United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

US Views of Iran Improve After UN Assembly

            Diplomatic overtures from Iran during the U.N. General Assembly seem to have softened American views of Iran, according to a new Economist/YouGov poll. On September 13, some 52 percent of respondents considered Iran an enemy. But on September 30, only 36 percent did. The following are results from the report, some of which compare public opinion before and after the assembly.

            Just after President Barack Obama’s 2008 election, 62 percent of Americans favored personal involvement by the president in negotiations with Iran on its controversial nuclear program. About 64 percent of Americans still did in September 2013.

            Americans, however, were divided on how to negotiate with Iran. Some 30 percent of those asked were unsure of how to get Iran to limit its nuclear program. Nearly equal amounts of respondents favored rewarding Iran by lifting sanctions, threatening Iran with harsher ones or rewarding Iran with resuming diplomatic relations. About 19 percent favored threatening Tehran with military force.

           The events related to the U.N. General Assembly, including conciliatory remarks by President Hassan Rouhani and President Obama’s historic call with his Iranian counterpart, seemed to have softened American views of Iran. The percentage of Americans who considered Iran an enemy dropped some 16 points to 36 percent between September 13 and September 30.
            The public was more or less split on Obama’s handling of Iran. About 38 percent approved of Obama and 36 percent disapproved, while just over a quarter of Americans did not express an opinion.


Report: Principles for Unwinding Sanctions

            Iran may be ready to limit its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, but removing punitive measures would require “a sustained period of concrete and verified Iranian actions,” according to a new Center for a New American Security brief. Lifting years’ worth of unilateral and multilateral sanctions by the United States, European Union, United Nations and other countries also would involve a lengthy process and much coordination.
But Tehran would likely expect the quick removal of at least some sanctions. The brief argues that the Obama administration would need to identify areas where it can relax sanctions during the initial stages of implementing an agreement. The brief also recommends “provisions for automatic reinstatement if Iran does not comply with the terms of any nuclear agreement.” The following are excerpts with a link to the full text at the end.

Principles for Possible Sanctions Relief
            The multilateral and interdependent character of Iran sanctions presents a logistical challenge for any effort to lessen or reconfigure sanctions in response to progress in nuclear talks. To be clear, non-nuclear Iran sanctions focused on terrorism and human rights would not be eased by progress on the nuclear issue. If a nuclear accommodation can be achieved then the only sanctions that should be rolled back are those related to Iran’s nuclear activities or the generation of revenue Tehran can use to finance nuclear activities. This may mean that some targets simultaneously subject to sanctions under multiple programs would only see a lifting of the nuclear-related sanctions and therefore still face economic constraints. Iran would have to renounce terrorism, make amends and appropriately address its human rights problems before any sanctions related to this conduct would be lifted. Also, national and international stakeholders would have to align their objectives in an effort to unwind the sanctions, and begin with principles – not road maps – for what nuclear concessions and sanctions relief would look like. 
            In Geneva, the P5+1 cannot promise to change the UNSCR-imposed Iran sanctions, which must be approved not only by the permanent five members of the Security Council but also by a simple majority of the 15 Security Council members. Similarly, the three EU members represented in the P5+1 cannot change the EU sanctions without agreement from all 28 member states. The U.S. negotiators in Geneva, represented by the State Department, do have the ability to relieve some of the sanctions. However, significant and enduring relief from U.S. sanctions would require the administration to convince a skeptical U.S. Congress that a final nuclear settlement would be meaningful and verifiable. This is not likely to happen anytime soon, not least because policy hawks in Washington, and elsewhere, will require a sustained interim period of Iranian compliance with confidence-building agreements that demonstrate Tehran’s genuine commitment to constrain its nuclear activities. Additionally, the details of proportionate sanctions relief will take months to solidify under the best conditions.
            At the same time, Iran cannot be expected to make significant concessions in negotiations or implement meaningful constraints on its nuclear program unless it receives meaningful relief from the sanctions. This means that the Obama administration will need to identify the areas where it has the ability to lessen sanctions (or suspend the implementation of sanctions) during the initial stages of implementing an agreement. Some such measures would not necessarily require legal changes, and could provide near-term economic relief by loosening restrictions on the physical and financial sides of trade in certain products.
            The administration will also need to work with Congress to maintain the leeway legislators have given to U.S. negotiating representatives in Geneva, and manage the expectations on all sides that no meaningful deal will come quickly or be seen as absolutely optimal by all sides. Lawmakers committed to the strategy of increasing punishing sanctions to elicit Iranian concessions may be tempted to push forward with new sanctions if they are unsatisfied with the progress of talks or if a road map is not laid out immediately…
            Washington will also need to work closely with all EU partners to identify specific European sanctions changes to be implemented, or mandates to be suspended or lifted, at upcoming EU Foreign Affairs Council meetings. This could deliver real sanctions relief for Iran and broaden permissible transactions and areas of commerce. Any measure of relief from the harshest economic sanctions, such as those dealing with payment messaging services and insurance and reinsurance provision, should only be considered once confidence in a nuclear deal has been built and tested.

Iran's Man on Wire: Javad Zarif

Robin Wright
            When Mohammed Javad Zarif left the United Nations in 2007, I asked what he had achieved in five years as Tehran's ambassador. "Not much," he said with a sigh. "A stupid idealist who has not achieved anything in his diplomatic life after giving one-sided concessions--this is what I'm called in Iran." He flew home depressed, faded into academia and vowed not to return to diplomacy.
            Over the past two months, however, Zarif has re-emerged to lead Tehran's boldest overture to the West since the 1979 revolution. Iran's charismatic new President Hassan Rouhani clearly commissioned the initiative, but his new Foreign Minister is the plan's architect.
      It's the comeback of a diplomatic lifetime. "A second chance," Zarif told me last month. And a huge risk. If he fails to make a deal limiting Tehran's nuclear capabilities--on Oct. 15, Zarif sat down in Geneva with the world's six major powers for a fresh round of negotiations--Iran could face punishing military strikes.
      The talks went well, Zarif and top E.U. diplomat Catherine Ashton agreed. The negotiators will reconvene on Nov. 7.
Skeptics claim Zarif is merely buying time with all this talking so Tehran can work on developing nuclear weapons. "We know that deception is part of the [Iranian] DNA," State Department Under Secretary Wendy Sherman, chief U.S. negotiator in Geneva, warned a Senate committee on Oct. 3.
            But Zarif has also built a following in Washington. "He doesn't play games," says Senate Select Committee on Intelligence chair Dianne Feinstein, who met Zarif in 2006 and was among a number of members of Congress who talked to him at the U.N. in September. "I think a deal is doable."
            Zarif has the ear of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and was approached by three of the six candidates in June's presidential election to be their prospective Foreign Minister. But he has also been lauded by the likes of Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Chuck Hagel when they were in the Senate. And he earned a University of Denver doctorate under the same professors who taught Condoleezza Rice.
            Zarif is not just the man of the moment, however. He helped create the moment by being at the heart of virtually every key deal Tehran struck with the U.S. for two decades, beginning in the late 1980s. He was the "invaluable" liaison in talks that freed dozens of foreign hostages seized by pro-Iranian militias in Lebanon in the 1980s, former U.N. official and hostage negotiator Giandomenico Picco says. And after the 2001 U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, U.S. diplomats credited the Iranian envoy with persuading the Afghan opposition to accept the U.S. formula for a new government in Kabul.
            The danger--to Zarif and to the chances of a deal--may be that Zarif actually has too many American contacts. He was fiercely grilled by hard-liners during his parliamentary confirmation. Just days before the Geneva talks, a conservative newspaper claimed Zarif had deemed "inappropriate" the phone call between Presidents Obama and Rouhani at the end of the U.N. General Assembly. Zarif said he'd been misquoted, but the stress triggered nervous spasms that sent him to the hospital. Winning over the powerful hard-liners in Iran's complex power structure will continue to pose a huge challenge to Zarif--and Rouhani.
             The real question," says Ryan Crocker, a veteran of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East who has dealt with Zarif since 2003, "is whether hard-liners in both Tehran and Washington sabotage whatever comes out of this effort to resolve the nuclear issue and improve U.S.-Iran relations."
      A host of issues will divide the two nations for years to come. But for the first time in 34 years, Zarif's frenetic diplomacy has spurred talk of détente between Tehran and Washington. When asked in New York City last month about the potential shape of future ties between Iran and the U.S., Zarif invoked the relationship between the U.S. and Russia, in which deep differences remain but communication and occasional collaboration continue nonetheless. It's a model far preferable to the military alternative. "This time," Zarif told me, "I can't afford to fail."
This article is reposted from Time magazine.
Robin Wright has traveled to Iran dozens of times since 1973. She has covered several elections, including the 2009 presidential vote. She is the author of several books on Iran, including "The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and transformation in Iran" and "The Iran Primer: Power, Politics and US Policy." She is a joint scholar at USIP and the Woodrow Wilson Center.


New Progress in Iran Nuke Talks?

            After talks on October 15 and 16, Iran and the world’s six powers reported that the nuclear talks were “substantive and forward looking.” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters, “We hope that this is a beginning of a new phase in our relations.” It was the sixth round of negotiations since 2011. But the closed-door meetings in Geneva were the first since the June election of President Hassan Rouhani, who  had pledged to resolve the nuclear dispute during his campaign. The talks included the top nuclear negotiators from the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia. The next round will be held in Geneva on November 7 and 8.

            “We had detailed technical discussions at a level we have not had before,” said a senior U.S. diplomat. “The differences between the two sides are still numerous; but we are on a path that would have them resolved,” echoed Iran’s deputy foreign minister for international and legal affairs, Abbas Araqchi. The pace of talks was reportedly quicker than in the past because they were conducted in English for the first time. But the delegations declined to provide details. The following are excerpted remarks by top officials from Iran and the world’s six major powers.

E.U. High Representative Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
            “Delegations of the E3+3 and the Islamic Republic of Iran, led respectively by the E.U. High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy and Foreign Minister of Iran, held two days of substantive and forward looking negotiations in Geneva on 15 and 16 October 2013.
“Building on the positive atmosphere of the first ministerial meeting held in New York on 26 September, the Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran presented an outline of a plan as a proposed basis for negotiation, which is being carefully considered by the E3+3 as an important contribution.
            “Members of delegations followed with in-depth bilateral and joint consultations on various elements of the approach. It was decided to convene the next meeting in Geneva on November 7 and 8. The participants also agreed that E3+3 and Iranian nuclear, scientific and sanctions experts will convene before the next meeting to address differences and to develop practical steps.”
            Oct. 16, 2013 in a joint statement
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
            “We hope that this is a beginning of a new phase in our relations [with the outside world]. [Talks were] extensive and fruitful [and] exhibited the necessary political will to move the process forward.
            “We will not back down on our rights. At the same time, we feel there is no need for concerns about our nuclear program... It is logical to remove any concerns though.
            “I am hopeful that we can reach the mutual objectives… the detailed part is the most difficult part.
            “We need to take reciprocal steps, but this is a very important test in our eyes for the P5+1 to win back the trust of Iran. I believe an important step was taken in this round.”
            Oct. 16, 2013 to reporters
Senior Administration Official
            “Over the past two days, we’ve had serious and substantive discussions with our P5 counterparts and with Iran.  We had detailed technical discussions at a level we have not had before.  And we discussed concrete steps and actions that are necessary for Iran to address the international community’s concerns about its nuclear program.
            “Iran addressed what they saw as the objective, what should be in a final step, and what they might do as a first step.  This is a framework that the P5+1 has used for some time.  Although there remain many differences in each area and in what sanctions relief might be appropriate, specific and candid discussions took place.
            “Throughout this process, the P5+1 has remained united, as we always have.
            “We also had our first bilateral meeting at the political director level with the Iranians during the P5+1 since 2009, when then Political Director, Under Secretary Bill Burns sat down with Saeed Jalili right here in Geneva.  Our discussion bilaterally yesterday was a useful one.
            “There is more work – much more work – to do, as we knew there would be.  We have always said that there would be no agreement overnight, and we’ve been clear that this process is going to take some time.  The issues are complex, very technical, and require sound verification.  Any agreement has to give the United States and the world every confidence that Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon.
            “As you heard High Representative Ashton say, we will be meeting again here in Geneva on November 7th and 8th.  There will also be an experts meeting with the P5 and with the Iranians in advance of that round.  And as was said in the statement, that will include nuclear, scientific, and sanctions experts for that meeting.
            “We have said that there is time for diplomacy, but as Iran’s program continues, we must move both cautiously and quickly.
            “We came to Geneva looking to have a substantive discussion, to hear Iran’s proposed approach, to begin to work through some of the technical details that have proven so elusive in the past, and to underscore for Iran all of our continued concerns and our approach to this problem. All of that occurred.

            Oct. 16, 2013 at a background briefing

Photo credit: EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and Iran Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif by European External Action Service via Flickr


Zarif Diary on Historic US-Iran Talks

      In an all-time first for Iranian diplomacy, new Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif has been chronicling his visit to New York on his Facebook page for Iranians back home. On September 26, Secretary of State John Kerry and Zarif held their first meeting on the sideline of talks between Iran and the world’s six major powers. President Obama spoke with President Hassan Rouhani on the phone the following day, marking the first direct communication between U.S. and Iranian heads of state since the 1979 revolution.

            Zarif’s reflections on these historic events and his busy schedule have generated more than 350,000 “likes” on his Facebook page. The following are Zarif's most recent entries, translated by USIP’s Maral Noori.
September 29
Hello friends,
            It is 5 a.m. on Sunday in New York and 1:30 p.m. in dear Iran. I, your servant, and my colleagues from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are still in New York. I will continue to have bilateral meetings with foreign ministers, give interviews and have sideline meetings until Thursday. Then we will return to Tehran.
I began writing the last report for you all at 5:15 a.m. on Friday [September 27] because it was not yet the time for morning prayers. I wrote part of the report before prayers and the rest after prayers. Then I looked at some of your sweet messages that I swear would resolve any difficulty and cure fatigue.
            I ate breakfast with the president of the republic and around 8:30 a.m. I prepared for the meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which I chaired, and went to the U.N. headquarters.
            The session began at 9:15 a.m. with speeches by the president of the republic [Hassan Rouhani], the U.N. Secretary General and the General Assembly president. It lasted until 1:30 p.m. About 30 ministers and senior representatives of the member states spoke about the rule of law in international relations.
      Chairing such a session is tedious because, as chairman, you do not have a lot of work to do. For four and a half hours, he or she must sit above the others, listen politely, thank one speaker, and announce the next speaker’s turn. Of course, when an international session reaches decision-making time, the chairman is challenged. I had such sweet experiences in the recent and distant past. Now, however, the chairmanship is sort of a ritual that I am not keen on, but there was no choice.
      After returning to the hotel to say goodbye to Dr. Rouhani and his delegation, I found out that Mr. Obama wanted to make a phone call. U.S. authorities had been requesting a meeting between the two presidents since the beginning of the week. It did not happen for various reasons. [But] informal contact between the parties more or less continued. A meeting between me, your servant, and Mr. [John] Kerry was held on the sidelines of the P5+1 [world’s six major powers] session. After informal communications continued, it became clear that the two presidents might be able to speak to one another over the phone. While I was administering the NAM session, five or six more Americans reached out until they managed to set up the phone conversation. Finally, the conversation was held as Dr. Rouhani was on the verge of leaving the hotel. They emphasized political will on both sides to resolve the nuclear issue as quickly as possible and stressed orders to Mr. Kerry and myself, your servant, to reach a quick solution with political will to resolve the nuclear issue from both sides. The conversation was respectful and positive, and hopefully a good start for the difficult work that requires everyone’s support, and people to wait, trust brokers, and avoid quick, partisan judgments and…
            I don’t know why some in Tehran see this trip and this conversation as a thorn in the eyes of malice for Iran, Islam and the Revolution or why they question these actions as ill-considered. Nevertheless, as Hafez [a 14th-century poet] stated (see below):
      We’ll be faithful, endure the blame, and  rejoice
      Because on our path, to despair is sacrilege
      Of course you know that this poem begins with this verse:
      I am the infamous lover in this town.
      My eyes, evil seeds have never sown.
      Hopefully, we will learn to see the good and trust each other— especially the elected [representatives] of Iranian people.
           Anyway, I had six other bilateral meetings from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Friday. Afterwards, I saw several young Iranian experts that had come to New York from various cities that were very sweet and enthusiastic. At the end of the session, an internal meeting with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs delegation was held that I think was the last session [of the day]. I fell asleep as my friends were still in my room.
           I visited with several Iranians that had come from a variety of cities starting at 7 a.m. yesterday, which was Saturday. From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., I had back-to-back meetings with nine U.N. secretaries at the United Nations. I even had to do my noon and evening prayers in the side hall. While standing and waiting, I ate two pieces of vegetable pizza that my friends had procured from outside.
           At the end of the trip I will present the full list of meetings. I do not think there is an important country left with a president or minister (or both) who I have not met with during this trip. Many made their own requests and followed up very diligently.
           I returned to the residence (that same residence as Iran’s ambassador) after the meetings. I must say that due to the short visit of the president and busy work schedule, all of us (even the ambassador), along with the president and delegation, stayed in the hotel closest to the United Nations headquarters. There was nothing to break the [schedule] up. But with his [the president’s] return, I went back to the residence.
           Anyways, at the residence, I had a four-hour session with a number of famous and prominent American nuclear scientists who shared their own opinions about the technical methods and proliferation risk posed by Iran’s nuclear program. The session was very useful. The esteemed representatives of the Atomic Energy Organization have come to New York to participate in P5+1 session. Overall, the meeting was good and constructive.
           I had many long meetings with some of these people [scientists] at the same residence seven or eight years ago during my time as ambassador in New York, when I was also responsible for nuclear negotiations. Those meetings towards the end of my tenure led to the idea that I presented in Paris to three European countries in April 2005 (also, for the record, the plan was to use PowerPoint!!). Unfortunately, because of pressure (from the deputy US secretary of state) over the Europeans’ plans, we did not reach a conclusion [on the nuclear issue]. Everyone acknowledges that if we had reached a conclusion then other conditions would have been created.
           Hopefully, today, which is Sunday, I will go to ABC network’s studio in New York at 8:30 a.m. to give a live interview. On Sunday mornings, American network television stations have similar shows [to ones in Iran] that they call “Sunday morning talk shows.” Each week, several American officials have interviews on these programs, which are very popular.
           This will not be the first time that I have appeared on the program. About 26 years ago, I appeared on it with Iraqi Ambassador Ismat Kittani. Due to the Iran-Iraq war, we went to a studio, sat in a room and had a polite fight. The late Mr. Kittani was very graceful. Of course, Mr. Kittani died years before the scheduling of this [Sunday’s] program… 
           After my interview, I will meet with one of the leading professors and patriotic Iranians from California (it is a six-hour direct flight to New York from there)... After that, I will have lunch with 15 prominent American professors and politicians. At dinner, I will attend a program for young elite Iranian [college students]. I will be counting the moments during this program. I saw names of professors from Harvard and MIT on the participants list who were… more or less, all under thirty years old.
           It is now 6:30 a.m. Again, I did my prayer in the middle of writing this report. I jabbered too much, perhaps because my heart is full of love and prayers, and talking with all of you friends is relaxing.
           May Allah protect you, and I am hoping to meet you again. 
September 30
Hello Friends,
           The time is 5:15 a.m. in New York. This morning I woke up earlier than usual, and for the last hour, I have been reading what you all wrote in response to my Rumi [13th-century poet] post. Bravo. Did you notice that in all my posts, this one had the most likes and more than 3000 comments? What a beautiful poem Rumi wrote...
           Yesterday, the interview and sessions were good, by the grace of Allah. Of course, the interview was very challenging. Nevertheless, I must try. I am hopeful that you will forgive me for my mistakes.
           For two hours between sessions, I found time to walk along the side of the artificial lake in New York’s Central Park that is right across from the [Iranian ambassador’s] residence. But honestly, one of my old friends who came to visit suggested that we walk and talk instead of sitting. I had not walked in the open air for more than week, other than four or five steps from the door of the car to the door of a hotel or the residence.
           The session with the Iranian elite took about three and a half hours, and was extremely useful and fun. I, however, mostly listened to my friends’ opinions and recommendations. 
           Today, I have about eight meetings at the United Nations or agencies. I am going to see some foreign ministers and several officials, including Ms. [Navi] Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. I will have discussions. Thank God that the meetings of this week are not as compressed as last week. But there are still more meetings than usual.
           May God protect you.

Connect With Us

Our Partners

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Logo