United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

New Challenges to Iran-Syria Alliance

Jubin Goodarzi

             There is no doubt that one of the most intriguing developments in modern Middle East politics has been the emergence and continuity of the Iranian-Syrian alliance since its formation in 1979. Generally speaking, there are three important reasons to study and understand the Tehran-Damascus axis. Firstly, the alliance has had a significant impact on Middle East politics over the past three decades, as we have seen again in recent years during the 2006 Lebanon war that pitted Israel against the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement, and Iran’s support for the Bashar al-Assad regime since the eruption of the Syrian crisis in March 2011. Secondly, it has proven to be an enduring relationship that has lasted 34 years in spite of the many challenges that it has faced and periodic strains in the relationship. This is no mean feat. It is quite extraordinary when one takes into consideration the volatility and shifting political sands in the Middle East. Thirdly, the alliance is of enormous importance since both countries are situated in key locations in the Middle East, thereby contributing immensely to its geopolitical significance. With regard to Syria, in his classic work, The Struggle for Syria, Patrick Seale argued that those who aspire to control the Middle East must first win over Syria. According to him, “whoever controlled Syria or enjoyed her special friendship could isolate [other Arab states] and need bow to no other combination of Arab states. As far as Iran is concerned, many view it as the strategic prize in Southwest Asia and the Persian Gulf region. The country’s critical position is poignantly conveyed in Graham Fuller’s work on the geopolitics of Iran, The Center of the Universe.
             Over the past three decades, the two partners have had some noticeable successes in frustrating the designs and policies of Iraq, Israel, and the United States in the Middle East. Through their continuous collaboration, they played a critical role in stemming Iraq's invasion of Iran in September 1980 and ensuring that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq would not become the predominant power in the Middle East. They were also able to thwart Tel Aviv’s strategy to bring Lebanon into its own orbit, following the June 1982 Israeli invasion of that country and occupation of almost half its territory. Through the use of Lebanese proxies—most notably Hezbollah—Syria and Iran were able to expose the limits of Israeli military power and forced Tel Aviv to withdraw from the territory it occupied between 1984 and 2000. Concurrently, in this same arena, they were able to inflict one of the very few foreign policy setbacks that Ronald Reagan suffered during his two terms in office as U.S. president in the 1980s. Even in the post-Cold War era, with American predominance on the regional and world stage, and the imposition of economic sanctions on both countries, Syria and Iran have been able to wield considerable power and influence in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the region.
             Furthermore, it should be noted that both Ba'athist Syria and Islamist Iran have been fiercely independent states, whose political elites share certain perceptions and world views, and in fact their secular and fundamentalist ideologies overlap in certain respects. While Iran has tried to use its brand of revolutionary Islam to transcend nationalism, create Muslim unity in the region by surmounting Arab-Iranian political divisions and Shia-Sunni religious differences, and demonstrate its solidarity by actively participating in the Arab-Israeli struggle, Syria, as the self-proclaimed birthplace and heartland of Arabism, has striven to overcome the political fragmentation of the Arab world by acting as a vehicle for Arab unity. Hafez Assad, Ruhollah Khomeini, and their successors have viewed the Middle East as a strategic whole and regarded their alliance as a vital tool to assert themselves, to further what they see as in the Arab and Islamic interest, and to increase their room for maneuvering by diminishing foreign—particularly American—influence in the region. As a result, to advance their common agenda over the years and decades, both regimes have put longer-term interests before short-term gains.
             With regard to the Arab Spring, when the initial wave of popular protests first began in Tunisia in the winter of 2010-2011 and spread to neighboring Arab countries, Tehran declared its support for the demonstrators, who largely challenged the authority of conservative, pro-Western regimes. Portraying the opposition movements as Islamist, the Iranian leadership confidently declared that the Arab Spring would usher in a new pan-Islamic era in the Middle East and North Africa, in which authoritarian regimes would be supplanted by Islamist governments. From Tehran’s perspective, the tide had finally turned against the West and its regional allies. History seemed to favor Iran and its supporters.
             All this changed with the eruption of the protests in Syria, which caught Iran off guard and put it in an extremely awkward position. Tehran faced Hobson’s choice—two unattractive options. If it chose to stand by its most valuable and longstanding Arab ally, it would be viewed as hypocritical and opportunistic by the masses in the Arab-Muslim world. On the other hand, if it stood by idly and refrained from supporting the Assad regime, there was no guarantee that if a new government came to power in Damascus it would cultivate close ties with Tehran. Given the circumstances, Iran chose to throw its weight behind the Syrian regime. One senior Iranian official talking about the Arab Spring in the context of the U.S.-Iranian rivalry in the region commented, “Bahrain tripped up the Americans, while Syria tripped us up.” This decision not only tarnished the Islamic Republic’s reputation in the Middle East, but that of its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, which also backed the Syrian government. Moreover, it had far-reaching consequences for Iran’s power and influence in the region as the crisis unfolded in the two years that followed. By 2013, as the conflict in Syria increasingly assumed a sectarian dimension pitting Sunnis against Shi’as in Syria and the Middle East, the prominent Egyptian Sunni cleric, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, called on all Sunnis to join the fight in Syria against Shi’a Iran and Hezbollah—which he referred to as the “Party of Satan.” Others depicted Shi’as as a greater threat to the Arab world than Israel. The popularity of Iran and Hezbollah, which had peaked in the aftermath of the 2006 Lebanon conflict, reached an unprecedented nadir in the Arab-Muslim world due to their steadfast support for the suppression of the Syrian revolt. Furthermore, relations between Tehran and Hamas became strained by the winter of 2011-2012 when the leader of the Palestinian Islamist movement, Khaled Mashal, left Damascus and declared his support for the Syrian opposition.
             Tehran initially hoped that by assisting the Ba’athist regime, Damascus would be able to ride out the crisis within a short time. As a result, Iran staunchly supported Assad’s efforts to crush the protests by providing technical support and expertise to neutralize the opposition. The Iranians provided advice and equipment to the Syrian security forces to help them contain and disperse protests. In addition, they gave guidance and technical assistance on how to monitor and curtail the use of the Internet and mobile phone networks by the opposition. Iran’s security forces had plenty of experience and had learned valuable lessons in this regard since the violent crackdown against the opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad following the disputed Iranian presidential elections of June 2009. At the same time, according to reports, the Iranians disapproved of the clumsy and heavy-handed approach adopted by the Syrian regime to quell the initial protests. Nonetheless, as the revolt transformed into an armed insurrection, specialist personnel and units from the Iranian security apparatus, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, police, and intelligence, were dispatched and deployed in Syria to assist in defeating armed opposition fighters from the Free Syrian Army and foreign Sunni Islamist groups. However, their numbers were limited, at most in the hundreds (in the two years that followed), and not in the thousands as opposition sources claimed.
             By the summer of 2011, as the confrontation in Syria turned into a protracted affair with no end in sight, the Iranian leadership began to worry that it might be on the wrong side of history and had growing doubts about the wisdom of its policy. In order to hedge its bets, Tehran approached some Syrian opposition groups (which were Islamist or did not advocate the toppling of the Assad regime) to assess their stance on various issues relating to Iran, Israel, Lebanon, and the United States. However, nothing substantive seems to have resulted from these and subsequent overtures in 2012.
             As the Syrian crisis continued into the autumn and winter of 2011, it increasingly assumed both a regional and an international dimension. A proxy war began to emerge involving regional and international actors. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf Arab states began to provide material and financial support to the Syrian opposition. As a result, Iran, Hezbollah, and to some extent Iraq, felt compelled to throw their weight fully behind the Assad regime. Tehran saw the Syrian crisis as providing its regional rivals with a golden opportunity to deny it of its most valuable ally, and diminish its power and influence in the Middle East. On the international level, the United States and European Union closed ranks to exert pressure and isolate Damascus. Moscow, which had traditionally been the main supplier of weapons to Syria, continued to ship arms to Damascus. Concomitantly, in the UN Security Council, Russia and China consistently thwarted Western efforts to punish Syria and blocked any move that could lay the groundwork for foreign military intervention in support of the Syrian opposition. (Both Moscow and Beijing were determined to avoid making the mistake they had made with regard to Libya in 2011 when they voted in favor of UNSC Resolution 1973.) Iran and its allies increasingly came to view the situation in Syria as a zero-sum game, fearing that the ouster of the Syrian Ba’athist regime could pave the way for the emergence of a new regime in Damascus that would be hostile toward Tehran. Consequently, the Iranian leadership made a strategic decision to fully support Assad by providing arms, oil, and financial aid.
             In 2012, when the United Nations and Arab League appointed Kofi Annan and later his successor, Lakhdar Brahimi, as special envoys to mediate and resolve the Syrian conflict, Iran welcomed these moves. In general, Tehran is keen to be part of any multilateral initiative aimed at ending the current crisis and to have a role in shaping Syria’s political future. However, the United States and its allies seem determined to exclude Iran from any negotiated settlement. Iran’s interest in a political dialogue and possible diplomatic solution has increased over the past year as the conflict in Syria has dragged on into 2013. Although at present neither the Syrian regime nor the opposition seem to have the ability to deal a knock-out blow, with the passage of time, Bashar al-Assad is losing ground and control of many parts of the country. Large swathes of territory in the north and east of the country are now in the hands of armed groups, including Syrian Kurdish and foreign Islamist militias. Tehran believes that time may not be on the side of the Ba’athist regime, and is looking for options to cut its losses and ensure that irrespective of the outcome of events in Syria, an anti-Iranian government will not come to power in Damascus. Last autumn, Tehran proposed a six-point peace plan to end the crisis. It called for an immediate end to hostilities, the lifting of sanctions, the release of political prisoners, a national dialogue, the formation of a transitional government, and elections for a parliament, constituent assembly, and the presidency. However, the plan was rejected by the Syrian opposition outright since it did not fulfill one of their key pre-conditions, namely, the removal of Bashar al-Assad from power. More recently, in February, Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi held talks with the head of the Syrian National Coalition, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, at the global security conference in Munich, Germany to discuss a political solution to the Syrian crisis. Concurrently, Iran has continued to provide military assistance to prop up the Assad regime in order to bolster its chances of survival and to strengthen its bargaining position in the event of a substantive political dialogue with its opponents. Tehran is calculating that if the opposition fails to topple the Syrian Ba’athist regime, it may eventually be amenable at the very least to some form of transitional government that contains some elements from the ancien régime.
             It should be emphasized that with the passage of time, Tehran sees a number of advantages to a negotiated settlement of the Syrian crisis. First, it realizes that the pre-March 2011 political status quo ante cannot be restored. Therefore, it aims to contain the damage and extricate itself, if necessary, in a face-saving manner. Second, it is genuinely concerned that the prolonged fighting in Syria will have a knock-on effect and destabilize Lebanon and Iraq. This could further undermine the position of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the al-Maliki government in Iraq. Third, in view of its growing regional and international isolation due to its stance on the Syrian conflict and the imposition of Western sanctions because of its nuclear program, Iran would like to demonstrate its importance as a key regional actor involved in helping to attain peace in Syria. Fourth, the Islamic Republic is extremely concerned about the growing sectarian polarization and the possible transformation of the conflict into a regional war pitting Sunnis against Shi’as. This would be detrimental to its efforts to export its revolutionary ideology and achieve Muslim unity. Fifth, Tehran knows that it cannot indefinitely provide financial and material support to the Assad regime due to its own economic woes and foreign sanctions. The Islamic Republic’s oil revenues have decreased markedly, and its economy has begun to contract for the first time since the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Sixth, although not considered an ideal solution, Iran may conclude that in the final analysis, it may be more prudent to facilitate the emergence of a national unity government in Damascus that may not be Tehran’s ally, but at minimum will not be its enemy either.
             In the event the current war of attrition leads to the overthrow of Assad, Iran has in recent months started to build up a militia force in Syria known as the People’s Army (Al-Jaysh al-Sha’bi) consisting of regime loyalists, Alawites, and other groups to ensure that the new regime would not be able to assert control over Syria and would become bogged down. According to reports, the aim is to build up a force which is at least 50,000 strong and ideally grows to 100,000 members. Iran wants to have a viable, armed proxy in a post-Assad Syria. In short, Tehran’s objective is to ensure if it cannot have Syria as an ally in the Middle East, others should be prevented from instrumentalizing Syria against Iran in the regional power struggle.
             Clearly, the current crisis is the greatest challenge facing the 34-year-old Iranian-Syrian alliance. If the Assad government is toppled, this would represent a major setback for Iran. In fact, it would be the most significant defeat for the clerical regime since at least 1988, when it was forced to end the war with Iraq and sue for peace. Overall, it could be argued that if such an event were to occur, it would be the greatest loss for the Islamic Republic on the regional level since its creation in 1979. It would also constitute a major blow, particularly in terms of the Islamic Republic’s ideological and foreign policy objectives. Syria has been the only stalwart Arab supporter of Iran. Furthermore, it has served as a major conduit for Iranian arms shipments and material support to Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Since the end of the 2006 Lebanon conflict, Damascus and Tehran have restored Hezbollah as a formidable force with an arsenal of some 40,000 rockets and missiles. The overthrow of the Assad regime could transform the regional situation overnight. Not only would Iran lose its most important Arab ally, but its ability to provide support for Hezbollah and to influence the situation in Lebanon and in the Arab-Israeli arena would be severely curtailed. In addition to its importance in advancing Iranian ideological and foreign policy interests in the Levant, from Tehran’s vantage point, Hezbollah has become a vital actor to safeguard Iranian national security in recent years since the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program emerged. According to Iranian strategic thinking, potential Hezbollah retaliation against Israel serves as a trip wire for U.S. and Israeli military action against Iran.
             Although the current strategy of trying to prop up the Assad regime is partially aimed at preserving Iran’s ability to project its power and influence in the Levant, the strategy also has several key defensive components. Over the past year, tensions in Iraq have increased markedly, and the confrontation between the Shi’a-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad and the Sunni opposition has intensified. Armed Sunni extremist groups have conducted bold attacks against Iraqi civilians and the vestiges of the Iraqi state. The success of the Syrian opposition in seizing control of areas in the east bordering Iraq and their increasing cooperation with Iraqi Sunni insurgents have contributed to the growing instability in Iraq. This has also alarmed policy makers in Tehran. A poignant example recently was the announcement of the alliance between Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) in Syria. Consequently, there is now a genuine fear in Tehran that if the Assad regime is toppled, it may have a spillover effect in Iraq. This could lead to greater instability and potentially even to the overthrow of the current government in Baghdad and the rise of a Sunni-dominated regime. Iran sees this possibility as completely unacceptable. An alternative scenario is that the Syrian conflict could fuel Sunni secessionist ambitions in Iraq, and lead to the break-up of the country into Shi’a, Sunni, and Kurdish regions. This would have major security implications for Iran and could produce enormous internal problems, especially in the Kurdish and Arab-inhabited regions of the country bordering Iraq.
             It should also be underscored that Iran’s reading of the situation in Syria has been influenced by both its own internal developments and relations with the West. Since the protests following the disputed presidential elections of 2009, and the decision of the United States and its European allies (starting in 2010) to impose harsh sanctions on Iran, a sense of embattlement and paranoia has taken hold among Tehran’s ruling elites. Any internal opposition or foreign moves that may directly or indirectly threaten either their survival or interests are interpreted as part of a grand strategy or conspiracy to topple the Islamist regime. The failure to resolve differences over Iran’s nuclear program through diplomacy—most recently during two rounds of negotiations in Almaty, Kazakhstan—and the continuous imposition of Western sanctions have reinforced Iranian perceptions that Washington’s real ultimate goal is regime change in Tehran.
             The Iranian leadership has strong suspicions that no matter what it does to allay concerns regarding the nuclear issue, Western sanctions will never again be fully lifted so long as the Islamic Republic continues to exist. As a result, the policies pursued by the United States and its European and Middle Eastern allies with regard to the Syrian crisis have increasingly been interpreted as part of a broader plan to dismantle “the axis of resistance” in the Middle East by toppling the regimes in Damascus and Tehran. Western moves to shun and isolate Iran have therefore reinforced perceptions among policymakers in Tehran that they must take a stand. Iran sees Syria as the first line of defense against a concerted effort by its regional and extra-regional foes not only to bring about regime change in Damascus and the end of its alliance with Tehran, but as part of a longer-term strategy to isolate and overthrow the Islamic Republic.
             At present, Tehran fears the emergence of a crescent of pro-Western (Sunni) regimes stretching from Turkey to Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The nightmare scenario for Iran would be for the Syrian Ba’athist regime to be replaced by a Sunni fundamentalist regime that is staunchly anti-Iran and anti-Shia, and closely allied with Tehran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia. However, “the mother of all nightmares” for Iran would be if both of the existing regimes in Damascus and Baghdad were toppled and succeeded by governments that are implacably hostile toward Tehran. To date, Iran has done all it can to ensure that Bashar al-Assad will not be toppled by pouring in men, material, and money to bolster his position. In spite of its tremendous efforts and spending billions of dollars to prop up the Syrian regime, the outcome is still unclear. In fact, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a number of politicians and members of parliament (majlis) have expressed disappointment about the results in the past.
             In conclusion, to date, the Arab Spring has not translated into a net gain for Iran. While relations between Tehran and the new governments in Cairo, Tripoli, and Tunis have thawed, normalization, especially with Egypt, remains elusive. This can be attributed in part to the continued political instability in Egypt, but also to the fact that Iran and Egypt have stood on opposite sides of the fence in the Syrian conflict. Their contrasting positions have impeded the political reconciliation process and accentuated the Sunni-Shi’a schism. In addition, Tehran and its regional allies have lost a great deal of the political capital they possessed in the Arab-Muslim world due to their steadfast support for the Assad regime and its brutal suppression of the uprising. There is no doubt that the alliance between Iran and Syria is now at a critical crossroads, and its days may be numbered. Whatever the outcome, one thing is for certain: the relationship cannot be restored to its pre-2011 status.

This piece was first published as Viewpoints 35 by the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars.

Jubin Goodarzi, a professor of International Relations at Webster University Geneva, Switzerland, is author of, "Syria and Iran: Diplomatic Alliance and Power Politics in the Middle East."
Tags: Assad, Syria

Report: US and EU Sanctions Bite

            New rounds of tightened sanctions on Iran’s energy and financial sectors hit hard in 2013. The economy is now suffering from “high inflation, a devalued currency, unemployment and high food costs,” according to an updated report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Iranian leaders have spoken more frankly about the impact of sanctions during the past few months. But the economy has scarcely collapsed and has proven surprisingly resilient.
            The report warns that increasing pressure may not convince Tehran to meet international obligations on its controversial nuclear program. Iran “may see military threats, exercises, and pressures on world prices as a possible way of easing sanctions and/or buying time for its nuclear and missile programs." And progress in nuclear negotiations is "uncertain at best." The following are excerpts with a link to the full text at the end.

Sanctions Impact on Oil and Gas Exports
            All signs point to an economy under siege: production is down, industry is
at a standstill, and there is a massive brain drain, estimated at 200,000 Iranians that try to leave the country annually. There have also been sporadic reports of workers striking due to unpaid wages; inflation on consumer goods is 40-50%, and the Iranian government being unable to pay wages of government employees.
            As early as July 2012, the US Energy Information Agency (EIA) estimated that the growing impact of sanctions was impacting Iran’s ability to produce oil. The EIA announced that it ―expects Iran's crude oil production to fall by about 1 million bpd by the end of 2012 relative to an estimated output level of 3.6 million bpd at the end of 2011, and by an additional 200,000 bpd in 2013. Iran has no chance for the foreseeable future of meeting its stated goal of some 5.3 m/bpd of production capacity. Those estimates appear to be correct as Iranian oil production hit 2.68 mbpd in March 2013 according to the International Energy Agency (IEA)…
            Although Iran remains a relatively minor natural gas exporter, it has the second largest proven natural gas reserves and some maintain that Iran’s gas sector can more than compensate for declining oil exports. However, given the level of sanctions now imposed on all aspects of Iran’s energy sector, it is highly unlikely that it will be able to attract the $145 billion in new investment by 2018 that Tehran’s deputy Oil Minister has said Iran needs in order to develop its gas sector.
Sanctions Impact on Financial, Banking and Trade Sectors
            US financial sanctions and EU insurance provisions have also impeded other countries’ ability to finance and pay for transactions in Iranian oil, leading to reports that Iran's ability to produce oil has outstripped its ability to sell it. Due to the difficulty in lowering production by capping wells, Iran is preparing to store more oil and add 8 million barrels of storage capacity in the coming year in preparation for continuing lower sales.
            Iran’s currency, long held artificially high by a regime that could afford
to subsidize it, has nose-dived since the implementation of more stringent sanctions. It has lost more than 80% of its value relative to the dollar since 2011, and was trading at a record low of 37,000 Rials to one dollar in October 2012, down from 28,000 Rials in September 2012 and 13,000 Rials in September 2011. According to some reports, this raised the real rate of annual inflation from the 29% the government claimed to almost 70%. The Rial has gained some of its value since then, trading at around 32,500-33,500 per dollar as of early March 2013. In July 2013, the Iranian Central Bank cut the official value of the Rial, to trade at 24,500 rials per dollar, prompting some concerns about inflation.
Prospects for Sanctions and Negotiations
            The push toward enhanced sanctions and growing international isolation of Iran may also push Tehran towards new strategic options. Iran’s threats to close the Strait of Hormuz and conspicuous missile testing are evidence that it may react to pressure in ways that lead to prolonged confrontation. Tehran may see military threats, exercises, and pressures on world oil prices as a possible way of easing sanctions and/or buying time for its nuclear and missile programs. 
            Progress in negotiations is uncertain at best: the P5+1 negotiations that took place in February 2013 did result in a confidence building proposal, but the two sides could not agree on several of the key details, including a recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium and the status of any uranium enriched beyond 20%. Additional talks in April 2013 ended in a stalemate, and  history warns that this may be little more than yet another round of Iranian negotiate and delay tactics - a familiar part of the US-Iranian strategic relationship.
            It also remains far from clear that sanctions and negotiations can stop Iran from moving toward a nuclear weapons capability. It is already clear that Iran is building up its long-range missile forces and is steadily building up its capabilities for asymmetric warfare in ways that can be used to deliver a wide range of attacks. It also continues to use its Al Quds force, intelligence services, and diplomats to pose a growing threat to the Arab states and Israel and to seek an axis of influence that includes Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
            The end result is that the US, its Arab allies, and Israel may well be facing a point where they will have a grim choice between preventive strikes or a forming a coalition in attempts to contain Iran. As this analysis and the accompanying reports in this series illustrate, neither option is ideal, and a campaign of containment will likely lead to protracted competition over sanctions, energy exports, and arms control. Through continued instability, confrontation, and threats of escalation, the current limited crisis, may well escalate to a major conflict or a new form of Cold War.

131 Lawmakers to Obama: Deal with Rouhani

            A bipartisan group of 131 members of the U.S. House of Representatives have joined Representatives Charlie Dent (R-PA) and David Price (D-NC) in urging President Barack Obama to reinvigorate U.S.-Iran diplomacy. They argued that the United States should test whether Hassan Rouhani's election to the presidency "represents a real opportunity for progress toward a verifiable, enforceable agreement" that ensures Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon. More than a quarter of the House, including 17 Republicans signed the July 19 letter. The following is the full text of the letter with the list of cosigners.

The Honorable Barack Obama
President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, D.C. 20500
Dear President Obama,
            As Members of Congress who share your unequivocal commitment to preventing a nuclear-armed Iran, we urge you to pursue the potential opportunity presented by Iran's recent presidential election by reinvigorating U.S. efforts to secure a negotiated nuclear agreement. As you know, on June 14 the Iranian people elected Hassan Rouhani president with over 50 percent of the vote in the first round, overcoming repression and intimidation by the Iranian government to cast their ballots in favor of reform. Dr. Rouhani campaigned on the promise to “pursue a policy of reconciliation and peace” and has since promised “constructive interaction with the outside world.” As Iran’s former lead nuclear negotiator, he has also publicly expressed the view that obtaining a nuclear weapon would run counter to Iran’s strategic interests and has been critical of the nuclear “extremism” of outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
            We are mindful of the limitations of the Iranian presidency within the country’s political system, of the fact that previous Iranian presidents elected on platforms of moderation have failed to deliver on promised reforms, and of the mixed signals that Dr. Rouhani himself has sent regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It remains to be seen whether his election will indeed bring significant change with regard to Iran's relations with the outside world. His government’s actions will certainly speak louder than his words.
            Even so, we believe it would be a mistake not to test whether Dr. Rouhani’s election represents a real opportunity for progress toward a verifiable, enforceable agreement on Iran’s nuclear program that ensures the country does not acquire a nuclear weapon. In order to test this proposition, it will be prudent for the United States to utilize all diplomatic tools to reinvigorate ongoing nuclear talks. In addition, bilateral and multilateral sanctions must be calibrated in such a way that they induce significant and verifiable concessions from Iran at the negotiating table in exchange for their potential relaxation.
            We must also be careful not to preempt this potential opportunity by engaging in actions that delegitimize the newly elected president and weaken his standing relative to hardliners within the regime who oppose his professed “policy of reconciliation and peace.” Likewise, it will be critical for the United States to continue its efforts to foster unprecedented international cooperation on this issue so that the international community remains united in its opposition to Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon.
            We look forward to working with your administration on this important issue in the months ahead.
Signatories include: Dent, Charles (PA-15), Price, David (NC-04), Barber, Ron (AZ-02), Bass, Karen (CA-37), Becerra, Xavier (CA-34), Bera, Ami (CA-07), Bishop, Sanford (GA-02), Bishop, Tim (NY-01), Blumenauer, Earl (OR-03), Bonamici, Suzanne (OR-01), Bordallo, Madeleine (GU), Braley, Bruce (IA-01), Bustos, Cheri (IL-17), Campbell, John (CA-45), Capps, Lois (CA-24), Capuano, Michael (MA-07), Cárdenas, Tony (CA-29), Carson, André (IN-07), Cartwright, Matthew (PA-17), Christensen, Donna (VI), Clay, Lacy (MO-01), Cleaver, Emmanuel (MO-05), Clyburn, James (SC-06), Coble, Howard (NC-06), Cohen, Steve (TN-09), Cole, Tom (OK-04), Connolly, Gerald (VA-11), Conyers, John (MI-13), Courtney, Joe (CT-02), Cuellar, Henry (TX-28), Cummings, Elijah (MD-07), Davis, Danny (IL-07), DeFazio, Peter (OR-04), DeGette, Diana (CO-01), DeLauro, Rosa (CT-03), DelBene, Suzan (WA-01), Dingell, John (MI-12), Doggett, Lloyd (TX-35), Doyle, Michael (PA-14), Duckworth, Tammy (IL-08), Duffy, Sean (WI-07), Duncan Jr., John (TN-02), Edwards, Donna (MD-04), Ellison, Keith (MN-05), Enyart, William (IL-12), Eshoo, Anna (CA-18), Etsy, Elizabeth (CT-05), Farr, Sam (CA-20), Fattah, Stephen (PA-02), Fitzpatrick, Michael (PA-08), Foster, Bill (IL-11), Fortenberry, Jeff (NE-01), Garamendi, John (CA-03), Grijalva, Raul (AZ-03), Grimm, Michael (NY-11), Gutierrez, Luis (IL-04), Hanna, Richard (NY-22), Hastings, Alcee (FL-20), Heck, Denny (WA-10), Higgins, Brian (NY-26), Himes, James (CT-04), Holt, Rush (NJ-12), Honda, Michael (CA-17), Jackson-Lee, Sheila (TX-18), Johnson, Eddie B. (TX-30), Johnson, Hank (GA-04), Jones, Walter (NC-03), Kaptur, Marcy (OH-09), Kelly, Robin (IL-02), Kind, Ron (NY-03), Kuster, Ann (NH-02), Larsen, Rick (WA-02), Larson, Tom (IA-03), Lee, Barbra (CA-13), Lewis, John (GA-05), Loebsack, David (IA-02), Lofgren, Zoe (CA-19), Lujan, Ben Ray (NM-03), Lujan Grisham, Michelle (NM-01), Matheson, Jim (UT-04), McCollum, Betty (MN-04), McDermott, Jim (WA-07), McGovern, James P. (MA-02), Meeks, Gregory W. (NY-05), Miller, George (CA-11), Moore, Gwen (WI-04), Moran, James P. (VA-08), Napolitano, Grace F. (CA-32), Neal, Richard E. (MA-01), Nolan, Richard (MN-08), Norton, Eleanor Holmes (DC), Nugent, Richard B. (FL-11), O’Rourke, Beto (TX-16), Pascrell, Bill, Jr. (NJ-09), Pastor, Ed (AZ-07), Payne, Donald M., Jr. (NJ-10), Perlmutter, Ed (CO-07), Peters, Scott H. (CA-52), Peterson, Collin C. (MN-07), Petri, Thomas E, (WI-06), Pingree, Chellie (ME-01), Pocan, Mark (WI-02), Polis, Jared (CO-02), Rahall, Nick J., II (WV-03), Rangel, Charles B. (NY-13), Roybal-Allard, Lucille (CA-40), Ruiz, Raul (CA-36), Runyan, Jon (NJ-03), Rush, Bobby L. (IL-01), Ryan, Tim (OH-13), Sablan, Gregario Kilili Camacho (MP), Schakowsky, Janice D. (IL-09), Scott, Robert C. “Bobby” (VA-03), Serrano, José E. (NY-15), Shea-Porter, Carol (NH-01), Sinema, Kyrsten (AZ-09), Slaughter, Louise McIntosh (NY-25), Speier, Jackie (CA-14), Takano, Mark (CA-41), Thompson, Glenn (PA-05), Thompson, Mike (CA-05), Tiberi, Patrick (OH-12), Tierney, John (MA-06), Tonko, Paul (NY-20), Tsongas, Niki (MA-03), Visclosky, Peter (IN-01), Walz, Timothy (MN-01), Waters, Maxine (CA-43), Welch, Peter (VT-At Large), Whitfield, Ed (KY-01), Yarmuth, John (KY-03)

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What Iran’s Election Means for the Future

Fatemeh Haghighatjoo

      Dr. Fatemeh Haghighatjoo was a member of Iran’s parliament between 2000 and 2004. Elected at the age of 30, she was the youngest woman member ever elected to the Majles and one of only 13 women — among 290 — in the sixth parliament. Haghighatjoo charged the Revolutionary Guards with torture and the Guardian Council with manipulating elections. The Guardian Council subsequently barred her from running for office. Haghighatjoo is now directing the Nonviolent Initiative for Democracy, a nonprofit organization based in Boston.

What does the presidential election tell us about Iran’s political climate?
      The election shows that Iranians want to open up the political space and increase civil liberties. They want to see the removal of the securitized atmosphere. The state interferes in every aspect of people’s lives. People are arrested for next to nothing. Iranians want to see a more rational government take over.
            For the first time, foreign policy played an important role in the presidential election. Even the government did not anticipate that it would come up as a key issue during the presidential debates. Foreign policy dominated the campaign because it is connected to people’s everyday life.
            Iranians sent a clear message to the government that they want to see the nuclear issue resolved because they realize how it negatively impacts their daily lives. But that does not necessarily mean that Iranians do not want development of nuclear technology. President-elect Hassan Rouhani put this in nice sentences. “It is important for centrifuges to spin, but people’s lives should run too,” he said during the campaign. Rouhani sees the connection. 
What does the election mean for change in domestic policy?
             On security issues, Rouhani will try to reduce the influence of the security apparatus in daily life. The government looks at everything through the lens of security. Even youth playing with water guns in a park may be seen as a threat. Rouhani has said that he does not want a securitized atmosphere. He wants to relax controls on civil society and cultural affairs.
             On the economy, Rouhani will reverse outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s populist policies. Economic growth rates have been negative for two consecutive years. Rouhani‘s team will have a hard time to reversing this trend. His goal will be creation of job opportunities and a positive growth rate. On subsidies, he will likely enact more efficient reforms. Ahmadinejad executed the reforms poorly. His government borrowed money from the central bank, which dramatically increased inflation to more than 40 percent.
             On education, Rouhani may try to reverse changes made to higher education. Ahmadinejad’s government purged professors, pushing them to retire early. The social sciences and humanities also suffered. Women were barred from more than 70 majors, and women’s studies departments were shut down.
             But some of these actions were probably ordered by the supreme leader. And Rouhani will not challenge Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on every issue. Women’s issues are usually secondary to other issues, unfortunately. 
             On cultural affairs, he is likely to lift some unnecessary restrictions on the cultural and arts community to allow more productions.
What does the election mean for the balance of power between supreme leader and presidency?
             Over the past 16 years, Khamenei has consolidated his power over the legislative, judicial and executive branches and curtailed their independence. Rouhani has a good relationship with Khamenei and is trusted. He has a great ability to convince people as well, which will help the new president to extend his power. But Khamenei will not sit by while his real power shrinks. Rouhani will engage Khamenei and prioritize which issues to take bolder action on. Rouhani’s priorities will likely be foreign affairs and the nuclear issue, his specialties.
What does Rouhani’s election mean for nuclear policy and negotiations?
             Rouhani’s main priority is fruitful negotiations with P5+1 (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany). He will almost certainly not accept suspension of uranium enrichment. The national consensus is that Iran must continue to enrich uranium domestically. But Rouhani will work on building trust with the West and the United States to gradually lift sanctions. He may accept U.N. measures that ensure Iran will not militarize its nuclear program.
             On the other hand, the nuclear issue has become something of a domestic political game in Iran. Rouhani will try to strengthen his approach to nuclear talks by engaging all key players including the Supreme Leader, the Revolutionary Guards and parliament while preventing radicals from trying to sabotage his approach to the talks.
What did the election say about the balance of political power?
             During the campaign, Rouhani promised to form an inclusive cabinet that would bring moderates from both the reformist (centrist) camp and the principlist (conservative) camp. He understood that in order to get things done, politicians from both the left and the right need to view his election as a win-win situation.
             Rouhani’s government will likely be particularly cooperative with parliament. This speaks to his background as a former deputy speaker, former chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and former chairman of the Defense Commission. Rouhani served in parliament for two decades between 1980 and 2000.
What does the election mean for youth, who now dominate the population?
             The youth participated in the election to say no to the status quo. But they have some doubts. They recognize that amending the constitution is out of the question for now. So they have minimalized their demands in the hopes of changing smaller things. The youth mainly want to see economic improvement, social relaxation and more civil liberties. The rate of unemployment is extremely high and inflation is above 40 percent.
             Rouhani’s trump card has been the youth, so he won’t forget their demands if he is thinking about re-election in 2016.

Iran: The Week in Review

Hanif Zarrabi-Kashani
            The Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars offers the latest news on Iran, based on a selection of Iranian news sources. It is a weekly summary of up-to-date information with links to news in both English and Farsi.

  • July 11: ISNA posted photos of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad touring recent industrial projects and attending an inaugural ceremony in the port city of Hormozgan.
  • July 11: 516 students from the University of Science and Technology wrote an open letter to President-elect Hassan Rouhani congratulating him on his election win but also reminding him to adhere to his campaign promises of changing the prevailing security environment in the country and calling for the release of political prisoners and other jailed critics. The letter was written to coincide with the “month of Tir,” which is the month of the 1999 student uprising that shook the nation.
  • July 11: In an article titled, “70 key statements that Rouhani should not forget,” ISNA writes, “In the run-up to this year’s presidential election, President-elect Hassan Rouhani promised and expressed his opinion on many matters regarding students, politics, the economy and social issues.” The article lists 70 statements that Hassan Rouhani made during the campaign period. A few of them include: “The people want honesty…A free media isn’t afraid of democracy…Humiliating people is not acceptable…We can benefit from the advice of Mr. Rafsanjani…War with the United States is unacceptable…The period of suspension of (nuclear) enrichment has passed…Cinema needs to be revolutionized…The people want stability, security, and a peaceful life…Higher education is an important factor in human development…Nobody should be punished without a trial…The future government will be a government in which men and women are equal…We cannot produce scientific knowledge if the environment of our universities is dominated with a security presence…etc.”
  • July 12: In an interview with ILNA, former reformist MP Ahmad Shirzad spokeabout the growing public discussions about Hashemi Rafsanjani returning to the Friday Prayer podium. Shirzad said, “Public interest over the years in regards to Mr. Rafsanjani has had its ups and downs, and at the moment there is a steady rise of interest in him. I personally prefer the manner in which he speaks and connects with the people in a calm, firm manner. Even in these past few years when he wasn’t speaking at Friday prayers, people still heard what he had to say.”
  • July 12: Another well-known reformist politician Hojjat Al-Islam Majid Ansari also spoke about Rafsanjani returning to the Friday prayer podium saying, “In my opinion Rafsanjani should immediately return to Friday Prayers during this sensitive period because he fully understands religious and global political issues. I believe his presence at the podium is greatly missed. In regards to his return, I believe (certain) extremist individuals are controlling the higher authorities (on this issue).”    
  • July 12: Tabnak News posted a series of photos of Friday Prayers at the University of Tehran with President-elect Hassan Rouhani in attendance.  
  • July 13: Tabnak News posted a series of photos of women attending the second of two volleyball matches of the World League Finals between Germany and Iran over the weekend. Some female fans had to wait outside of the Azadi Sports Complex while a certain number of women were allowed inside to watch the match. Another set of photos of the match reveals Vice President Mohammad Reza-Rahimi in attendance as well as the female section of spectators.
  • July 13: Lenziran posted a 45-minute interview in Persian with Ali Mohamad Besharati, a long-time career politician in Iran. He has held many different positions in government including former member of parliament as well as numerous ministerial positions, and has served as an advisor to former President Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani. Besharati discusses his life before and after the Iranian Revolution and his substantial political career. 
  • July 13: Fars News posted a series of photos of former presidential candidate Gholam-Reza Haddad-Adel being honored at a ceremony celebrating his contributions to the arts. Former presidential candidates Saeed Jalili and Ali Akbar-Velayati were also present at the ceremony to show support for their fellow politician. During the ceremony, Adel declared that the recent presidential elections were “the pride of the nation and the government,” and also touched on the topic of cheating in the 2009 presidential elections and “slander from seditionists.” Adel pointed out, “The nation won’t forget the hypocritical behavior and slander from the seditionists.”
  • July 13: On his personal website, Iranian MP Ali Motahari said his offices were illegally wiretapped and under video surveillance. According to Motahari, surveillance equipment was discovered in the air conditioning ductwork, and when his staff reviewed their office’s surveillance cameras they discovered that up to nine men entered the premises the previous night. He also said neighboring shop keepers were forced to comply and remain silent about the intrusion into his office. “When a well-known representative of parliament is treated like this, who knows the level of oppression that normal-everyday people are faced with?” said Motahari. The MP from Tehran urged the Ministry of Intelligence to review the videos and to provide an explanation since, “wiretapping is only acceptable when the judiciary has issued an official warrant, and permission is granted by the Speaker of Parliament.” The aforementioned branches of government are headed by the Larijani brothers.
  • July 14: President-elect Hassan Rouhani made a visit to the Iranian Parliament with his senior advisors to discuss the status of the relationship between the executive and legislative branches of government as well as the economy and subsidies. ISNA posted photos of the symbolic event where Rouhani and Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani gave speeches. Rouhani said his future government doesn’t want a confrontational relationship with the parliament and representatives of parliament will not be deceived by inaccurate statistics. Both statements are seen as indirect criticisms of outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration. Lenziran also posted a four-minute video clip of Rouhani’s speech (in Persian) where he cited a 42 percent inflation inflation rate for the country.
  • July 14: During the same joint-session of the new government and members of parliament held at the parliament building, Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani used his time at the podium to introduce the president-elect and expressed, “Over the years, Mr. Rouhani has held many different responsibilities in the Parliament, today, in this manner, he returns (to Parliament) to his place of origin.” He continued, “Our dear guest today, Mr. Rouhani bears the heavy responsibility of the executive branch, fortunately over the years Mr. Rouhani has had many important responsibilities as secretary of the National Security Council, which has made him extremely familiar with much of the country’s issues. We hope that Mr. Rouhani’s previous experiences in Parliament and the National Security Council will help in the solving of the sensitive and complex issues facing the country in a scientific and rational manner.” Larijani also warned, “Now more than ever we need to unite (politically) in order to be strong in the face of international issues.”
  • July 15: ISNA posts a series of photos of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a ceremony celebrating the work of female and family activists. During the ceremony, the outgoing president said, “They say that behind every successful man, there is a successful woman… I believe that this statement brings women down and doesn’t give women the credit they deserve.” The president continued, “During the election (2013 presidential election) some people said that they would bring four women into their cabinet, while others said they would bring five. I told them that this was cowardly. Do you think the character of a woman should be used and advertised for political purposes in an election? How are you any different from someone who sticks a picture of a woman on a product in order to sell more of it? Unless is it that the election is more important than women?” Toward the end of the ceremony, the group of women activists also recognized the work of President Ahmadinejad’s wife (Azam Farahi) in their shared field, and expressed their appreciation and gratitude to her.
  • July 15: Member of the Women’s Council on Reform and former Deputy for Social Affairs of the Ministry of Interior, Ashraf Boroujerdi said, “Fortunately, under Mr. Rouhani’s plan to promote discussion and differing perspectives amongst various groups, there has been no exclusivity in this relationship… We have not met with him yet due to his busy schedule but up until now we have had six meetings, and women from various fields with different intellectual perspectives were present during these meetings. We have officially submitted the demands of these women (that were made during the meetings) in writing to the president-elect.”
  • July 16: President-elect Hassan Rouhani spoke at a ceremony honoring veterans and martyrs and compared the context during “the holy defense” (Iran-Iraq War) with the international problems that Iran currently faces today. Rouhani said, “We won the frontline battle against the world because whenever we are act in a more pure, creative, harmonistic, and brotherly manner, we have always been victorious, and today we need to use the same methods.” Rouhani also warned about domestic political issues and the current mistrust between society and the government. “I thought that the enemy in recent election was the perpetual fissure between the government and the people. This is increasing day by day and this fissure will never be filled,” warned Rouhani. Mehr News also posted photos of the ceremony.
  • July 16: In an interview with ISNA, the Secretary General of the Women's Society of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the daughter of the late Ayatollah Khomenei, Zahra Mostafavi said, “It is necessary for the future government to prevent the rights of humans, both men and women, from being violated. If I speak with Mr. Rouhani I will tell him to look at men and women with an equal eye.”  
  • July 16: During a ceremony celebrating the 16th anniversary of the Iran’s Social Security Fund, out-going President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad emphasized, “It is the responsibility of government to frequently redistribute wealth into society and to prevent the accumulation of wealth (in the hands of a few)  and to prevent ghettos.” ISNA posted a series of photos of the event that reveal controversial presidential advisor, former Head of the Social Security Fund, and current caretaker, Saeed Mortazavi, in attendance.
  • July 16: Iran’s House of Cinema, which acts as the country’s only domestic organization that supports independent films, has been closed since January 2012. The CEO of the House of Cinema published an open letter addressed to all three branches of government, and even security forces such as the police, to reveal the plight of the group and to find a way to solve the situation “before it’s too late.” In conjunction with the letter, Iranian filmmakers held a rally at the headquarters to draw attention to their situation. Mehr News posted a set of photos of the public rally.

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