United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

US-Iran Timeline Since 1979

           The following is a chronology of key events in U.S.-Iran relations since the 1979 revolution.

Feb. 14 – Students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, but were evicted by the deputy foreign minister and Iranian security forces.
Aug. 10 – Iran canceled a $9 billion arms deal with the United States made during the shah's reign.
Nov. 4 – Students belonging to the Students Following the Imam’s Line seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The hostage crisis lasted 444 days. On Nov. 12, Washington cut off oil imports from Iran. On Nov. 14, President Carter issued Executive Order 12170 ordering a freeze on an estimated $6 billion of Iranian assets and official bank deposits in the United States.
April 7 – The United States cut off diplomatic relations with Iran.
April 25 – The United States attempted a rescue mission of the American hostages during Operation Eagle Claw. The mission failed due to a sandstorm and eight American servicemen were killed. Ayatollah Khomeini credited the failure to divine intervention. 
Jan. 20 – After weeks of mediation by Algeria, Washington and Tehran agreed to the Algiers Accord to end the hostage crisis. The United States agreed to release frozen Iranian assets and not to intervene in Iranian affairs, in exchange for the release of 52 American hostages. Both countries agreed to end lawsuits. All claims would be referred to international arbitration at a new Iran-U. S. Claims Tribunal in The Hague.
July 19 – American University of Beirut President David Dodge became the first of several Americans to be taken hostage over the next nine years. He was the only one taken from Lebanon to Iran, where he spent one year in prison.
Oct. 23 – The United States accused Iran of aiding the suicide bombing at the barracks of U.S. Marine peacekeepers in Lebanon, which killed 241 U.S. military personnel, the largest loss to the American military in a single incident since Iwo Jima in World War II.
Jan. 23 – The Reagan administration put Iran on the State Department list of governments supporting terrorism.
March – An Iran-supported militia in Beirut again began abducting American hostages, including CIA station chief William Buckley, who died in captivity.
Apr. 1 – Washington warned Iran it would be held responsible if American hostages were harmed. By mid-summer, Washington had begun behind-the-scene diplomatic efforts that led to the arms-for-hostage swap.
June 2 – During a visit to Japan, Parliamentary Speaker Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani called on the United States to restore relations with Iran. Later that month, he played a role in ending the hijacking of TWA 847, the 17-day hostage ordeal of 39 Americans in Beirut.
Aug. 14 – A shipment of U.S. TOW antitank missiles was sent to Tehran from Israel as part of the secret arms-for-hostage swap. The same day, Rev. Benjamin Weir became the first of three American hostages to be freed in Lebanon.
Nov. 22 – A shipment of HAWK anti-aircraft missiles was sent to Tehran from Israel as the second phase of an arms-for-hostage swap, but the deal fell far short of what was promised and Iran ordered a refund of payment and a resupply.
Jan. 17 – President Ronald Reagan signed a special finding to permit negotiations with Iran on hostages and to help promote “moderate” elements in Tehran. This was followed by a shipment of 1,000 TOW missiles to Iran at the end of February.
May 25-28 – Former national security adviser Robert McFarlane and Lt. Col. Oliver North made a secret trip to Iran to deliver arms. In July, American hostage Father Lawrence Jenco was freed in Lebanon. On Aug. 3, the United States delivered new HAWK missiles to Iran.
September – Two more Americans were taken hostage in Lebanon. On Sept. 19-20, an Iranian emissary related to Rafsanjani visited Washington for talks on arms, hostages and improved relations.
 October – During Operation Nimble Archer, the United States attacked Iranian oil platforms in retaliation for an Iranian attack on the U.S.-flagged Kuwaiti tanker, Sea Isle City.
October – American writer Edward Tracy was taken hostage in Lebanon. A few days later, the United States provided 1,000 TOW missiles to Iran. On Nov. 2, American hostage David Jacobsen was freed in Beirut.
Nov. 3 – The Lebanese magazine Ash-Shiraa exposed secret dealings between Iran, Israel and the United States, which became known as the “Iran-Contra affair.”
April 7 – Parliamentary speaker Rafsanjani said that Iran would try to mediate the release of American hostages in Lebanon if the United States showed “good will” by unfreezing Iranian assets in the United States. On May 13, the United States returned $450 million in frozen assets.
Apr. 14 – The frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts was badly damaged by an Iranian mine. U.S. forces responded with Operation Praying Mantis on April 18, the U. S. Navy’s largest engagement of surface warships since World War II. Two Iranian oil platforms, two Iranian ships and six Iranian gunboats were destroyed.
June 19 – The USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian passenger plane, killing 290 passengers and crew on board.
Nov. 3 – The United States returned $567 million of frozen Iranian assets, in accordance with the Algiers Accord of 1981. American officials denied the deal was linked to Iranian President Rafsanjani's offer to help in the release of hostages in Beirut. Iranian assets valued at $900 million remained frozen.
Jan. 20 – In his inaugural address, George H. W. Bush said, “good will begets good will,” in reference to Iran and American hostages held by pro-Iranian Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Dec. 4 – Terry Anderson, the last American hostage in Lebanon, was freed after Iranian intervention.
April – President Clinton gave what Congress later termed a “green light” for Iran to transfer arms to the Muslim government of Bosnia fighting Serbian forces. The permission came despite a United Nations arms embargo against Iran. In 1996, the Senate Intelligence Committee and the House Select Subcommittee confirmed the U.S. role in the Iranian arms transfer.
March 15 – The Rafsanjani government offered a billion-dollar contract to U.S. oil giant Conoco to develop two offshore oil fields, which was blocked after President Clinton signed an executive order banning U.S. investment in the Iranian oil industry.
May 6 – President Clinton issued a total embargo of U.S.-Iran trade and investment over the country’s alleged sponsorship of "terrorism," nuclear ambitions, and hostility to the Middle East peace process.
June – Iran was suspected of masterminding the June 25 bombing of Khobar Towers, a U.S. Air Force housing complex in Saudi Arabia. Subsequently, the Clinton administration sent a letter to President Khatami, transmitted by the foreign minister of Oman. The letter indicated that Washington had direct evidence of the Revolutionary Guards’ involvement in the attacks. The message also stated that the United States wanted to work toward better relations with Iran. Tehran’s response was brusque, denying the allegations.
Aug. 4 – President Clinton signed into law the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA), which penalized foreign companies doing business with the United States that also invested more than $20 million in the Iranian oil industry.
Jan. 7 - In an interview with CNN, President Khatami said Iran had an “intellectual affinity with the essence of American civilization” because it was also trying to construct a system based on the pillars of “religiosity, liberty, and justice.” He called for both countries to try to bring down the “wall of mistrust.”
March 17 – In a speech, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright apologized for America's role in the 1953 overthrow of democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. She admitted that the coup, which put the shah back on the throne after he fled into exile, “was clearly a setback for Iran's political development.” The Clinton administration partially lifted sanctions on Iranian carpets and foodstuffs. But Iran denounced the goodwill gesture because Albright’s speech ended by criticizing Iran’s domestic policies.
Sept. 27 – Ayatollah Khamenei and President Khatami condemned the al Qaeda 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington D.C.
October 8 – Supreme Leader Khamenei condemned U.S. strikes on Afghanistan. At the same time, Iran agreed to perform search-and-rescue missions for U.S. pilots who crashed on Iranian soil during the war.
October-December – After the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan ousted the Taliban, Iran cooperated with the United States, Russia and India in providing support for the Northern Alliance opposition to bring down the Taliban. Iranian diplomats met with their U.S. and other Western counterparts in Bonn to form a new Afghan government. Iran also worked with the United Nations to repatriate nearly 1 million Afghan refugees.
Jan. 29 – In his State of the Union address, President George W. Bush referred to Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an “axis of evil.”
March – Following the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, Syria and Iran intensified their cooperation to ensure they would not become Washington's next targets. They expanded bilateral defense cooperation and support to insurgent groups to tie down U.S.-led forces in Iraq.
May – A Swiss diplomat relayed Iranian conditions for bilateral talks to the Bush administration shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but it was not taken seriously in Washington.
Dec. 26 – A devastating earthquake hit the southeastern city of Bam, killing more than 26,000 people. On Dec. 30, the United States flew in an emergency response team. The military aircraft were the first U.S. planes to land in Iran in 20 years.
June 21 – Iran arrested six British sailors -- part of the U.S.-led force in Iraq—for trespassing into Iran’s territorial waters. As a blow to Britain, Tehran paraded the servicemen through the city and forced them to apologize. They were released three days later, after negotiations.
June – Former Revolutionary Guards commander and presidential candidate Mohsen Rezaei said Iran played a more significant part in the overthrow of the Taliban than given credit for by the United States. Washington consistently denied that Iranians made meaningful contributions.
June 16 – Iran and Syria signed an agreement for military cooperation against what they called the "common threats" presented by Israel and the United States. In a joint press conference, the defense ministers from the two countries said their talks had been aimed at consolidating their defense efforts and strengthening mutual support.
May 8 – President Ahmadinejad sent President Bush an 18-page letter.
Feb. 8 – Ayatollah Khamenei warned that Iran would target U.S. interests around the world if it came under attack over its nuclear program.
May 28 – Iran and the United States held the first official high-level talks in 27 years. The meeting, which took place in Baghdad, came after Iraq hosted a security conference attended by regional states and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. The talks were on Iraq’s security and were followed by two more rounds in July and November. The United States urged Tehran to stop supporting Shiite militias in Iraq. The talks ultimately did not lead anywhere and stopped after three meetings.
Sept. 6 – NATO forces in Afghanistan intercepted a large Iranian shipment of arms destined for the Taliban. The shipment included armor-piercing bombs. Washington said that the shipment’s large quantity was a sign that Iranian officials were at least aware of the shipment, even if not directly involved. Tehran denied the charges. 
October – U.S. military commander Gen. David Petraeus claimed Iran was triggering violence in Iraq. Petraeus also accused Iran’s ambassador to Iraq of being a member of the elite Qods Force, a wing of the Revolutionary Guards responsible for foreign operations.
Oct. 25 – Washington imposed the most sweeping unilateral sanctions since the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in 1979. It sanctioned the Revolutionary Guards and a few Iranian banks, and individuals believed to have links to nuclear and terror-related activities.
Sept. 20 – New York City officials denied President Ahmadinejad’s request to visit the site of Sept. 11 attacks during his visit to the United Nations.
December – A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003.
April – The United States accused Iran of continuing its alleged support of Taliban insurgents.
Sept. 24 – President Ahmadinejad spoke at the United Nations and Columbia University, where he criticized U.S. policy and said there were no homosexuals in Iran.
Nov. 6 – President Ahmadinejad wrote President-elect Barack Obama congratulating him on his election and urging “real change.”
Feb. 10 – In a speech marking the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, President Ahmadinejad welcomed talks with the United States based on “mutual respect and in a fair atmosphere.”
March 20 – President Barak Obama sent a Nowruz (Iranian New Year) message to the Iranian people and government that called for better relations. He also said that Iran’s place in the international community “cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions.”
March 20 – Ayatollah Khamenei referred to Obama’s speech as deceptive. In light of recent sanctions, he said Iran would judge the United States by its actions and not by its words.
May 1 – Iran rejected the April 2010 report by the U.S. State Department that designated Iran as the “most active state sponsor of terrorism.” Tehran said that the United States could not accuse others of terrorism after its actions at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay.
May – President Obama sent a letter to Ayatollah Khamenei before Iran’s June presidential elections that called for improved relations through “co-operation and regional bilateral relations.” Khamenei briefly mentioned the letter in his Friday sermon.
September – An Iranian news website reported a second letter sent by President Obama to Ayatollah Khamenei.
October – Iran blamed the United States and Britain for involvement in suicide bombings that killed 15 members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in southeastern Iran. The attack was carried out by the Sunni Muslim rebel group Jundollah, which Iran claimed was funded by the United States. The group had carried out a similar attack, killing 40, around five months earlier.
Oct. 21 – Iran agreed to a U.S.- and U.N.-backed deal designed to provide fuel for Tehran’s research reactor for medical needs and to remove a large part of Iran’s enriched uranium from its control. The deal called for the transfer of 1,200 kg of low-enriched uranium to Russia for further enrichment and then to France to produce fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor. But Iran later backed off from the agreement.
December – Gen. Petraeus accused Iran of backing Shiite militants in Iraq and giving a "modest level" of support to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
March 20 – President Obama sent a second Nowruz message to the Iranian government and people. The message encouraged dialogue between the two countries and criticized Iran’s human rights violations during post-election protests.
April 13 – President Ahmadinejad disclosed that he wrote a second letter to Obama. “Obama only has one way to tell the world that he has created change, and that is Iran,” he said in a televised interview.
June 26 – The U.S. Congress passed tough new sanctions against Iran’s energy sector and IRGC affiliated companies. Congress also called for penalties against companies that export gasoline and other refined energy products to Iran.
Dec.6-7 – Iran met in Geneva with members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany for negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. The group agreed to meet again in January 2011 in Istanbul. 
Jan. 21-22 – Nuclear negotiations held in Istanbul between P5+1 countries and Iran failed after Tehran refused to discuss transparent limits on its uranium enrichment program.
Feb. 24 – The United States imposed new sanctions on two top Iranian officials for engaging in “serious human rights abuses” since the disputed 2009 election.
March 20 – President Obama sent a third Nowruz message to Iran, directed specifically at Iran’s youth. The President addressed Iran’s young people, saying, “your talent, your hopes, and your choices will shape the future of Iran, and help light the world. And though times may seem dark, I want you to know that I am with you.”
May 23-24 – The E.U. imposed sanctions on more than 100 individuals and companies tied to Iran's nuclear program, while the United States sanctioned seven foreign companies involved in supplying Iran refined oil as well as sixteen firms and individuals involved in the missile and nuclear program.
Oct. 11 – The U.S. Treasury Department designated five individuals, including four senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force officers connected to a plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States.
Oct. 12 – The U.S. Treasury Department designated the Iranian commercial airline Mahan Air pursuant to Executive Order 13224 for providing financial, material and technological support to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force.
Nov. 21 - The United States, United Kingdom, and Canada announced bilateral sanctions on Iran. The United Kingdom severed all ties with Iranian banks.
Dec. 4 – Iran captured a U.S. dronenear the northeastern city of Kashmar and refused to return it to the United States.
Dec. 15 – The U.S. Senate passed new sanctions on Iran’s central bank.
Dec. 6 – The United States launched its Virtual Embassy Tehran website to provide a means for direct communication with Iranians.
Dec. 13 – The United States sanctioned two senior Iranian military officials for responsibility for or complicity in serious human rights abuses.
Dec. 20 – The United States issued new sanctions against front companies linked to Iran’s missile program.
Jan. 11 – The United States sanctioned three Chinese, UAE, and Singapore firms under the Amended Iran Sanctions Act.
Feb. 6 – The United States imposed sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank.
Feb. 16 – The United States imposed sanctions on Iran’s Intelligence Ministry.
March 6 – The P5+1 countries agreed to resume talks with Iran over its nuclear program.
March 20 – President Obama sent a fourth Nowruz message to the Iranian government and people. The message accused Iran of having an “Electronic Curtain,” criticizing the Iranian government’s internet censorship.
April 14 – P5+1 diplomats met in Istanbul with Iranians to discuss Tehran’s promised “new initiatives” on its nuclear program.
May 1 – The White House issued an Executive Order targeting foreign sanctions evaders. 
May 23-24 – The P5+1 held inconclusive talks with Iran in Baghdad.
June 18-19 – The P5+1 held inconclusive talks with Iran in Moscow.
June 11 – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced Iran sanctions exceptions for India, Malaysia, Republic of Korea, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Taiwan.
July 12 – The United States announced broad new sanctions on Iranian front companies and banks linked to the Tehran’s nuclear and missile programs. 
July 31 – The United States announced new sanctions on Iranian oil and foreign financial institutions that facilitate transactions for Iranian banks.
Aug. 2 – The U.S. Congress voted to impose new sanctions on Iran that target companies aiding Tehran’s energy sector. The Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Human Rights Act of 2012 differs from President Obama’s July 31 executive order by targeting companies conducting business with Iran’s national oil company and tanker fleet, such as insurers and shippers. 
Aug. 10 – The United States imposed sanctions on a Syrian state-run oil company, Sytrol, for conducting business with Iran’s energy sector.
Aug. 12 – The United States offered aid to Iran after two earthquakes reportedly hit almost 200 villages near the northwest city of Tabriz.
Sept. 28 – The U.S. State Department revoked the Mujahedin-e Khalq’s (MEK) designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. The leftist group had killed six Americans in Iran in the 1970s and attempted an attack against Iran’s U.N. mission in 1992. The State Department then added it to the terrorism list in 1997. But the MEK renounced violence in 2001 and no terrorist attacks have been positively linked to the organization for more than a decade.
Oct. 9 – The United States moved to tighten loopholes in its Iran sanctions. President Obama’s executive order aimed to implement additional punitive measures that he signed into law on August 10, 2012. 
Nov. 8 – The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned 17 individuals and entities related to the Iranian government’s human rights abuses, its support of terrorism, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
Nov. 30 – The U.S. Senate unanimously approved new sanctions on Iran’s energy and shipping sectors. 
Dec. 4 – Iran reported that it had captured a U.S. drone that entered its airspace over the Gulf, but the United States denied this claim.
Dec. 7 – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the renewal of Iran sanctions exceptions for China, India, Malaysia, Republic of Korea, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Taiwan.
Dec. 13 – The U.S. Treasury and State Department imposed sanctions on seven Iranian companies and five individuals for “proliferating weapons of mass destruction” pursuant to Executive Order 13382.
Dec. 21 – The U.S. Treasury froze the assets of four Iranian companies and one executive for links to Tehran’s missile and nuclear programs.
Feb. 2 – Vice President Joe Biden said that the United States was prepared to hold direct talks with Iran to resolve tensions over its controversial nuclear program.
Feb. 6 - The U.S. Treasury Department imposed new sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran and other financial institutions to restrict Tehran’s ability to spend oil revenues. It also designated one individual and four entities for involvement in censorship activities.
Feb. 7 – Iran released footage it claimed to have salvaged from a U.S. drone that it reportedly downed in 2011.
Feb. 7 – Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rejected the offer by Vice President Biden for direct talks. “Some naïve people like the idea of negotiating with America. However, negotiations will not solve the problem,” he said in a speech to Iranian Air Force commanders.
Feb. 11 – The U.S. Treasury Department imposed new nonproliferation sanctions on entities and individuals from Belarus, China, Iran, Sudan, Syria, and Venezuela. Credible information indicated that they had transferred to, or acquired from, Iran, North Korea, or Syria, equipment and technology related to weapons programs.
Feb. 16 – Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claimed that although Iran has no intention to build nuclear weapons, “America would not have been able to stop the Iranian nation in any way” in speech in Tabriz, Iran.
Feb. 20 – Ambassador Mohammad Khazaee welcomed recent U.S. calls for direct talks. He outlined steps the United States could take to prove its good faith, such as “discarding the two-track policy of pressure and engagement.”
Feb. 26 – The P5+1 held talks with Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
March 14 - The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned a Greek businessman and 14 companies for helping Iran evade international oil sanctions.
March 14 – The Pentagon reported that an Iranian fighter jet targeted a U.S. drone over the Gulf. No shots were fired and the jet left the area after a verbal warning.
March 18 – President Obama sent a fifth Nowruz message to Iran saying there could be a “new relationship” with Iran if it meets international obligations on its controversial nuclear program.
March 21 – Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said he is not opposed to direct talks with the United States in a speech marking Nowruz. But he is “not optimistic” about prospects for success if negotiations take place. He also claimed that the United States “doesn’t want the nuclear conflict to end.”
June 3 – The United States imposed sanctions for the first time on Iran’s currency, the rial. The executive order’s objective was to render the currency unusable outside of Iran, a senior administration official said during a conference call.
June 4 – The United States sanctioned a major network of front companies for hiding assets on behalf of Iranian leaders.
June 18 – The Group of Eight industrialized nations called on Iran to move “without delay” to fulfill its long-delayed obligations in answering questions about its controversial nuclear program. It also called on the international community to fully implement a several U.N. sanctions resolutions designed to pressure Tehran into compliance. 
July 1 – New U.S. sanctions banning gold sales and trade in gold with Iran went into effect.
Sept. 26 – Foreign ministers from P5+1 countries and Iran met on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly and agreed to hold a new round of talks in Geneva. Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif held their first meeting on the sidelines.
Sept. 27 – President Barack Obama called Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in what was the first direct communication between a U.S. and Iranian presidents since the 1979 revolution. “The two of us discussed our ongoing efforts to reach an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program,” Obama said at a White House briefing.
Oct. 15-16 – Diplomats from P5+1 countries and Iran met in Geneva to solve the nuclear dispute. They committed to meeting in November to continue talks that were “substantive and forward looking.”
Nov. 7-10 – Iran and the P5+1 made significant headway but ultimately failed to finalize an agreement. Foreign ministers rushed to Geneva as a breakthrough appeared imminent. But last-minute differences, reportedly spurred by French demands for tougher terms, blocked a deal.
Nov. 24 – Iran and the P5+1 reached an interim agreement that would significantly constrain Tehran’s nuclear program for six months in exchange for modest sanctions relief. Iran pledged to neutralize its stockpile of near-20 percent enriched uranium, halt enrichment above five percent and stop installing centrifuges. Tehran also committed to halt construction of the Arak heavy-water reactor.


Obama Says No to New Sanctions for Now

            On November 14, President Barack Obama urged Congress to give diplomacy a chance ahead of another round of talks with Iran. He also pledged to not lift key sanctions on the oil, banking and finance sectors as part of an interim deal. Tehran is scheduled to meet the world’s six major powers on November 20. The following is an excerpt from Obama’s statement.

QUESTION:  Do you have reason to believe that Iran would walk away from nuclear talks if Congress draws up new sanctions?  And would a diplomatic breakdown at this stage leave you no option but military action?  And how do you respond to your critics on the Hill who say that it was only tough sanctions that got Iran to the table, but only tougher sanctions will make it capitulate?
THE PRESIDENT:  Well, let me make a couple of points.  Number one, I've said before and I will repeat:  We do not want Iran having nuclear weapons.  And it would be not only dangerous to us and our allies, but it would be destabilizing to the entire region, and could trigger a nuclear arms race that would make life much more dangerous for all of us.  So our policy is Iran cannot have nuclear weapons.  And I'm leaving all options on the table to make sure that we meet that goal.
Point number two:  The reason we've got such vigorous sanctions is because I and my administration put in place, when I came into office, the international structure to have the most effective sanctions ever.  And so I think it's fair to say that I know a little bit about sanctions, since we've set them up, and made sure that we mobilize the entire international community so that there weren't a lot of loopholes and they really had bite.
And the intention in setting up those sanctions always was to bring the Iranians to the table so that we could resolve this issue peacefully, because that is my preference.  That's my preference because any armed conflict has cost to it, but it's also my preference because the best way to assure that a country does not have nuclear weapons is that they are making a decision not to have nuclear weapons, and we're in a position to verify that they don't have nuclear weapons.
So as a consequence of the sanctions that we put in place  -- and I appreciate all the help, bipartisan help, that we received from Congress in making that happen -- Iran's economy has been crippled.  They had a -5 percent growth rate last year.  Their currency plummeted.  They're having significant problems in just the day-to-day economy on the ground in Iran.  And President Rouhani made a decision that he was prepared to come and have a conversation with the international community about what they could do to solve this problem with us.
We've now had a series of conversations, and it has never been realistic that we would resolve the entire problem all at once.  What we have done is seen the possibility of an agreement in which Iran would halt advances on its program; that it would dilute some of the highly enriched uranium that makes it easier for them to potentially produce a weapon; that they are subjecting themselves to much more vigorous inspections so that we know exactly what they’re doing at all their various facilities; and that that would then provide time and space for us to test, over a certain period of months, whether or not they are prepared to actually resolve this issue to the satisfaction of the international community -- making us confident that, in fact, they’re not pursuing a nuclear weapons program.
In return, the basic structure of what’s been talked about, although not completed, is that we would provide very modest relief at the margins of the sanctions that we’ve set up.  But importantly, we would leave in place the core sanctions that are most effective and have most impact on the Iranian economy, specifically oil sanctions and sanctions with respect to banks and financing.  And what that gives us is the opportunity to test how serious are they, but it also gives us an assurance that if it turns out six months from now that they’re not serious, we can crank -- we can dial those sanctions right back up. 
So my message to Congress has been that, let’s see if this short-term, phase-one deal can be completed to our satisfaction where we’re absolutely certain that while we’re talking with the Iranians, they’re not busy advancing their program.  We can buy some additional months in terms of their breakout capacity.  Let’s test how willing they are to actually resolve this diplomatically and peacefully.
We will have lost nothing if, at the end of the day, it turns out that they are not prepared to provide the international community the hard proof and assurances necessary for us to know that they’re not pursuing a nuclear weapon.  And if that turns out to be the case, then not only is our entire sanctions infrastructure still in place, not only are they still losing money from the fact that they can’t sell their oil and get revenue from their oil as easily, even throughout these talks, but other options remain.
But what I’ve said to members of Congress is that if, in fact, we’re serious about trying to resolve this diplomatically -- because no matter how good our military is, military options are always messy, they’re always difficult, always have unintended consequences, and in this situation are never complete in terms of making us certain that they don’t then go out and pursue even more vigorously nuclear weapons in the future -- if we’re serious about pursuing diplomacy, then there’s no need for us to add new sanctions on top of the sanctions that are already very effective and that brought them to the table in the first place.
Now, if it turns out they can’t deliver, they can’t come to the table in a serious way and get this issue resolved, the sanctions can be ramped back up.  And we’ve got that option.
Click here for the full statement.

Kerry to Congress: Allow Time for Talks

            On November 14, Secretary of State John Kerry warned that passing new U.S. sanctions could encourage Iranian hardliners to undermine talks on Tehran’s controversial nuclear program. They would “hold President [Hassan] Rouhani and Foreign Minister [Mohammad Javad] Zarif accountable” for what Iranians would view as a “bad-faith step” by the United States, Kerry argued on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” The Obama administration is now asking Congress to allow “time to be able to negotiate and present a good deal that will be able to protect Israel, protect our interests, protect the region, and guarantee… Iran will not be able to get a nuclear weapon,” said Kerry. The following is a transcript of the interview.

MS. BRZEZINSKI: Let’s talk about the Iran nuclear talks. There were so many initial signs of hope, positive signs. What’s the status at this point?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’re still hopeful. I think what’s critical is to focus, first of all, on the President’s policy. The President’s policy is that under no circumstances will Iran get a nuclear weapon. That is a centerpiece of Obama foreign policy. He’s made that pledge any number of times, and that is the policy that we’re pursuing. But I was in the Senate. I was Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee at the time when we passed the sanctions bill, and I helped to pass it, believe in them, and the reason we passed the sanctions was to be able to negotiate. The sanctions are working. We’re now able to negotiate. What we’re really asking the Congress to do is give us the time to be able to negotiate and present a good deal that will be able to protect Israel, protect our interests, protect the region, and guarantee – I mean, guarantee, failsafe, that Iran will not be able to get a nuclear weapon. It’s a pretty simple proposition.
MS. BRZEZINSKI: I understand that, that simple math you’re doing. Yesterday though, you told everyone – you told reporters – everybody – that they need to calm down about the prospect of postponing new sanctions on Iran. But I guess some might ask why we would even be considering easing sanctions.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’re – in fact, the core sanctions regime does not really get eased. Ninety-five percent or more of the current sanctions will remain in place. Iran was bringing in about 110 billion, maybe a 120 billion a year in income from its oil revenues and banking and so forth. That has been knocked down to about 40 to 45 billion now because of the sanctions, and that 45 billion is frozen in banks around the world. They can’t access it. All we’re talking about doing is a tiny portion of that would be released, because you have to do something in order to make it worthwhile for them to say, “Yes, we’re going to lock our program where it is in today, and actually roll it back.”
The President’s plan on Iran would actually expand the current breakout time. If we don’t negotiate and we don’t get this agreement, the exact opposite happens. The breakout time contracts, the world becomes more dangerous, and there is nothing to suggest that Iran is just going to up and say okay, we’re going to do this because you’ve increased your sanctions. In fact, increasing the sanctions would be viewed by Iran as a bad-faith step by the United States --
SECRETARY KERRY: -- and it will encourage the hardliners in Iran to hold President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif accountable for dealing with us at all because we don’t operate in good faith. And then we’re locked into the next whatever number of years of a standoff. But a standoff in this circumstance which becomes far more dangerous for Israel – our ally and friend – far more dangerous for the region, may even push other countries to nuclearize, and could result in the requirement that we have to, rather than have a negotiated, peaceful resolution of this, take military action in order to secure our goals.
MS. BRZEZINSKI: Robert Gibbs.
MR. GIBBS: Mr. Secretary, you have a week before the next round of talks. You’ve had this back and forth between some saying the French decided this wasn’t a good deal --
MR. GIBBS: -- the United States did, or even Iran may have walked away. I’m interested in how do you talk to and what do you say to Prime Minister Netanyahu between now and the beginning of those talks next week that the path that you’re pursuing is best for them and what do you say specifically around Iran’s continued enrichment abilities or continue to build a nuclear reactor for plutonium enrichment?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’re not going to let them do that, first of all. I mean, we’ve made it clear to our friends up on the Hill that each of those critical enrichment facilities are part of this agreement, and none of them will be able to progress further if we get this first step. That’s how we begin to roll back the program and hold it where it is. So that’s an essential component of this.
But I’ve had several conversations with Prime Minister Netanyahu this week. In fact, literally just before coming here, I hung up the phone with Prime Minister Netanyahu. And we’re having a very friendly and civil conversation about this. I respect completely his deep concerns as a Prime Minister of Israel should have about the existential nature of this threat to Israel. We understand that, which is why President Obama has made this firm commitment that Iran will never get a nuclear weapon.
Now what we agree on – what we disagree on is not the goal. We all agree on the goal; we disagree on a tactic. We believe that you need to take this first step and that you will not get Iran to simply surrender and believe you’re dealing in good faith if after two years of negotiating you don’t follow through on --
SECRETARY KERRY: -- what’s on the table. But Bibi, the Prime Minister – Netanyahu believes that you can increase the sanctions, put the pressure on even further, and that somehow that’s going to force them to do what they haven’t been willing to do at any time previously. We just don’t agree with that as a – but I don’t want to go into the – I mean, what’s important here is we stand with Israel firmly – 100 percent. There’s no distance between us about the danger of this program, and the end game for us is exactly the same. Iran cannot have a peaceful nuclear program that is, in fact, a deceptive program or a program geared to allow them breakout. There’ll have to be failsafe mechanisms, absolute clarity about the processes which will guarantee it is peaceful program. That’s our mutual goal.
MS. BRZEZINSKI: Yeah. Mr. Secretary, Steve Ratner has a question for you.
MR. RATNER: Quick last question, I think, Mr. Secretary. Sir, you laid out your case very unemotionally, very clearly, very logically. Why are you having so much trouble with so many of your former colleagues, including Senator Corker, the ranking minority, Senator Schumer --
MS. BRZEZINSKI: Yes, there is that.
MR. RATTNER: -- the number three Democrat, and so forth.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, there are a lot of reasons for that, Steve. I’m not going to enumerate all of them now except to say that every senator is entitled to be skeptical, entitled to ask tough questions. They did yesterday and they will – and we’ll answer them. And we’ll answer their questions. I’m going to continue to talk to senators in the next days. I believe that what we are doing is – and the President believes this very deeply – is the best first step that will actually make Israel safer. It will extend the breakout time. If we don’t get this first step, not only will that breakout time shrink, but Iran may interpret the congressional reaction of wanting to increase sanctions as bad faith on our part, an unwillingness to, in fact, negotiate, and it may drive the hardliners even more into a commitment that they have to have the weapon.
These are difficult judgments. We each come to the table with our input and our information. I respect their positions, but we respectfully believe that the Executive Branch of government under the Constitution deserves the right to negotiate and present them with something and that this is not the moment to second guess that process when two years have gone in to creating the trust and common understanding that has been building to bring us to this moment. We believe we ought to be able to get the first step, and again I reiterate, our goal is the same: no nuclear weapon capacity; they must adhere to the strictest standards.


UN Report: Iran Has Slowed Nuclear Program

            Iran has virtually halted upgrading its uranium enrichment capacity, according to the latest quarterly report from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Since August, around the time President Hassan Rouhani took office, Tehran also has not added any major components to the heavy-water reactor at Arak. The following are excerpts from the Arms Control Association’s analysis on the report’s key findings.  

The November IAEA Report on Iran’s Nuclear Program:
No Significant Advances
Kelsey Davenport, Daryl G. Kimball, and Greg Thielmann
            According to the November 14, 2013 report, Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent enriched material only increased slightly to 196 kilograms. This keeps Iran well below the required amount which, when further enriched is enough for one nuclear weapon.
Key Highlights from the Report:
  • Iran and the IAEA made progress on a framework agreement to address the agency’s outstanding concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. On November 11, the two sides signed a framework for cooperation, which includes six initial actions to be taken by Iran within the first three months.
  • Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium is at 196 kilograms, an increase of only about 10 kilograms since August 2013, because Iran is continuing to convert 20 percent uranium hexafluoride gas into powder. The stockpile remains below the estimated 240-250 kilograms which, when further enriched to weapons grade, would be enough for one nuclear weapon.
  • The IAEA reports no additional major components of the Arak heavy water reactor were installed since August, although Iran continues to make progress on construction. However, Iran has still not provided the IAEA with updated design information on the reactor. Iran anticipates a start date of mid-2014. However, with the Nov. 11 agreement, the IAEA now will be able to access the Heavy Water Production Plant at the Arak site, which would supply the reactor.
  • Since the August report, Iran has only installed 4 additional IR-1 centrifuges. In total, Iran has about 10,000 IR-1 centrifuges operating at Natanz and Fordow.
  • Iran installed no new IR-2M centrifuges, leaving the total at 1,008 advanced (IR-2M) centrifuges at Natanz. These centrifuges are not yet producing enriched uranium.
  • The number of centrifuges enriching uranium to 20 percent at Fordow remains constant at 696.
Less than a Bomb’s Worth of 20 Percent Enriched Uranium
            Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium is one of the most urgent proliferation concerns and is one that would be addressed the potential “first phase” agreement. Iran produces uranium enriched to 3.5 percent (reactor grade) and 20 percent (for research reactors.) About 90 percent of the work to enrich to weapons grade (over 90 percent enriched U-235) has occurred by the time enrichment reaches 20 percent.
            According to the November 2013 IAEA report, Iran currently has a stockpile of 196 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride gas enriched to 20 percent, only a slight increase since the IAEA’s August 2013 report, when Iran had 185 kilograms available. Approximately 240-250 kilograms which, when further enriched to weapons grade, is enough for one bomb.
            Iran is continuing to produce uranium enriched to the 20 percent level at a relatively constant rate of 15 kilograms a month. In total, Iran has produced 410 kilograms of 20 percent enriched material, an increase of about 38 kilograms from the 372 kilograms reported by the IAEA in August 2013…
No New Advanced Centrifuges
            Iran’s deployment of advanced centrifuges in its commercial scale uranium enrichment plant at the Natanz facility poses a significant proliferation concern because these advanced centrifuges, the IR-2Ms, would likely enrich uranium 3-4 times more efficiently than the model that Iran is currently using (the IR-1) for all its enrichment activities.
            Iran has currently installed 1,008 IR-2M centrifuges in one unit at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant, the same number reported by the agency as of August 2013. Preparatory installation work is underway on a further 12 cascades, according to the agency’s November report.
            None of the IR-2Ms are enriching uranium at this point, although they have been vacuum tested. Iran has said that when running, the IR-2Ms will produce reactor grade uranium, which is enriched to 3.5 percent…
Only Four New IR-1s at Natanz
            In the remaining units at Natanz, Iran has installed 15,420 IR-1 centrifuges to produce uranium enriched to 3.5 percent, of which approximately 8,700 are operational in 52 cascades. Iran only installed four IR-1 centrifuges since the August report, a dramatic decrease from the over 1,800 it installed between May and August 2013…
No Major Developments at Arak
            The Arak heavy water reactor is a long-term proliferation concern because it is relatively well-suited to produce plutonium. UN Security Council resolutions have called on Iran to halt construction on the reactor completely.
            According to the November 2013 IAEA report, Iran continues to move make progress on the construction of the Arak IR-40 heavy water reactor. The IAEA reported that Iran completed connecting the reactor vessel to the cooling and moderator piping, but did not complete the installation of any “major components,” since the previous report in August. Arak is not scheduled to become operational until mid-2014, according to an August 25 letter from Iran to the agency, a delay from the IAEA’s May 2013 report, when Iran estimated early 2014 as the probably start date…
Click here for the Arms Control Association blog.
Click here for the IAEA report.

Part I: Opposition to a Deal - The Gulf

Robin Wright and Garrett Nada

            The new diplomacy between Iran and the world’s six major powers faces growing opposition from key players in the Middle East, including the oil-rich and influential Gulf states. The Sunni sheikhdoms are nervous the Shiite theocracy will do a deal on its nuclear program that leaves Tehran with a residual capability to eventually build a bomb, either by retaining basic knowledge of a weapons program or controlling the pivotal fuel production for a weapon.
            More broadly, however, Saudi Arabia and the smaller monarchies fear that a diplomatic deal will allow rival Iran to shed its pariah status and reemerge as the Gulf powerhouse—to their disadvantage. Iran’s split with the West after the 1979 revolution had increased the influence of Saudi Arabia particularly as an alternative pillar of U.S. policy. A deal on Iran’s nuclear program could in turn lead to rapprochement with Washington that would diminish Gulf leverage.
            Tensions between Iran and its Gulf neighbors have not eased despite new President Hassan Rouhani’s call for improving relations between Tehran and Riyadh. “We are not only neighbors, we are brothers,” he said shortly after his election in June. “We have had very close relations, culturally, historically and regionally.” He emphasized this point in a tweet following his October 15 call with Qatar's emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani.
            But suspicions remain deep. After the Iranian and Saudi foreign ministers met this fall, Prince Saud al Faisal was openly skeptical. “What we want now is to see that desire materialize on the ground,” he said. “They preach what they do not practice, and practice what they do not say.”
            Opposition to a deal plays out on four levels:
            • Iran’s military capabilities.
            • The sectarian balance of power between Shiite Iran and the Sunni sheikhdoms.
            • The ethnic balance between Persians and Arabs.
            • Ties with the United States.
The Military Balance
            The Gulf sheikhdoms are concerned that even a nuclear capability – no bomb, but the ability to assemble a weapon in a short time – would change the strategic balance of power in Iran’s favor. 
      Iran currently has more conventional and unconventional troops than the six sheikhdoms in the Gulf Cooperation Council combined. Tehran has more than twice as many ground, air and naval forces as Saudi Arabia, its main rival and the largest of the GCC countries. But the GCC has a potential advantage in quality of armor, artillery and mobility. The six sheikhdoms collectively have more combat planes--666 fixed wing combat aircraft that are also more advanced than Iran’s 334 largely outdated planes. The Gulf navies collectively have some 598 crafts, while Iran has about 280. Iran’s forces would probably not be able to sustain a long campaign against GCC forces, especially if they were backed by the United States.*
            A nuclear capability would be a game-changer, however. The sheikhdoms are particularly concerned that Iran might use the mere knowledge of how to produce the world’s deadliest weapon to increase its regional leverage, intimidate rivals, promote its revolutionary ideology, and control the Gulf waters through which some 40 percent of the world’s oil flows.
As a result, Saudi Arabia and its neighboring sheikhdoms Gulf would prefer virtually the same limits on Iran’s program demanded by Israel, including closure of key facilities and an end to enrichment of uranium.
The Sectarian Balance
            The rivalry between the Gulf and Iran actually predates the 1979 revolution. It reflects the deepest schism within the Islamic world dating back to the seventh-century split between Sunnis and Shiites.
            Iran has the world’s largest Shiite population; it is the only country led by Shiite clergy. Both factors made it the de facto leader of the Shiite world politically, even though the key center of Shiite scholarship is in Iraq.
            Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam and the guardian of its two holiest sites. The Gulf sheikhdoms are all ruled by Sunni monarchies, but all have Shiite populations. Shiites are the majority in Bahrain, where many have been involved in protests against the government since 2011. Saudi Arabia has more than 2 million Shiites, many of whom live and work in the oil-fields of the restive Eastern Province.
             Both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have long claimed that Iran was trying to foment unrest among their Shiite minorities. “Clerical authorities in Iran still tend to act as if they lead the Islamic World--issuing ultimatums, intimidating their neighbors, and inciting dissidence and revolution,” Prince Turki al Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief, said in October.
            Numerically, Iran’s 79 million population is almost twice as large as the 45 million people who populate the six Gulf sheikhdoms, especially since the Gulf numbers include foreign residents. The Sunni monarchies are concerned that Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear capability might lead the Shiite theocracy to more actively support their brethren inside the Gulf sheikhdoms.

The Ethnic Balance
            Gulf fears about Iran also have roots in centuries-old competition between Arabs and Persians for regional dominance. Tensions played out most recently during the eight-year war between the Arab regime in Iraq and the Persians of Iran in the 1980s. It was sparked by rival claims on the strategic Shatt-al Arab waterway along their border, but it was more broadly about regional influence. The Iran-Iraq war still ranks as the bloodiest conflict in the modern Middle East, producing more than 1 million casualties.
            Again numerically, Iran’s Persians significantly outnumber the Gulf Arabs. Half of the sheikhdoms also have Persian minorities. The Gulf sheikhdoms fear that an Iran with even a nuclear capability would give the Persians greater leverage over key regional issues, from oil prices to control of transportation routes. Gulf Arabs even oppose calling the strategic waterway that divides Iran and the sheikhdoms the “Persian” Gulf because it implies Iranian control or influence.
            “The Iranian leadership’s meddling in Arab countries is backfiring,” Prince Turki said. “Arabs will not be forced to wear a political suit tailored in Washington, London, or Paris. They also reject even the fanciest garb cut by the most skillful tailor in Tehran.”
U.S. Ties
            Saudi Arabia has been one of two pillars of U.S. policy in the Arab world —along with Egypt—since the late 1970s. After Iran’s 1979 revolution, the United States had both strategic and economic interests in giving GCC forces a qualitative edge over Iran. It invested heavily in the modernization of Gulf militaries through arms transfers worth tens of billions of dollars. In turn, the Gulf’s defense strategy against revolutionary Iran has been based on close security ties with the United States.
            Iran’s new diplomacy—including the first meeting between the Iranian and American foreign ministers in September—has left the Gulf states feeling more vulnerable. The unprecedented phone call between President Obama and President Hassan Rouhani was especially unnerving for the ruling sheikhs, who view a potential U.S.-Iran rapprochement as harmful to both their relations with Washington and their own long-term interests. Abdullah al Askar, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Saudi Arabia's Shoura Council, reflected local sentiment. “If America and Iran reach an understanding,” he told Reuters, “it may be at the cost of the Arab world and the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia."
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.
Garrett Nada is a senior program assistant at USIP.
* Based on “The Gulf Military Balance” report by Anthony Cordesman and Bryan Gold. Click here for Cordesman’s chapter on Iran’s conventional military.
* *Based on estimates derived from the U.S. State Department and CIA World Factbook figures
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