United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Tehran’s Promise

Robin Wright (for The New Yorker)

Iran’s revolutionaries are aging. Most are in their late fifties, sixties, or seventies. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, turned seventy-six this month. More than sixty per cent of Iran’s eighty million people are under the age of thirty-five. A baby-boom generation, born after the revolution, doesn’t share all of its priorities.


Click here to read the full article in The New Yorker.

Nuclear Deal: Proxy for Larger Debate

The final nuclear deal is a “proxy for a more fundamental debate” in both Iran and the United States, according to Robert Litwak in the latest edition of the Wilson Center’s Viewpoints series. For Tehran, it is about identity and relations with the international community. For Washington, it raises questions about American strategy towards “rogue states.” The following are excerpts from Litwak’s article.

The nuclear agreement between the P5+1 and Iran, concluded in Vienna on July 14, has been called a milestone and a historic chance by some, an act of appeasement and a historic mistake by others. On the surface, the deal is a straightforward tradeoff between technology and transparency: Iran is permitted to retain a bounded nuclear program in return for assurances that it is not masquerading as a weapons program. That getting to yes required protracted negotiations and has generated such sharply divergent reactions reflects the persisting nature of the debate over this proliferation challenge.
In both Iran and America, the nuclear issue remains a proxy for a more fundamental debate. In Iran, it is a surrogate for the defining debate over the Islamic Republic’s relationship with the outside world, in general, and America—the “Great Satan”—in particular. In the United States, the nuclear challenge is embedded in the broader issue of American strategy toward so-called “rogue states,” such as Iran. After 9/11, the Bush administration argued that the threat posed by the rogues derived from the very character of their regimes, which was central to its case for a preventive war of regime change in Iraq.
President Barack Obama campaigned in 2008 on the controversial platform of engaging adversarial states. Upon assuming office, he reframed the debate on Iran, dropping the unilateral American “rogue” rubric, and instead characterizing the Islamic Republic as an “outlier”—a state violating established international norms. The Tehran regime was given a structured choice: come into compliance with Iran’s obligations under the Nuclear NonProliferation Treaty or face punitive measures and deeper isolation. This recasting of the Iranian nuclear challenge helped forge broad multilateral support for the tough financial and oil sanctions that brought Iran back to the negotiating table under the reformist President Hassan Rouhani.
The 109-page nuclear accord (including 5 annexes) fulfills the parameters of the interim framework reached in Lausanne on April 2. The deal offers both sides a winning political narrative. The Obama administration can highlight the meaningful constraints the agreement places on Iran’s nuclear program—cutting off the plutonium route to a bomb and sharply reducing the number of centrifuges to the sole uranium enrichment site at Natanz—and the extension to one year of the “breakout” time Iran would need to acquire a nuclear weapon if the Tehran regime made that strategic decision. President Rouhani and his chief negotiator, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, can argue that they codified Iran’s sovereign “right” to enrich uranium and stood up to American bullying.
President Obama, challenging his critics to offer a better alternative to the deal, has argued that the only alternative to diplomacy is force. That option—what, by now, would be the most telegraphed punch in history—has major liabilities. A military strike on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would only delay not end the program, could well escalate into a war with Iran, carries the risk of spewing radioactive toxins into the environment, and could have the perverse effect of domestically bolstering the theocratic regime in the wake of a foreign attack.
Click here for the full article
Tags: Nuclear

Khamenei: Deal Won’t Change Policy on US

On July 18, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei expressed support for the nuclear deal between Iran and the world’s major powers. “The result of a 10, 12-year struggle with the Islamic Republic is that they have been forced to tolerate the operation of several thousand centrifuges in the country,” he said after prayers marking the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Khamenei, however, emphasized that the agreement did not signal an end to Iran’s opposition to U.S. policies and Israel. “We have no negotiations with America on different global and regional issues,” he clarified.
Khamenei also pledged to continue Iranian support for regional allies such as Syrian President Bashar al Assad and Hezbollah, the Lebanese political party and militia. The following are key excerpts from his speech interspersed with tweets from his official account.
The first point is a word of thanks to officials in charge of these long and arduous negotiations - the honorable President and particularly the negotiation team who really made great efforts and worked hard. They will certainly be divinely rewarded whether the document that has been prepared will- through its determined legal procedures- be ratified or not. We have said this to those brothers in person as well.
Of course in order to ratify this document, there is a clear legal procedure that, by Allah's favor, has to be taken. We expect that these officials take the interests- interests of the country, interests of the people- into consideration by paying careful attention, so that when they deliver the matter to the people, they can do so with their heads held high in front of Allah the Exalted as well.
The next point is that by Allah's favor and grace, no one will be allowed to take advantage of this document in any way and to undermine the fundamental principles of the Islamic Republic whether this document is ratified or not.
The Islamic Republic will never give in to the enemy's greed in the area of protecting its defense capabilities and security- particularly in this environment filled with the enemies' threats.
The next point is that whether this document is ratified or not, we will not abandon our regional friends: the oppressed people of Palestine, the oppressed people of Yemen, the people and government of Syria, the people and government of Iraq, the oppressed people of Bahrain and the sincere mujahids of the Resistance in Lebanon and Palestine. These people will always enjoy our support.
The next point is that our policy towards the arrogant government of America will not change in any way despite these negotiations and the document that has been prepared. As we have said many times, we have no negotiations with America on different global and regional issues. We have no bilateral negotiations with America. Sometimes, we have negotiated with them in exceptional cases such as the nuclear issue and we have done so because of our interests. The nuclear issue was not the only case. There were other cases as well which I have referred to in my previous public speeches. The American policies in the region are 180 degrees the opposite of the policies of the Islamic Republic. The Americans accuse Hezbollah and the Lebanese Resistance - who are the most self-sacrificing forces in their country in the area of national defense - of terrorism. There is no injustice worse than this. This is while they support the terrorist child-killing government of Zionism. How can one do business, negotiate and reach an agreement with such a policy? There are other cases as well and I will expand on them in other speeches.
Another point is about the Americans' blustering in recent days. In the recent days that the negotiations have been concluded, the American excellencies - their male and female officials - are busy blustering. Each of them is blustering in a different way. Of course, this is alright with us. Their domestic problems force them into blustering. They claim that they have dragged Iran towards the negotiating table, that they have made Iran surrender, that they have obtained such and such concessions from our country and other such claims. However, the truth is something else. They say that they have prevented Iran from building nuclear weapons, but this has nothing to do with our negotiations with America and other countries. They themselves know this and sometimes they have spoken about the importance of the fatwa that bans nuclear weapons.
According to the commands of the Holy Quran and Islamic sharia, we consider building, keeping and using nuclear weapons as haraam [forbidden] and therefore, we will not do so. This has nothing to do with them and with these negotiations. They themselves know that this is the truth. They know that what prevents the Islamic Republic from building nuclear weapons is not their threats and intimidating behavior. There is a religious barrier behind this and they know the significance of this fatwa, but they still claim that it was they who prevented Iran. They are not honest with their own people and they do not tell them the truth. On various other matters, they say that they have adopted such and such a measure about Iran's nuclear industry and that they have forced Iran to surrender, but they can only see Iran's surrender in their dreams.
From the beginning of the Revolution until today, five other U.S. presidents died or were lost in history dreaming that they would force the Islamic Republic to surrender. You too will enjoy the same fate. You too will never achieve the dream of forcing the Islamic Republic to surrender.
There was one point in the statements that the American president made in recent days: he admitted to America's past mistakes. Of course, he said a hodgepodge of things. He admitted that the Americans made a mistake in Iran on the 28th of Mordad. He admitted that the Americans made a mistake in helping Saddam Hussein. He admitted to two, three mistakes, but he did not mention tens of others. He did not speak about the 25-year oppressive and treacherous rule of the second Pahlavi monarch. He did not speak about the many instances of torture, looting, massacre, disaster and calamity that were caused by America. He did not speak about the destruction of the Iranian peoples' dignity and America's efforts to trample upon their domestic and foreign interests. He did not speak about the Zionists' domination, the killing of Iranian passengers on a passenger plane and many other things. Nonetheless, he mentioned a number of mistakes.
I would like to offer a friendly word of advice to these excellencies: today - after the passage of many years from the 28th of Mordad, the eight-year war and the defense that the Islamic Republic put up there - you acknowledge that you have made certain mistakes. I would like to say to you that you are making a mistake in the present time as well. In the present time too, you are busy making mistakes in different places in the region and particularly towards the Islamic Republic and the people of Iran. In a few years, someone else will turn up and show you your mistakes, just as today you are admitting to the mistakes that your predecessors made. You are making mistakes as well. Therefore, you should awaken, correct your mistakes and understand the truth. You are making grave mistakes in the region.
What I want to say to the people of Iran is that by Allah's favor and grace, the Islamic Republic has become powerful and strong. It has become stronger on a daily basis. It is 10, 12 years now that six great global powers - which are among powerful countries in the world in terms of economic wealth - have been sitting in front of Iran, trying to prevent it from pursuing its nuclear industry. They have said this openly. Their real goal is to open the nuts and bolts of the nuclear industry. They have said this to our officials many years ago. In the present time too, they pursue the same dream. The result of a 10, 12-year struggle with the Islamic Republic is that they have been forced to tolerate the operation of several thousand centrifuges in the country. They have been forced to tolerate the continuation of this industry in our country. They have been forced to tolerate the development of this industry and the continuation of research on it. Research and developing the nuclear industry will continue. The cycle of the nuclear industry will continue.
This is what they have been trying to prevent for many years, but today they have signed on paper that they have no problem with our nuclear industry. Apart from the power of the Iranian people, what other meaning does this have? This has been achieved because of the people's resistance and steadfastness and our dear scientists' courage and innovation. God's mercy be upon the likes of Shahriari, Rezainejad, Ahmadi Roshan and Ali Muhammadi. God's mercy be upon our nuclear martyrs. God's mercy be upon their families. God's mercy be upon a people who stand by their truthful claims and rights.
I would like to raise another point which is the last one. An individual has said that he can destroy Iran's army. Our predecessors used to call such statements, "boasting among strangers. " I do not want to say anything more in this regard. If those who will hear this statement want to know the truth and if they are willing to use their experiences correctly, they should know that should any war break out - of course we do not welcome and begin any war - he who will emerge humiliated [literally: "head-cracked"] out of it, will be transgressing and criminal America.

Click here for the full speech.


US Military Officials on Iran

Iran is among the top four state actors who pose challenges to U.S. security, according to President Obama’s nominees for chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “I would put the threats to this nation in the following order: Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and all of the organizations that have grown around ideology that was articulated by al Qaeda,” Obama’s nominee for vice chairman, Air Force Gen. Paul J. Selva, said at his July 14 Senate nomination hearing. Iran, the “foremost state sponsor of terrorism, is both a regional and global security threat,” Marine General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., Obama’s nominee for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at his at his Senate nomination hearing.

The following is a rundown of recent remarks by U.S. military officials on Iran.
Marine General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr.
(Nominee for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff)
Question: What do you consider to be the most significant challenges you expect to face if you are confirmed?
The current security environment is extraordinarily complex and volatile. We face challenges from state actors including Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea.
Question: What is your assessment of the military and political threat posed by Iran?
Iran, the foremost state sponsor of terrorism, is both a regional and global security threat. Iran attempts to export its influence and protect its governing regime through support for proxy terrorist groups like Hezbollah; weapons trafficking; ballistic missile procurement and advancement; and maritime assets that threaten and harass international waters in the Straits of Hormuz and beyond.
Question: What is your assessment of the threat of Iran’s influence in Iraq to U.S. interests?
Iran’s goals and actions are inconsistent with our interests. Iran’s goal in Iraq is not to build an inclusive government; rather, it is to create a compliant, Shia-dominated buffer state.
Question: In your view, what are the risks, if any, associated with reducing U. S. presence in the Middle East with respect to the threat posed by Iran?
Reducing our presence in the Middle East could leave space for Iran to pursue its hegemonic goals. U.S. military presence gives credibility to the military options in the Middle East that both demonstrate our commitment to our regional security partners and deters Iran from employing its large conventional army or ballistic missiles and from interdicting the Strait of Hormuz. Nothing we say can match the message we deliver with our military presence or lack thereof.
Question: Negotiations on the Iran nuclear program have been extended with a deadline now of June 30, 2015 to finalize a comprehensive agreement. What are the elements of a nuclear agreement with Iran that you consider critical to ensuring that it is a “good” deal for U.S. national security interests?
A good deal rolls back Iran’s nuclear program; provides the international community with unprecedented access and transparency into Iran’s nuclear facilities and nuclear supply chain; and preserves critical sanctions on conventional arms and ballistic missiles. A finalized deal 37 based on the 02 April political framework satisfies all three of these criteria and clearly makes it more difficult for Iran to move towards a nuclear weapon.
Question: If Iran is allowed to maintain a monitored and limited uranium enrichment program, do you believe that other states in the region may seek to develop enrichment programs of their own and why or why not?
Any response I would make at this time would be speculation. If confirmed, I will make an assessment based on intelligence and my engagement with regional partners.
Question: What role, if any, should DOD play in countering Iran’s support of international terrorism?
The DoD’s role is to deter and counter Iran’s support of international terrorism and support our interagency partners’ efforts. We deter Iran through our own responsive military presence in the Middle East and through defensive infrastructure and tactics for both ourselves and our allies. To counter Iran, we enable our partner nations through counter terrorism training and equipment sales, multi-national exercises, and information sharing, which when combined help to both weaken terrorist groups and Iran’s ability to support them.
Question: Over the past few years, much has been made of the emerging anti-access and area denial capabilities of certain countries and the prospect that these capabilities may in the future limit the U.S. military’s freedom of movement and action in certain regions. Do you believe emerging anti-access and area denial capabilities are a concern?
Yes. One of the keys to our nation's success is our ability to rapidly project power around the globe. Our power projection capability is essential to deterring our adversaries and maintaining global stability. Russia, Iran, and China are developing technologies, most notably missiles, designed to limit U.S. military’s freedom of movement. If confirmed, I will make it a priority to ensure that we sustain our ability to project overwhelming combat power into any theater at a time of our choosing.
How would you respond to critics of the [U.N.] Convention [ on the Law of the Sea] who assert that accession is not in the national security interests of the United States?
There are significant national security impacts from failing to join the Convention. By remaining outside the Convention, the United States remains in scarce company with Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, and Syria, and foregoes the most effective way to counter undesirable changes in the law or to exercise international leadership. By not acceding to UNCLOS we deny ourselves the ability to challenge changes to international law as a result of the practice of nations at the local, regional, or global level. As some states seek to interpret treaty provisions in a manner that 72 restricts freedom of navigation, U.S. reliance on customary international law as the legal foundation for our military activities in the maritime becomes far more vulnerable and needlessly places our forces in a more tenuous position during operations. Moreover, by failing to join the Convention, some countries may come to doubt our commitment to act in accordance with international law.
— July 9, 2015 in testimony for his U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services nomination hearing
Air Force Gen. Paul J. Selva
(Nominee for vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff)
“Senator I haven’t yet had the opportunity to study the entire [nuclear] agreement, but on its face from what I’ve heard from the press, the immediate lifting of sanctions, or the sequential lifting of sanctions will give Iran the access to more economic assets with which to sponsor terrorism should they choose to do so. I think we need to be alert to that possibility…”
July 14, 2015, in an exchange with U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD)
“Iran’s authoritarian regime poses both a regional and global security threat. The world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism seeks to export its revolutionary ideology in the Middle East through a large conventional army; terrorist proxies; weapons trafficking; ballistic missile proliferation; and maritime weapons and threats to the Strait of Hormuz. Through its emergent nuclear and established cyber programs, Iran can threaten and undermine the international institutions and conventions that underpin global security. The Supreme Leader will continue to take advantage of opportunities to enable Iran’s domestic, hardline political factions’ malign policies that value regime survival over international integration.”
“Iran’s ambitions in Iraq are not to help create a sovereign, functional government. Iran wants to influence Iraq through the lens of a Shia-dominated buffer state. Currently, Iran is using its influence vis-à-vis Shia militias to offset ISIL behavior. This comes with the risk that one day these militias could possibly threaten Iraqi or U.S. forces. In the future, expect Iran to utilize its political and military instruments of power to control Iraq along sectarian lines”
“Real or perceived U.S. disengagement from the Middle East could create opportunity for Iran to increase its support to terrorist organizations. Right-sized U.S. military presence in the Middle East demonstrates not only a commitment to the region, but a commitment to our regional security partners. As a result, a continued U.S. military presence in the region will further deter Iran from conducting nefarious activities such as blocking the Strait of Hormuz or threatening other Gulf States. Finally, a continued U.S. military presence in the region is the single most important indicator of our overall commitment to a secure, peaceful and prosperous Middle East.
“From a security standpoint, important outcomes include rolling back Iran’s nuclear program providing the international community with necessary access and transparency, while preserving the sanctions imposed on conventional arms and ballistic missiles.”
“Saudi Arabia’s and other Gulf countries’ decisions on whether or not to enrich uranium are not solely tied to a deal with Iran; under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) signatories are allowed enrichment programs as part of a peaceful nuclear program. Unlike Iran, which endures sanctions, isolation, and economic distress due to a covert attempt intent on developing nuclear weapons, our Gulf partners could choose to pursue nuclear energy in compliance with the NPT. The U.S. military will continue to provide options in support of the overall U.S. strategy”
“DoD’s role is to support an interagency and regional effort to deter and counter Iran’s support of international terrorism. We deter Iran by maintaining a responsive military capability in the region and ensuring a robust defensive infrastructure for ourselves and our allies. To counter Iran, we work by, with, and through partner nations by conducting counter terrorism training, providing equipment sales, participating in multi-national exercises, and sharing information. When combined, these efforts—along with those of our partners—help to weaken terrorist groups and hinder Iran’s ability to support them.”
“Iran maintains a layered A2AD capability through the employment of road mobile ballistic missiles, an integrated air defense system, anti-ship cruise missiles, and naval assets stationed in the Persian Gulf.”
— July 14, 2015 in answers to advance questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee for his nomination hearing
“I would put the threats to this nation in the following order: Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and all of the organizations that have grown around ideology that was articulated by al Qaeda.”
“The sequential lifting of sanctions will give Iran the access to more economic assets with which to sponsor state terrorism should they chose to do so.”
“I think we need to be alert to that possibility, and, as the military, we have an obligation to provide the president with a full range of options to respond.”
July 14, 2015 at his Senate Armed Services Committee hearing according to the press and Department of Defense
Commander of Army Forces Command Gen. Mark A. Milley
(Nominee for Army Chief of Staff)
“Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, ISIS and radical violent extremist organizations currently challenge the U.S. each in their own way and will likely continue for some time into the future.”
“The 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance was based upon a number of assumptions, such as the duration of conflicts, the contributions of our allies, and the nature and location of future threats. Some of these assumptions now appear optimistic, particularly in light of the rise of ISIL, a resurgent Russia, Iran’s actions in the Middle East, and challenges in the Pacific region. If confirmed, I will provide my best military advice to inform policy and guidance as we move forward to confront current and future threats.”
July 21, 2015 in his Senate confirmation hearing
Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter
“The basic facts have not changed recently. That is, we continue to have the tools to do that (set back, destroy Iran’s nuclear program) and continue to maintain the military option, because the president has instructed us to, because his determination is that Iran not have a nuclear weapon, and that - while he’s obviously - and Secretary Kerry is working on this right now, looking to get a deal - a- no deal is better than a good deal (sic). And therefore, we are under instructions and have been - you’re right - for years to do that.”
“And the facts are as you say. Namely, it sets back an Iranian nuclear program. But obviously anything like that can be reconstituted over time. And so a military strike of that kind is a setback, but it doesn't prevent the reconstitution over time. And that's the -- that basically has been the case as long as we've had those instruments and those plans, and I don't think there's anything substantially changed since then.”
— July 1, 2015, in a Department of Defense Press Briefing
“We have serious concerns with Iranian malign activities outside of the nuclear issue,”
“We want them to continue to be isolated as a military and limited in terms of the kind of equipment and material they possess.”
— July 8, 2015, according to press
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey
“Just -- the assumption sounds like it's that we would only do that once. I mean, the military option [for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program] isn't used once and set aside. I mean, it's -- it remains in place. And so we will always have military options, and a massive ordnance penetrator [also known as a bunker buster bomb] is just one of them.”
"If there's a deal, I've got work to do with them [U.S. regional allies]. And if there's not a deal, I've got work to do with them."
"We're committed to doing that work."
June 30, 2015 according to press

Javad Zarif on Iran’s Post-Deal Future

Robin Wright (for The New Yorker)

The long slog of diplomacy with Iran—a pariah nation since its 1979 revolution—was always about more than the bomb. It was about the return of the world’s eighteenth-largest country—and its vast military, population, and consumer base—at a time when the Middle East is crumbling. A nuclear deal could alter the regional dynamics.

Click here to read the full article in The New Yorker.

Connect With Us

Our Partners

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Logo