United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

76 Senators Call for Tougher Sanctions

             On August 2, 76 Democratic and Republican senators called for tougher sanctions and credible military threat to accompany dialog with Iran. Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Bob Casey (D-PA), Roy Blunt (R-MO), Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) circulated the following letter addressed to President Barack Obama.

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, D.C.
Dear Mr. President:
With the election of Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian people signaled their clear dissatisfaction with Iran’s government and its policies. We hope such a surprising and convincing electoral outcome will persuade Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to abandon Iran’s nuclear weapons quest. But until we see a significant slowdown of Iran’s nuclear activities, we believe our nation must toughen sanctions and reinforce the credibility of our option to use military force at the same time as we fully explore a diplomatic solution to our dispute with Iran. 
We deeply sympathize with the plight of the Iranian people, who have suffered under the Khamenei regime. We note that President-elect Rouhani has pledged re-engagement with the P5+1 and promised to bring transparency to Iran’s nuclear program. At the same time, Iran has used negotiations in the past to stall for time, and in any event, Khamenei is the ultimate decision-maker for Iran’s nuclear program. Moreover, Iran today continues its large-scale installation of advanced centrifuges. This will soon put it in the position to be able to rapidly produce weapons-grade uranium, bringing Tehran to the brink of a nuclear weapons capability.
Accordingly, Mr. President, we urge you to bring a renewed sense of urgency to the process. We need to understand quickly whether Tehran is at last ready to negotiate seriously. Iran needs to understand that the time for diplomacy is nearing its end. We implore you to demand immediate serious moves on Iran’s part. Iran should move quickly toward compliance with United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding it suspend enrichment. Iran must cease installing centrifuges, agree to the removal of 20 percent enriched uranium from Iran, and cease work on the heavy water reactor being built in Arak.
We believe there are four strategic elements necessary to achieve resolution of this issue: an explicit and continuing message that we will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, a sincere demonstration of openness to negotiations, the maintenance and toughening of sanctions, and a convincing threat of the use of force that Iran will believe. We must be prepared to act, and Iran must see that we are prepared. 
Mr. President, we share your conviction that Iran must not be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.  We want you to know that you will have our support in doing all you can to resolve on an urgent basis this most pressing challenge to international security.
Senator Robert Menendez                                                                             
Senator Lindsey Graham
Senator Robert P. Casey Jr.                                                                           
Senator Roy Blunt
Senator Tim Kaine                                                                             
Senator Kelly Ayotte
List of Cosigners (76)
1.    Graham
2.    Menendez
3.    Ayotte
4.    Blunt
5.    Kaine
6.    Casey
7.    Boozman
8.    Crapo
9.    Flake
10. Ron Johnson
11. Burr
12. Manchin
13. Roberts
14. Grassley
15. Moran
16. Cornyn
17. Inhofe
18. Hoeven
19. Isakson
20. Begich
21. Coons
22. Cardin
23. Hatch
24. Wicker
25. Murray
26. Hagan
27. Mikulski
28. Fischer
29. Lee
30. Thune
31. Risch
32. Collins
33. Portman
34. Schatz
35. Stabenow
36. Cruz
37. Rubio
38. Schumer
39. Markey
40. Donnelly
41. Nelson
42. Heller
43. Pryor
44. Coats
45. Gillibrand
46. Bennet
47. Vitter
48. Chambliss
49. Enzi
50. McCaskill
51. Barrasso
52. Toomey
53. McConnell
54. Brown
55. Warner
56. Reed
57. Blumenthal
58. Hirono
59. Cochran
60. Shaheen
61. Whitehouse
62. Scott
63. King
64. Cantwell
65. Merkley
66. Klobuchar
67. Johanns
68. Franken
69. Sessions
70. Landrieu
71. Alexander
72. McCain
73. Chiesa
74. Heitkamp
75. Murphy
76. Warren

Firestorm: Rouhani on Jerusalem

            An international firestorm erupted on August 2 over misreported comments by President-elect Hassan Rouhani on Jerusalem. On International Quds Day—the Arabic name for Jerusalem—Iranian and Western media initially reported that Rouhani called Israel an “old wound” that “needs to be removed”—using the same inflammatory language of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
            The reported comment immediately evoked angry reaction from Israel. Rouhani’s remark “revealed his true face by making anti-Israel comments,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement.
            But Iranian state television quickly scrambled to clarify Rouhani’s remarks—and release video of his comment with English subtitles to show the distortion. The video is linked below. Its translation:
            “International Quds Day, which is the legacy of Imam Khomeini, is a day to demonstrate the unity of the Muslim world and resistance against oppression and aggression. After all, in our region, there's been a wound for years on the body of the Muslim world under the shadow of the occupation of the holy land of Palestine and the beloved [city of] al-Quds. This day is a reminder that Muslims will never forget their historic right to resist oppression and aggression.” Click here for the Iranian video.

             The Telegraph posted the following video with a similar translation.

A Setback for US-Iran?

            On July 31, the U.S. House passed a new sanctions bill that calls for broader economic sanctions and stiffer penalties for human rights violators. The Nuclear Iran Prevention Act’s main goal is to reduce Tehran’s daily oil exports by an additional one million barrels by imposing stiffer penalties on countries trading with the Islamic Republic. The vote was 400-20. Several members of Congress commented on the measure, including the awkward timing just days before the inauguration of new president. But to become law, the bill must pass the Senate, where it may meet for opposition. President Barack Obama must also sign the measure into law. The following are excerpted remarks by members of Congress with a summary of the bill.  

For the Measure:
Speaker John Boehner (Republican, Ohio)
            “We know Iran is the world’s most aggressive sponsor of terrorism – extending now into Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, even into this hemisphere.  We know that Iran is attempting to build illicit nuclear weapons capability, in willful defiance of both the UN Security Council and the IAEA.  And we know the Supreme Leader and the Ayatollahs remain committed to the destruction of Israel – one of our dearest allies.
            “The United States – especially its Congress – has a duty to respond to Iran’s actions, not its rhetoric.  So this bill seeks to reduce Iran’s oil exports by an additional 1 million barrels a day – which would be a two-thirds reduction from current levels.  We’re also looking to target human rights violators, close the loophole on access to hard foreign currency.  And we’ll give the president the authority to restrict significant commercial trade with Iran.” July 31 on the House floor
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Democrat, California)
            “Iran’s nuclear pursuits continue.  Iran’s leaders refuse to change their approach in their policy.  Iran’s neighbors still feel the threat of the regime’s declarations and actions.  So our message must remain firm: Iran must suspend uranium enrichment, return to the negotiation table, and abandon its reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons.” July 31 on the House floor
Ed Royce (Republican, California)
            “Iran may have a new president, but its march toward a nuclear program continues.  The economic and political pressure on Tehran must be ratcheted-up.  Today the House took a critical step toward crippling this regime to prevent a nuclear Iran and the dire security consequences.” July 31 in a press release
Eliot Engel (Democrat, New York)
            “Congressional efforts to impose new sanctions should not be based on the Iranian political calendar. Today’s vote illustrates that the paramount consideration of the Congress is the Iranian nuclear clock – the amount of time it will take Tehran to achieve a nuclear weapons capability.  If President Rouhani truly has the will and authority to make a bold gesture on Iran’s nuclear program – such as suspending enrichment -- he has a small window of opportunity before this bill becomes law.  I think all of us would welcome such a gesture, but until that point we will continue to pursue a path of diplomatic pressure on the Iranian regime.” July 31 in a press release
Against the Measure:
16 Democrats to House Leadership
            “We believe that it would be counterproductive and irresponsible to vote on this measure before Iran's new president is inaugurated on August 4, 2013. A diplomatic solution remains the best possible means for ensuring that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon, and the House of Representatives should not preempt a potential opportunity to secure such an outcome with another sanctions bill. While we have no illusions about the nature of Iran’s government, Iran’s president-elect has sent several positive signals that must not be not be rejected out of hand.” July 31 letter to House leadership
Keith Ellison (Democrat, Minnesota)
            “Why aren’t we at least curious to find out whether or not President Rohani means that he wants to pursue this course of peace? I say let’s accept the olive branch extended by the Iranian people who selected a more moderate candidate.” July 31 on the House floor
Jim Moran (Democrat, Virginia)
            “This bill empowers the very hardliners that are the problem. This is the best opportunity we've had in the last eight years. Why throw that away?"
Bill Summary from the House Committee on Foreign Affairs
H.R. 850, as amended:
Ø  Stiffens penalties for human rights violators by applying the financial sector sanctions in existing law to transactions involving:
  • human rights violators
  • persons transferring technologies to Iran that are likely to be used to commit human rights abuses
  •  persons who engage in censorship or related activities against citizens of Iran, corrupt officials that confiscate humanitarian and other goods for their own benefit, and
  • persons exporting sensitive technology to Iran. 
Ø  Strengthens existing sanctions by compelling countries that are currently purchasing crude oil from Iran to reduce their combined purchases of Iranian crude oil by a total of 1,000,000 barrels per day within a year.  By taking 1,000,000 barrels per day of Iranian crude oil off of the market within a year (with safeguards to ensure that international oil markets can withstand such a reduction), the Iranian regime would continue to lose the long-term funding that it requires to pay for its nuclear program, ballistic missiles, and sponsorship of terrorism. 
Ø  Penalizes foreign persons who engage in significant commercial trade with Iran.  This would use the same model – targeting transactions through the Central Bank or a designated Iranian bank - that has successfully curtailed Iran’s oil trade over the past year. 
Ø  Expands the list of sectors of the Iranian economy effectively blacklisted, and provide the President the tools to add additional sectors of strategic importance to the government of Iran. 
Ø  Limits Iran’s access to overseas foreign currency reserves and impose additional shipping sanctions to limit the ability of the regime to engage in international commerce.      
Ø  Requires that the Administration produce annually a national strategy on Iran highlighting Iranian capabilities and key vulnerabilities that the United States may exploit, providing the United States Government a roadmap as to how to effectively address the Iranian threat.

Click here for the full text.


The Fires Facing Hassan Rouhani

Robin Wright

      One of the most important questions in the Middle East this year is whether Hassan Rouhani's election will mark a new era -- both for Iranians and the outside world. The answer could mean the difference between peace and yet another war. Rouhani's campaign certainly made lots of promises. One of his most striking posters was a bright blue textograph of his face crafted from a slogan promising "a government of good sense and hope." The Scottish-educated cleric energized an election many Iranians had considered boycotting after pledging that "freedoms should be protected." He also won over key youth and female votes by vowing in televised debates to "minimize government interference" in culture and society and to give women "equal rights and equal pay."


            The upbeat promises have continued apace since the June 14 election, particularly on Rouhani's two English and Farsi Twitter accounts. @HassanRouhani tweeted the following message on June 15.

            The "bad behavior" was clearly a dig at outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose status has plummeted over the past year. He leaves office almost in disgrace.
            Online, Rouhani even discreetly tipped his turban to the Great Satan. Four days after the vote, his account tweeted a decade-old picture of Rouhani visiting a U.S. field hospital set up after the devastating 2003 earthquake in historic Bam. He is pictured next to an American female medic.
            Now Iran's new president has to deliver. After the Aug. 4 inauguration, Rouhani faces a grueling test of the popularity he won at the polls against five other candidates. Iran's economy is toxic. Political divisions border on schisms. Regional allies--both secular and Islamist--are literally under fire. And the outside world has threatened military action if Tehran does not compromise on its nuclear program. Rouhani will find few quick fixes either. His gentle smile will only get him so far.


            "It's the economy stupid" applies as much in the Islamic Republic as in any capitalist society. Rouhani inherits an almost existential challenge in putting out the financial fires. The economic situation is beyond grim due to a combination of punishing international sanctions and Ahmadinejad's gross mismanagement.

      Iran's currency has lost about half its value since mid-2012. At least one out of four young people is now unemployed--including 4 million university graduates--in a country where more than half the voters are under 35. The Central Bank put inflation at 36 percent this spring, but Rouhani said his incoming team estimated that it was closer to 42 percent. Disgruntlement is visible. Sporadic demonstrations, including a July rally by steelworkers outside parliament, have protested unpaid salaries and layoffs.
            Iran's economic lifeline is oil. But crude oil exports were cut by almost 40 percent in 2012--to 1.5 million barrels per day, the lowest in more than a quarter century, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. By July 2013, the World Bank reported that Tehran had not paid back loans totaling $79 million for more than six months (out of $679 million due overall), which also meant Tehran would be ineligible for new funding and would find it harder to get new money from commercial creditors.
            "For the first time since the imposed war [with Iraq from 1980 to 1988], our economic growth has been negative for two years in a row. And this is the first time that negative growth is accompanied by high inflation -- the highest inflation in the region or perhaps in the world," Rouhani told the country's parliament in July. In Iran's unusual political system, the president's biggest portfolio is the economy--and it could make or break his presidency.


      During the presidential debates, Rouhani was quite conciliatory toward the outside world, at least compared with the defiant and discordant Ahmadinejad. "We need to move away from extremism," Rouhani said on national television. "We should maintain the country's interests and national security to provide conditions where we create opportunities." The key, of course, will be whether Iran and the outside world can settle longstanding questions about Iran's nuclear program.
            Unlike the economy, Rouhani is uniquely qualified on this issue. He is a mid-ranking cleric, but he was also the national security adviser for 16 years. As chief nuclear negotiator, he brokered a rare deal with the West in 2003-4, when Iran temporarily suspected uranium enrichment, a fuel process that can be used for both peaceful nuclear energy and the world's deadliest weapon. He left the job shortly after Ahmadinejad took office in 2005.
            Rouhani actually took a potshot at Ahmadinejad's team--including Saeed Jalili, the chief nuclear negotiator and another presidential candidate--in the campaign this summer. Among the six major powers negotiating with Iran, Jalili was famed for his long-winded tirades and stalling tactics that went nowhere during the five rounds of diplomacy since April 2012. The joke in Washington was that U.S. officials would actually not have minded if Jalili won the election, because at least they would no longer have to sit across from him at the negotiating table. He may have had the same reputation in Tehran.
            "The nuclear issue will only be resolved through real negotiations, not just announcements," Rouhani said during the debates. "Iran's foreign policy should be placed in the hands of skilled, experienced people -- not people who do not know what they are talking about."
            The sixth round of negotiations--with the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia--is expected to resume this fall. "Iran will be more transparent to show that its activities fall within the framework of international rules." Rouhani said in his first press conference after the election. The International Atomic Energy Agency--the U.N. nuclear watchdog--particularly wants access to facilities and scientists so far off-limits to the outside world. The looming question is also whether the regime will finally agree to direct talks with the United States to expedite resolution.
            "Relations between Iran and the United States are a complicated and difficult issue. It's nothing easy," Rouhani said at his first press conference. "This is a very old wound that is there, and we need to think about how to heal this injury. We don't want to see more tension. Wisdom tells us both countries need to think more about the future and try to sit down and find solutions to past issues and rectify things."
            Rouhani knows the nuclear program intimately. He also knows that a deal that lessens or eliminates sanctions would in turn be the key to reversing Iran's rapid economic decline. "It is very good for [nuclear] centrifuges to spin," he said in the final debate on foreign policy. "But it's also good for the lives of people to spin." For all his realism, however, Iran's new president remains committed to the unique ideology of the world's only modern theocracy. He also opposed terms of a deal offered in 2009.


      The central challenge for Rouhani is that he will not have the last word on virtually anything. In Iran's hybrid political system, a cleric is the ultimate executive. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left) has virtual veto power, sometimes in subtle ways, over everything from cabinet appointments to political agendas and foreign policy. The last three presidents ended up alienating the supreme leader--and losing influence for themselves and their political factions.
            Tehran also has rival power centers. To win support for his initiatives, Rouhani will need to be a master wrangler to keep Iran's herd of bull-headed politicians in the same corral. He will have to navigate a balance between hardline principlists (so called for their rigid revolutionary principles) at one end of the spectrum and reform sentiments at the other, with many political shades between the two poles. For all their differences, Iranian and American politics actually have something in common--intense government rivalries that produce gridlock.
            After the election, Rouhani told a packed press conference that his government would include "moderates, principlists and reformists. There will be no restrictions. I don't like the word coalition, it will go beyond factions and be based on meritocracy."
            But blocks have already formed to hold Rouhani in check. Iran's unicameral parliament -- the Majlis -- is dominated by conservatives and hardliners, while Rouhani is a centrist. In a recent letter, 80 principlist members of parliament warned against naming "seditionists," a reference to reformers. Their six-point demands included absolute commitment by any appointee to revolutionary principles in domestic and foreign policies and total obedience to the supreme leader.
      Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards also wield enormous political influence. Under Ahmadinejad, veterans from the 1980-88 war with Iraq strengthened their hold on top government jobs, both nationally and in the provinces. The Revolutionary Guards also are a dominant economic force, holding billions of dollars in government contracts having little or nothing to do with the military. They are not shy when it comes to getting their way.
            So the honeymoon may be brief for Rouhani. Like his Western counterparts, he probably has 18 months to two years to produce something tangible before risking the leverage gained by his surprising first-round victory. Then he will have to begin thinking about the next election cycle.
This piece was first published in The Atlantic.
Photo Credits: Rouhani.ir campaign poster, Office of the Supreme Leader official website Leader.ir
Robin Wright has traveled to Iran dozens of times since 1973. She has covered several elections, including the 2009 presidential vote. She is the author of several books on Iran, including “The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and transformation in Iran” and “The Iran Primer: Power, Politics and US Policy.” She is a joint scholar at USIP and the Woodrow Wilson Center. See her chapter, “The Challenge of Iran” from "The Iran Primer."


New President Already Faces Opposition

            Hassan Rouhani is facing opposition to his cabinet appointments even before he announces the line-up—and even before his August 4 inauguration. On July 24, 80 hardline members of parliament warned the president against appointing “seditionists,” the code-word for reformists. In a joint letter, they also outlined the six criteria for their parliamentary endorsement of cabinet ministers, which include absolute adherence to revolutionary principles in both domestic and foreign policy as well as total obedience to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The ultraconservative press has also used tough language to oppose any appointment of reformists.
            The Iranian right is now particularly vocal against anyone who might be linked to Mohammad Khatami, the reformist president between 1997 and 2005, or the Green Movement that disputed the 2009 reelection of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when millions took to the streets across Iran to demand a leadership change. Rouhani is a centrist who won more than half the vote against five other candidates in the first round, but conservatives and hardliners are actively signaling that he does not have a mandate from key political quarters.

80 hardline members of parliament
            Conditions for votes of confidence for Rouhani’s cabinet include:
1. Firm belief in the fundamentals of the Islamic revolution and conforming to Imam Khomeini’s practices in Iran’s foreign and domestic policies.
2. Belief and recognition of velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist) and adherence to the Supreme Leader’s orders.
3. Not taking part in sedition and not siding with seditionists.
4. A clear record and political, monetary and ethical health, determination and will to fight economic corruption and to secure social and economic justice.
5. Sufficient knowledge and experience and management capability, and competence in their area of responsibility.
6. Will to interact with parliament within the constitution’s framework and approved laws.
In a July 24 joint letter
Fatemeh Rahbar, conservative member of parliament
            “Some of his potential choices...have problems, and I think that if these individuals are introduced to the parliament we will distance ourselves from the meaning of moderation and the first opposition in parliament to Rouhani’s cabinet will take shape. The president-elect’s contemplation can aid cabinet introduction so that the parliament’s vote of confidence can be cast without tension, contention or revealing some of the gentlemen’s cases in open session.  [This will also avoid] creating a difficult political environment at the beginning of the administration.” In July 31 remarks
Hossein Shariatmadari, editor-in-chief of hardline Kayhan
            “Because there are indications that supporters of Fetneh (Green Movement) are in the list (of proposed ministers), the Majlis should send its greetings (to the new government) through no-confidence votes against those ministers.” In a July 31 op-ed

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