United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Kerry: Nuke talks cannot go on forever

            On March 4, Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal warned that the window for diplomacy cannot remain open indefinitely for Iran. Talks on the controversial nuclear program “cannot become an instrument for delay that in the end make the situation more dangerous,” Kerry told members of the press in Riyadh. “We can’t be like philosophers who keep talking about how many angels a pinhead can hold.  We have to talk seriously…” al Faisal echoed.

            Kerry argued that “you cannot have a more peaceful world when a country that exports terror and is involved in the internal affairs of other countries and breaking its own agreements with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty…” He stressed that U.S. efforts to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions are part of a larger mission to stop nuclear proliferation.They are not “anti-Iranian,” Kerry said.

            Iran also came up in remarks on Syria. Al Faisal said that Saudi Arabia has a moral duty to protect Syrians from slaughter, and that it will “do everything within its capabilities” to provide aid and security. Kerry seemed to caution against arming rebels, noting that weapons could eventually fall into the wrong hands. But “bad actors, regrettably, have no shortage of their ability to get weapons from Iran, from Hezbollah, from Russia,” Kerry said. The following are excerpts from remarks by Foreign Minister al Faisal and Secretary Kerry, followed by a link to the full transcript.

SECRETARY KERRY:  ... The Foreign Minister and I also discussed our shared determination to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.  And we both prefer – and this is important for Iranians to hear and to understand – we both prefer diplomacy as the first choice, as the preferred choice.  But the window for a diplomatic solution simply cannot, by definition, remain open indefinitely.  There is time to resolve this issue, providing that Iranians are prepared to engage seriously on the P-5+1’s most recent proposal.
We also discussed the urgent need to bring an end to the bloody civil war in Syria and to promote peaceful, inclusive transition, and provide the Syrian people with the safety, security, justice, and freedom that they deserve.  The Foreign Minister could not have been more clear about the importance of this issue, the importance of this opportunity, and I make clear today that the United States will continue to work with our friends as we did in Rome to empower the Syrian opposition to be able to hopefully bring about a peaceful resolution, but if not, to continue to put pressure on Bashar Assad…
FOREIGN MINISTER SAUD:  As to providing enough aid and security for the Syrians, Saudi Arabia will do everything within its capabilities to help in this.  We do believe that what is happening in Syria is a slaughter, a slaughter of innocent people, and we just can’t bring ourselves to remain quiet in front of this carnage.  Morally, we have a duty to protect them…
SECRETARY KERRY: I think His Royal Highness has spoken very eloquently about the situation in Syria.  And I would simply add there is no guarantee that one weapon or another might not at some point in time fall into the wrong hands.  But I will tell you this, that there is a very clear ability now in the Syrian opposition to make certain that what goes to the moderate, legitimate opposition is, in fact, getting to them, and the indication is that they are increasing their pressure as a result of that.  Believe me, the bad actors, regrettably, have no shortage of their ability to get weapons from Iran, from Hezbollah, from Russia, unfortunately, and that’s happening.  So I think His Royal Highness has made the status of this challenge absolutely crystal clear.  Bashar Assad is destroying his country and his people in the process to hold onto power that is not his anymore.  The people have made it clear he’s lost his legitimacy.
QUESTION:  Your Highness, our guests, welcome to Riyadh.  (Inaudible) newspaper.  My question will be about the negotiations between the group of 5+1 and Iran.  Are the negotiations are limited, or are you planning to negotiate another phase?  As you mentioned a few minutes before that there is al-Qaida in Iraq, also (inaudible).  Iran is involved with the issue in Syria and also in Bahrain.  So are you going to negotiate another issues plus the Iranian (inaudible) – excuse me – nuclear file?
SECRETARY KERRY:  No.  The focus for the moment, the first focus, is the most urgent focus, which remains the challenge of the nuclear program.  That is a threat that extends all throughout the region, and in fact globally because of the issue of nonproliferation.  So the initial focus is on that issue, and the answer to your first part of the question is it is absolutely not unlimited.  Talks will not go on for the sake of talks, and talks cannot become an instrument for delay that in the end make the situation more dangerous.  So there is a finite amount of time.  Thank you.
QUESTION:  Thank you.  Mr. Foreign Minister, the P-5+1 talks in Almaty were mentioned, and they concluded with a promise of more talks.  Are you concerned that the international community and the Americans are simply being strung along and the Iranians are playing for more time?
And Mr. Secretary, what’s your argument to those in this region for why they shouldn’t be developing their own nuclear capabilities to counter this threat growing in their backyard?  And also, you’re meeting with Palestinian President Abbas.  What’s on your agenda for that meeting?  Thank you.
FOREIGN MINISTER SAUD:  Basically, any negotiation should have a time limit.  We can’t be like philosophers who keep talking about how many angels a pinhead can hold.  We have to talk seriously, we have to talk honestly, and we have to put our commitment clearly on the table.  That’s what negotiation is.  Negotiation is not to get somebody that negotiates to trick you into a position along with the negotiation because it still is not told.  A negotiation must be serious.  It must – the negotiation must show intent.  A negotiation must show his motive is really settlement. 
They have not proved to anybody that they are sincere in their negotiation. They have continued to these negotiation to ask for to add to more negotiation in the future.  They reach common understanding only on issues that require further negotiation, and so this is what (inaudible).  They continue to negotiate and all it comes down to building an atomic weapon continues unabated in an area where it is already dangerous with the availability of atomic weapons. So we have to insist on Iran showing the motivation and a clear understanding that they are there to negotiate for a period of time and then come to terms with the conditions of IAEA and NPT. 
SECRETARY KERRY:  Catherine, there are really five principal reasons, I think, for why people in this region should not develop their own nuclear capacity, and I think you asked the question, “What would I say to people why you shouldn’t do it?”  Reason number one:  Because President Obama has made it clear that Iran will not get a nuclear weapon, and therefore there is no need to develop that security.
Reason number two:  It’s very difficult to imagine circumstances under which a country would actually use it without, in fact, making the world far more dangerous. 
Reason number three:  There is a huge danger of proliferation.  And the reason we are pushing so hard against in Iran is not anti-Iranian; it’s because we are moving towards a world to have less nuclear weapons, not more, and because every time a country engages in the enrichment process and manufacture of nuclear weapons, you run the risk with respect to security that someone else will get a hold of that enriched material – an extremist – and potentially use it.  So the threat is not just the threat of a nuclear bomb.  The threat is also the threat of a dirty bomb or of nuclear material being used by terrorists.
The fourth reason is that it makes the entire region less stable.  If one nation does it, another nation does it, another nation does it; you haven’t increased the stability or the peaceful prospects of a nation, and what you’ve done is you’ve diverted your resources from the young people who need jobs, from the investments you need into business, into something that we learned with the Soviet Union and the United States leads to a place where you ultimately want to figure out how do you get rid of them.  Remember President Reagan and Secretary Gorbachev meeting to say we’re going to go from 50,000 nuclear warheads and reduce down.  Now we have moving towards 1,500, and President Obama wants to move to less.  So we do not want a movement – the road to a world with less nuclear weapons does not pass through a nuclear Tehran, and that’s another reason why we don’t want to do it.
And yet another reason why we don’t want to do it is that important people who have been part of global affairs for a long time – Secretary Henry Kissinger, Secretary Bill Perry, Secretary of Defense Jim Schlesinger, every former Secretary of State of the United States with one exception – have all said, people like Secretary George Schultz, Secretary Colin Powel, have all said we should move to a world hopefully, ultimately without nuclear weapons when we learn how to resolve our problems and deal with conflict differently. 
Again, you cannot have a more peaceful Middle East, you cannot have a more peaceful world when a country that exports terror and is involved in the internal affairs of other countries and breaking its own agreements with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and not living up to the standards of the IAEA is moving in the direction it has been.  We are asking nothing more of Iran than its full compliance with the nuclear – with the Nonproliferation Treaty, the NPT, and full compliance with the IAEA.  And to have any other country begin to move in another direction would undermine our ability to be able to achieve that and have a more stable and peaceful and prosperous region. 
Those are the powerful reasons that I think it is so important that other countries not move.  It is also the powerful reasons for why we want Iran to comply with the rest of the world.  Countries can have peaceful nuclear power.  Nobody says no to that.  But you have to live by a certain standard, and it is the international community – not Saudi Arabia, not the United States – that has set that standard.  It’s the international community, and that’s what we’re asking for compliance with, the international community’s standards. 
Click here for the full transcript.


Iran and Syria Condemn U.S. Aid to Rebels

            On March 2, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi and his Syrian counterpart, Walid Mouallem, condemned the recent U.S. move to provide non-lethal aid to rebels for the first time. “Double standards were being applied by certain countries that serve to prolong and deepen the Syrian crisis,” Salehi claimed at a joint press conference in Tehran. “I do not understand how the United States can give support to groups that kill the Syrian people,” al Mouallem said.
            The comments by the two ministers were the first official reactions to Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement. He pledged $60 million in food and medical supplies to the Free Syrian Army on February 28. The following are excerpts from remarks by Salehi and Mouallem.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi
            “Mercenaries and non-Syrian armed forces are deepening the Syrian crisis and unfortunately certain countries are supporting them… If other countries stop supporting mercenaries, the situation in Syria will swiftly progress towards stability...”
            “Double standards were being applied by certain countries that serve to prolong and deepen the Syrian crisis…”
            “If you really feel sorry about the ongoing situation in Syria you should force the opposition to sit at the negotiation table with the Syrian government and put an end to bloodshed… Why do you encourage the opposition to continue these acts of violence?...”
            “Assad is Syria's legal president until the next elections. Individuals have the freedom to run as candidates. Until that time, Assad is Syria's president…”
Syrian Foreign Minsiter Walid Mouallem
            “I do not understand how the United States can give support to groups that kill the Syrian people… This is nothing but a double-standard policy ... One who seeks a political solution does not punish the Syrian people…”
            “No one is allowed to infringe on Syrian national sovereignty… We refuse to be a piece of chess in the hands of the international community…”
            “If they truly wanted a political settlement they wouldn't punish the Syrian people and finance (opposition) groups with so-called non-lethal aid… Who are they kidding?...”

Former Officials Debate Iran-U.S. Relations

            On February 23, former senior officials debated prospects for a real deal on the nuclear issue at the 2013 Camden Conference. Seyed Hossein Mousavian opened with remarks on Iran-U.S. relations. He served as spokesman for Iran in its nuclear negotiations with the European Union from 2003 to 2005. Former Ambassador Nicholas Burns served as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 2005 to 2008, and he led negotiations with Iran. The following is a video of the exchange.

Iran’s Statement after Nuke Talks

            On February 27, Iran's mission to the United Nations issued the following statement on the Almaty talks.

In the name of God,
            In Moscow, the Islamic Republic of Iran presented a comprehensive proposal for the talks. The proposal included five pillars for cooperation and set principals and objectives for the talks. They [world’s six major powers] were supposed to consider and review the plan and provide [a] response to Iran.
            Yesterday the other side, in response to Iran, offered some suggestions that include some of the items proposed by Iran in Moscow. Some of the points raised in their response were more realistic compared to what they said in the past, and they tried to bring proximity in some points between the viewpoints of Iran and their own, which we believe is positive, despite the fact that we have a long way to reach to the optimum point.
            The P5+1 suggested tangible steps for the next six months in order to build confidence, and some suggestions were offered in this regard. The Islamic Republic of Iran stressed the steps [need] to be balanced and simultaneous and that [the] suggestions should not neglect Iran’s rights. Therefore it was agreed to convene the expert meeting in Istanbul on March 18, which would be followed by the 5+1 meeting with Iran on April 5 and 6 in Almaty.
            We consider these talks a positive step which could be completed by taking a positive and constructive approach and taking reciprocal steps. 

Iran Talks: Is New Momentum Enough?

Patrick Clawson

Diplomats from Iran and the world’s six major powers met in Almaty, Kazakhstan on February 26. What did the talks produce?  
            The talks between Iran and the world’s six major powers — the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, also known as P5+1 — produced an agreement to meet twice again soon.  Iran agreed to technical talks on March 18 — before the major Nowruz holiday starts on March 19 — and to a full diplomatic session on April 5, just after the end of the extended holiday on April 2. 
            The outcome does signify new momentum on process, if not substance. The first three rounds, beginning in Istanbul in April 2012 — were largely unproductive. And Iran had set the bar so low for the Almaty talks that even its modest reaction is interpreted as a positive sign.
            In fact, however, Western negotiators pointed out that Iran did not formally respond to the specific offer by the P5+1. Iran simply pocketed the proposal without commenting on it.  
Did the deal offered Iran differ from the June 2012 proposal made in Moscow? How?

Catherine Ashton & Dr Saeed Jalili      Compared with previous offers, the expanded proposal evidently requires less of Iran — and offers Iran more.

      First, the major powers asked Iran to temporarily suspend uranium enrichment at the underground Fordo facility outside Qom. They had earlier demanded that Iran shut down the controversial facility.
      Second, Iran would then be allowed to keep some uranium enriched to 20 percent, if it has not been converted into a form that could be used for reactor fuel. The P5+1 had earlier demanded that Iran ship all such enriched uranium out of the country.  In return, the world’s major powers offered to ease some restrictions on Iranian financial transactions. 
            The full proposal has not yet been released — and the devil will be in the details. The precise wording of the changes could have particularly important implications for easing Iranian financial transactions.
            The bottom line of the fourth talks is that the P5+1 compromised principles it originally outlined as absolute requirements for a deal.  The deal also sets aside — or at least modifies —concerns by some P5+1 governments that early relaxation of sanctions could reduce pressure on Iran to agree to a final deal.
What was Iran’s initial response to the proposals? What does it indicate about prospects for a diplomatic resolution?
            Iran’s chief negotiator Saeed Jalili was unusually positive about the P5+1 proposals, describing them as "more realistic," "closer to the Iranian position," and "a turning point." Before the meeting, Iranian officials had insisted that the meeting was primarily for the P5+1 to make a substantially different offer to Iran, which created minimal expectations for the talks — and even laid the basis for rejecting a new proposal. 
What happens next? 
            The optimistic view is that the long months and years of Iranian stalling may be over — and that Iran is willing to have serious negotiations about reaching a deal. The P5+1 have also shown flexibility, which may give Iran hope that the international community will bend further to get a deal with Tehran. Now, the hard bargaining begins in frequent sessions on specifics. 
            The pessimistic view is that Iran now has serious incentives to stall even longer, since the P5+1 have begun to bend. Iran’s has recently accelerated installation of new centrifuges, which will enhance Iran’s enrichment capability — at a time its stockpiles of enriched uranium are already troubling. As a result, the time Tehran needs to “break out” to produce highly enriched uranium is diminishing. Iran may have good reason to believe that time is on its side. The Islamic Republic may even be willing to agree to frequent talks to forestall more vigorous international action.
            Iran’s actions in the coming days will be interesting to monitor. In the past, leading politicians — most notably Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — have taken hard-line positions that have severely limited the ability of Iranian negotiators to compromise.

Patrick Clawson is Director for Research at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Photo Credit: AFP photo of Catherine Ashton and Saeed Jalili by Stanislav Filippov via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 and European External Action Service

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