atomic bomb. The IAEA suspects, for example, that Iran tested explosive components needed for a nuclear bomb at Parchin military base.
4. Clarifying the Past  
The issue is not just Iran’s current program and future potential. Several troubling questions from the past must also be answered. The temporary deal created a Joint Commission to work with the IAEA on past issues, including suspected research on nuclear weapon technologies. Iran denies that it ever worked on nuclear weapons, but the circumstantial evidence about past Iranian experiments is quite strong.
Among the issues:
•research on polonium-210, which can be used as a neutron trigger for a nuclear bomb,
•research on a missile re-entry vehicle, which could be used to deliver a nuclear weapon, and
•suspected high-explosives testing, which could be used to compress a bomb core to critical mass.
      “Iran needs to clarify issues related to possible military dimension and implement the additional protocol [to prove its nuclear program is entirely peaceful],” the head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, Yukiya Amano, said on October 31 at the Brookings Institution.
5. Sanctions Relief
           Iran’s primary goal is to get access to some $100 billion in funds frozen in foreign banks and to end the many sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy. Since the toughest U.S. sanctions were imposed in mid-2012, Iran’s currency and oil exports have both plummeted by some 60 percent.
           The temporary Joint Plan of Action says a final agreement will “comprehensively lift UN Security Council, multilateral and national nuclear-related sanctions…on a schedule to be agreed upon.” (It does not, however, address sanctions imposed on other issues, such as support for extremist groups or human rights abuses.) The United States and the Europeans may want to keep some sanctions in place until they are assured that Iran is meeting new obligations.
6. The Long and Winding Road
            The final but critical issue is timing: How long is a long-term deal? It will clearly require years to prove Iran is fully compliant. But estimates vary widely from five to 20 years. Another alternative is a series of shorter agreements that build incrementally on one another.
Click here for Joe Cirincione's full article on these six issues.
No Deal:
            Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman has warned that “escalation will be the name of the game, on all sides,” if the talks collapse. Tehran’s resumption of work on the most sensitive aspects of its nuclear program could raise prospects for military action. President Barack Obama has warned that he would seek to impose new sanctions on Iran in an agreement cannot be brokered. But enforcing sanctions could become much more difficult if European and Asian countries, especially Russia and China, blame the failure of talks on U.S. unwillingness to compromise on Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity.
            The previous extension pushed the due date for a deal back by four months to November 24. Neither side wants the talks to last any longer than necessary. But they may again opt for more time to negotiate if the alternative is a total collapse of the talks. Even if a general consensus is, however, reached on the major issues, experts may need additional time to hammer out the technical details. An extension could again allow for additional repatriation of frozen funds outside of Iran, perhaps in return for Iran taking more steps to roll back its nuclear program.

Photo credits: NuclearEnergy.ir, Amano and Zarif by Mueller / MSC [CC-BY-3.0-de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons


Kerry on Nuclear Talks En Route to Vienna

             On November 20, Secretary of State John Kerry said that although Iran and the world’s six major powers have discussed in detail all the critical issues related to a nuclear deal, “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” When asked about the possibility of extending the talks, he said that the negotiators were only discussing a final deal among themselves. Kerry emphasized that details about the talks in Vienna will remain among the negotiators and warned against listening to rumors. Kerry met with his counterparts in Britain and France en route to Vienna, where nuclear talks began on November 19. The following are excerpts from his remarks to the press in Paris.

SECRETARY KERRY:  Well, good afternoon, everybody.  As you know, I’ve spent the last couple of days in Europe, in London, and now in Paris.  And during the course of that time, I’ve had very worthwhile meetings with Foreign Secretary Hammond of Great Britain, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal here in Paris today, and of course, with Foreign Minister Fabius, and other meetings that I have had during that time.
During these meetings, we’ve discussed a range of the challenges that we face together as partners – obviously, Syria, ISIL, Iraq, Libya, Ukraine, others, but particularly, as you can imagine, the focus has been on the nuclear negotiations with Iran.  As all of us know, we are now a little less than a week away from the November 24th deadline for these negotiations.  And none of us came to this process, I assure you, with anything except serious purpose and realism.  We knew the stakes in getting into this, and we also knew the challenges.
But we’ve also – I want to make it clear – come a long way in a short period of time.  After all, it was only last year when our nations first resumed high-level contact after decades of stalled relations, I think more than 35 years since we had even talked.  It was only last year that President Obama spoke with President Rouhani by phone, and it was only last year when I sat down for the first time with Foreign Minister Zarif in New York at the United Nations. 
Work also had to be done during that time with our European partners and the P5+1 partners and with the Iranians in order to be able to test seriously what might be possible at the negotiating table.  These steps all together created an opening that we hadn’t seen or been able to possibly experience since the time or the advent of the Iranian nuclear program.  As a result, last November we did conclude a Joint Plan of Action with Iran in which they agreed to freeze – effectively freeze their nuclear program while the P5+1 provided limited sanctions relief.  And together, we set a frame for these negotiations on a comprehensive agreement.
And despite the skepticism that many expressed when we first reached the JPOA, as it was known – the Joint Plan of Action – the world is already safer because of it.  And all sides have stuck to their commitments made under that agreement.  Consequently, we are today closer to resolving the international concerns around Iran’s nuclear program through diplomatic means.
Now, we have the chance – and I underscore the word chance – to complete an agreement that would meet our strategic objectives, that would guarantee that Iran’s four pathways to fissile material for a nuclear weapon cannot be used, and thereby to be able to give the world the needed confidence that the Iranian program is exclusively and conclusively peaceful as Iran has said it is.  And then at the same time, enable the Iranian people to be able to have the economic opportunities that they seek. 
Clearly one can envision an agreement that is fair and possible.  But it still will require difficult choices.  Now, I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – Iran has continued to state it has no interest in obtaining a nuclear weapon.  Ultimately, if you want to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that your program is a peaceful one, that is not, from a technical perspective, very hard to do.  We and our European and P5+1 partners are working to secure an agreement that accomplishes that goal.  And in the days ahead, we’re going to try to work very, very hard to see if we can close the gaps and get to where we need to be.
I would emphasize both sides are taking this process seriously and both sides are trying to find the common ground.  That doesn’t mean that we agree on everything.  Obviously, there are gaps.  We don’t yet.  But it does mean that we have discussed in detail the full range of relevant issues that have to be part of a durable and comprehensive agreement, including infrastructure, stockpiles, research, equipment, timing, and sequencing. 
And I would also emphasize that we all know our principles in this process, and our principles as a group are rock solid.  As we have said every single step of this process, an agreement like the one we are seeking is not built on trust, as much as anybody might like it to be.  It is built on verification.  And no member of the P5+1 is prepared to or can accept any arrangements that we cannot verify or make any promises that cannot be kept. 
In a few hours, I will head to Vienna.  And now more than ever we believe that it’s critical that we not negotiate in public and that the ideas discussed among the negotiations remain among the negotiators so that misunderstandings are prevented and the integrity of the discussions is preserved.  So you’re going to hear, I’m sure, a lot of rumors.  There’ll be conflicting reports.  The bottom line is nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and it’s the negotiators who have to speak for these negotiations.  We intend to keep working hard to resolve the differences, to define the finish line, and do everything in our power to try to get across that line.
I thank you very much, and I’d be happy to take a couple questions.
QUESTION:  Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary.  You just said that the P5+1 is united.  But don’t you see some divisions, even minor divisions between the United States and France about how to get to an agreement on the nuclear program? 
SECRETARY KERRY:  I don’t agree with the assumptions that you’ve made in the course of that question, in many of them.  And I think Laurent Fabius just spoke for France and said nous sommes en commun, we are in common.  We are.  He gave me a piece of paper – which we’ve had for some period of time – in which he lays out France’s four ideas about what they believe are important.  I’m not going to go into them because I said we’re going to negotiate this privately.  But we agree with every single one of them.  We may have a minor difference here or there on a number of something or whatever, but not on the fundamental principles.  We are in agreement that you have to be able to verify this, that there are limits.  There has to be an acceptable level, and we’re confident about our unity as P5+1. 
So I’m – we’ve had a terrific partner in France in this effort.  France made a very courageous decision with respect to the Mistral, for example, which is not directly related to Iran, but it’s a courageous decision with respect to its impact, its economics, and other things.  We have admiration for that kind of decision of principle.  And believe me, I know people will try to find a division or create a division, but when we say the P5+1 is united, we mean it.  And we’re going to work together as colleagues closely.  I’ll be in close communication with Foreign Minister Fabius even today and into tomorrow and for the next few days.  And we’re going to work as a team.  It’s that simple.
QUESTION:  Thank you, sir.  I wanted to just ask you about Mr. Hammond’s remarks.  He doesn’t seem very optimistic that you will make the deadline.  So – and he thinks an extension will probably be necessary.  So I wondered if you would talk a bit about what sort of extension might be palatable to you, how long this might drag out for.
SECRETARY KERRY:  No.  We’re not talking about an extension, not among ourselves.  We have not talked about the ingredients of an extension or – we’re talking about getting an agreement.  Now, I know that Secretary Hammond is concerned about the gaps.  We all are.  And I think he’s expressing his personal concerns about how to close those gaps over the next few days, and it’s very fair for him to have those concerns.  But we are not discussing extension; we are negotiating to try to get an agreement.  It’s that simple.
And look, if you get to the final hour and you’re in need of having to look at alternatives or something, we’ll look at them.  I’m not telling you we’re not going to look at something.  But we’re not looking at them, not now.  This is – we’re driving towards what we believe is the outline of an agreement that we think we can have.  And a lot of work has been done, including on annexes and other things, over the course of these last months by some very effective technical and expert people in the field of nuclear power and so forth.  And we’re quite confident about the groundwork that’s been laid.


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."


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