United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Obama Warns Congress Against New Sanctions

      On December 20, President Barack Obama urged Congress to hold off on new Iran sanctions while the Geneva nuclear agreement is being implemented. In response to a newly proposed sanctions bill in the Senate, Obama said that if the United States is “serious about negotiations, we’ve got to create an atmosphere in which Iran in willing to move in ways that are uncomfortable for them and contrary to their ideology and rhetoric and their instincts and their suspicions of us.” At the year-end press conference, Obama argued that Congress could pass new sanctions in a day if the negotiations on a comprehensive solution fail or Iran violates an agreement. “I'll work with members of Congress to put even more pressure on Iran. But there's no reason to do it right now,” he said. The following are excerpted remarks.

            On Iran, there is the possibility of a resolution to a problem that has been a challenge for American national security for over a decade now. And that is getting Iran to, in a verifiable fashion, not pursue a nuclear weapon. Already, even with the interim deal that we struck in Geneva, we have the first halt, and in some cases, some rollback of Iran's nuclear capabilities -- the first time that we've seen that in almost decade.
            And we now have a structure in which we can have a very serious conversation to see, is it possible for Iran to get right with the international community in a verifiable fashion to give us all confidence that any peaceful nuclear program that they have is not going to be weaponized in a way that threatens us or our allies in the region, including Israel.
            And as I've said before and I will repeat, it is very important for us to test whether that's possible, not because it's guaranteed, but because the alternative is possibly us having to engage in some sort of conflict to resolve the problem, with all kinds of unintended consequences.
            Now, I've been very clear from the start, I mean what I say. It is my goal to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. But I sure would rather to it diplomatically. I'm keeping all options on the table, but if I can do it diplomatically, that's how we should do it, and I would think that would be the preference of everybody up on Capitol Hill, because that sure is the preference of the American people.
            And we lose nothing during this negotiation period, precisely because there are verification provisions in place. We will have more insight into Iran's nuclear program over the next six months than we have previously; we'll know if they are violating the terms of the agreement; they're not allowed to accelerate their stockpile of enriched uranium; in fact, they have to reduce their stockpile of highly enriched uranium. Ironically, if we did not have this six- month period in which we're testing whether we can get a comprehensive solution to this problem, they would be advancing even further on their nuclear program.
            And in light of all that, what I've said to members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, is there is no need for new sanctions legislation, not yet.
            Now, if Iran comes back and says, we can't give you assurances that we're not going to weaponize, if they're not willing to address some of their capabilities that we know could end up resulting in them having breakout capacity, it's not going to be hard for us to turn the dials back, strengthen sanctions even further. I'll work with members of Congress to put even more pressure on Iran. But there's no reason to do it right now.
            And so I'm not surprised that there's been some talk from some members of Congress about new sanctions. I think the politics of trying to look tough on Iran are often good when you're running for office or if you're in office. But as president of the United States right now who's been responsible over the last four years, with the help of Congress, in putting together a comprehensive sanctions regime that was specifically designed to put pressure on them and bring them to the table to negotiate, what I'm saying to them, what I've said to the international community and what I've said to the American people is let's test it. Now's the time to try to see if we can get this thing done.
            And -- and I've heard some logic that says, well, Mr. President, we're -- we're supportive of -- of the negotiations, but we think it's really useful to have this club hanging over Iran's head. Well, first of all, we still have the existing sanctions already in place that are resulting in Iran losing billions of dollars every month in lost oil sales.
            We already have banking and financial sanctions that are still being applied, even as the negotiations are taking place. It's not as if we're letting up on that.
            So I've heard arguments, well, but you know, this way we can assured and the Iranians will know that if negotiations fail even new and harsher sanctions will be put into place. Listen, I don't think the Iranians have any doubt that Congress would be more than happy to pass more sanctions legislation. We can do that in a -- in a day, on a dime.
            But if we're serious about negotiations, we've got to create an atmosphere in which Iran in willing to move in ways that are uncomfortable for them and contrary to their ideology and rhetoric and their instincts and their suspicions of us. and we don't -- we don't help get them to a position where we can actually resolve this by engaging in this kind of -- this kind of action.
Click here for a complete transcript of Obama's remarks.

Zarif: Talks Not Dead, Iran Committed to Nuclear Deal

            On December 15, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that talks on implementing the Geneva nuclear deal were “derailed” but not dead. Iranian officials had slammed Washington for blacklisting 17 companies and individuals for sanctions invasion three days earlier. “We are committed to the plan of action and the implementation of Geneva - but we believe it takes two to tango,” Zarif warned in an interview with CBS. In an interview with The Washington Post, Zarif emphasized that statements that “run counter to the very aim of the negotiations” from within the Obama administration are “extremely counterproductive.”
            Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly called Zarif on December 14 to discuss the way forward. “What I have heard from Secretary Kerry and Lady [Catherine] Ashton is that they are committed to an early finalization of the Geneva process with a view to reaching a comprehensive agreement,” Zarif told The Washington Post. In his interviews, Zarif also discussed Syria and the case of Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent who went missing in Iran. The following are excerpted remarks on key issues.

U.S. Sanctions
            “That [blacklisting] was a very wrong move… We are committed to the plan of action and the implementation of Geneva - but we believe it takes two to tango.
            “The process has been derailed, the process has not died. We are trying to put it back and to correct the path, and continue the negotiations because I believe there is a lot at stake for everybody.”
            Dec. 15, 2013 on CBS’ “Face the Nation”
            “When you hear voices from inside the administration question the very raison d’etre of the negotiations, it becomes intolerable — whether it is in the strict sense of the term a violation of the term of the Geneva plan of action or not… So we needed to bring that to the attention of our negotiating partners in very strong term terms. And we believe we did. That does not mean that negotiations are dead. That means negotiations have hit a snag...”
            Dec. 15, 2013 to The Washington Post
Opposition to the Deal
            “Now, there are statements coming from Washington — we understand that Tehran and Washington, as well as many other members of 5 + 1 [the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China and Germany], are not monolithic societies, not even monolith polities. We have various views in Iran. Some of them have been very frankly and vehemently expressed by the opponents of the agreement, to the extent that some have asked for my removal. I believe that’s only natural in a democratic society where you have different forces, different political views and different branches of government operating to check and balance the exertion of political power. The same is true in the United States. I believe it is only natural for U.S. lawmakers to be concerned.”
            Dec. 15, 2013 to The Washington Post
The Way Forward
            “What I have heard from Secretary Kerry and Lady Ashton is that they are committed to an early finalization of the Geneva process with a view to reaching a comprehensive agreement. I share that objective. I’m sure that we will hit other obstacles on our way. This is going to be an extremely difficult process — not because the objective is difficult to attain but because the modalities of reaching the objective are difficult — because of the lack of confidence that we certainly have in Iran, particularly the Iranian people and leadership toward the intentions of the other side, and some misgivings that they may have about our intentions. So it is going to be difficult; it’s going to be a bumpy road. There are very strong forces that are working to undermine, unfortunately, this process. We need to be aware of this, and we need to work with an open mind.”
            Dec. 15, 2013 to The Washington Post
Uranium Enrichment
            “Iran did not decide to enrich. Iran was forced to enrich, because we had a share in a consortium in France called “Eurodif,” which we had paid for fully, but we were not able to get a gram of enriched uranium, even for our research reactor that was built under the “Atoms for Peace” Program of President Eisenhower. We did not decide to enrich to 20 percent. We tried for 20 years to buy 20 percent-enriched uranium for fuel for that reactor. We were intimidated, insulated, pushed back and forth to the point that we said we’ll do it ourselves: We’re not going to take this from anybody!
            “Now this doesn’t mean that if they provide us with fuel now we will accept it, because first of all we have made this investment domestically, and secondly we do not have any trust and, third we do not see any reason now that we have put so much time and effort in it and brought them to the point of abandoning the illusion of zero enrichment in Iran, why should we accept anything less.”
            Dec. 15, 2013 to The Washington Post
Heavy Water Reactor at Arak
            “We offered the option — every single program that Iran has was sought from the West first; they refused, we then relied on our own technology. We did not want to start from scratch in building all these research reactors. We wanted to use the technology. Everybody wants to use sophisticated technology. It was denied to us, in denial of the NPT [Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty], because mind you, it requires countries to provide energy for peaceful purposes. It’s not just a right, it’s a requirement — it’s an obligation to provide. So they have been in violation of the NPT for the past at least 22 years, since 1990, almost every single Western country…”
            Dec. 15, 2013 to The Washington Post
            “Fordo is a facility that is under daily inspection by [the International Atomic Energy Agency]. Daily! So we cannot do anything in Fordo. The only difference that Fordo has from the enrichment facility at Natanz is that Fordo cannot be hit. So if you insist that I should dismantle Fordo, or do something with Fordo, that means that somebody has an intention of a military strike. And I have to say that a military strike is a violation of the most fundamental principles of international law. I mean, that is not a basis for negotiation… So they’re asking me to consider an issue that is fundamentally unreasonable.”
            Dec. 15, 2013 to The Washington Post
Robert Levinson
Elizabeth Palmer (CBS): Let me move ton another story that surfaced at the end of last week in the United States. And that is the case of Mr. Levinson. Where is he?
Mohammad Javad Zarif: I have no idea.
Palmer: Your security services, very professional and very good have done an extensive investigation according to your government. What do you know about that last day? What were you able to discover about -- he walked out of the hotel, got in to a taxi and...
Zarif: And then they don't know. That's all...
Palmer: Nothing?
Zarif: ...what they have told us that is what people have been told outside. If that's why it's a mystery. What we know that he is not incarcerated in Iran.
Palmer: How do you know that?
Zarif: If he is he is not incarcerated by the government. And I believe the government runs pretty much good control of the country.
Palmer: If he did surface here, could you give him back to America now that we know his CIA connections?
Zarif: I cannot talk about hypothetical situations but if we find -- if we can trace him and find him we will certainly discuss this.
Palmer: So, it is possible.
Zarif: Anything is possible. But I'm saying that we have no trace of him in Iran.
            Dec. 15, 2013 on CBS’ “Face the Nation”
            “We all know that there needs to be an agreement in Geneva and that agreement has to be a Syrian agreement. Others cannot decide for the Syrians. Others can only facilitate a Syrian solution based on the consent of the Syrian people. And I believe that at the end of the day the best way to make permanent that consent is through the ballot box, and we should not be afraid of the ballot box. I’m concerned that people who believe in democratic principles are worried about the outcome of elections and are trying to put preconditions [in place]. A serious precondition can be fair elections... I believe Iran can play a positive role in the Syrian case, but it’s for them to decide. I’m not running that show.”
            Dec. 15, 2013 to The Washington Post
Gulf States
            “I wrote an oped piece in the Arabic newspaper Al-Sharq al Awsat in which I proposed the establishment of a regional security and cooperation scheme. And I believe that we should have done this a long time ago... So we believe that confidence-building measures, dialogue and cooperation between nations of this region are not only necessary, but unavoidable. All of us need it. All of us have to come to our senses. We cannot choose our neighbors…
            “I’ve had very good meetings [earlier in December] with leaders in the states of the Persian Gulf. I believe we all agree that what has been taking place in Geneva is good for our future and is not against anybody. We don’t see any reason for those who have shown some anxiety. All of them who talked to me [in the Gulf] told me that they welcomed this.”
            Dec. 15, 2013 to The Washington Post

Iran & South Asia #3: After US Withdrawal from Afghanistan

Ellen Laipson

Relations between Iran and Afghanistan have gyrated since the 1979 revolution. How might the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2014 affect opportunities or challenges facing the neighboring countries?
            All of Afghanistan’s neighbors will be affected when international troops leave in 2014.  The United States has completed negotiations with the Afghan government for a strategic agreement that would permit a modest number of troops (5,000 to 15,000) to remain in the country. Their mission would be to provide training and other support but not to have a combat role. President Karzai convened a loya jirga (assembly of elders) to consider the agreement. Despite the jirga’s approval, President Hamid Karzai has declared that he would prefer his successor, after spring 2014 elections, be the one to sign the agreement. He has also raised other objections to provisions in the agreement. 
      The Obama administration, however, has urged the Afghan government to finalize the agreement as soon as possible, to permit the orderly removal of equipment and departure of troops. High level officials have visited Kabul to urge prompt passage, but during Secretary of Defense Hagel’s December 2013 visit, he did not meet with President Karzai (left) and said there was nothing more to say about the agreement.
            If U.S. troops remain after 2014, Iran in particular will see this as a threat to its security.  “We find them [foreign forces] detrimental to regional security and peace,” President Hassan Rouhani (right) said in September. Iran “does not consider the signing and approval of the pact useful for the long term expedience and interests of Afghanistan,” Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Marziyeh Afkham warned in December.
            The Iranian government, however, has also signaled that approval of a U.S.-Afghan agreement is a domestic Afghan matter, suggesting that Iran may be more accepting of an accord that permits a modest number of U.S. forces to remain in the country.
            Iran would like to play a more active role in Afghan security, particularly in western Afghanistan along the shared border, and in areas where the Hazara minority lives. The Hazara are predominantly Shiite, like Iranians, but they are not ethnically Persian. In December 2013, Iran and Afghanistan signed a new security agreement to advance security cooperation. 
What is the state of relations between Afghanistan’s Sunni-led government and Iran’s Shiite theocracy? On what issues do they collaborate? On what issues are they divided?
            Iran and Afghanistan have complicated relations. Iran was helpful in ousting the Taliban government in 2001 and supporting the Northern Alliance of Afghan forces that are prominent in Hamid Karzai’s government. Iran is also a major aid donor and trading partner. 
            Bilateral trade between the two countries is estimated at over $2 billion per year, and rising. Iranian exports, especially energy supplies, to Afghanistan account for the vast majority of the trade volume. Some 500 Iranian companies were operating in Afghanistan as of July 2013.
            Tehran and Kabul expect bilateral trade to increase once Iran’s Chabahar port is fully operational. The port, which opened in July, is intended to be a conduit for landlocked Afghanistan to trade with India and other countries.
            But Iran has criticized the Karzai government for its dependence on Western (particularly American) military forces. Tehran has reportedly supported attacks on the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Some Afghan leaders and intellectuals believe that Iran wants to dominate areas of Afghanistan that have strategic value. They resent that Iran does not treat Afghanistan as an equal, sovereign state. 
             The two countries also have specific disputes, notably over water, illicit narcotics trade, and refugees. Water flows to Iran are likely to be reduced when major hydropower dams are completed in Afghanistan, and water sharing is becoming a more acute source of friction between the two states.
      On drug trafficking, Tehran blames Kabul and Washington for failing to curb opium production in Afghanistan. Since the 1979 revolution, Iran claims to have lost more than 3,700 security forces fighting drug traffickers, many of whom were heavily armed. Tehran estimates that it spends around $1 billion annually on its war on drugs.
      The Islamic Republic has long been a favorite corridor for smuggling narcotics to Europe and elsewhere in the Middle East. But Iran is now facing widespread drug-usage at home with 1.2 million registered addicts and 800,000 casual users, according to government officials. In 2012, Iran’s largest non-governmental drug treatment organization claimed the number of addicts may be as high as five million.
How is Iran building influence in Afghanistan? Where are Tehran’s efforts visible? What countries is Iran competing with?
            Iran’s influence is strongest in western Afghanistan, particularly in Herat province. Tehran has invested in transportation infrastructure, education, cultural institutions and exchanges; it is also an important source of food and manufactured goods. Iran has pledged nearly $1 billion in aid at international aid conferences held to help Afghanistan, and its aid in the first decade after the Taliban’s ouster was estimated at about 12 percent of total assistance for reconstruction and development. The other major donors are the United States, European countries and Japan. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan also send funds to various Afghan groups, but they are less transparent about aid and financial support.
How much influence will Iran have in post-U.S. Afghanistan?
            The United States and Iran actually share some broad common goals:
  • to prevent Afghanistan from returning to full-scale civil war,
  • to prevent return of the Taliban as the dominant political force,
  • to stem the flow of Afghan drugs into the international market,
  • and to support Afghanistan on a path to political and economic stability. 
     Until the question of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014 is resolved, however, Iran will be reluctant to pursue open cooperation with the United States. 
      But if U.S.-Iran relations improve as a result of the nuclear talks, cooperation on Afghanistan might become a less sensitive issue. Promising areas for cooperation include border security, economic reconstruction, and preventing the return of the Taliban to a dominant political position.
What is the status of the more than 1 million Afghan refugees in Iran?
             The Afghan refugees in Iran remain a source of potential conflict in Iran-Afghan relations, even though many have lived for decades in Iran and are now integrated into the economy at many levels.  Afghan laborers working in Iran sent home about $500 million annually, according to a 2008 U.N. study—equivalent to six percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product at the time. When economic strains are on the rise, Iran faces pressure to encourage, or even compel, the refugees to return home.
      The international community is largely positive about Iran’s absorption of refugees, but sometimes reminds it not to force refugees to return against their will and to normalize the status of refugees who cannot return. In June 2012, Iran ended the registration period for its Comprehensive Regularization Plan, which permitted some Afghans to legalize their immigration status. Only some 800,000 of the up to 3 million Afghans in Iran have recognized refugee status, according to Human Rights Watch.

Ellen Laipson, president and CEO of the Stimson Center, worked on Iran and other Middle East issues on the National Security Council, the National Intelligence Council and at the Congressional Research Service. Read Laipson's chapter, "Reading Iran," in The Iran Primer

Click here for Iran & South Asia #1: Pakistan’s Delicate Balancing Act


Photo credits: Karzai and Rouhani via President.ir, Heroin rocks by SAC Neil Chapman (RAF)/MOD [see page for license] via Wikimedia Commons, 982nd Combat Camera Company Airborne via dvidshub.net, Afghan child working in a refugee camp in Rafsanjan, Iran by Ali Hossein Mohammadi for UNICEF Iran via Flickr

Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org


Iran & South Asia #4: Issues, Facts & Figures

Garrett Nada

            The following is a rundown of key facts and figures on Iran’s relations with Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

Afghanistan and Iran


 Pakistan and Iran


India and Iran


Garrett Nada is the assistant editor of The Iran Primer at USIP.

Afghanistan-Iran: Azer News, Human Rights Watch, Tasnim News Agency via RFE/RL, The Telegraph, U.S. government resources
Pakistan-Iran: Dawn, Los Angeles Times, Tehran Times, The Nation, U.S. government resources

Photo Credits: President.ir, Manmohan Singh by World Economic Forum [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org


Iran Slams US Sanctions Enforcement

            On December 13, Iran’s foreign ministry slammed Washington for blacklisting more than a dozen companies and individuals for sanctions evasion. “The U.S. administration is fully responsible for the consequences of these indiscrete measures,” said Foreign Spokesperson Marziyeh Afkham. She acknowledged the Obama administration’s attempt to persuade Congress to hold off on new sanctions. But Afkham argued that sanctioning companies and individuals under existing sanctions is a “questionable move” that demonstrates “serious confusion” in U.S. policy. The chairman of parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, called the blacklisting a “flagrant violation of the Geneva nuclear accord.”
            In Vienna, expert-level talks between Iran and the world’s six major powers halted just hours after Washington imposed the sanctions. “America's move is against the spirit of the Geneva deal,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi on the way back to Tehran. The team decided to return for consultations before continuing discussions on implementing the November 24 nuclear agreement.  “After four days of lengthy and detailed talks, reflecting the complexity of the technical issues discussed, it became clear that further work is needed,” said Michael Mann, a spokesman for E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. He clarified that officials would return to their capitals with the “expectation that technical talks will continue soon.”
            When asked about the halted talks, U.S. Spokesperson Jen Psaki said pausing to consult a “normal part of the process in developing the implementation plan.” The following are excerpted remarks by Iranian and American officials.

Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Marziyeh Afkham
      “On the one hand, U.S. administration officials are seemingly persuading Congress to refrain from passing fresh sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran within the framework of furtherance of the Joint Plan of Action between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the P5+1. On the other hand, in a questionable move, the U.S. Treasury and State Department... have blacklisted firms from Iran and a number of foreign countries in an unconstructive measure.”
      “The U.S. administration is fully responsible for the consequences of these indiscrete measures.”
      “Unfortunately, we are witnessing serious confusion in U.S. officials’ attitudes, decisions and remarks.”
           Dec. 13, 2013 to the press
Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal Affairs Abbas Araqchi
      “This is a game of double standards — it is not in accord with the talks we have had and it is against the spirit of the Geneva agreement… We are evaluating the situation and will make the appropriate response.”
      “On the one hand they tried to halt sanctions in Congress, and on the other hand they made a new move and the Treasury added new companies to the list.”

      Dec. 13, 2013 to the press

      “Such a measure is by no means constructive and we are seriously critical of it.”
      Dec. 13, 2013 on state television


Parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee Chairman Alaeddin Boroujerdi
      “Undoubtedly, the latest U.S. move to blacklist a number of Iranian companies and institutions is the flagrant violation of the Geneva nuclear accord, and the US officials revealed that they are not trustworthy.
      “The recent U.S. action showed that this country, despite its claim of being a world superpower, is in practice a follower of Zionist lobbies and is incapable of acting independently concerning its affairs and policies.
      “Given the hostile approach of this country [the United States] and the violation of the Geneva agreement, one cannot be optimistic about the future of the nuclear talks. We should in fact take necessary measures to expedite our peaceful [nuclear] activities.”
            Dec. 13, 2013 to the press


State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki
      “We’ve been hard at it in Vienna, a lot of discussions taking place. I've talked with Cathy Ashton the last days. We’re making progress, but I think we’re at a point in those talks where folks feel a need to consult, take a moment. There is every expectation that talks are going to continue in the next few days, and that we will proceed to the full implementation of that plan. This is sort of the normal part of the process in developing the implementation plan.”
      Dec. 13, 2013 to the press during a visit to Israel




Photo credits: www.mfa.gov.ir, http://rc.majlis.ir, www.state.gov


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