United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Iran Expanding Naval Power

      Iran is expanding its maritime territorial claims while strengthening naval ties with China and Russia, according to a new Institute for the Study of War report. Tehran reduced the size, scope and duration of local naval exercises during the past year. But it also increased long-range deployments, reinforcing Iranian claims to the Tunb Islands in the Strait of Hormuz and territorial waters in the Caspian Sea. Iran has also supported Russian ships on long deployments and dispatched ships to the Pacific in coordination with China. The following is an excerpt from the executive summary, with a link to the full text at the end.

            Iran’s maritime forces, the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy (IRGCN), as well as its commercial shipping fleet, the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), are being used in specific, definable ways to further Iran’s strategic objectives. In the recent past, Iran has decreased the size, scope, and geographic reach of several of its maritime exercises. Considered in isolation, a reduction in maritime exercises might appear to be evidence that Iran’s maritime capability is in decline, or that it does not have adequate resources to execute maritime operations in support of its strategic objectives.
            A holistic view of the evidence, however, reveals that at the same time Iran has reduced the size, scope and reach of its local maritime exercises, it has also taken three distinct actions that reflect its broad, strategic ambitions. First, Iran has reprioritized some of its local maritime exercises towards solidifying or expanding territorial claims in the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, and Caspian Sea. Second, IRIN has significantly increased its long-range deployments in support of strategic relationships with key partners. Third, at the same time that IRISL is being used to support Iranian objectives logistically, IRIN may also be conducting similar operations. Taken as a whole, these three trends indicate Iran is modifying and expanding its maritime activities in support of strategic objectives.
            Iran has physical control over the Persian Gulf islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and Lesser Tunb. These islands are strategically located just outside the Strait of Hormuz, in the Persian Gulf. Although the United Arab Emirates (UAE) claims legal ownership of the islands, the physical possession of the islands is not in dispute — Iran has military garrisons and commercial ventures in place on each of these islands. By conducting short range exercises that highlight control over the disputed islands, Iran hopes to solidify its legal claim to the islands, as well as highlight its military capability to potential enemies. Iranian claims to the disputed islands also factor into legal claims that it should control access to the Strait of Hormuz.
            In a similar vein, Iran has used the IRIN to increase its territorial claims in the Caspian Sea. Iran has a standing, internationally recognized claim to 12% of the Caspian Sea; Iran claims that it is actually due 20% of the Caspian Sea. In 2012, Iran launched the destroyer Jamaran-2 in the Caspian Sea, and also conducted a maritime minelaying and minesweeping exercise. This ship and the exercises are clearly designed to increase Iranian territorial claims to the mineral-rich Caspian Sea and the lucrative caviar fisheries there.
Iran has an existing relationship with China that extends far behind the commercial aspect of China importing Iranian oil. China has exported significant military equipment to Iran, and provided key enabling technologies to the Iranian military industrial complex. IRIN deployments to China serve to solidify that existing relationship and expand it. By conducting long-range deployments to the Pacific, IRIN validates that it is a capable, reliable partner that China can trust.
            Iran and Russia are partners in supporting the Assad regime in Syria, and they have common interests in the Caspian Sea and Caucasus region. At the same time IRIN is conducting long range deployments to the Pacific and solidifying Iran’s relationship with China, IRIN is increasing support to Russian Navy ships on long deployments. IRIN has made its base at Bandar Abbas available to the Russian Navy as a friendly and secure port where Russian Navy ships can refuel, resupply, and make repairs. This practice makes Russian Navy deployments from their Pacific Fleet homeport of Vladivostok to the Russian Navy Base at Tartus, Syria far more sustainable.
            Sudan and Iran partner in the conveyance of Iranian military equipment bound for Iranian proxies or customers in the Mediterranean. The majority of weapons transfer from Iran to the Mediterranean takes place via smugglers, who use small, privately owned dhows to convey weapons and ammunition from Iran to the Sudan coast on the Red Sea, and from there via overland transfer to the Mediterranean. IRIN has been conducting recurrent port calls to Port Sudan that serve to strengthen the relationship between Iran and Sudan. These port calls may also be used to transfer weapons, ammunition, and other supplies directly from Iran to Sudan and vice versa.

Click here for the full text.

Photo credit: Khamenei.ir via Facebook

Iran: Record High Foreign Investment

            Foreign direct investment in Iran surpassed $4.8 billion in 2012, a record high for the Islamic Republic according to a new U.N. report. Global foreign direct investment fell 18 percent to $1.35 trillion in 2012 while investment in Iran actually grew 17 percent. Iran was the second largest recipient of foreign investment in South Asia in 2012. About 76 percent of foreign investment went to Iran’s oil sector — despite international sanctions.
            “We are among the six countries that have had a constant increase in attracting foreign investors. It shows that Iran has a good economic capacity to attract foreign companies and the domestic private sector,” Deputy Minister of Economy Behrouz Alishiri said on June 30. State media reported that Iran attracted some $24.4 billion in foreign investment during President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s tenure (2005 - 2013), more than under previous presidents. Tehran attracted $10.452 billion under Mohammad Khatami (1997 – 2005) and $350 million under Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989 – 1997), according to government statistics.
            The following are excerpts from the 2013 World Investment Report by the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development.



Iran Willing to Accept Syrian Peace Talks?

Jubin Goodarzi
      Iran may be searching for an exit strategy in Syria. Tehran initially supported President Bashar Assad’s crackdown on the rebels since Syria is a frontline against the West and Israel. But Iran’s position on the conflict has evolved since fighting erupted in mid-2011. Tehran actually now has several incentives to support Syrian peace negotiations. Talks could prevent the spillover of violence into Iraq and Lebanon, both countries where Shiites have a strong political presence. Tehran might also be able to press for a national unity government that is not be hostile to Iran, while building up regional goodwill. The following is a rundown of the numbers game on Iran’s involvement in Syria since the crisis erupted in March 2011.

Iran’s Position on Syria has evolved through five phases:
  • Spring 2011 – Tehran issued steadfast support for President Bashar Assad.
  • Summer 2011 – Iran showed the first public signs of doubts, including negotiations with the Syrian opposition.
  • Fall 2011 to Winter 2012 – The conflict emerged as a proxy way. Iran demonstrated stalwart support for the Assad regime.
  • Spring/Summer 2012 – Tehran publically supported multilateral negotiations mediated by the United Nations and Arab League
  • Fall 2012 to present – Iran continued backing for Damascus while exploring other options and exit strategies.
Tehran has provided Damascus seven types of aid:
• Crowd control equipment and technical aid
• Guidance and assistance on monitoring the Internet and mobile telephone network
• Financial resources
• Arms and ammunition (via Iraq)
• Oil shipments (via sea)
• Provide personnel and specialist units
• Training for the National Defense Army
Iran has six incentives to support a negotiated settlement:

• Contain damage and cut losses because the pre-March 2011 status quo cannot be restored in Syria
• Prevent the dissolution of Syria and spillover of conflict into Lebanon and Iraq
• Demonstrate Iran’s importance as a key regional actor
• Avoid further polarization and total transformation of conflict into a regional sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites
• Facilitate the emergence of a national unity government in Damascus that is not hostile to Iran
• Free up resources to solve Iran’s own domestic issues and deal with foreign sanctions

Click here for a summary of the event by the Woodrow Wilson Center Middle East Program.

Jubin Goodarzi, a professor of International Relations at Webster University Geneva, Switzerland, is author of, "Syria and Iran: Diplomatic Alliance and Power Politics in the Middle East." 


Gallup: Half of Iran Lacks Funds for Basics

             Iranian residents' election of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani to the presidency has been widely interpreted as evidence of their desire for meaningful change in the country. Rouhani will preside over an increasingly distressed population: Half of Iranians say there have been times in the past year when they have had trouble paying for adequate shelter and for food their families needed. In each case, the 50% figure is the highest among 19 populations in the Middle East and North Africa region that Gallup surveyed in 2012 and 2013.


            Gallup trends also reveal that Iranians' emotional wellbeing has deteriorated over the past two years. Currently, more than half say they felt a lot of worry (58%), sadness (54%), and anger (54%) during much of the day prior to the interview. All these figures have risen substantially since 2011 and are now among the highest in the region.

            The rising prevalence of anger in Iran may be particularly troubling to U.S. leaders. Almost half of Iranians (46%) say they hold the U.S. responsible for the international sanctions on their country, while 13% blame their own government. These opinions raise the question of the extent to which increasing hardship may be bolstering anti-U.S. sentiment in a country that, despite its economic troubles, has been an increasingly assertive power in the region. Currently, 15% of Iranians say they approve of U.S. leadership; though this represents a slight improvement from 9% in 2011, it remains one of the lowest figures in the Middle East and North Africa region.
This report by Steve Crabtree was released on July 1,2013 by Gallup World. Click here for the original posting.

Rouhani: Rival Constituencies

Alireza Nader

            Hassan Rouhani now faces the hard part. Iran’s president-elect won a decisive and surprising victory because he appealed to three conflicting constituencies— conservatives, reformists exiled from the political system, and Iranians dissatisfied with the status quo. Now his ability to govern will depend on satisfying disparate factions. Each has its own set of expectations—and each is also intent on coming out on top.
      Rouhani may be able to deliver results precisely because he is an insider. Since the 1979 revolution, he has served in some of the Islamic Republic’s highest positions. Before his 2013 election, Rouhani was Iran’s national security advisor for 16 years and then head of a government think tank. So he has close ties to Iran’s military and national security establishment. Rouhani has also been a deputy speaker of parliament and a member of the Assembly of Experts ― the only constitutional body with the authority to appoint and dismiss the supreme leader. Among 686 candidates who registered, he was one of only eight allowed to run for the presidency.
            So far, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Revolutionary Guards and conservative pressure groups ― such as the Islamic Revolution Steadfastness Front associated with ultra-conservative Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi ― have thrown their support behind him. So the smiling cleric must be careful not to disturb his relations with these key power centers.
            But Rouhani has also presented himself as a moderate and a reformist. And he is, in a relative context. Next to bombastic President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rouhani is indeed a moderate. And compared to the other candidates in the race, Rouhani used language about freedoms at home and “constructive interaction” with the international community that allowed him to don the reformist mantle.
            Yet he is not as much of a reformist as Mohammad Reza Aref, a former vice president who withdrew from the presidential race to support Rouhani. Nor is he as much of a reformer as former President Mohammad Khatami. Other credible reformist leaders such as Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi—who both ran for the presidency in the disputed 2009 election--remain under house arrest. And former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a centrist or pragmatist, was disqualified by the Guardian Council. Thus, Rouhani was the closest thing to a reformer on the ballot. Both Khatami and Rafsanjani endorsed him.
            Rouhani was elected with the support of conservatives and reformists, but it was the Iranian people — exhausted by repression, inflation, and sanctions — who voted him in. Rouhani’s campaign raised people’s expectations and they will seek much in return. But he could risk weakening his support within the regime if he responds unilaterally to popular demands. As Rouhani has stated, Iranians want a “freer and more prosperous life.” Many of his supporters have also demanded the release of political prisoners, especially Mousavi and Karroubi. The regime, which describes both men as leaders of the 2009 “sedition” against the system, may resist freeing them, especially if the reformists do not atone for their perceived sins against the Islamic Republic.
            Iranians expect significant and fast improvements in the economy. Some of the most onerous U.S. and international sanctions could be lifted if Rouhani succeeds in demonstrating transparency on the nuclear program. But he may not be able quickly reverse Iran’s fortunes. Many economic problems predate the imposition of sanctions. The Ahmadinejad government’s inflationary economic policies and growing corruption among the elite also are responsible for Iran’s dismal economic outlook.
            Rouhani may improve the economy in pursuing his underlying goal to preserve the Islamic system. He will almost certainly try to defuse tensions with the international community over the nuclear program, improve Iran’s relations with regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, and pursue relief from international sanctions. Rouhani will present a cheery face for a government described in global public opinion polls as one of the most unpopular in the world.
            But not all Iranians would be satisfied with just economic improvements. Many want greater freedom of expression and a bigger say in the political system. Rouhani’s status as an accomplished insider may also work against his ability to enact political reforms. He may not be able or even willing to offer Iranians what they seek ― especially as long as Khamenei remains in power. Still, Rouhani’s presidency could be a last chance for peaceful change in the Islamic Republic.

Alireza Nader is a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and the author of “Iran After the Bomb.”

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

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