United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

US, Iran Share Goal: Push Back Hardliners

     
      Ahead of new diplomatic talks, top U.S. and Iranian officials are scrambling to push back hardliners opposed to a nuclear deal. Tehran and the world’s six major powers are scheduled to meet from November 7 to 8 for the second time since President Hassan Rouhani took office.
       The previous negotiations, held onOctober 15-16 in Geneva, prompted a backlash from conservatives in both the United States and Iran. Some Iranian conservatives doubted U.S. honesty in negotiations. “We must never compromise with the United States," former nuclear negotiator and 2013 presidential candidate, Saeed Jalili, told crowds at a rally commemorating the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4. Many U.S. lawmakers vocally opposed compromise on sensitive issues like Iran’s right to enrich uranium.
            In an October 28 meeting with lawmakers, Rouhani basically appealed for more domestic support for his diplomatic agenda. “Stronger support inside will empower the government to proceed with the campaign against sanctions,” said the president.
            On November 3, Supreme Leader Khamenei boosted Rouhani’s efforts by publically endorsing the president’s negotiating team, led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. “They have a difficult mission, and no one has the right to weaken an official who is doing his job,” said Khamenei. The supreme leader’s office also posted a decades-old photograph of Rouhani (center) with Khamenei (left) emphasizing the administration’s loyalty to the Islamic revolution, including the negotiators.
            President Obama has faced the same challenge. His administration tried to convince U.S. lawmakers to hold off on new Iran sanctions and give diplomacy a chance. Dozens of senators and representatives had called for tightened sanctions ahead of the last round of talks in Geneva. But a top U.S. negotiator, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, said “This is a time for a pause in new sanctions” in an interview with the Voice of America on October 25.
            On October 31, the White House sent a high-level delegation to Capitol Hill to address lawmakers’ concerns and make the case for delaying sanctions. Secretary of State John Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew held a closed-door session with key Republican and Democrat senators. Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) said Kerry and Lew “were making the argument [for delaying new sanctions], and frankly they’re doing a pretty good job of it,” according to Politico.  
            The following are remarks by top U.S. and Iranian officials who pressed back against hardliners in the run-up to new talks.
Iran
 
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
            “No one should see our negotiating team as compromisers. They are our own children and children of the revolution. They have a difficult mission, and no one has the right to weaken an official who is doing his job.
            Nov. 3, 2013 in remarks to students
 
President Hassan Rouhani
            In a November 3 cabinet meeting, President Rouhani emphasized the “unique and unprecedented opportunity” for diplomacy brought about by his election. He noted that “people may differ in their approach” to negotiations but argued that Zarif and his team are advocating for Iran’s rights. Rouhani’s office tweeted translations of his remarks.
            Rouhani also thanked Khamenei for his support in a November 3 tweet.
The United States
 
Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman
  
             “We think that this is a time for a pause [in new sanctions], to see if these negotiations can gain traction… Congress has its prerogatives. We don’t get to control Congress, but we are having very serious discussions. We work as partners with Congress. They’ve been very effective partners as we’ve tried to approach this negotiation. We need them to continue to be effective partners to reach a successful conclusion, and I have trust that they will be.”
             Oct. 25, 2013 in an interview with the Voice of America
 
State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki
            “We have conveyed that any congressional action should be aligned with our
negotiating strategy as we move forward. So while we understand that
Congress may consider new sanctions, we think this is a time for a pause, as
we asked for in the past, to see if negotiations can gain traction.
“None of those sanctions have been pulled back, as we’ve discussed.”
Oct. 25, 2013 in a press briefing
 
National Security Spokesperson Caitlin Hayden
             “The window for negotiation is not open-ended, and if progress isn't made, there may be a time when more sanctions are, in fact, necessary. We have always said that there would be no agreement overnight, and we've been clear that this process is going to take some time.
             “We feel that it’s important that any new proposals take into account the progress we’re making diplomatically and leave open the flexibility. There’s always time for sanctions in the future as needed, but this is an ask we’re making to Congress now.”
             Oct. 25, 2013 to reporters at the White House
 
 

World Leaders on Upcoming Diplomatic Talks

      World leaders expressed skepticism that the second round of diplomatic talks in Geneva would produce a dramatic breakthrough agreement on Iran’s controversial nuclear program. Even President Hassan Rouhani (left), who reinvigorated diplomacy after his August inauguration, was skeptical. “The government is not optimistic about the Westerners and the current negotiations. But it does not mean that we should not have hope for removing the problems,” he reportedly said on November 4.
      Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei shared the president’s outlook. “I am not optimistic about the negotiations but, with the grace of God, we will not suffer losses either,” Khamenei said on November 3.

            Western leaders were as cautious as their Iranian counterparts. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed a will to test diplomacy while seeming to allude to possible military action if all else fails. “I want to emphasize, President Obama will not take any option off the table in this process, but we do seek to put to test the reality of the possibility of a diplomatic solution,” Kerry said on November 4. E.U deputy foreign policy chief Pierre Vimont noted on October 29 that Iran’s “proactive diplomacy” has yet to “pave the way to major concessions.”
            The following are excerpted remarks by top Iranian, U.S. and E.U. officials on the status of nuclear talks.
 
Iran
 
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
            “I am not optimistic about the negotiations but, with the grace of God, we will not suffer losses either… All the better if the negotiations bear fruit but if there are no results, the country should rely on itself.
            “The Americans smile and express desire for negotiation; on the other hand, they immediately say that all options are on the table… We should not trust a smiling enemy.
            “No one should see our negotiating team as compromisers. They are our own children and children of the revolution. They have a difficult mission, and no one has the right to weaken an official who is doing his job.
            “The Americans have the highest indulgence towards the Zionists and they have to. But we do not share such indulgence. The Zionist regime is an illegitimate and bastard regime.”
            “To solve the country’s problems, [we should] look inward. In diplomacy, a successful country relies on domestic capacity.”
            Nov. 3, 2013 in remarks to students
 
President Hassan Rouhani
            “The government is not optimistic about the Westerners and the current negotiations. But it does not mean that we should not have hope for removing the problems.”
            Nov. 4, 2013 in remarks published by the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA)
 
            In a November 3 cabinet meeting, President Rouhani was ore optimistic about upcoming talks. His office tweeted translations of his remarks.
 
            “Had it been otherwise, the [nuclear] case would have been settled much sooner and without the ongoing visit and talks… Naturally, reaching agreement and settling all the problems would take time; of course, I hope we will take the initial step to solve the problem by the year-end.
            “Stronger support inside, will empower the government to proceed with the campaign against sanctions.”
            Oct. 28, 2013 in a meeting with lawmakers
           
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
            “On the nuclear issue, I believe the problem we have faced in the last ten years is we have both seen the nuclear issue as a zero sum game; we have articulated two seemingly opposing objectives, and each tried to make gains for one objective seemingly at the expense of the others.
            Tehran will “do everything in our negotiations with the P5+1 [world’s six major powers] to ensure that even the perception that Iran has anything but peaceful intentions for its nuclear program will be removed, because we believe that even the perception that Iran pursues a nuclear weapons program is not only wrong, but dangerous.
            “The result has been that ten years ago, Iran had less than 160 centrifuges spinning, now it has over 18,000. Iran’s economy was prospering, now sanctions are hurting the wrong segment of the population. I hope we have come to understand that approach was wrong.
You “cannot kill all our scientists and kill our program. …You cannot destroy the technology. How to ensure [the program] is peaceful: allow it operate in a transparent fashion; you cannot push it under the rug.”
            “I believe leaders need to show leadership [on the nuclear dispute]. I think experience shows, once there is a good deal, the U.S. president will be able to sell it, and I think we will be able to sell it too.”
            Nov. 1, 2013 in a speech at the Pugwash Conference in Istanbul, Turkey
 
The United States
 
Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman
            “We do not approach this [dispute] on the basis of trust because we know there's great deal of mistrust on both sides.”
            “We have not offered any sanctions relief on Iran, and we have not removed any sanctions.”
            “If we can, in fact, stop the program from advancing further while we negotiate a comprehensive agreement and offer very limited, temporary, reversible sanctions relief but keep in place the fundamental architecture of the oil and banking sanctions — which we will need for a comprehensive agreement, not for a first step — then I think we are starting to make progress… No deal is better than a bad deal.”
            Nov. 1, 2013 in an interview with Israel Channel 10
 
Secretary of State John Kerry
            “Finally, on Iran, let me reiterate the position that President Obama has made clear many times:  The United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.  That policy has not changed.  President Obama has stated again and again that our preference is to resolve this challenge peacefully, through diplomacy, and we are committed to giving diplomacy a real chance to succeed.  And while this window is open, while we are testing whether Iran is willing to take the steps required to satisfy the international community’s concerns, the burden remains squarely on Iran to demonstrate through credible and verifiable action that its nuclear program is indeed, in fact, peaceful and only peaceful.
            “We state clearly:  Words will not satisfy this.  It’s only actions that will speak to our concerns.  We believe that no deal is better than a bad deal.  That won’t change.  And I want to emphasize, President Obama will not take any option off the table in this process, but we do seek to put to test the reality of the possibility of a diplomatic solution.”
            Nov. 3, 2013 in remarks with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal
 
President Barack Obama
            “I shared with the [Iraqi] Prime Minister [Nouri al Maliki] our efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue in a peaceful way, but emphasized to him how important it is that Iran seize this opportunity to take the right path in accordance with previous international norms and resolutions.  My hope is, is that we can arrive at a resolution, but I emphasized to the Prime Minister how serious we are about preventing a nuclear arms race in a region that would only add to the dangers that so many people there already face.”
            Nov. 1, 2013 after a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki at the White House
 
 
The European Union
Pierre Vimont, Secretary-General of the European External Action Service
            “The new Iranian negotiators have undoubtedly adopted a new approach, but it is still rather difficult to conclude that they have presented a new policy. The Iranian team has definitely decided to go for a very proactive diplomacy, but whether this will pave the way to major concessions on the substance of these talks remains to be seen. So far, the Iranian side has made a rather comprehensive presentation combining what could be seen as the endgame of the present talks and, at the same time, what can be depicted as the first mutual moves that both sides could agree on in an effort to engage in some confidence-building measures.”
            Oct. 29, 2013 in an interview with Al Monitor

 

US Report: Sanctions Biting Harder

            The Congressional Research Service periodically releases a comprehensive report on Iran sanctions impact. The following are excerpts from the latest update with a link to the full text at the end.
 
Summary
 
            Increasingly strict sanctions on Iran—sanctions that primarily target Iran’s key energy sector and its access the international financial system—have harmed Iran’s economy to the point where Iran’s public and some of its leaders appear willing to accept some international proposals to limit Iran’s nuclear program to purely peaceful purposes. The June 14, 2013, election as president of Hassan Rouhani, who ran on a platform that included achieving an easing of sanctions, is an indication of the growing public pressure on the regime.
 
•Oil exports fund nearly half of Iran’s government expenditures, and Iran’s oil exports have declined to about 1.1 million barrels—less than half of the 2.5
million barrels per day Iran exported during 2011. The causes of the drop have been a European Union embargo on purchases of Iranian crude oil and decisions
by other Iranian oil customers to obtain exemptions from U.S. sanctions by reducing purchases of Iranian oil. Twenty countries that buy Iranian oil have exemptions.
 
•The loss of revenues from oil, coupled with the cut-off of Iran from the international banking system, has caused a sharp drop in the value of Iran’s currency, the rial; raised inflation to over 50%, reduced Iran’s reserves of foreign exchange; and caused much of Iran’s oil revenues to go unused in third-country accounts. Iran’s economy shrank slightly from 2012 to 2013 and will likely do so again during 2013. There have also been unintended consequences, including a shortage of some advanced medicines.
 
•Iran has tried, with mixed success, to mitigate the effects of sanctions. Government-linked entities are creating front companies, and Iranian importers and exporters are increasingly using barter trade and informal banking exchange mechanisms. Iran is also increasing non-oil exports or exports of hydrocarbon products other than crude oil, such as gas condensates. Affluent Iranians have invested in—and driven up prices for—real estate and securities listed on the Tehran stock exchange.
 
            Sanctions might also be slowing Iran’s nuclear and missile programs by hampering Iran’s ability to obtain needed foreign technology. But U.S. assessments indicate that sanctions have not stopped Iran from developing new conventional weaponry indigenously. Based largely on its provision of arms to the embattled Assad government in Syria, Iran is also judged as not complying with U.N. requirements that it halt any weapons shipments outside its borders. And sanctions do not appear to have altered Iran’s repression of dissent or monitoring of the Internet.
            Some in Congress believe that economic pressure on Iran needs to increase. In the 112th Congress, the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 (P.L.112-158) made sanctionable the shipping of Iranian crude oil, and it enhanced human rights-related provisions of previous Iran-related laws. A provision of the FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 112-239) sanctions transactions with several key sectors of Iran’s economy. A bill in the 113th Congress, H.R. 850, passed by the House on July 31, 2013, would, among other provisions, accelerate the oil purchase reductions required to maintain a sanctions exemption. However, some argue that new sanctions should not be imposed until Rouhani’s diplomatic overtures on the nuclear issue are tested and that there be consideration of easing sanctions if a nuclear deal is reached.
 
Effect on Iran’s Nuclear Program Decisions and Capabilities
            By all accounts—the United States, the P5+1, the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—Iran has not complied with the applicable provisions of the U.N. Security Council resolutions requiring that outcome. Five rounds of P5+1—Iran talks during 2012 and thus far in 2013, the latest of which took place in Almaty, Kazakhstan during April 5-6, 2013, produced no breakthroughs.
            Some experts are adopting the view that sanctions might have compelled a change in Iran’s nuclear approach. On June 14, 2013, Iranians elected the relatively moderate mid-ranking cleric Hassan Rouhani as President; he ran on a platform of achieving an easing of sanctions, and outcome likely only in the event there is a nuclear compromise. Since his election—and particularly during his September 23-27, 2013, visit to the U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York—Rouhani has stressed that Iran seeks a nuclear settlement, possibly within six months. He accepted a phone call from President Obama on September 27, 2013, in which the two countries agreed to direct their teams to seek a settlement of that issue.
 
Counter-Proliferation Effects
            A related issue is whether the cumulative sanctions have directly set back Iran’s nuclear efforts by making it difficult for Iran to import needed materials or skills. Some U.S. officials have asserted that, coupled with mistakes and difficulties in Iran, sanctions have slowed Iran’s nuclear efforts by making it more difficult and costly for Iran to acquire key materials and equipment for its enrichment program. However, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports have said that Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium more rapidly continues to expand, as does its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium. And, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified on March 12, 2013, that Iran “is expanding the scale, reach, and sophistication of its ballistic missile arsenal.”
 
 
Effects on Iran’s Regional Political and Military Influence
            Sanctions do not appear to have materially reduced Iran’s capability to finance and provide arms to militant movements in the Middle East and to Syria. Extensive Iranian support to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad appears is continuing, by all accounts. Some press reports, quoting the U.N. panel of experts, say Iran has been exporting arms to factions in Yemen and Somalia. Iran’s arms exports contravene Resolution 1747, which bans Iran’s exportation of arms.
 
General Political Effects
            Some experts assert that sanctions could accomplish their core goals if they spark dissension within the senior Iranian leadership or major public unrest. During 2011-2013, there was a split between then President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, but the rift was driven primarily by institutional competition and differences over the relative weight to attach to Islam or to Iranian nationalism—not sanctions.
            Most of the candidates permitted by the regime to run for president in June 2014 were conservative allies of Khamenei, but the support of Iranians who want significant change powered the most moderate candidate in the race, Rouhani, to a first round victory. The Supreme Leader welcomed Rouhani’s election and has publicly affirmed that he backs, at least for now, Rouhani’s approach to settling the nuclear issue. However, it is possible that differences between
            Rouhani and the Supreme Leader will emerge over potential compromises with the P5+1 and possibly on other issues such as the potential easing of domestic social restrictions. At the popular level, since 2012, there has been labor and public unrest over escalating food prices and the dramatic fall of the value of Iran’s currency. However, public strikes and demonstrations have been sporadic and do not appear to threaten the regime
 
Human Rights-Related Effects
            U.S. and international sanctions have not, to date, had a measurable effect on human rights practices in Iran. Executions increased significantly in 2012, according to the State Department (human rights report for 2012, released April 19, 2013), but that is likely a result of a continued crackdown against opposition activity. Nor has the regime’s ability to monitor and censor use of the Internet and other media been evidently affected to date, even though sanctions have caused several major firms to stop selling Iran equipment that it could use to for those purposes.
 
Economic Effects
            Many experts attribute Rouhani’s attempts to settle the nuclear issue to the dramatic toll sanctions have taken on Iran’s economy. Before taking office, president Rouhani received briefings on the Iranian economy from the outgoing Ahmadinejad economic team, and said that the economy was in worse shape than that portrayed by the outgoing administration. However, analysis by some U.S. experts, and assertions by some Iranian officials, suggest that Iran may be adjusting to the sanctions and mitigating their economic effects more successfully than has been thought by experts.Indicators of the effect of sanctions and mismanagement on Iran’s economy include
 
•Oil Export Declines. Oil sales have accounted for about 80% of Iran’s hard currency earnings and about 50% of government revenues. As noted in Table 2,
sanctions have driven Iran’s oil sales down nearly 60% from the 2.5 mbd of sales in 2011. This drop is expected to reduce Iran’s revenue from crude oil to about $35 billion in 2013, down from over $100 billion in 2011.
 
• Falling Oil Production. To try to adjust to lost oil sales, Iran has been storing unsold oil on tankers in the Persian Gulf and it is building additional storage tanks on shore. Industry reports in June 2013 indicated Iran might have as much as 30 million barrels of crude oil in floating storage. The storage represents an attempt to keep up oil production because shutting down wells risks harming them and it is costly to resume production at a shut well. However, Iran’s oil production has fallen to about 2.6 - 2.8 mbd from the level of nearly 4.0 mbd at the end of 2011.
 
•Hard Currency Depletion. Not only have Iran’s oil exports fallen by volume, but it is no longer receiving easily usable and transferrable hard currency for its oil.
As of February 2013, as noted, oil customers must pay Iran in local currency—a sanction that is reportedly causing about $1.5 billion per month to pile up in foreign accounts (out of about $3.4 billion in the value of oil sales).Iran is unable to repatriate those funds, and it reportedly is having trouble identifying a sufficient amount of goods in those countries to import to make use of that balance. The IMF estimated Iran’s hard currency reserves to be about $101 billion as of the end of 2011, but estimates indicate the reserves have fallen to $60 billion to $80 billion as of October 2013.
 
•GDP Decline. Sanctions have caused Iran to suffer its first gross domestic product contraction in two decades. Many businesses are failing and there are a
large number of non-performing loans. An IMF global report issued in April 2013 said that Iran’s economy shrank 1.9% from March 2012-March 2013, and will likely shrink another 1.3% in the subsequent one year period. U.S. officials testified on May 15, 2013 that GDP 2012-2013 would drop even more—about 5% - 8%. The IMF report predicted the economy would return to growth, at about 1%, for the one year after that (March 2014-March 2015). As a consequence of the downturn, the unemployment rate has risen to about 20%, although the Iranian government reports that the rate is 13%.
 
•Currency Decline. The regime has been working to contain the effects of a currency drop, which took the value of the rial on unofficial markets from about 28,000 to one U.S. dollar to about 40,000 during September-October 2012. Prior to that, the rial’s value had fallen from 13,000 to the dollar in September 2011 to 28,000 to the dollar in mid-September 2012. The unofficial rate was about 37,000 to the dollar in May 2013, but optimism over Rouhani’s presidency caused the rial to appreciate to about 30,000 to the dollar by October 2013.
 
•Inflation. The drop in value of the currency has caused inflation to accelerate. An April 22, 2013, government attempt to unify the exchange rate set off a wave of hoarding of key foodstuffs by Iranians who are expecting the prices of those goods to rise sharply. The Iranian Central Bank acknowledged an inflation rate of 31% rate in April 2013, and a 45% rate in late July 2013. Many economists assert that these official figures understate the actual inflation rate substantially, and that is between 50% and 70%. Some assert that inflation has been fed by the policies of Ahmadinejad, particularly the substitution of subsidies with cash payments.
Click here for the full text.
 

Former US Hostages: Their Thoughts on New Iran Diplomacy

            The United States marks the 34th anniversary of the American Embassy seizure in Tehran on November 4— just four days before the resumption of diplomatic talks between Iran and the world’s six major powers in Geneva. The new talks, launched in October, have also featured the highest level engagement between the Islamic Republic and the United States since the embassy takeover, when 52 Americans were held for 444 days. Iran still marks the takeover with an annual commemoration in front of the former U.S. Embassy.

            The Iran Primer invited former hostages to comment on the new diplomatic effort, which is focused on ending the longstanding dispute over Iran’s controversial nuclear program. Their opinions varied widely. 
 
John Limbert, former political officer in 1979 and later the deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran in the Obama administration
 
     
      It's about time for new dialogue. Thirty-four years is long enough for us to be stuck on a road to nowhere. Now we are dealing with a delicate plant that will require very careful handling if it is not to rot or wither.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Bruce Laingen, former chargé d'affaires (senior U.S. diplomat taken hostage)
 
      Is it time for a dialogue with Iran?  The answer is easy: It is high time.  Talking with Iran is long overdue and should begin without conditions.
      It is obviously difficult for anyone who has not seen the specifics taken by the world’s six major powers and the Iranians, but both sides need clarity in their objectives . The absence of openness means that there must be some stepping back by both sides. 
 
 
      But given that the Iranians are the principal participant in the contest, the lead must come from them in greater transparency on long-range objectives.  Just what are the Iranian government’s real intentions in its nuclear agenda? It has long been lacking in clarity. The U.S. government needs to know better than we do now. Just where do the Iranians want to take their purposes and objectives? Tell us, please. We are weary of reading between the lines!   
 
Barry Rosen, former press attaché
 
      The apparent new dialogue, initiated by President [Hassan] Rouhani, is nothing but the change of the public face of the regime in Tehran in order to rid the country of the international sanctions that are crushing the economic and fiscal system of Iran. In order to accomplish the destruction of the sanctions, the regime is talking about a change in its nuclear program. Some hope that this is real and that Iran will show all its sites to the International Atomic Energy Agency and be a willing partner in lowering the or even halting the refinement of uranium, which Iran says is for peaceful nuclear energy.
 
      I believe that Iran's record is quite clear on nuclear refinement. The regime has consistently been enriching uranium at levels above what is need for nuclear energy, and thus one can only think that Iran is moving along in its plan to use its enrichment. Iran has used its facilities to add approximately 1,000 centrifuges to increase enrichment capacity.
     I can't see the regime in Tehran changing policy toward the United States for other reasons. The keystone of the Islamic Republic is still “Death to America,” no matter what is said in news reports. How will this regime be considered legitimate if it does a complete turn around and tries to build a relationship on maneuvering to destroy the sanctions without really moving itself away from its policy of a nuclear Iran. 
            Finally, the regime needs to address other issues besides human rights and support for terrorists groups like Hezbollah and the inhumane regime in Syria. From my personal perspective, Iran has never apologized for the takeover of the U.S. Embassy on November 4, 1979 and the 444 days of agony that our diplomats and military suffered and are still suffering today. Moreover, while all of this is going on, Iranians will gather at the former Embassy in Teheran to burn American flags and scream "Death to America" in five days from now.
 
William Daugherty, former third secretary (CIA case officer)
 
            As you may have already heard, Ahmadinejad was a wolf in wolf’s clothing; Rouhani is a sheep in wolf’s clothing. So before proceeding beyond the general discussion stage, there must be concrete evidence that [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei is fully behind not just discussions with the United States, but also achieving a permanent change in the relationship. That change must be composed of complete U.S. satisfaction with any agreements on the nuclear issues.  Moreover, there must be some substantial indication that Khamenei is capable of controlling the hardline factions that will oppose, perhaps violently, any agreement with the United States. 
 
      Without the two desiderata stated above, the United States should not proceed beyond a continuation of the dialogue, until and unless the Iranians come to an agreement that satisfies these two demands. 
      A significant component of the ability to manage the hardline opposition is evidence that the Revolutionary Guards leadership and higher echelons are either in accord with the agreement or that Khamenei is able to manage any dissent (or violence).  The Revolutionary Guards leadership have a huge personal stake in continuing the embargo because that is one source (through controlling and running the smuggling networks) of their not insignificant income. 
 
 
            In sum, I am fully supportive of a dialogue with the Iranians and reaching an agreement, provided that it includes the above. As an intelligence professional, I understand fully how difficult it is to obtain concrete proof of the willingness and ability of an opponent to change after nearly 34 years of blatant hostility, especially when that hostility includes terrorist actions that have killed nearly 300 Americans and wounded over 1,000 more (e.g., the Marine barracks in Beirut, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, at least one aircraft hijacking in December of 1984).  Not to mention the taking of hostages (both in the embassy and in Beirut, through Hezbollah), the desecration of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and other acts of terrorism against our allies (e.g., Israel, through Iran’s support for Hamas and two deadly bombings in Argentina). But absent such proof, there should be no agreement. 
 
Cmdr. Donald Sharer, former naval air attaché
 
            I feel the U.S. government has let us down. If the United States is so intent on relations with Iran, we don't have a chance of recouping 14.5 months of our lives, let alone the pain, agony and not knowing when we would die at their hands. We have been forsaken by our country for 30 years on seeking retribution and once again we will be shut out.  Thirty-two years I served, just to be kicked aside for a blatant act of terror. People in Washington D.C. should have been there.
 
Col. Charles Scott, former naval air attaché
      In my view, Iran's current attempt at “peaches and cream” diplomacy is a clever ploy to stall, as long as possible, while continuing to develop a nuclear weapon and its delivery means. The goal of Islamic fundamentalism is to eventually dominate the world. Let's not be suckered in by this ploy. Forget the sweet talk and demand specific action.
 
 
Lt. Col. David Roeder, former deputy Air Force attaché
 
            One of the most memorable quotes from newly-elected President John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural address was, “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”
             Likewise, it was President Reagan who often repeated the old Russian proverb “doveryai no proveryia” (trust, but verify) especially when meeting with then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
            One cannot help but wonder if those historic principals may have been on the mind of Kennedy's fellow Bay Stater John Kerry on October 3rd during a press conference in Japan.
            Responding to a reporter's question about the potential thawing of relations between the U.S. and Iran, our new Secretary of State opined that it would be “diplomatic malpractice of the worst order” not to see if Iran was truly willing to recognize almost universal international demands concerning its nuclear ambitions.
            Almost immediately, the Obama Administration asked Congress to delay its scheduled consideration of a new and reportedly tougher Iran sanctions bill.
            All this, of course, stems from the recent meeting of the U.N. General Assembly where we saw several newsworthy developments: the start of newly-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's so-called “charm offensive,” the closed door meeting between Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad [Javad] Zarif, President Obama's unprecedented “first blink” phone call to Rouhani after more than 30 years of public silence between the two nations and, finally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's impassioned warning that Rouhani is but a “wolf in sheep's clothing” and that Iran has consistently proven that it can never be trusted.
            While most of the main stream media has quickly endorsed the view that President Rouhani is a genuine “moderate” with whom meaningful negotiations might be possible, in my opinion that view appears to be more wishful thinking than cold, hard reality. It is also interesting to note that, as Middle East scholar Hussein Banai explained, “In an Iranian context, a 'moderate' means you don't pick fights with the ruling class and at the same time, you pander to popular grievances people have about that ruling class.” Stepping back and looking at Rouhani's history is, therefore, a critically important and revealing exercise.
            First of all, and perhaps most importantly, we must never forget that to call Iran an Islamic republic is, at best, a misnomer. Iran is first, last and always a militant Shiite theocracy and the 64-year-old Rouhani, unlike his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is a long-term, well-connected cleric within that environment.
            Second, under the Iranian political system, the elected President simply is not the power behind the former Shah's Peacock Throne and wouldn't have even been allowed to seek office unless he enjoyed the support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his Guardian Council.
            Thirdly, Rouhani has long served as the chief Iranian negotiator during numerous multinational and United Nations efforts to determine if the true Iranian dream is to become the Middle East's predominant nuclear power. While those negotiations have always purchased additional time for Iran's weapons research, they have otherwise gone absolutely nowhere!
            Whether or not Secretary Kerry's noble approach holds any promise for improved relations between Iran and the West, current U.S. foreign policy within the region - fragmented as it certainly is – places very little credibility on our side of the negotiating scale.
America is clearly in the process of reducing its presence in the Middle East as Kerry's and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagle's visit to Japan and President Obama's planned, but now canceled, tour of the Asian Basin clearly indicates.
            Writing in the September issue of Commentary magazine, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations Elliott Abrams wrote that “the administration's so-called 'pivot to Asia' is the supposed refocusing of American foreign policy away from the Middle East and onto the Far East.”
            Think about the potential consequences of that pull-out to our regional, but increasingly wary, allies. Even President Obama's own ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, recently commented “If it's a tactic, it is mindless; if it is a strategy, it is criminal.”
            Shortly before taking office in August, Rouhani was a principal participant in large anti-Israeli rally during which he described America's only democratic ally in the region as a “wound on the body of the Islamic world.” And finally, during his inaugural speech, Rouhani fully endorsed the Supreme Leader's ironclad position on Iran becoming a nuclear power.
            While he may be the epitome of an Iranian defined “moderate,” nothing has or is likely to change. Under most western definitions of the word, a “moderate”, Rouhani is not—not even close!
 
Sgt. Rodney (Rocky) Sickmann, former Marine guard
 
            These negotiations are frustrating. Frustrating that our government isn’t willing to hold Iran accountable for the inhumane, brutal and mental torture they put 52 Americans through for 444 days yet, in most recent negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear program, they chose to negotiate even when Iran still offers no concessions. Iran has always depended on intimidation and terrorism to stay in power and during our 444 days in captivity Iran learned one thing: Terrorism on the United States works
      It is time. It’s time to start from the beginning on November 4, 1979 – the day we were taken hostage. That day dramatically reshaped the politics of the US and Iran and it’s time for Iran to be held accountable for their illegal actions and pay reparations consistent with the historical amounts established by the court.
 
 
 
            How can our nation ever make progress unless the US addresses the core issues within this terrorist country? We need to work within certain parameters to ensure the negotiations not only further the interests of the US, but also protect all Americans and our future generations. We need to demonstrate that the US will not tolerate the terrorism Iran began on November 4, 1979. We must hold them accountable and only then do then do I agree that negotiations towards a nuclear program solution would be successful.
 
*Titles and rank reflect positions during the 1979-1981 hostage crisis.
 

Photo credit: William Daugherty via Armstrong Atlantic State University

 

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What Billboards Say on Iran’s Foreign Policy

            Iranian suspicion about the United States has been splashed across billboards and spray-painted on public walls ever since the 1979 revolution. But anti-American art has actually now become a source of dispute within Iran’s government—and maybe a sign of changing times.
            Shortly after new diplomatic talks between Iran and six world powers, a new set of billboards challenging American honesty popped up across Tehran. They depicted an American envoy negotiating with an Iranian official, but under the table the American was clad in fatigues and cradled a shotgun pointed at the Iranian. The caption, in Farsi, read “American honesty.”
            Media supportive of new President Hassan Rouhani publicly blasted the series of billboards. They then just as abruptly disappeared from Tehran’s streets in late October.
 
 
            The local government claimed the billboards, reportedly put up by the Owj Cultural Organization, were unauthorized. “In an arbitrary move, without the knowledge or confirmation of the municipality, one of the cultural institutes installed advertising billboards,” said Tehran city spokesman Hadi Ayyazi. 
            But hardliners pledged to put them back up during the holy month of Ashura, which starts in mid-November. Hardline media charged the Rouhani government had pressured the city to remove them for fear of hurting Iran’s new diplomatic initiative. “With this ridiculous excuse, they put so much pressure on the city that they were forced to remove the posters,” Kayhan claimed in an editorial.
            Yet anti-American artwork is still a mainstay on official websites, most notably the new graphics still posted weekly on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. The most recent one, below, was posted on October 26.
 
           This poster (below) on Khamenei’s Facebook page refers to the 1953 coup led by the CIA and British intelligence against Iran’s first democratically elected government. The coup also restored the shah to the throne six days after he had fled to Rome. The Facebook posting includes a past quote by Khamenei:
            “The U.S. government, with the claim of democracy, has made so many crimes against democracies in the world. It’s about the regime that staged [the] 1953 coupin Iran and led the Chilean coup against the legitimate government ofthat country. Dozens of coups have been conducted in Latin America, Africa and other regions against national governments and for many years U.S. administrations have backed dictators such as "Reza Pahlavi" and even today if a dictator is not more ugly-tempered than they are… No one would believe [the] U.S. government’s claims fordemocracyand human rights."
 
            The theocracy clearly still fears American domination, a theme as central to the 1979 revolution as the campaign to oust the monarchy.
 
            Another posted on the supreme leader’s page marked the shooting down of an Iranian passenger flight by the USS Vincennes in 1988 on the 25th anniversary. The flight carried 290 passengers and crew; all fell to their deaths. The Reagan administration said it was an accident, but Iranians still note that the American captain was awarded a medal.
 

 
Photo credits:
Billboard photo from The Islamic Republic Designing House blog
Graphics via Khamenei.ir

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