United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Iran Nuke Odyssey 2: After the Revolution

Ali Vaez, Karim Sadjadpour (via Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)


Caesura (1979–1984)
            One of the first debates among the revolutionaries who overthrew the shah was about the legacy of the ancien régime. The royal heritage included the nuclear program, deemed by the revolutionaries as a costly Western imposition on an oil-rich nation. Yet, antinuclear rhetoric was not purely ideological. A pragmatic cost-benefit analysis indicated that while a gas-fired power plant would cost $300/kilowatt in Iran, the predicted costs of Bushehr would be between $2,500 and $3,000/kilowatt. Moreover, in the aftermath of the 1979 nuclear incident at Three Mile Island in the United States, safety concerns about the nuclear installations in Iran preoccupied the new authorities. Other arguments against the program included Iran’s limited uranium resources, earthquake-prone terrain, and lack of expertise.
            The death knell for Iran’s nuclear program was Ayatollah Khomeini’s pronouncement that the unfinished plants in Bushehr would be used as “silos to store wheat.” In July 1979, construction of all nuclear power plants came to a halt. The transitional government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan abandoned all of the existing nuclear contracts. But the decision was not cost free.
            In retaliation and against the backdrop of the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Western countries refused to deliver machinery Iran had already purchased at a hefty price. The United States—whose diplomats were taken hostage in Tehran for 444 days—ceased supplying highly enriched uranium fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, which was forced to temporarily shut down. The halt of nuclear plant construction led to an exodus of Iranian nuclear scientists.
            The Kraftwerk Union also terminated its Bushehr contract, but Iran had already sunk $5.5 billion deutsche marks (nearly $2.8 billion in 1979 dollars and $9.6 billion in 2012 dollars) into the project. A bitter legal dispute ensued in several international courts. Based on a 1982 International Chamber of Commerce ruling, the German companies had to deliver some 80,000 pieces of equipment, but Iran’s efforts to obtain compensation for unfinished reactors and paid nuclear fuel came to naught. A German offer to provide Iran with modern gas-fired power plants to settle the $5.4 billion claim also fell on deaf ears.
            Lawsuits with the French over Eurodif were eventually settled in 1991; Iran was reimbursed a total of $1.6 billion for its original 1974 loan plus interest. To date, Iran is still listed as an indirect stockholder of Eurodif but under the 1991 settlement has no right to enriched uranium from the facility. This experience soured prospects of any future joint ownership of foreign facilities for Iran.
            In September 1980, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded an Iran still in the throes of post-revolutionary chaos. What would become an eight-year war severely damaged Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. In retaliation for Iran’s failed raid on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, Iraqi air forces attacked the Bushehr power plant seven times during the war, leaving the plant in ruins. According to estimates by engineers from both Siemens and Technischer Überwachungsverein, the repair bill for the damages and environmental exposure of the two reactors in Bushehr ranged between $2.9 and $4.6 billion.
Concealment (1984–2002)
            By the mid-1980s, as revolutionary fervor in Iran began to subside while the country was still in a full-blown war with Iraq, Tehran’s leaders began to reconsider their nuclear program as a deterrence option. Iranian leaders felt isolated—a calculus that was exacerbated by the fact that Saddam Hussein was abetted by great powers with sophisticated weapons and (courtesy of the United States) crucial intelligence to locate Iranian military targets. Moreover, the drain of war had pushed the country into a severe energy crisis, evidenced by frequent blackouts.
            It was against this backdrop that Iran’s nuclear program, dormant since 1979, was resurrected. A nuclear program could potentially alleviate Iran’s dire electricity needs and serve as a deterrent against the Islamic regime’s foreign foes. In 1984, then President Ali Khamenei, the current supreme leader, obtained authorization from Ayatollah Khomeini to restart the nuclear program and allocated funds for the effort in the national budget. 
            Facing unprecedented international isolation, the Iranian government searched in vain for a partner to complete the Bushehr project, but due to U.S. opposition all efforts came to naught. Only one man provided Tehran with a promising response—the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, Abdul Qadeer (A.Q.) Khan. He visited Bushehr twice, in February 1986 and January 1987. But soon it became clear that the completion of Bushehr was beyond A.Q. Khan’s ability. Tehran grew convinced that the only option available to it was self-sufficiency.
            Their first step was to acquire nuclear fuel-cycle capabilities. A.Q. Khan had already offered assistance by providing enrichment technology to Iran. With the endorsement of the then prime minister, Mir Hossein Moussavi (who was put under house arrest, accused of “sedition,” in the aftermath of the 2009 disputed presidential election), a deal was struck between the representatives of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran and A.Q. Khan’s illicit nuclear network. Iran’s uranium enrichment program was thus born in secret through the acquisition of technical drawings, manufacturing instructions, and samples of components for P-1 centrifuges (a 1970s Dutch design stolen by A.Q. Khan).
            With design information in hand, Iran started a wide-ranging procurement effort to obtain critical parts for building centrifuge cascades. For example, in 1988 the Iranian front company Kavosh Yar, a subsidiary of the Atomic Energy Organization, acquired centrifuge components and vacuum valves from the German company Leybold worth $500,000. In 1995, Iran revisited A.Q. Khan’s “nuclear Walmart” and bought parts and designs for the more advanced P-2 centrifuge.
            Iran also sought to upgrade the Tehran Research Reactor, the renovation of which had been pending since the shah’s era. In 1987, while renovating the reactor’s core, Argentina’s Applied Research Institute converted the reactor’s fuel from weapons-grade 93 percent enriched uranium to slightly less than 20 percent. The cost was $5.5 million. Argentina’s Nuclear Energy Commission also signed an agreement to supply 115.8 kilograms of the Tehran reactor’s required 19.75 percent enriched uranium, which was eventually delivered in 1993.
            By the mid-1990s, the nuclear program had once again become a national priority with more than $800 million allocated to it in the national budget. The nuclear technology center located in the city of Isfahan, south of Tehran, was inaugurated in 1990 and with it a wide-ranging quest to find additional nuclear partners. Despite generous offers from Iran, the government of Pakistan remained reluctant to share its nuclear know-how with its neighbor. But China was interested. Beijing conducted nuclear trade worth $60 million annually with Tehran, turning China into Iran’s primary nuclear partner. In 1991, Tehran secretly imported approximately one ton of uranium hexafluoride from China but failed to report the purchase to the IAEA, a requirement under its NPT safeguards agreement.
            U.S. pressure brought the Sino-Iranian cooperation to an end—another wakeup call that Iran would have to rely on native expertise. Thus began a renewed effort to bring Iran’s migrated nuclear talents back home and to train new experts. A group of 77 Iranian nuclear scientists were sent to study at Italy’s International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, which was saved from financial crisis by a $3 million loan from Iran.
            Finally, a cash-strapped Russia took on the task of completing the Bushehr nuclear plant in 1992. Moscow’s impetus for entering the Iranian market was above all to rescue its post-Soviet nuclear industry from insolvency. A turnkey agreement was signed between the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran and AtomStroyExport, a subsidiary of the Russian Atomic Energy Agency. Moscow was to supply a 915 MWe VVER-1000 light-water reactor, which is suitable for power generation and not prone to proliferation. Tehran, in turn, agreed to pay 80 percent of the value of the contract in cash and the remaining 20 percent in kind. On the ruins of the crippled reactor, the Russians planned to build a sui generis nuclear plant—cobbled together with residual German equipment and scrambled Russian technology.
            From the outset, the project was plagued with problems. The design of the Russian VVER reactor was incompatible with the German foundations of the Bushehr plant. It cost Iran an additional $140 million to solve the problem. Due to American objections, Moscow also backed off from constructing a centrifuge-based uranium enrichment facility in Iran and instead agreed to supply the reactor’s nuclear fuel for a ten-year period with a price tag of $300 million. After a sixteen-year hiatus, the Bushehr reactor was once again a construction site. The initial completion date was set for 2001, but the estimate would prove off by more than a decade. But since construction began, between 250 to 3,000 engineers and technicians from Russia and other former Soviet Union countries have been working in Iran, reportedly earning $5,000 to $20,000 per month.
            From 1992 to 2002, Iran made steady progress toward an indigenous nuclear fuel cycle. Enrichment experiments were secretly conducted, contrary to Iran’s NPT safeguards obligations, on test centrifuges in a research and development facility installed at Kalaye Electric Company. Another vast clandestine enrichment facility was built underground near the city of Natanz. Buried under 25 feet of cement and concrete, construction of the gas centrifuge facility at one point consumed all of the cement produced in Iran. The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran had also started to secretly construct a heavy-water production plant and a 40 MW research reactor near Arak. 
Crisis (2002–2008)
            In August 2002, an Iranian opposition group, the National Council of Resistance (a front for the Mojaheden-e Khalq, a militant Marxist-Islamist cult that helped topple the shah and now calls for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic), revealed information about Iran’s undeclared nuclear enrichment facilities in Natanz and heavy-water production plant in Arak. The revelation ignited an international crisis. 
            Between 2003 and 2005—against the backdrop of the U.S. invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—France, Germany, and Britain (the EU-3) led a diplomatic effort to resolve the nuclear crisis. Iran, sobered by the fact that the United States had just defeated an Iraqi army in three weeks that they had fought to a standstill over eight years, initially agreed to suspend its enrichment program. It also voluntarily implemented the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, which allows for more intrusive inspections, for more than two years. But as the situation in Iraq began to deteriorate, turning in Iran’s favor, oil prices began to soar, and the EU-3 failed to bridge the gap between Iran and the United States, Tehran’s leaders grew emboldened enough to reject what they believed to be the West’s underlying objective: to get them to permanently give up their right to enrich uranium. On August 8, 2005, in the final days of Mohammad Khatami’s presidency, Iran restarted uranium conversion at its Isfahan facility.
            With the election victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, Iran adopted a harsher stance in negotiations. Eventually, in January 2006, it broke the IAEA seals and restarted uranium enrichment. On February 4, 2006, the IAEA’s Board of Governors voted to refer Iran to the United Nations Security Council for its noncompliance with its NPT safeguards agreement obligations. On July 31, 2006, Security Council Resolution 1696 was issued by unanimous vote, calling on Iran to stop uranium enrichment efforts within one month.
            Tehran continued to insist on its “inalienable right” to pursue uranium enrichment on its soil. Consequently, on December 23, 2006, the Security Council passed Resolution 1737, imposing international sanctions on Iran. This was the beginning of a mutual cycle of escalation. A third Security Council Resolution (1747) was adopted in March 2007. Several weeks later, Iran announced that it had reached industrial-scale uranium enrichment capabilities with the installation of 3,000 centrifuges in Natanz.
            Amid growing concerns about the possibility of a U.S. or Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, an unexpected U.S. National Intelligence Estimate was released in 2007, stating that Tehran had halted its structured nuclear weapons program in 2003. The report cooled temperatures, providing space for Iran and the IAEA to work on a “modality plan” for resolving outstanding issues within a year, and by February 2008, the IAEA closed the file on most of those issues. 
            But new evidence surfaced from a stolen laptop that allegedly contained information about Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons program. The incident soured relations between Tehran and the IAEA and resulted in a four-year-long stalemate in talks about Iran’s pre-2003 activities. In March 2008, Security Council Resolution 1803 was passed, imposing further economic sanctions on Iran. The United States and its allies also started levying increasingly burdensome individual sanctions against Tehran. 
Click here for the full report.
Click here for Ali Vaez's article "Iran Sanctions: Which way out?"
Click here for Karim Sadjadpour's chapter on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.


Rouhani: Sanctions Starting to Unravel

            On April 15, President Hassan Rouhani told a crowd in Sistan and Baluchistan province that international sanctions on Iran are already “breaking down” and will shatter in the coming months. Negotiators from Iran and the world’s six major powers — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States — are scheduled to meet in May to draft a final agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. The interim deal set July 20 as the deadline for brokering a comprehensive agreement. The following are excerpts from Rouhani’s speech.  

            “Today, we are witnessing the breaking down of some of the sanctions and more importantly the confession and acknowledgement of the world, in the framework of an agreement with the P5+1 [world’s six major powers], which recognizes the right of the Iranian people to nuclear technology and enrichment.
            “The first steps have been taken for removing the sanctions with the wisdom that the government has taken from you, the people, and today we are witnessing the collapse of a part of the sanctions.
            “We already see the unraveling.
            “In these negotiations we prove to the world that what has been said about Iran in the past are nothing, but lies; Iran has not been after nuclear weapons and will not be after them, yet we will continue scientific and technical development and break the cruel and anti-human rights sanctions step by step.
            “Iran has never sought and will never seek nuclear weapons."

Report: How Khamenei Makes Decisions

      Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has accumulated formidable authority within Iran’s political system since he became supreme leader nearly 25 years ago, mainly through transforming the Revolutionary Guard Corps into a key political and economic player. But even Khamenei has had to “devise sophisticated measures for keeping the president in check,” according to a new report by Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Khalaji argues that the supreme leader “is not omnipotent, and various factors and individuals have affected his decisions over the years.” The following are excerpts from the executive summary with a link to the full text.

            To better understand Iranian decision making, one must first look at Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s background. He was by no means a typical cleric -- his acquaintances, interests, and ambitions were shaped more by intellectual currents than by clerical tradition. After the 1979 revolution, such interests developed into an enthusi­asm for military affairs that would greatly influence his approach to consolidating power in later years.
            Once Khamenei succeeded Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, many of his appointees hailed not from the first generation of the Islamic Republic but rather from a new generation of politicians with mili­tary or security backgrounds. Since then, this approach has gradually transformed the country’s top military structure—the Islamic Revo­lutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—into a key player in Iranian poli­tics and economics, allowing Khamenei to establish a very powerful centralized authority. This in turn gives him the last say on foreign policy, the nuclear issue, and many other matters.
            To be sure, the Supreme Leader is not omnipotent, and various factors and individuals have affected his decisions over the years. Attempts to unify the government and completely dissolve factional­ism within the ruling elite have failed, often generating crises instead. Yet Khamenei has established numerous mechanisms to manage schisms and exert his authority.
For example, Khamenei’s “house”—the Office of the Supreme Leader—has from its inception been led and staffed by personal acquaintances and loyalists, most of whom are bureaucrats rather than politicians. Thus, while the office influences him by determining what information he receives, Khamenei has sought to keep politi­cal factors from seeping into that information by personally manag­ing the office and bringing close friends into his inner circle. A look at the structure of this “house” can therefore help explain how the Supreme Leader thinks, what he believes, and whom he trusts.
            Khamenei has also kept his office distant from the clergy, unlike Khomeini, who surrounded himself with clerical disciples. Over the years, a new bureaucracy was imposed on the once-independent cleri­cal establishment. The nature of the Islamic Republic, combined with Khamenei’s efforts to consolidate control, made the seminaries com­pletely dependent on the regime for financial and political support. Today, Khamenei is responsible for appointing the council that manages Iran’s major seminaries and related religious institutes. He has also revo­lutionized the clergy’s administrative structure, replacing the traditional order based on oral culture with a modern, computerized system that gives him great control over the private lives, public activities, politi­cal orientation, expenditures, and property holdings of clerics.
            Other coercive mechanisms (e.g., the Special Court of Clerics; the “Statisti­cal Office,” an organ of the Ministry of Intelligence; a special militia brigade composed of guerrilla clerics) have further helped him repress opposition. Hundreds of clerics have been imprisoned and executed as a result of such structures, which often disregard Iranian legal procedures.
At the same time, many clerics are rewarded with a wide array of amenities, privileges, and business opportunities. Today’s cleri­cal establishment is both the wealthiest in Iran’s history and the least likely to call for a secular, democratic government that would remove many of these benefits.
            On the political front, Khamenei has had to navigate tensions with the country’s other top office, the presidency, even going so far as to question whether the position should be abolished. While the president’s powers are limited to the executive branch and greatly constrained by institutions under the Supreme Leader’s control, he can challenge the ruling jurist’s authority in many cases. Khamenei lacks Khomeini’s charisma and popularity, so he has been forced to devise sophisticated measures for keeping the president in check—at times with nearly disastrous results.
            Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency best illustrates how such tensions can play out, and how the Supreme Leader failed in his goal of ending factionalism by spearheading the election of a sub­servient president. Despite paving Ahmadinejad’s way to electoral victory, Khamenei felt compelled to turn on him once he began to exert independence from the Supreme Leader and the IRGC and to develop his own sphere of economic and political influence. For example, Khamenei allowed the judiciary, intelligence, and media apparatuses to accuse various people in Ahmadinejad’s circle of eco­nomic or moral corruption, connection with opposition movements, or links with Western governments.
            In the end, such efforts have harmed both Khamenei’s personal image and that of the Islamic Republic. The mass protests that fol­lowed Ahmadinejad’s disputed 2009 reelection forced the Supreme Leader to resort to violence against peaceful demonstrators, leading many Muslims throughout the world to question the regime’s reli­gious legitimacy. Moreover, his subsequent efforts to control Ahma­dinejad effectively forced him to discredit the same person he wanted to keep in power in 2009.
            Early signs suggest a less perilous relationship with Hassan Rou­hani, who was elected president in June 2013. Rouhani has sought common ground with the Supreme Leader on issues such as reduc­ing the IRGC’s role in the country’s economy. The Supreme Leader, in turn, has been generally supportive of Rouhani’s efforts in the nuclear talks with the West. No doubt, keeping up such a dynamic will depend on the president’s sustained deference.
            The Supreme Leader has also kept other branches of the govern­ment under his thumb. He frequently intervenes in legislative deci­ sions, whether through direct letters to the speaker of parliament or by sending word through the Guardian Council and his personal office. More important, he controls the Supreme National Secu­rity Council (SNSC), a small group responsible for designing Iran’s defense and security policies and responding to internal and external threats. Although the president is the council’s titular head, Khame­nei’s personal representative is the one who truly leads its delibera­tions, and most of the other members are his appointees.
            Today, the council has sway over many foreign policy matters, including the nuclear issue. In recent years, Khamenei has taken pains to disavow the approach that former presidents Moham­mad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani took on the issue. In particular, he has claimed that he is not responsible for policies he regards as soft and ineffective—in his view, the “flexibility” shown by past nuclear negotiators without his approval only encouraged “the enemy” to make bolder demands. Since then, he has taken steps to assume ownership of the nuclear portfolio, such as establishing con­trol over the SNSC and forming a negotiating team stocked with loyalists.
            Finally, Khamenei’s relationship with the IRGC is perhaps the most complicated factor in regime decision making. Since assum­ing power, he has transformed the Guards from a military force to a religious, political, economic, and cultural complex, one that controls the country’s media and educational system. But despite the IRGC’s power and numerous internal rifts, there is no evidence that any of its commanders are in a position to challenge the Supreme Leader’s authority. Among other measures, Khamenei has kept the Guards in check by purging old commanders, deploying his personal represen­tatives throughout the ranks, and appointing each commander’s dep­uties himself; in fact, many of these deputies report directly to him.
            Going forward, it is important to remember that Khamenei has changed his views on certain issues in the name of political expedi­ency. For example, when he first became Supreme Leader, he found it necessary to put aside his (private) opposition to actively anti-American policies. He did so not out of any grand ideological shift, but simply to confiscate political capital from the leftists who had grown powerful during Khomeini’s reign. By becoming more anti- American than the anti-Americans, so to speak, he was able to mar­ginalize them and increase his own authority. His hold on power is much stronger today, however, so a major shift is less likely unless domestic pressures increase dramatically. He may not be able to eliminate his critics within the political elite, but he has protected his interests thus far by curbing the influence of those seeking to remodel Iran’s anti-American, anti-Israel, and nuclear policies, including each of the last three presidents.
Click here for the full report.
Click here for Mehdi Khalaji's chapter on politics and Iran's clergy.


Khamenei on Talks: Iran Won’t Be Bullied

      On April 9, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that Iran would not be bullied into stopping nuclear research in an address to the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. “I agreed to the government's initiative to negotiate, just to break the hype” and dispel lies about Tehran's policy on nuclear weapons, he said as negotiations between Iran and the world’s six major powers concluded in Vienna, Austria.

      In a speech marking National Nuclear Technology Day, Khamenei urged Iranians not to think of sanctions as a price paid for nuclear technology. “Even if sanctions [on the nuclear program] did not exist, they [Americans] would make another excuse, as the Americans bring up the issue of human rights in today's negotiations,” he argued. Khamenei also accused U.S. officials of turning international sentiment against Iran using the nuclear issue “while they themselves know that not having nuclear weapons is the definite policy” of Iran. The following are excerpts from Khamenei’s speech posted on his website.
 Address to the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran
             The purpose of agreeing with these negotiations was to change the atmosphere of hostility that the camp of arrogance [the West] has created against Iran. These negotiations should continue, but everyone should know that despite this, the activities of the Islamic Republic in the area of nuclear research and development will not stop in any way. None of the nuclear achievements of the country can be given up. Besides, the relations of the International Atomic Energy Agency with Iran should be normal and ordinary relations.
             Another plot that global arrogance [the West] has tried very hard to implement against the Islamic Revolution is to influence the major policies of Iran and to shatter the willpower of the political management of the country. But the camp of arrogance has failed to do this until today and by Allah's favor, it will continue to fail in the future.
             The nuclear issue is an example of this, through which they tried to create an environment against the Islamic Republic and to spread lies. Their goal is to preserve the international environment against Iran with this excuse. This was why there was an agreement with the new plan of the administration for the nuclear issue. The purpose of this agreement was to remove the international environment against Iran, to seize the initiative from the other side and to reveal the truth for public opinion in the world. Of course, these negotiations do not mean that the Islamic Republic will compromise its scientific-nuclear movement.
             The nuclear achievements that have been made so far are, in fact, a message to the people of Iran that they can take the paths which lead to the lofty peaks of science and technology. Therefore, this scientific-nuclear movement should not be stopped in any way or slowed down.
             None of the nuclear achievements of the country can be given up. No one has the right to trade these achievements and no one will do this.
             At that time [a few years ago], a formula was devised for producing fuel. But the Americans created obstacles in the way of this process. This was contrary to what they had said to their friends in the regions and to a South American country - and these people believed what the Americans said. The Americans foolishly thought that they had put Iran in dire straits.
             At that time, I said that America does not want to solve this issue. Later on, everyone saw that when a nuclear agreement was in its final stages, the Americans did not allow it to be finalized.At that time, westerners began to ridicule our experts who had announced that they have the capability to produce fuel plates for the Tehran research reactor. But our youth accomplished this feat in less than the arranged time and as a result, the enemies were astonished.
             If some people think that the price of nuclear achievements has been sanctions and pressures, we should remind them that even before the nuclear excuse, sanctions and pressures existed against Iran.
             During the time when there was no nuclear excuse, a western court put Iran on a trial in absentia. Of course, in the present time, they do not have the courage to do this because of the national power of the country. Sanctions and pressures do not exist because of the nuclear issue. Rather, they are opposed to the independent identity - which originates from Islamic faith and belief - and the future prospects of the people of Iran and the Islamic Republic and to their refusal to be bullied by anyone.
             Therefore, if it is said that sanctions and pressures are the price that we have paid for our nuclear achievements, this is not true because even if sanctions did not exist, they would make another excuse, as the Americans bring up the issue of human rights in today's negotiations.
             Even if the issue of human rights is resolved, they will find another excuse. Therefore, the only way is to continue our path of progress with complete power and to stand up against their bullying.
             The negotiators of the country should not give in to any bullying of the other side. Besides, the relations of the International Atomic Energy Agency with Iran should be normal and ordinary relations.

Halfway: US Assesses Nuke Talks with Iran

      On April 9, a senior U.S. official assessed the status of diplomacy with Iran after nuclear talks concluded in Vienna.  “These sessions have been in-depth and the conversations have given us important additional insights into where the biggest and most challenging gaps will be as we move forward,” said the official. The two sides plan to start drafting the final agreement in May at the next round of talks. The following are excerpts from the press briefing.

Background Briefing by Senior U.S. Administration Official
April 9, 2014
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It’s amazing to think that only a few months ago, many of us were in Geneva in the freezing cold finalizing the Joint Plan of Action at 4 in the morning.  And today, we find ourselves at the halfway point in these comprehensive negotiations in a somewhat warmer and beautiful Vienna.  In the past two days, we have continued our substantive discussions about all of the issues that will have to be part of a comprehensive agreement – every single issue you can imagine.  These sessions have been in-depth and the conversations have given us important additional insights into where the biggest and most challenging gaps will be as we move forward.
At this point, we don’t know if we’ll be successful in bridging those gaps, but we are certainly committed, as everyone in the room is, to trying.  One thing to keep in mind as we reach this midway mark is that all sides have kept all of the commitments they made in the Joint Plan of Action.  That’s given all of us more confidence as we negotiate this even tougher comprehensive agreement. 
In that vein today, we’ve just concluded a meeting of the Joint Commission that was announced when we implemented the Joint Plan of Action.  Given it’s the halfway point, we thought it would be an appropriate time to check in on implementation progress, and as I said, the report out of that meeting which I just received is everyone acknowledged that everything was going well.  This meeting took place at the experts level, not at the political directors level.
The next step in this process is to begin actually drafting text, which we have all said would happen after this round.  This round and the last round was used to review all of the issues and understand each other’s positions at the beginning of this negotiation.  I would caution everyone from thinking that a final agreement is imminent or that it will be easy.  As we draft, I have no doubt this will be quite difficult at times.  And as we’ve always been clear and as we said explicitly when we were negotiating the Joint Plan of Action – and it is even more so for the comprehensive agreement – we will not rush into a bad deal.  We just won’t do it.  No deal – as Secretary Kerry has said many times, as the President of the United States has said, no deal is better than a bad deal.
So now, we’ll move forward to begin drafting actual language.  We’ll meet back here in Vienna at the political director level in May.  As always, our experts and political directors will be working in the meantime on all of the technical issues that are a part of these talks.  And we are all very focused on that special date, July 20th, because we believe that it should give us sufficient time to reach a comprehensive agreement if an agreement is indeed possible.
QUESTION:  When you said that every single issue you can imagine was discussed, did this include Iran’s ballistic missile program?  And also, when the – the Iranians have just now said that you’ve got – Foreign Minister Zarif said that the deal is 50 to 60 percent agreed.  And I know what you said in the conference call and what you said just now.  How would you respond to that?  And do you think that that’s an irrelevant comment?
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  In terms of your first question about ballistic missiles, the Joint Plan of Action covers, in one way or another, everything that needs to be in the comprehensive agreement, including resolution of concerns.  It also discusses the UN Security Council resolutions must be addressed as part of any comprehensive agreement, and I think that you are well aware that one of the UN Security Council resolutions speaks of concerns regarding ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons.  So when I say that all concerns have been discussed, all concerns have been discussed.
On your second point, I take seriously everything that Minister Zarif says.  My own view is that the only percentage that matters is the one when we either get a comprehensive agreement or we don’t.  In all of this negotiation, it is indeed like a Rubik’s cube.  All of the pieces have to fit together just so to reach a final agreement that will ensure that Iran will not obtain a nuclear weapon and that the international community has the assurance it needs that Iran’s program will be exclusively peaceful.
Similarly, the Joint Plan of Action says that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.  So one could agree to even 95 percent, and that last 5 percent might mean you’d never get to the agreement.  So the only thing that matters at the end of the day is to get to the agreement, and that’s what we’re trying to do.  And I think there are two principles that are important:  Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and nothing is agreed until everyone agrees to it. 
QUESTION:  Would you say, though, that since the talks began in February that you have managed to narrow your decisions or narrow the gaps?
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  What I would say is we understand each other a great deal, better than we did when we began, in terms of each other’s positions on the various issues of concern.  It’s not that we didn’t know what each other’s positions were at the top lines, but a lot of this is quite technical, and the details matter enormously.  And so we all have a much, much deeper understanding of each other’s positions.  When one has that kind of understanding, you begin to see where there might be areas where one could reach agreement, you begin to see where the gaps are the largest, and where, in fact, you may indeed be close to an agreement.  But again, until everything is agreed, nothing is agreed.
QUESTION:  If you could characterize the Chinese envoy Wang’s comment about Russian participation as being, quote “utterly constructive,” and maybe give your side of that.  And then the broader question I’d like to pose is:  There’s a lot of signaling, so the Iranian deputy foreign minister confirmed that Iran and Russia are, in fact, in trade talks about broadening trade, something that Mr. Kerry referred to specifically in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday.  He also said that they’re not close to signing a deal.  But it’s obvious that there are contingency plans being formulated in the event of a failure of this process.  My question to you is:  Is there a danger that the signals from the contingency planning overcome the positive signals that you’re trying to project through the actual process of dialogue that’s going through July? 
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  What I would say is that my [Russian colleagues] played the constructive, focused role that they usually do.  And we have – [Sergei Ryabkov] has worked as part of the P5+1 all through the Joint Plan of Action and now through the comprehensive agreement.  And he and his team are very useful and important participants in this process.  In terms of the trade talks that Iran and Russia may be having, we have been very direct to both parties that should they bring this day to closure and engage in activity that is sanctionable under our sanctions, we will take appropriate action.  And we’ve urged both parties not to move forward, to preserve the negotiating process.
Now, events happen in the world.  You may have noticed that.  And we cannot control them all.  You may have noticed that as well.  And so we have to deal with what happens in the world in general.  You all have asked time and again has Ukraine made a difference, which was the reason you asked – or someone asked Mr. Wang about Russia’s participation.  So we take these issues on board and we all stay focused on what we’re trying to do here, but we will all have to take whatever appropriate action we need to take under the laws of our lands.
QUESTION:  Can you – I have several short questions for you.  First of all, the timing for the next round was announced on May the 13th, but there was no end date given.  I mean, could they go on for five days, a week?  Is there any sense of that?  And secondly, can you give any indication of what was discussed in the Joint Commission, issues that came up?  And did you discuss the UN ambassador pick with (inaudible) yesterday?  Can you rule out foreign ministers heading up to the next round.
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Every time we come to any of these rounds, even when we have announced it’s going to be two days or three days, we call come with the presumption we will stay for as long as we need to stay.  Obviously, as one begins to get into drafting, it is even more possible that you’ll stay longer than you planned to stay, so I assume that is why neither the – Lady Ashton – the High Representative of the European Union – nor Minister Zarif and their teams gave an end date.  We were all planning for the week to be here and we’ll do whatever is necessary.
I think for all of us involved in this between now and July 20th, we understand that there is no higher priority.  The stakes here are quite high for all the reasons you all well know, because we are trying to ensure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon and that their program is exclusively peaceful.  And so everyone in the room has explicitly said they are ready to do whatever they need to do and change their schedules and their life to do what is necessary.
On the Joint Commission, it just concluded, but the agenda for that Joint Commission was really just to check in with each other – that’s why it’s at the expert level – have we kept all of our commitments on sanctions relief and other things that we needed to do, and is Iran keeping its commitments?  I would note that secretary – Director General Amano made comments I saw in the press today affirming yet again that Iran has kept all of its commitments on their set of obligations.  So it was just a check-in.  It wasn’t a very long meeting, to tell you the truth, but a useful one, a very useful one.
In terms of the UN ambassador pick, what I would say is that you all have heard the comments from Jay Carney from the White House podium that we believe that this candidate, this possible nominee, is not viable from a U.S. perspective, and we have conveyed that directly to the Iranians through the channels that we have available to us.  And I’m going to leave it there on that.  And as far as the foreign ministers flying in, that’s not planned.
QUESTION:  Assuming that any oil deal with Russia goes through, I think what you’re saying is that Russia could face potential sanctions.  That would probably impact very, very hard on the talks, possibly resulting in less of the Russian cooperation that you’re talking about.  But you are saying that the United States is going to take this step even if that happens, (inaudible).
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I think the Secretary has been very clear about it, I’ve been very clear about it, others in our government have been very clear about it, that anyone who takes sanctionable action faces the potential for sanctions. But let me add one thing:  As you all have said yourselves, they are in talks.  Nothing is consummated, nothing is executed, nothing is done.  I think that both Iran and Russia understand the stakes here.  I expect and suspect that they understand that the priority in the first instance is to try to reach a comprehensive agreement if we can reach one.
QUESTION:  On the issue of the money that was released to the Iranians, the Iranians are having trouble getting their hands on it.  Did this issue come up either in the talks or in your bilateral?  How far are we into this?  Is this close to a resolution?  You said the two sides are sticking to their commitments under the Geneva agreement.  Is this causing trouble within that context?  Any information on that, I will be grateful.  And secondly, on your bilateral, anything of interest?
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  On whether Iran has access to the repatriated funds that were part of our obligation under the Joint Plan of Action, we and the European Union on all of the sanctions-related obligations have done everything that we committed to doing.  And I think if you ask the Iranians, they would say that we have complied with our obligations under the Joint Plan of Action. 
And I know there have been stories written, there have been all kinds of issues.  All of these things are always complicated to make happen, but we have made them happen.  And so I think you will find – and part of the Joint Commission today was to check in on all of those issues.  All the appropriate colleagues were there on both sides, and the report I just got out right before I walked in here is that everybody was grateful for the work that had been done on both sides and that everyone had complied with their obligations. The – everything that we were supposed to do and the tranches we were supposed to do it has been done.
As term – in terms of the bilateral, our bilateral was – as I’ve said to you now, it’s now normal.  We met for about an hour and a half.  We only talk about two things in the bilateral.  One is nuclear negotiation.  We make sure that Iran understands our perspective on all of the issues under discussion, and they’re able to tell us directly their views about our views.  And the other thing we discuss and do so quite decidedly and in a focused way is our American citizens about which we are concerned – Mr. Hekmati, Pastor Abedini, and Robert Levinson – all of whom deserve to be home with their families.
QUESTION:  Iranians have tweeted yesterday evening that Arak does not need to be converted to a light-water reactor.  Can you please confirm about the decision? And my second question is:  When you start drafting, you have to (inaudible) from all of the things that you have discussed till now.  And is this going to work like a block by block, or can we expect everything being done is the next meeting, or are you going to say that, okay, let’s draft this part in what way and then come back?  How will that (inaudible) work?
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So I’m not going to get into the discussion of the mechanics of how we’re going to negotiate, because that’s also a subject of strategy in negotiations and that’s also a subject of the confidentiality of the negotiations in terms of how we’re going got proceed.  Because then your next question will be, “Well, if you’re going to block by block, what will be the first issues you will discuss?”  And I’m not going to get into that, because as I said to all of you, this is a negotiation with very high stakes, very crucial.  We want to keep the details of the negotiation inside the room.  And that answers your first question as well in the sense that all kinds of public comments are made.  That usually happens in negotiations.  They are meant to try to frame the negotiation.  But the only thing that matters is what happens in the room, what gets agreed to among the parties in the room, and whether an agreement at the end of the day can be reached. 
QUESTION:  Are you going to talk to them about the pace of this?  Would you prefer that the next meeting to be sooner?
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So you assume with that question that between now and when we come back here nothing is going on, and I can assure you that every single day work is being done on this negotiation.  That happens in a variety of ways within capitals, among and between capitals, through our experts having meetings among themselves and with Iranian experts.  There is not a day in my life now where I’m not spending at least some of my time, and I’m responsible for the whole world, but spending some of my time virtually every single day on this.  And as we get further into this, it will be – it will take up most of my time and ultimately probably all of it.
QUESTION: Do you expect this to be finished here in Vienna, if it is finished at all, of course?  Or are you going to go back to Geneva for a kind of signing ceremony? 
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  The reason that we’re in Vienna is because we wanted, when we started the comprehensive agreement, to sort of end a chapter and begin a new one, so we switched cities.  But from the beginning, the Iranians wanted to have a meeting in a city where there were UN facilities.  So in fact, this whole process is out of a mandate from the UN Security Council, so it is a UN-based mandate.  And so that’s why we’re in Vienna, because the UN is here present in Vienna as well.
So we expect we will continue to do our negotiations here in Vienna.  I suppose someone could suggest that would change, but right now that’s my expectation.  And I want to thank you and your city for hosting us so well.  We are very well taken care of here.  People help us get through traffic.  The food is delicious when I get to leave the hotel and have some.  Most of our meals we all eat together in the hotel where we’re having the negotiation, but tonight I’m going to get to go out sometime very late tonight and try some of your cuisine, so I thank you very much.
QUESTION:  Could you just specify one sort of example of gaps that you managed to bridge?  Can you tell us what percentage of the gaps you so far at the beginning to bridge? 
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I’m not going to identify where we bridge things, where there are gaps, where we see possibilities of agreement, where we see challenges, because it won’t help the negotiation.  And as much as I care about the press and feel a responsibility to let people know what’s going on, I feel a greater responsibility to make sure that the negotiation stays inside the room. 
And as for percentages, as I said earlier, it – at the end of the day what matters is whether we get to an agreement or not get to an agreement.  And we could agree on 95 percent of the things, and that last 5 percent, which will probably be the hardest set of issues or issue, means we do or don’t get an agreement.
QUESTION:  Well, how far are you from the 95 percent?
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I don’t think we can say.  We used the first round of the comprehensive agreement to lay out a framework for negotiating.  Then the second and third rounds were to go into great detail on each of the issues of concern, to set up an understanding to get to drafting.  So we’re now finished those two rounds.  We have covered every issue of concern both here in Vienna and through experts’ groups meetings that have taken place in between, and political director’s consultations which have taken place in between, and now we are set to start drafting.  And quite frankly, until you get down to it, and you get down to the details, we don’t know whether we’ll be able to get to the end of this or not.  I hope we do, but I don’t know.
QUESTION: Minister Wang came out and said that this round of negotiations has gained considerable momentum. Would you agree with that assessment?
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What I would say is that all of these rounds have been productive, have been constructive, have been thoughtful, have been professional. But what I would say is that now we have to get down to it. And then we will know whether we’re headed in a direction where we can get to a comprehensive agreement or not. We all want to. We all believe we can. But none of us know until we really get to the drafting and the text and the detail whether it’s possible or not. 
QUESTION:  I have question to your bilateral meetings.  Did the Iranians acknowledge the presence of all three American citizens in Iran?  And are they any closer to being released?
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I’m not going to get into the details of our conversation, and I do that both for the protection of those three Americans and for the privacy consideration of their families.  But what I can say is that we have important conversations about all three and try to do whatever I can to get them closer and ultimately bring them home.  I meet with the families or people in the Department meet with the families, and it’s always terribly difficult.  The Levinson family hasn’t seen Robert Levinson for seven years.  Any of you – you all have family members, and just imagine what it’d be like if you hadn’t seen them for seven years and didn’t know where they were.
QUESTION:   The last time there were four topics that were specified and we’re extracting this from.  This time, this thing, you have said all issues have been discussed, which presumably means that you have to return to those four issues that were discussed the last time.  Is that the case, and if so, why was there any need to return to them?
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  As I said, we were using these two rounds to make sure we covered all the issues.  The issues that we did last time, we sent our experts away to do some work products.  And so we wanted to get the results of those to try to move forward a little bit more if we could.  Again, these are very technical discussions, and I’ve learned an awful lot about nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, but I’m not a technical expert.  So we need to rely on them to do a lot of work and bring it back to the political level.  And we also knew that since we were going to move to drafting after this that we wanted to have one last review of every issue before we left here. 
QUESTION:  How many issues are there?  I mean, how many categories?  As Andrei said, the last time four issues were mentioned, (inaudible).  (Inaudible) issues separated by topics?
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  George, there’s a totality of issues, but each one of the issues has a myriad of subsets to it.  So I couldn’t give you a count.  And all of the issues interact with each other.  And as I’ve said before, some – on some issues, if you can move forward, you may open up trade space on another issue.  When we’ve talked about enrichment before, that has many, many pieces to it – from stockpiles to facilities to enrichment levels to centrifuge production.  I mean, it’s just a myriad of subsets.  And that’s true of every issue.  So it’s quite impossible to sort of give you a count because it also requires you to categorize at what conceptual level you’re having the discussion. 
What I can say is that we laid out in the first negotiating round all of the issues of concern to both parties, to both sides, and we have discussed them all.  And they will all have to be addressed in some way.
QUESTION:  What do you think the positions?  Is it more understanding or more accepting or more incentives or threatening, or what?  Because it looks like still the Iranians are talking about redlines.
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  As I said, what I care about most, what we all care about most, is what’s happening in the room, that all kinds of things will be said in public, and we understand that.  We listen to it.  It’s very important information.  But what matters is what happens in the room.  And it’s about all of the things you say – not threatening so much.  It’s a very professional discussion.  But it is, of course, understanding each other better.  It is seeing if there are some technical solutions to problems of concern, whether in fact there are incentives, disincentives perhaps as well, but not in the manner in which you were suggesting.
I think the largest disincentive for everyone is if we can’t reach an agreement, then diplomacy has not succeeded.  And we all appreciate that the best way to solve this problem is through diplomacy. 
QUESTION:  She’s always here.  Possible military dimensions – is it enough for the IAEA to weigh in and determine those questions have been answered within that body, or does evidence that it has been cleared also need to convince the P5+1, the UN Security Council?  I mean, where does the criteria, I guess, fit in?
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, I’m not going to speak to specific criteria because that goes to where we are in the negotiation.  What I can say to you is a couple of things that we’ve been very clear about.  One, possible military dimensions is a central responsibility of what the IAEA is doing under its responsibilities.  We want to support the IAEA and we want to encourage Iran to do everything they can to make substantive progress in the work they’re doing with the IAEA.  And secondly, we have said that we will not be able to get to a comprehensive agreement without those issues being addressed. 

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