United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

White House: New Sanctions Amount to War Resolution

            On January 9, the White House warned that a new Iran sanctions bill proposed in the Senate could push the United States toward war with Iran. The “Iran Nuclear Weapon Free Act” is co-sponsored by more than one-half of the 100 Senators, largely Republican but including several key Democrats. President Obama has threatened to veto the bill if passed, but the legislation may get enough bipartisan support to make it veto-proof. In response, National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan issued the following statement:

            This bill is in direct contradiction to the Administration’s work to peacefully resolve the international community’s concerns with Iran’s nuclear program. We know that this proposed legislation would divide the international community, drive the Iranians to take a harder line, and possibly end negotiations. This bill would have a negative bearing on the sanctions regime too. Let us not forget: sanctions work because we convinced our partners to take the steps that we seek. If our partners no longer believe that we are serious about finding a negotiated solution, then our sanctions regime would suffer. 
            If Congress passes this bill, it will be proactively taking an action that will make diplomacy less likely to succeed. The American people have been clear that they prefer a peaceful resolution to this issue. If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action, they should be up front with the American public and say so. Otherwise, it’s not clear why any member of Congress would support a bill that possibly closes the door on diplomacy and makes it more likely that the United States will have to choose between military options or allowing Iran’s nuclear program to proceed.
            The President has been clear that he has a responsibility to fully test whether we can achieve a comprehensive solution through diplomatic means, before he pursues alternatives. Passing new sanctions legislation right now will undermine our efforts to achieve a peaceful resolution.

            Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif has warned that new sanctions are in violation of the Geneva agreement signed by Iran and the world’s six major powers on November 24. He said new Congressional action would kill diplomacy.
            Robert Menendez (D- New Jersey) and Mark Kirk (R – Illinois) introduced the resolution on December 19, which “requires further reductions in purchases of Iranian petroleum and applies additional penalties to strategic elements of the Iranian economy, to include the engineering, mining and construction sectors.” Ten Democratic Senate committee chairs have circulated a joint letter warning that the Menendez resolution could undermine negotiations with Iran.
            The following are excerpts from the proposed bill with a link to the full text.
S. 1881
To expand sanctions imposed with respect to Iran and to impose
additional sanctions with respect to Iran, and for other purposes.
Sec. 101. Applicability of sanctions with respect to petroleum  transactions.
Sec. 102. Ineligibility for exception to certain sanctions for countries that do not reduce purchases of petroleum from Iran or of Iranian origin to a de minimis level.
Sec. 103. Imposition of sanctions with respect to ports, special economic zones, and strategic sectors of Iran.
Sec. 104. Identification of, and imposition of sanctions with respect to, certain Iranian individuals.
Sec. 105. Imposition of sanctions with respect to transactions in foreign currencies with or for certain sanctioned persons.
Sec. 106. Sense of Congress on prospective sanctions.
(b) Sense of Congress.--It is the sense of Congress that--
(1) the Government of Iran must not be allowed to developor maintain nuclear weapon capabilities;
(2) all instruments of power and influence of the United States should remain on the table to prevent the Government of Iran from developing nuclear weapon capabilities;
(3) the Government of Iran does not have an absolute or inherent right to enrichment and reprocessing capabilities and technologies under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of  Nuclear Weapons, done at Washington, London, and Moscow July 1, 1968, and entered into force March 5, 1970 (commonly known as the ``Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty'');
(4) the imposition of sanctions under this Act, including sanctions on exports of petroleum from Iran, is triggered by violations by Iran of any interim or final agreement regarding its nuclear program, failure to reach a final agreement in a discernible time frame, or the breach of other conditions described in section 301;
(5) if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran's nuclear weapon program, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with the law of the United States and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence;
(6) the United States should continue to impose sanctions on the Government of Iran and its terrorist proxies for their continuing sponsorship of terrorism; and
(7) the United States should continue to impose sanctions on the Government of Iran for--
(A) its ongoing abuses of human rights; and
(B) its actions in support of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
It is the sense of Congress that, if additional sanctions are imposed pursuant to this Act and the Government of Iran continues to pursue an illicit nuclear weapons program, Congress should pursue additional stringent sanctions on Iran, such as sanctions on entities providing the Government of Iran access to assets of the Government of Iran held outside Iran, sanctions on Iran's energy sector, including its natural gas sector, and sanctions on entities providing certain underwriting, insurance, or reinsurance to the Government of Iran.
Click here for the full text.

Photos: People, Places and Political Sites

      Robin Wright captured a cross section of images from Iran on the eve of the revolution’s 35th anniversary. The pictures include exclusive images from inside the U.S. Embassy in Tehran as well as leading ayatollahs and some of the many visual contradictions in the Islamic Republic. Click on the arrows to see the next slide in each series.


The Holy Shrine in Qom


The Clerics


The Girls of Iran


The Boys of Iran


U.S. Embassy in Tehran


Lingering Impact of the Iran-Iraq War


The Economy


The Art of Iran


Finding Marilyn Monroe in Tehran


The Billboards (and contradictions) of Iran



Inside Iran with Robin Wright and David Ignatius

            Two long-time Middle East experts have recently returned from Iran. Their discussions with cabinet members, ayatollahs, hardliners, members of parliament, economists, opposition figures and ordinary Iranians offer rare insights into Iran’s increasingly vibrant political scene since President Rouhani took office and the implications of the new nuclear agreement. Robin Wright and David Ignatius offer fresh perspectives on what’s next.


Iran’s Leaders Alarmed by Sunni-Shiite Tension

            Iran’s top religious and political leaders are alarmed by growing Sunni-Shiite tension in the Middle East. Tehran is especially worried about the influx of Sunni militants into Syria, al Qaeda’s resurgence in Iraq, and Sunni-Shiite clashes in Lebanon. Sectarian violence is “the most serious security threat not only to the region but to the world at large,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned in a November 2013 BBC interview. And in October 2013, President Hassan Rouhani called for Muslim unity and regional cooperation to prevent bloodshed.

      Other Iranian leaders are blaming the intra-Muslim fighting on the West, Israel and the Sunni Gulf states. Western intelligence services are fomenting “bloody sectarian, ethnic and national conflicts” in Syria and elsewhere with “the help of [Arab] petrodollars,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei charged in April 2013. Saudi Arabia is “fulfilling Zionists’ orders for fomenting sectarian war in the Muslim world,” claimed Reza Mohseni Sani, a member of parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission. 
           The Shiite theocracy has a strategic interest in preventing further Sunni-Shiite violence. Iran is the biggest Shiite country in the world. Some 89 percent of its 79 million people are Shiites. But overall, they are a minority in the Middle East. Outside of Iran, Shiites make up only 11 to 14 percent of the region’s Muslim population, according to the Pew Research Center. Bahrain and Iraq are the only other Arab countries with majority-Shiite populations, while Yemen is estimated to be 35 percent Shiite. The following is a rundown of remarks by top Iranian leaders on sectarianism.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
            “One of the great plights in the world of Islam today is the plight imposed intentionally and wickedly by the#arrogant powers to inflame discords among the Islamic nation and religious sects.
            “The arrogant and #imperialist system is highly experienced at sowing religious discords…
            “Confrontation of religious sects will not be limited to #Shia and #Sunni conflicts…”
            Nov. 11, 2013 in a meeting with Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) officials
Nov. 19, 2013 Facebook post
            “Any statements and actions that set fire between Muslims or insulting sanctities of any Muslim sects is a service to the camp of disbelievers and haram.”
            Oct. 14, 2013 at a ceremony marking the beginning of the Hajj
            “It is necessary that both Sunnis and Shiites understand, as well as everyone in Iran and the Muslim world, that the disagreement between Shiites and Sunnis is one of the tools and equipment of the enemy [used] against the Muslim community.”
            Aug. 21, 2013 Facebook posting with a quote from Aug. 8, 2006
President Hassan Rouhani
            The following tweet refers to President Rouhani’s call with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani.
            “We should fight terrorism in unity. This terrorist attack [on the Iran-Iraq gas pipeline] revealed that terrorists targeted material and spiritual interests of different religions and ethnicities.”
            Dec. 15, 2013 in a phone call with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
      “I think we need to come to understand that a sectarian divide in the Islamic world is a threat to all of us.”
      “Some people have fanned the animosity for short-sighted political interests.”
     “This business of fear-mongering has been a prevalent business… Nobody should try to fan the flames of sectarian violence. We should reign it in, bring it to a close, try to avoid a conflict that would be detrimental to everybody's security.”
      “I think all of us... regardless of our differences on Syria, we need to work together on the sectarian issue.”
            Nov. 10, 2013 in an interview with the BBC
            “Iran believes that what is happening in Syria can have a huge impact on the future of our region and the future beyond the region. Because we believe that if the sectarian divide that some people are trying to fan in Syria becomes a major issue it will not recognize any boundaries. It will go beyond the boundaries of Syria. It will go beyond the boundaries of this region. You will find implications of this on the streets of Europe and America.”
            Dec. 7, 2013 in an interview with TIME magazine
Defense Minister Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehqan
      The “inhuman and dangerous phenomenon of takfiri terrorism” and extremism is spreading “from Syria to Iraq.”
      Dec. 1, 2013 according to Fars News Agency
Chairman of Parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee Alaeddin Boroujerdi
            “The terrorist groups including al Qaeda and the al Nusra Front in Syria are serving the interests and policies of the United States and Britain through the brutal killing of this country’s [Syria] Muslim people.”
            Oct. 29, 2013 in a meeting with a member of Somalia’s parliament
Member of Parliament Ali Motahari
            “Western countries are after dispersion in the Islamic World and on account of such fact, Muslim scholars, both Shiites and Sunnis, should stand against such danger hand in hand. The takfiri movements are the brain child of Wahhabi credos, traced back to many years ago, which of its nature, reject other Islamic sects and denominations and do not even recognize the four main Islamic Schools of Sunni denominations.”
            “Intimidated by Muslim nations’ power, Western countries seek disunity in the Islamic world. And the more dispersion pervades Islamic countries, the more benefit they [Western countries] will reap.”
            Oct. 28, 2013 in an interview with Taqrib News Agency
Grand Ayatollah Nouri Hamedani
            “Our message to Sunni community is that we should not let the enemy to take advantage of our divide. We need to unify against the common enemy.”
            Dec. 28, 2013 in a meeting with members of Hezbollah, Lebanese Shiite militia and political party
Member of Parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee Mohammad Reza Mohseni Sani
“Saudi Arabia is the U.S. and the Zionist regime’s agent in the region… Fulfilling Zionists' orders for fomenting sectarian war in the Muslim world is Saudi Arabia’s mission.”
            Jan. 4, 2014 to Fars News Agency
Tehran's Interim Friday Prayer Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ahmad Khatami
            “Prominent Sunni clerics, who are highly disappointed with the conduct of the murderer takfiris [Muslims who declare other Muslims unbelievers] are advised to join Shiite clerics in announcing that those criminals’ deeds are totally unrelated to Islam. The Shiite and Sunni clerics will save Islam’s prestige if they do so.”
            Jan. 3, 2014 in a sermon
Parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee Spokesperson Hossein Naqavi Hosseini
            “The petrodollars of some regional governments are in the pockets of takfiri terrorists, Salafis and extremist groups… Saudi Arabia’s support of takfiris in Syria, terrorist activities in Iraq and Lebanon, Pakistan, Russia and even some European countries such as Serbia and Bosnia shows that a great threat [is jeopardizing] the region’s security.
            “Many al Qaeda-linked terrorist groups are being supported by the Saudi Arabian government, and what [Saudi Intelligence Chief] Bandar bin Sultan looks for in Saudi Arabia is worrying for the entire region, and the international community must deal with such moves.”
            Jan. 6, 2014 according to Press TV
Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Taskhiri
            “The Iranian nation during history has played an important role in supporting Sunni Muslims to the point that imams of Sunni denomination and even the authors of Sunni reference books were all from Iran… Both Shiite and Sunni [sects] are necessary for a perfect understanding of Islam.
            “The crimes committed against the Iraqi nation by terrorists and takfiri groups are a tragedy…The disagreement between different Islamic denominations in Iraq is probably a result of the high rate of violence in the country.”
            Oct. 8, 2013 at Iraq’s Kufa University
Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Naqdi
            “The Zionists are trying to stage a sectarian war among Muslims with the help and the support of the United States and Britain in a bid to delay their destruction.”
            Aug. 2, 2013 according to Tasnim News Agency

Photo credits: Khamenei.ir via Facebook, Mohammad Javad Zarif via US State Department, Hossein Dehqan via Ministry of Defense


Facts and Figures on Sunni-Shiite Balance

            The rivalry between Shiite Iran and Sunni Arab states reflects the deepest schism in the Islamic world. The split dates back to the seventh century, when the sects disagreed over the issue of leadership after the Prophet Mohammed’s death. Shiites believed that the Prophet should have been succeeded by relatives or descendants most familiar with his thinking and practices. The other Muslims who evolved into the Sunnis thought the early Muslim community had the right to select leaders with no blood ties to Mohammed.
            Today, more than 85 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are Sunni, according to the Pew Research Center. Shiites are a minority virtually everywhere except for Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Iran and Iraq. Yemen and Lebanon are estimated to be 35 and 27 percent Shiite, respectively. 

            The major flashpoints between Shiites and Sunnis in the Middle East today are:
            Bahrain: Shiites have long been the majority in the small island-nation but have felt neglected by the minority Sunni government. In February 2011, thousands marched in Manama to call for government reform. The protest movement has been predominantly Shiite.
            Iraq: Sunni militants affiliated with al Qaeda have rebelled against the Shiite-dominated central government. They took over Falluja, a city some 43 miles west of Baghdad, in January 2014.
            Lebanon: The Syrian civil war has exacerbated long-standing sectarian tensions. Violent street clashes between Sunnis and Shiites have broken out in Lebanese cities. In Sidon, followers of a hardline Sunni cleric have traded artillery and small arms fire with supporters of Hezbollah, a Shiite militia and political party. Since 2011, Alawites and Sunnis have had sporadic gunfights in Tripoli. Alawites are an offshoot of Shiism.
            Saudi Arabia: Between 10 and 15 percent of Saudi Arabia is thought to be Shiite. The Sunni monarchy’s oil-rich Eastern Province is home to a large Shiite minority that has long felt neglected by Riyadh. Since 2011, demonstrators have taken to the province’s streets to protest corruption, high unemployment and discrimination against Shiites.
            Syria: Sunni militants have flocked to Syria to fight Bashar al Assad’s regime, which is dominated by Alawites. Hezbollah has sent forces from Lebanon to defend the regime. And Shiite Iran has provided military and political support to Damascus.
            Yemen: Shiite rebels in northern Yemen called Houthis have been intermittently fighting against the Sunni-majority government since 2004. U.N. envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar announced a ceasefire between Sunni Salafists and the Houthis in November 2013. But the violence has not subsided.
      Tensions are so deep that significant numbers of Sunnis – in some countries exceeding 50 percent – do not recognize Shiites as Muslims 14 centuries after the schism, according to a 2012 Pew study. The two sects agree on Islam’s most important articles of faith, belief in one God and the prophethood of Mohammed. But many Sunnis reject Shiite traditions, such as visiting saints’ shrines and appealing to the deceased for aid. Only in Lebanon and Iraq, where sizeable populations from both sects coexist in the same urban areas, do large majorities accept Shiites as Muslims.
      The two sects celebrate the holiday of Ashura differently and for separate reasons. Sunnis believe the day commemorates the day God saved the Israelites from Pharaoh. They fast, according to a tradition that claims Moses fasted on that day. For Shiites, however, Ashura commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson who fell in battle against the Sunni Ummayad Dynasty in 680. Ritual chest beating and self-flagellation are common practices in the Middle East on the holiday. But some Shiite and Sunni leaders do not approve of these customs.
            Iran has the world’s largest Shiite population. The Islamic Republic is also the only country ever ruled by Shiite clerics. Both factors made it the de facto leader of the Shiiite world politically, even though the historic center of Shiite scholarship is in Najaf, Iraq. A 2013 Zogby poll found that 76 percent of Iranians surveyed believe their government’s foreign policy is designed primarily to protect vulnerable Shiite communities elsewhere in the region.
            The six neighboring Gulf sheikhdoms, all ruled by Sunnis, are home to some 3 million Shiites. Many have cultural or religious ties to Iran. Both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have long claimed that Iran was trying to foment unrest among their Shiite minorities. “Clerical authorities in Iran still tend to act as if they lead the Islamic World--issuing ultimatums, intimidating their neighbors, and inciting dissidence and revolution,” Prince Turki al Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief, said in October 2013. But Iran also claims that the sheikhdoms discriminate against Shiites.
            Numerically, Iran’s 79 million population is almost twice as large as the 45 million people who populate the six Gulf sheikhdoms, especially since the Gulf numbers include foreign residents. The Sunni monarchies are concerned that Iran could more actively support their brethren inside the Gulf sheikhdoms.
Photo credits: Sunni-Shi'a map by DinajGao (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, Pew Research Center


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