United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Report: Sanctions Backfiring, Try Direct Dialogue

            A new report by top former U.S. officials concludes that sanctions are backfiring. Punitive economic policies have hardened Tehran’s resistance to pressure and instead “contributed to an increase in repression and corruption,” warns the Iran Project report. As a result, efforts by the world’s six major powers to broker a diplomatic compromise on Iran’s controversial nuclear program may be more difficult. Sanctions also “may be sowing the seeds of long-term alienation” among Iranians about the United States. The report, released April 17, reflects the views of 35 former U.S. ambassadors, generals, senior officials and national security experts including former U.N. ambassador Thomas Pickering, former CIA director Mike Hayden and former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.

            The Iran Project report urges the Obama administration to offer a new diplomatic initiative with sanctions relief in exchange for verifiable cooperation on Iran’s nuclear program. It also proposes a direct dialogue between Washington and Tehran – in coordination with the so-called P5+1 world powers – to advance other U.S. regional interests, including Israel’s security, an easing in Gulf tensions, resolution of the Syrian crisis, and stability in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Iran Project, an independent nonpartisan group organized under the auspices of The Foundation for a Civil Society, outlines strategic options for the United States to consider if it pursues direct talks with Iran. The following are excerpts from the report, with a link to the full text at the end.

            Much has been accomplished through pressure, but the results have fallen short of expectations in several ways, and unintended consequences may pose risks.
            Successes. U.S. policies have developed and preserved strong commitments from friends, allies, and partners; underscored the United States’ commitment to non-proliferation of nuclear weapons; blocked Iran’s efforts to modernize its military; weakened Iran’s economy; possibly slowed the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program; and possibly helped add some momentum within the existing framework for nuclear negotiations with Iran.
            Shortfalls. U.S. policies may have slowed but they have not stopped the advancement of Iran’s nuclear program. They have not led to a breakthrough in nuclear talks (sanctions have weakened Iran’s economy but not yet led to changed policies or actions); nor have they improved Iran’s human rights practices (in fact, they may have empowered anti-reform factions). Efforts to isolate Iran have not markedly reduced its influence in the region.
            Risks. U.S. policies may have narrowed the options for dealing with Iran by hardening the regime’s resistance to pressure; contributed to an increasing repression and corruption within Iran; distorted trade patterns and encouraged the expansion of illegal markets in the region; and possibly contributed to sectarian tensions in the region by pushing an isolated Iran further toward dependence on its Shia allies. Sanctions-related hardships may be sowing the seeds of long-term alienation between the Iranian people and the United States...
            A more assertive and sustained diplomatic initiative with Iran would need to focus first on achieving greater transparency and control over Iran’s nuclear program, thereby inhibiting Iran’s ability to make a rapid “breakout” toward the production of a nuclear weapon. Excluding other issues of concern to Iran could prove difficult, however, since Iran is not likely to agree to a comprehensive—or perhaps even a limited—nuclear agreement unless it is assured about the United States’ long-term intentions.
            No change in U.S. policy will be possible unless President Obama makes the negotiation of a nuclear deal with Iran one of his top priorities. To reiterate, strengthening the diplomatic track of U.S. policy toward Iran does not mean abandoning the pressure track, including maintaining the option of using military force should the Iranians move quickly to build a bomb. But if the President decides to try to work with Iran, he will have to take into account the political and strategic challenges of managing those different policy tracks and the irrespective goals, benefits, and costs.
Retaining credibility in the threat of military action.
            Whether Iranian leadership has taken seriously President Obama’s stated willingness to take military action to “prevent” Iran from getting a nuclear weapon has been called into question by critics. Their doubts would increase if the President decided to negotiate directly with Iran and put a serious offer on the table. Yet the more the President threatens the use of force, the more difficult it will be for Iran’s defiant leadership to consider any offer, and the more the President will be under pressure to use military force. 
            Maintaining sanctions while using them as bargaining chips. During negotiations, the United States will need to use the gradual lifting of sanctions as a bargaining chip; Iran will push for more and faster relief. Yet there are limits to what the President can deliver by Executive Order, without Congressional consent—and it will be critical to match the easing of pressure with verifiable Iranian cooperation on key nuclear issues.
            Evaluating Iran’s intentions. The latest U.S. intelligence assessments conclude that Iran could not divert safeguarded materials and produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb without those activities being detected. But as Iran continues to develop its enrichment program, the evaluation of Iranian intentions becomes more urgent and more problematic.
            Weighing the future value of engagement against Iran’s present antagonistic behavior. Iran’s continuing support for the Assad regime, to take one example, leads some experts to argue that talking with Iran would be unwise and fruitless. Yet some form of cooperation with Iran may be essential in post-Assad Syria. Near-term tactical issues will compete with and complicate long-term strategic opportunities on almost every issue in dealing with Iran.
            Preparations for talking with Iran: The belief of Iran’s Supreme Leader that the United States’ underlying objective is regime change has become an obstacle to progress in any negotiations. Once the President has made a decision to strengthen the diplomatic track of America’s Iran policy, the U.S. government will need to take active steps—rhetorical assurances will not suffice —to convince the Supreme Leader that the United States does not seek to overthrow his regime. Other early challenges for the President and his team, in addition to establishing a bilateral channel for regular talks, might be:
            Understanding what the U.S. wants, what Iran wants, and what both countries want. Iran likely wants respect, recognition of its role in the region, its full “rights” under international law and the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, U.S. forces out of the Middle East, lifting of all sanctions, and a single-state solution to the Israel–Palestine conflict (some Iranian leaders have said they would support any solution that is acceptable to the Palestinians), among other objectives.
            The United States likely wants full transparency of Iran’s nuclear program and constraints on Iran’s enrichment of uranium, cessation of Iranian threats against Israel and support for Hezbollah and Hamas, improved human rights practices, and a two-state solution to the Israel–Palestine conflict, among other priorities.
Iran and the U.S. both want a stable Iraq and Afghanistan, defeat ofAl Qaeda and Taliban, no military conflict In the region, Gulf stability, and cooperation on drug trafficking.
            Understanding problematic language and concepts. Iranians and Americans attach different interpretations to many words and phrases. The differences are not trivial and can disrupt and confuse discourse. For example, Iran wants “talks” and the U.S. seeks “negotiations”; Iran wants to begin by focusing on past complaints, while the United States prefers to focus right away on “practical next steps.”
Click here for the full text.

Iran Condemns Boston Attack, Slams U.S. Policy

            Iran's supreme leader condemned the two bomb blasts at the Boston Marathon, which killed three people and wounded more than 170 on April 15. But Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also slammed the United States for “silence toward the killing of innocents” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Syria. The whole world pays the price after an attack on Western countries, he said on April 17. Exceptionalism will lead to the “downfall” of the United States and others, Khamenei told soldiers and military commanders on Iran’s National Army Day.

            Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman also denounced the Boston attack. “Acts of extremism and terrorism have to be uprooted across the world, and no effort should be made to justify violence,” Ramin Mehmanparast said on April 15. He also warned against delisting terrorist organizations “under the pretext of supporting freedom.” Mehmanparast was almost certainly referencing the delisting of the Mujahedin-e Khalq by the United States and European countries within the last year.
The following are excerpted remarks by Khamenei and Mehmanparast.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
            “…[T]he Islamic Republic of Iran opposes and condemns any kind of explosion and killing of innocent people no matter where it takes place, whether in the United States, Boston or in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria…
            But the attitude of the United States and other states that pretend to be concerned with human rights and the killing of innocent individuals contradicts their silence toward the killing of innocents in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria…
            What kind of logic says if children and women in Afghanistan and Pakistan are killed by Americans, and if terrorists supported by the United States, the West, and the Zionists bring catastrophes to Iraq and Syria, this wouldn't matter? But if a blast hits the United States or a Western country, then the whole world has to pay the price?…This belief…in their own exceptionalism, will lead to their downfall…” April 17, in a speech on National Army Day
Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Ramin Mehmanparast
            “We believe all governments must try to maintain calm and security for everyone. Acts of extremism and terrorism have to be uprooted across the world and no effort should be made to justify violence… Allowing terrorist groups to operate, and delisting them from the blacklist of terrorist organizations under the pretext of supporting freedom will eventually lead to instability and disorder, and will affect all people…[T]he freedom to operate politically should not be a threat to innocent and ordinary lives.” April 15, during a press conference
Photo credit: Khamenei.ir via Facebook

Cartoonists Sketch Human Rights Abuses

            A new book on political cartoons confronts the most sensitive issues in Iran ― including censorship, electoral fraud, torture and women’s rights. Sketches of Iran: A Glimpse from the Front Lines of Human Rights, edited by Omid Memarian, depicts the pain and resiliency of Iranians who refuse to relinquish their rights.

            “These drawings depict defiance in the face of power. They are infused with a quiet determination. Their unflinching portrayal of suffering, as well as the occasional use of humor, resonates on an emotional level in a way no human rights report can,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. The following slideshow is a sampling of the 40 cartoons featured in the book.

Click here for information about the book.
Click here to read Hadi Ghaemi’s chapter on Iran’s judiciary from The Iran Primer.


Facebook in Iran: The Supreme Leader

Helia Ighani

            Iran’s supreme leader is big into social media. Over the past year, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has launched a Facebook page as well as Instagram, Google Plus and YouTube accountsdespite government bans on Facebook and YouTube. He has been on Twitter since 2009.
      The supreme leader’s social media appears aimed primarily at a regional and international audience. Most of his posts are in English, with some in Arabic or Spanish.
      On each site, Khamenei’s primary message is that the Islamic Republic is a rising power in the region and that its ideology has growing influence. He credits Iran for inspiring the Arab uprisings as part of a wider “Islamic awakening” that imitates the 1979 revolution.
      Up to 30 percent of Iranians get around the official blocks through Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) that are connected to foreign servers, Kamal Hadianfar, then chief of Iran’s cyber police, told Mehr News in June 2012. Some 17 million Iranians had Facebook accounts by October 2011, the technology director of the Student Basij militia told Fars News. In early 2012, the U.S. State Department estimated that there are up to 14 million Facebook users in Iran.
            Yet Iranians also make heavy use of domestic social media. In April 2013, four of the top 10 sites viewed in Iran were domestic blog hosts or imitations of Western sites, according to web information company Alexa. Popular Iranian services include Aparat, Cloob and Hadinet. Cloob, or the Iranian Virtual Society, features articles, chatrooms and instant messaging, photos, shopping, classifieds—all in accordance with Islamic law. Mehr is Iran’s heavily censored alternative to YouTube. But Iranian sites often suffer from technical problems.
            Google—the number one website in Iran—hosts one of the few Western social media platforms not blocked by Tehran. The supreme leader joined Google Plus in March 2012 and has posted dozens of graphics, enhanced photographs and dramatic videos probably to enhance his reputation with Iran’s technology savvy youth. The following is a rundown of Khamenei’s websites and social media accounts.
      Khamenei’s newest foray into social media is on Facebook. The supreme leader’s office has yet to acknowledge page’s authenticity but the postings are similar to other official sites. Khamenei advertised the creation of his Facebook page in December 2012 to his Google Plus followers.

      As of April 2013, Khamenei had more than 40,500  “likes.” He has posted photos with links to transcripts of his speeches. The page also has links to audio recordings on Soundcloud, a popular German site.

Click here to view his Facebook page.
Click here to view his Soundcloud page.
            The supreme leader joined Twitter on March 31, 2009. He had more than 10,100 followers four years later in April 2013. Khamenei uses Twitter as a hub for all his social media accounts, tweeting links to his other profiles on Instagram, Google Plus, and Facebook.
            The supreme leader‘s tweets are mainly in English and Farsi. The posts appeared frequently after protests erupted following the disputed June 2009 presidential election. Up to 3 million people took to Tehran’s streets to protest official claims that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won in a landslide. Khamenei tweeted up to 40 times a day while protestors used social media to relay images and information about demonstrations and the government crackdown.
            Khamenei’s very first English tweets endorsed the 2009 election results. He said the election was “a political earthquake for the enemies of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” He also dismissed the protestors’ complaints, claiming that “the competition between all candidates in Iranian election was transparent, free and explicit.”
            His tweets have often contained excerpts from speeches that condemn the United States and international sanctions on Iran. The tweets have frequently included inconsistent use of hashtags, typos, and poor English translations.

             Before Khamenei joined Instagram, he used to post more photos on Twitter. They documented his visits with global leaders and speeches across Iran. One twitpic summarized the “benefits of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s resistance in the nuclear issue,” with excerpts from Khamenei's 44 speeches on the nuclear program from 2004 to 2012.
      The top of the chart featured images of four nuclear scientists who were assassinated. To emphasize Tehran’s claim that its program is peaceful, the pictures are surrounded by white doves. (Click here to see the full size image).
      The supreme leader also criticized the United States after a YouTube film — produced in the United States— insulted the Prophet Mohammed. It triggered attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and beyond in September 2012. Khamenei tweeted “Nobody believes the American claim of supporting democracy.” More than a dozen other tweets defended the protests.
Click here to view his Twitter account.
Google Plus
            The supreme leader joined Google’s social media platform in March 2012. He has posted extensively on Google Plus in Farsi for his Iranian followers. In September 2012, the Iranian government banned Google extensions in response to the inflammatory video that caused anti-American riots. The ban was lifted on Gmail after one week, however, after members of parliament complained about their lost e-mail accounts. The 2009 block on YouTube, another Google extension, remained in effect.
            Khamenei’s Google Plus page has many photos of himself not published elsewhere. This page also features excerpts of his sermons. In April 2013, more than 8,000 people had added Khamenei to their circles.
Click here to view his Google Plus page.
            The supreme leader has uploaded more than a dozen videos since joining the popular video-sharing service in December 2012. The Islamic Republic banned YouTube in 2009, when protestors uploaded videos of the government crackdown on the Green Movement.
      Some YouTube clips of the Arab Spring protests are twinned with Khamenei’s speeches about the “Islamic Awakening” redefining the Middle East.
      In one particularly inflammatory video (left), a Palestinian child cries over her father’s dead body, while Israelis survey the scene. Khamenei’s channel had been viewed more than 13,000 times by April 2013.
Click here to view his YouTube channel.
            In August 2012, the supreme leader joined the fast growing photo-sharing mobile application. Despite the ban on Facebook, the Islamic Republic has not blocked Instagram, which is now owned by Facebook.
      The supreme leader has posted more than 200 photos on Instagram using the same handle as his Twitter account. As of April 2013, he had more than 2,200 followers.
      Instagram users enhance photos by using different colored lenses to add a “retro” feel to their images before sharing them. After the Non-Aligned Movement summit in August 2012, Khamenei posted a photo (left) of himself with former Cuban President Fidel Castro at the 1986 NAM summit.
      Khamenei's first postings prompted reactions from around the world, including both positive and negative comments in Hebrew, German, Spanish and English.     
      The supreme leader has used Instagram to promote the Islamic Republic’s technological and cultural achievements. One photo (left) shows Khamenei peering into a microscope at Tehran’s Royan Institute. The caption reads, “Iran is amongst 6 top countries in stem cell biology.”
      Many photos have produced critiques of Iranian policies—on women, homosexuality and support of extremist groups in the Middle East. One user wrote, “Ironic that this is being posted on an American-based app.”
      Some Instagram users have written sarcastic comments. One user commented on a photo of a little boy (left) wearing a sweater with a Disney cartoon character and a headband saying, “Khamenei, here I am [at your service].” The user wrote, “Pixar’s worst nightmare.”
Click here to view the supreme leader’s Instagram account.
Official Websites
            The supreme leader has two websites — one for his office and one as his personal website.
            The first website acts as an introductory course to Shiite Islam and the Islamic Republic’s system of government. It provides extensive information on the supreme leader's role and links to his writings and speeches.
            In a section on Islamic law, or Sharia, users send questions to Khamenei. Visitors have inquired about Islam’s view on dancing at weddings, wearing a tie, and plucking one’s eyebrows.
      The guide to fatwas, or religious decrees, covers themes such as prayer rituals, clothing, and pilgrimage. In some cases, Khamenei updates the fatwas of his predecessor.
      There is also a mobile application that monitors Khamenei’s daily activities, along with a RSS feed and newsfeed on the website.
Click here to view the Office of the Supreme Leader’s website.
The supreme leader’s personal website features an extensive archive of his publications, speeches, and photos. Most of his tweets link to information on this website.
The Persian language version of this website offers an SMS service for his subscribers who want constant updates on his events and recent statements.
Click here to view his personal website.
Click here to read the Iran Primer’s chapter on the supreme leader.
Helia Ighani is a graduate student at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs and a research assistant at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org


U.S. Offers Earthquake Aid to Iran, Pakistan

            On April 16, Secretary of State John Kerry offered assistance to Iran and Pakistan after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit their border. The epicenter of the quake ― Iran’s largest in more than 40 years ― was near the remote southeastern city of Khash. But the 51 mile depth of the quake reduced the impact on the surface. Iranian media outlets have reported conflicting information about the damage. The deputy governor of Sistan and Baluchistan province said that one woman was killed, and five others were injured. 

            But in Pakistan, more than 30 people were killed. Up to 150 others were injured, and hundreds of homes were damaged. Tremors were felt across the Gulf and northern India. The following is the full text of Kerry’s statement.
            The United States sends our deepest condolences for those lost in the earthquake in southeastern Iran and western Pakistan today. Our thoughts are with the families of those who were killed, those who were injured, and with those communities that have suffered damage to homes and property. We stand ready to offer assistance in this difficult time.



Connect With Us

Our Partners

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Logo