United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Obama on Americans Missing or Detained in Iran

On March 20, President Barack Obama issued the following statement on U.S. citizens detained or missing in Iran for the occasion of Nowruz, Persian New Year.

The spirit of family is deeply woven into all of the rich cultural traditions of the Nowruz holiday.  It is a time for reuniting and rejoicing with loved ones and sharing hopes for the new year.  Today, as families across the world gather to mark this holiday, we remember those American families who are enduring painful separations from their loved ones who are imprisoned or went missing in Iran.
Saeed Abedini of Boise, Idaho has spent two and a half years detained in Iran on charges related to his religious beliefs.  He must be returned to his wife and two young children, who needlessly continue to grow up without their father.
Amir Hekmati of Flint, Michigan has been imprisoned in Iran on false espionage charges for over three and a half years.  His family, including his father who is gravely ill, has borne the pain of Amir's absence for far too long.
Jason Rezaian of Marin County, California, an Iranian government credentialed reporter for the Washington Post, has been unjustly held in Iran for nearly eight months on vague charges.  It is especially painful that on a holiday centered on ridding one’s self of the difficulties of the past year, Jason’s mother and family will continue to carry the heavy burden of concern regarding Jason’s health and well-being into the new year.
And finally, we recently marked yet another anniversary since Robert Levinson went missing on Kish Island.   His family has now endured the hardship of his disappearance for over eight years.
At this time of renewal, compassion, and understanding, I reiterate my commitment to bringing our citizens home and call on the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to immediately release Saeed Abedini, Amir Hekmati and Jason Rezaian and to work cooperatively with us to find Robert Levinson so that they all can be safely reunited with their families as soon as possible.  
In honor of the familial spirit so strongly enshrined within this holiday and for the Abedini, Hekmati, Rezaian, and Levinson families, I hope this new spring is filled with joyous moments for us all with all of our loved ones by our sides. 

New Congressional Letter to Obama

A new letter to President Obama on a potential Iran nuclear deal signed by some 367 members of Congress was released on March 23. The letter emphasizes, “Should an agreement with Iran be reached, permanent sanctions relief from congressionally-mandated sanctions would require new legislation.” It also highlights concerns about the size of Iran’s uranium enrichment program and calls for decades-long verifiable constraints on the program. But the letter lacked language supporting Senate legislation that would allow Congress 60 days to weigh in on a deal before implementation.

The bipartisan letter comes as Iran and the world’s six major powers attempt to negotiate a framework by the end of March. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the Committee’s Ranking Member, began circulating the letter on March 2 for signatures. The following is the full text.

Dear Mr. President:
As the deadline for a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran nears, we write to you to underscore the grave and urgent issues that have arisen in these negotiations.  While we hope the Administration is able to achieve a lasting and meaningful agreement, we understand that there are several difficult issues that remain unresolved.
No issue will be harder to resolve with the Iranian regime than the status of its uranium enrichment program.  This is the key technology Iran would need to develop a nuclear bomb – technology that Iran has been permitted to continue to research and develop under the interim arrangement.  Many of us wrote to you a year ago, calling for dismantlement of significant portions of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, “such that Iran will not be able to develop, build, or acquire a nuclear weapon.” A final comprehensive nuclear agreement must constrain Iran’s nuclear infrastructure so that Iran has no pathway to a bomb, and that agreement must be long-lasting.  
International inspectors report that Iran has still not revealed its past bomb work, despite its international obligations to do so.  Of the 12 sets of questions that the International Atomic Energy Agency has been seeking, Tehran has answered just part of one.  Just last week, the IAEA reported that it is still concerned about signs of Iran’s military related activities, including designing a nuclear payload for a missile.  Indeed, inspectors had amassed “over a thousand pages” which showed “research, development and testing activities” on technologies needed to develop a nuclear weapon.  Last fall, over 350 Members of the House wrote to the Secretary of State expressing deep concerns about this lack of cooperation.  The potential military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program should be treated as a fundamental test of Tehran’s intention to uphold the final comprehensive agreement.  Unless we have a full understanding of Iran’s past program it will be impossible for the international community to judge Iran’s future breakout time with certainty.
Iran’s record of clandestine activity and intransigence prevents any trust in Iran.  Indeed, a top State Department negotiator has told Congress that, “deception is part of [Iran’s] DNA.”  Even during the period of negotiations, Iran has illicitly procured nuclear technology, which your Administration quickly sanctioned.  Additionally, because of the strict inspections regime under the Joint Plan of Action, Tehran was caught testing a more advanced centrifuge that would have helped produce bomb material more quickly.  Given Iran’s decades of deception, negotiators must obtain maximum commitments to transparency by Iran.  Any inspection and verification regime must allow for short notice access to suspect locations, and verifiable constraints on Iran’s nuclear program must last for decades.
Finally, while the negotiations with Iran have focused exclusively on Iran’s nuclear program, it is critical that we also consider Iran’s destabilizing role in the region.  Iran is boosting Assad in Syria, supporting sectarian elements in Iraq that undercut hopes for a unified and stable country, and providing assistance to Hezbollah, which continues to threaten Israel.  And last month, an Iranian-backed militia displaced the government in Yemen, a key counterterrorism partner.  Iran’s Supreme Leader has also called for an expansion of his country’s ballistic missile program, yet another dimension of the potential threat posed by Iran.  Iran’s role in fomenting instability in the region—not to mention Iran’s horrendous repression at home—demonstrates the risks of negotiating with a partner we cannot trust.   
The United States has had a longstanding interest in preventing Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability.  Over the last twenty years, Congress has passed numerous pieces of legislation imposing sanctions on Iran to prevent that outcome, ultimately forcing Iran into negotiations.   Should an agreement with Iran be reached, permanent sanctions relief from congressionally-mandated sanctions would require new legislation.  In reviewing such an agreement, Congress must be convinced that its terms foreclose any pathway to a bomb, and only then will Congress be able to consider permanent sanctions relief.
Resolving the nuclear crisis with Iran remains of grave importance to our nation’s security.  As the Administration continues to negotiate with Iran, we are prepared to evaluate any agreement to determine its long-term impact on the United States and our allies.    We remain hopeful that a diplomatic solution preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon may yet be reached, and we want to work with you to assure such a result.
Click here for a PDF version.  

House Foreign Affairs Committee Debates Nuke Talks

On March 19, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing on the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran. Chairmen Ed Royce defended Congress’ role in curtailing Iran’s nuclear program. “Congress built the sanctions structure that brought Iran to the table,” he said. “And if the President moves to dismantle it, we will have a say.” Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who provided testimony at the hearing, acknowledged that sanctions have had an impact but have only been effective “when coupled with the type of robust diplomacy that is currently underway.” The following are excerpts of the chairman’s opening remarks and testimony from expert witnesses.

Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Ed Royce
“This Committee has been at the forefront of examining the threat of a nuclear Iran. Much of the pressure that brought Tehran to the table was put in place by Congress over the objections of the Executive Branch – whether Republican or Democrat. And we’d have more pressure on Iran today if the Administration hadn’t pressured the Senate to sit on the Royce-Engel sanctions bill this Committee produced and passed in 2013.
Congress is proud of this role. And we want to see the Administration get a lasting and meaningful agreement. But unfortunately, the Administration’s negotiating strategy has been more about managing proliferation than preventing it.
Case in point: Iran’s uranium enrichment program, the key technology needed to developing a nuclear bomb. Reportedly, the Administration would be agreeable to leaving much of Iran’s enrichment capacity in place for a decade. If Congress will be asked to “roll-back” its sanctions on Iran – which will certainly fund its terrorist activities - there must be a substantial “roll-back” of Iran’s nuclear program.
And consider that international inspectors report that Iran has still not revealed its past bomb work - despite its commitment to do so. The IAEA is still concerned about signs of Iran’s military-related activities; including designing a nuclear payload for a missile. Iran hasn’t even begun to address these concerns. Last fall, over 350 Members wrote to the Secretary of State expressing deep concerns about this lack of cooperation. How can we expect Iran to uphold an agreement when they are not meeting their current commitments?
Indeed, we were not surprised to see Iran continue to illicitly procure nuclear technology during these negotiations. Or that Tehran was caught testing a more advanced centrifuge that would help produce bomb material quicker. This was certainly a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the interim agreement. Iran’s deception is all the more reason that the Administration should obtain zero-notice, anywhere, anytime inspections on Iran’s declared and undeclared facilities.
There is also the fact that limits placed on Iran’s nuclear program as part of the final agreement now being negotiated will expire. That means, the “final” agreement is just another interim step, with the real final step being Iran treated as “any other” non-nuclear weapon state under the NonProliferation Treaty - licensing it to pursue industrial scale enrichment.
With a deep history of deception, covert procurement, and clandestine facilities, Iran is not “any other” country, to be conceded an industrial scale nuclear program. Any meaningful agreement must keep restrictions in place for decades – as over 360 Members of Congress – including every Member of this Committee - are demanding in a letter to the President.
Meanwhile, Iran is intensifying its destructive role in the region. Tehran is propping up Assad in Syria, while its proxy Hezbollah threatens Israel. Iranian-backed Shia militia are killing hopes for a unified, stable Iraq. And last month, an Iranian-backed militia displaced the government in Yemen, a key counterterrorism partner. Many of our allies and partners see Iran pocketing an advantageous nuclear agreement and ramping up its aggression in the region.
This Committee is prepared to evaluate any agreement to determine if it is in the long-term national security interests of the United States and our allies. Indeed, as Secretary Kerry testified not long ago, any agreement will have to “pass muster with Congress.” Yet that commitment has been muddied by the Administration’s insistence in recent weeks that Congress not play a role.
That’s not right. Congress built the sanctions structure that brought Iran to the table. And if the President moves to dismantle it, we will have a say.”

Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken
“Any comprehensive arrangement must include tight constraints on Iran’s nuclear program and extraordinary monitoring and intrusive transparency measures that maximize the international community’s ability to detect any attempt by Iran to break out, overtly or covertly. As a practical matter, our goal is to ensure that, should Iran renege on its commitments, it would take at least one year to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon. That would provide us more than enough time to detect and act on any Iranian transgression.
In exchange, the international community would provide Iran with phased sanctions relief tied to verifiable actions on its part. Such relief would be structured so that it can be easily reversed, and sanctions can be quickly reimposed, if Iran were to violate its commitments.”
“Much has been said recently about the fact that a deal with Iran would have an eventual end date. On the contrary, we see the deal as creating a series of phases to ensure that Iran’s program is exclusively peaceful going forward. While some constraints would be removed after a significant period of time, others would remain in effect longer, and some would last indefinitely. For example, Iran’s NPT obligation not to develop or acquire a nuclear weapon would continue indefinitely, as would its obligation to implement its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Moreover, a centerpiece of the proposed deal is that Iran would accept the Additional Protocol, which is not currently in place, as legally binding, and which would allow the IAEA to continue to have more stringent and intrusive access to nuclear-related information and locations indefinitely. The same is true regarding Iran’s implementation of Modified Code 3.1, which imposes an ongoing obligation to provide early notification of design information for any new nuclear facilities."
"Some have argued that Iran would be free to develop a nuclear weapon at the conclusion of a comprehensive joint plan of action. That is simply not true. To the contrary, Iran would be prohibited from developing a nuclear weapon in perpetuity – and we would have a much greater ability to detect any effort by Iran to do so and to take appropriate measures in response, with the support of the international community. Iran would be allowed to have a peaceful, civilian nuclear program continuously verified by the IAEA.”
“As we have said from the beginning, nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to, and it may be we will not know if a deal is possible until the last minute. So I cannot tell you where we will be a week from now, or by the end of the month. But what I can promise you, and what President Obama has pledged, is that we will not agree to a bad deal. What does that mean? As I noted earlier, an acceptable deal must effectively close down all four pathways Iran could take to obtain enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. It must include strict curbs on its nuclear program and robust transparency and monitoring measures that give the international community confidence in the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program and the ability to promptly detect overt and covert breakout. It must include all the elements already spelled out in the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA). And, fundamentally, it must make the United States, our allies and partners in the Middle East, and the world safer.”
“If our international partners believe that the United States has acted prematurely by adding new sanctions now in the absence of a provocation by Iran – as most countries surely would – their willingness to enforce the existing sanctions regime or to add to it in the event negotiations fail will wane. And a fractured international consensus notwithstanding, even if we were to layer additional sanctions on Iran, their nuclear advances would far outpace any potential marginal pressure created by those sanctions. This is why the support of the international community remains crucial, and why new sanctions now are a dangerously imprudent step. Without full international compliance, the sanctions regime will be dramatically diluted. Up until now, we have kept other countries on board – despite the hardship it has caused to some of their economic interests – in large part because they are convinced we are serious about reaching a diplomatic solution. If they lose that conviction, the United States, not Iran, could be isolated, and the sanctions regime could collapse. Ultimately, the United States and its allies in the Middle East would be less safe.
In short, a collapse in negotiations caused by us, or perceived to be caused by us rather than by the Iranians, would lead to a growing Iranian nuclear program and a collapsing international sanctions regime. Now is not the time to provoke such a collapse.
Congress has a significant role to play in these discussions and has been playing it for years. It is existing congressional legislation that helped us get Iran to the negotiating table. The whole point of sanctions was to create this dynamic, and it has worked, but it has only worked when coupled with the type of robust diplomacy that is currently underway. Since signing the JPOA, we have been on the Hill dozens of times over the past year to update you and your staff about the progress of the talks – in all, more than 200 briefings, hearings, meetings and phone calls. And if a deal is finalized, Congress will certainly have a robust role to play in potentially taking action on future statutory sanctions relief once Iran has demonstrated a track record of living up to its commitments.”
“We will not relax our efforts to hold Iran accountable for its nefarious actions, regardless of the outcome of nuclear negotiations. But it is essential to understand that the most important thing we can do to keep Iran from feeling further emboldened to spread instability is to deny them the ability to obtain a nuclear weapon. That is why the nuclear negotiations are so important, and why this is a challenge that must be dealt with now.”

Acting Undersecretary of the Treasury Department’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Adam J. Szubin
“As we speak, negotiators from the P5+1 are hard at work trying to secure a political framework for a comprehensive deal with Iran. We may get a deal; we may not. Regardless of whether or not the negotiations succeed, I want to assure this Committee that the Treasury Department, and the Administration more broadly, are prepared for what comes next.
If we are able to secure a comprehensive deal, we will structure the nuclear-related sanctions relief in a way that is staged and commensurate with verifiable steps on Iran’s part. We believe that legislative sanctions should be suspended first before they are terminated by Congress, so that we continue to retain important leverage years into a deal. Put simply, Iran will not receive comprehensive relief from nuclear-related sanctions absent proof that it has concretely and verifiably carried out what is expected of it as part of a comprehensive deal.
Moreover, even if we are able to secure a nuclear deal with Iran, the United States will continue to counter Iran’s support for terrorism, its commission of human rights abuses, and its destabilizing activities throughout the Middle East, including through the active use of our financial tools.
Alternatively, if we determine that a comprehensive deal with Iran cannot be obtained, the Administration, working with Congress, can move to ratchet up the pressure on Iran from sanctions. Over the past decade, we have developed tremendous insight into Iran’s financial flows, its economy’s stress points, and how it attempts to evade sanctions. Our team stands ready to raise the costs on Iran substantially should it make clear that it is unwilling to address the international community’s concerns. Close cooperation with our international partners will be critical should we have to go that route.
In either eventuality, we are committed to working with Congress to ensure that our sanctions continue to serve our national security goals, whether to ensure that Iran abides by the conditions of a deal if it can accept those conditions, or to raise the costs substantially if Iran demonstrates that further negotiations are futile.”
Click here for the full transcripts


Iran's Influence in Latin America

On March 18, the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa and the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere held a joint hearing about Iran and Hezbollah’s involvement in Central and South America. The committees discussed Iran's attempts to expand its influence in Latin America during the last 30 years, as well as the Islamic Republic's alleged involvement in attacks in Peru and Uruguay and the mysterious death of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman. The following are excerpted statements from the subcommittee chairmen and testimony of the witnesses.

Chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere Jeff Duncan
“Given the impending deadline for nuclear negotiations over Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons program, I believe it is critical for the U.S. to re-examine Iran and Hezbollah’s activities in our own neighborhood. Congress has conducted sustained, rigorous oversight on this issue with multiple Committee hearings, classified briefings, and the passage of legislation I authored, the Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act, into law in 2012. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration continues to ignore this threat even while Iran and Hezbollah expand their reach. Following a September 2014 Government Accountability Office report that found the State Department failed to follow this law, the Administration has taken no concrete action to address these problems.”

Chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
“Iran and Hezbollah’s history of involvement in the Western Hemisphere has long been a source of concern for the United States. Given the nature of transnational criminal networks existing in Latin America and the rise of terrorism ideology being exported worldwide from Middle East, it is disturbing that the State Department has failed to fully allocate necessary resources and attention to properly address this potential threat to our nation. It is well known that Iran poses a security threat to regional affairs and has expanded its ties in countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, and Ecuador. The United States needs a comprehensive understanding of Tehran’s efforts in Latin America in order to thwart any potential risk to our allies and U.S. national security.”
Jospeh M. Humire, Author of Iran’s Strategic Penetration of Latin America
“Almost two years ago, I testified before another committee that Iran’s influence in the Western Hemisphere had grown tremendously over the last 30 years since the dawn of the Iranian revolution. At the time, there was sufficient evidence to make this statement; however, there was also evidence to suggest that Iran was reassessing its priorities, presence and activities in Latin America, due to the considerable political and economic changes happening both in the region and in Tehran.
A year and a half later, it is clear that the Islamic Republic maintains Latin America as a strategic priority for its global positioning and has become increasingly important as Iran enters its most critical stage in the ongoing nuclear negotiations with the P5+1. Under Hassan Rouhani, the Islamic Republic seeks to build on its momentum over the last decade and expand its operations to move past its typical associations with the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA).”
“At the tactical level, Iran uses its cultural penetration to gain access to prominent individuals within the Islamic and indigenous communities throughout the region. The objective is to exploit their wealth and/or political connections, preferably both. Once such contact is established, Iran bolster’s its diplomatic presence, as is the case in Venezuela and Cuba, or establishes a new embassy, such as has occurred in Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. In Bolivia, it has been reported that there are no fewer than 145 accredited Iranian diplomats living in the Andean nation. A number that far outweighs their overt interest or commerce with the Plurinational state.”
Dardo Lopez-Dolz, Former Vice Minister of the Interior of Peru
“Iran and Hezbollah, two forces hostile to U.S. interests, have made significant inroads in Peru, almost without detection, in part because of our weak institutions, prevalent criminal enterprise, and various stateless areas. These elements are particularly weak in the southern mountainous region of my country.
As Peru’s Vice Minister of Interior in 2006, and through my work as an analyst of political and social conflict conducting various risk analyses for a variety of private sector clients—I have become very familiar with these sub-regions and the illicit actors that operate within them. In the case of Iran and Hezbollah, I began noticing their presence back in 2011. At this time, a connection was forming between the Islamic Republic and other activist movements in Peru controlled by Havana, Caracas and La Paz. These activist groups, have been operating in my country since at least 2005, and include the Casas de ALBA (Houses of ALBA) and the Casas de Amistad Peruano-Cubanos (Peruvian-Cuban Friendship Houses) — political/social organizations aimed at subverting and weakening our democratic institutions and spreading socialist ideology throughout the country.
Since the Iranian attack on the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) in 1994, I have been concerned about the Iranian and radical Islamist presence in my country. But it wasn’t until a few years ago (circa 2011) that I began receiving information regarding the presence and activity of Iranian and Hezbollah operatives in Apurímac, Peru, which is a poor, not densely inhabited, remote region of the country. Apurímac is also a mineral rich region, with tremendous potential for strategic minerals such as uranium (Minera), but the region is also heavily involved in cocaine production.”
“Peru’s current government may show some sympathy towards Iran, but it is not openly an ally of Iran. Iran is recruiting and using clandestine entry into Peru, constructing networks with a growing capability for action in the southern Andean region, which puts at risk not only U.S. interests, but also undermines the very stability of democracy and economic growth of my country. These networks have links with subversive organizations; operate under the facade of self proclamed (not elected by citizens) fronts for environmental protection (usually forcing the population to back them by fear), and to promote an anti-investment climate that has already yielded their desired results by paralyzing major mining, energy and hydrocarbon projects. The arrest in October 2014 of a presumed Lebanese terrorist (Amadar), who confessed to being a member of Hezbollah, with clear evidence of having handled explosives, indicates they seem to be ready to move into an offensive phase using terror.”
Scott Modell, Senior Advisor at the Rapidan Group
“For more than three decades, Iran has sought to preserve the Islamic revolution at home and promote it abroad through a network of government and nongovernment organizations that I refer to as the “Iran Action Network” (IAN). The members of that network are involved in crafting and implementing the covert elements of Iran’s foreign policy agenda, from terrorism and other forms of political subversion to illicit finance, weapons and narcotics trafficking, and nuclear procurement and proliferation. They include the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its special operations wing, the Qods Force; the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS); Iran’s terror proxies, most notably Lebanese Hezbollah; a web of Islamic cultural centers, foundations, charities, and mosques; Iran’s ambassadors (often IRGC and MOIS officers) and other Ministry of Foreign Affairs personnel; and an expanding global network of agents, middlemen, and facilitators involved in a wide range of illicit activities, from arms and drug trafficking to nuclear procurement.
While Iran’s most ambitious attempts to externalize its revolution have occurred in the Islamic world, since 2005 it has gone to considerable lengths to build influence in its geographic and strategic countries that can act as partners in a global network designed to oppose U.S. policies. Iran has relied mainly on a small group of “Bolivarian” nations led by Venezuela to blunt the impact of sanctions. They have facilitated Iran’s oil trade, provided access to the international banking system in the face of U.S. and EU sanctions, and given Iran avenues for illicit nuclear and conventional military procurement.
Former President Ahmadinejad saw Latin America as a series of “emerging markets” for exporting the Islamic Revolution. He relied on promises of economic assistance, mainly in the energy and construction sectors, and Iranian ideological appeals to fight U.S. imperialism. In doing so, he discovered a receptive audience in two of the region’s champions of the left, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia. Before long, diplomatic missions expanded, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) officers began to surface in greater numbers, and security pacts and intelligence sharing agreements were signed. Ahmadinejad found willing supporters of Iran’s quest to promote the interests of independent nations of the developing world.
His rhetorical outreach was a success: Within a few years, Iran was well on its way to having a wide array of diplomatic, commercial, and clandestine networks stretching across Latin America. Iran quickly made it clear that it was not merely seeking ways to irritate the United States in its own backyard, but rather to weaken it by creating alternative centers of power. Iran’s honorary membership in Latin America’s anti-U.S. club known as the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA) is seen as proof that Ahmadinejad’s efforts were a success. Added strength through ALBA, which would go on to include intelligence, military, and other security-related exercises, facilitated the execution of Iran’s regional agenda, which included obtaining proscribed military technologies, providing cover for Iran’s nuclear program, and gaining access to the international banking system.
Yet, Iran’s growing reach into the Western Hemisphere also proved to be an uphill climb given the U.S.’s ability to counter with economic inducements such as trade or aid and the absence of social and political conditions that are amenable to Iran’s ideological overtures. In many cases, U.S. efforts to counter Iran in the Western Hemisphere have been enough to prevent Iran’s partnerships from having a significant and lasting impact. On the other hand, Iran’s efforts often unravel entirely on their own. Its poor track record of following through on aid and trade often leads its new Latin American partners – who tend to be weak militarily and economically – to question the political and economic wisdom of membership in an anti-U.S. coalition. The recent collapse in the price of oil has also forced Iran to downsize several of its missions across the continent.
While Tehran’s web of relationships in the western hemisphere has fallen short of what Ahmadinejad and Iran’s more ambitious hardliners had envisioned, there are reasons why it cannot be ignored. It began and continues with subversive intent, is largely covert and criminal in nature, and can be used to directly threaten U.S. interests in the future. Iran’s involvement in the 1994 bombing in Buenos Aires and its foiled plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States are vivid reminders of what Iran is capable of.
Perhaps the most daunting challenge related to the IAN in the Western Hemisphere is how to stop the transnational criminal networks of Iran’s closest terror proxy, Lebanese Hezbollah. Hezbollah continues to play a key role in the projection of Iranian power, no longer limited to aiding Iran’s traditional goals of fighting Israel and protecting Lebanon, or supporting Iran’s latest operations in Syria and Iraq. It includes several countries in the Western Hemisphere, where Hezbollah has evolved into one of the region’s most significant drug trafficking organizations. Hezbollah’s criminal reach extends far beyond Latin America, from Guinea Bissau, Benin, and other West African crime states to a rapidly expanding criminal infrastructure in Thailand and China.”
Michael Shifter, President of Inter-American Dialogue
“In the past, Iran has clearly sought to expand its support in Latin America. But with its economy in dire straits, its ability to do so is severely limited. Economic projects in country after country have failed to materialize. There have been in the past myriad bilateral deals between Iran and Venezuela, including joint ventures to produce cars, tractors, and bicycles, and some cooperation in mining exploration and housing construction. Although President Maduro has declared that Iran is a strategic partner of Venezuela, few of these projects have had concrete results. One of the central aspects of their cooperation, oil industry cooperation, ended when the offices of the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) in Venezuela and Bolivia— Iran’s other major ally in Latin America—were closed in 2014. In Nicaragua, similarly, Iran pledged construction of a dam and a $350 million deep-water port, as well as auto and cement projects—and none has come into being. Economic cooperation between Ecuador and Iran remains virtually nil.
Brazil, its largest trade partner in Latin America, had relatively strong political ties with Iran throughout the 2000s. The Brazilian government even supported the Iran’s position on the nuclear question in 2007 and 2008. Under Dilma Rousseff’s presidency, however, the relationship has notably cooled, in some measure because of her personal objections to Iran’s human rights record. During her first presidential campaign, Rousseff went so far as to call aspects of Iran’s human rights violations “medieval behavior.” When Ahmadinejad visited Rio de Janeiro as part of the Rio+20 conference in 2012, not only was he greeted with large protests, but President Rousseff refused his request for a meeting. This hardly suggests a strong alliance.
Moreover, while Ahmadinejad made improving ties with Latin America a foreign policy priority, Rouhani does not seem to share this objective. At the same time, the death of President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela in 2013 deprived Iran of one of its major backers in the region. Although Rouhani had promised to attend the G77 summit in Santa Cruz, Bolivia in June 2014, at the last minute he sent his first vice-president, Eshaq Yahanguir. Ahmadinejad, in contrast, had made numerous trips to the region during his presidency.
One crucial question, however, is whether, given the nature of the regime, Iran's involvement in the region should be regarded as benign. On this score there are admittedly ample grounds for skepticism, given the regime's demonstrated support for terrorist activities and organizations such as Hezbollah. A number of serious allegations in the past have been made about Iran’s current activities in Latin America. The first is that Iranian agents are sponsoring training camps for terrorists. Another allegation has to do with Iranian support for prospecting uranium in Venezuela and Ecuador. Yet, of all of these, arguably the most grave is a 2013 report on Iran’s activities in the region by Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman. As it is now widely known, early this year Mr. Nisman accused President Fernández de Kirchner of attempting to shield Iran in the investigation of accused involvement in the bombing of the Israeli embassy (1992) and the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires (1994) that killed 85 people. Nisman was found dead in his apartment in Buenos Aires immediately before he was set to testify in the Argentine Congress. The circumstances of his death remain disputed.
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Nowruz: Traditions for Persian New Year

Ironically, the most widely celebrated holiday in the Islamic Republic of Iran long predates the official religion. Nowruz, literally “New Day” in Farsi, marks the first day of spring and the Persian New Year. The holiday, which falls on March 20 this year, is widely celebrated across the Middle East and Central Asia. 

Nowruz is a national holiday celebrated by Iranians of virtually all ethnicities and religions. Celebrations may date back to Cyrus the Great’s reign in the sixth century B.C. Many of the season’s traditions have roots in Zoroastrianism, an ancient monotheistic faith still practiced by some 25,000 in Iran.
Shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, some hardliners unsuccessfully tried to suppress the holiday due to its pre-Islamic origins. But Iran has never severed connections to its pre-Islamic past. “Iran’s advancements after Islam are incomparable to its past. However, pre-Islamic history of Iran is also part of our history,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in 2008. Most Iranians still look to the ancient Persian Empire as a source of pride.

The following is an overview of traditions associated with Nowruz.

A Persian Santa Claus and Troubadour
Amoo, or “Uncle,” Nowruz, and his sidekick Haji Piruz are folk characters who herald the spring. Uncle Nowruz, like Santa Claus, hands out presents to children and is an older man with a white beard. Haji Piruz, his clownish assistant, sings joyous songs and plays a tambourine or drum in city streets and squares. Men and boys blacken their faces with soot, and wear bright red clothing and a conical hat to portray the character in hopes of earning some coins for providing entertainment. The following is a translation of one common song associated with Haji Piruz:
Wind and rain have gone.
Lord Nowurz has come.
Friends, convey this message.
The New Year has come again
This spring be your good luck
The tulip fields be your joy.
Nowruz is celebrated on the Spring Equinox, but the holiday includes many stages and weeks of preparation.
Spring Cleaning
Iranians begin preparing their homes for Nowrouz weeks in advance. The annual spring cleaning is known in Farsi as khoneh takooni, or “shaking the house.” Families meticulously wash rugs, windows, curtains and repair furniture. They throw out or donate old household goods and purchase new clothing to greet the coming spring.
Haft Seen Table
One of the most important Nowruz traditions is setting the haft seen table, which includes seven symbolic items all starting the with an “s” sound:
•  Sabzeh (sprouted wheat grass): For rebirth and renewal
•  Samanu (sweet pudding): For affluence and fertility
•  Senjed (sweet, dried lotus tree fruit): For love  
•  Serkeh (vinegar): For patience and wisdom gained through aging
•  Sir (garlic): For medicine and maintaining good health
•  Sib (apples): For health and beauty
•  Sumac (crushed spice made from reddish berries): For recalling the sunrise
Additional items on the table include:
•  Mirror: To reflect on the past year
•  Live goldfish in a bowl: To represent new life
•  Orange in a bowl of water: To symbolize the Earth
•  Decorated eggs: For fertility
•  Coins: For future prosperity
•  Books of classical poetry and/or the Koran: For spirituality
Fire Jumping
On the last Wednesday of the year, Iranians set up bonfires in public places and leap over the flames in a ritual, Chahar Shanbeh Soori, thought to ensure good health for the year. People sing the following song addressing the fire while jumping:
Give me your beautiful red color
And take back my sickly pallor!
Since the 1979 revolution, hardliner clerics and public officials have warned against observing the ritual, citing safety hazards and roots in pre-Islamic traditions. In recent years, youth have begun using firecrackers and other fireworks.
On March 1, 2015, the head of Tehran’s police prevention unit said authorities would take legal action against people blocking the main streets or bothering others with bonfires. On March 13, Tehran’s interim Friday prayer leader and Assembly of Experts member Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami said the ritual is haram (forbidden) from a religious perspective and reminded the public that many festivals have turned into days of mourning because of unfortunate accidents.
On March 18, 2015, nearly 400 people were reportedly injured and three died in accidents related to the ritual.
 For Chahar Shanbeh Soori, some Iranians make wishes and distribute a special soup consisting of roasted garbanzo beans, almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts and dried figs, apricots and raisins.
 Another soup, Ash-e-reshteh (left), is traditionally served around Nowrouz. The hearty mixture is filled with noodles and multiple types of beans. The noodle knots represent the many possibilities for the coming year, and untangling them is thought to bring good fortune.
Sabzi pollo mahi, is a common fish and rice dish served during Nowrouz. The rice is mixed with green herbs to symbolize the coming spring.
Several types of sweets are also ubiquitous at this time of year.
•  Baqlava: flaky pastry sweetened with rosewater
•  Naan bereng: cookies made from rice flour
•  Noghl: sugar-coated almonds
•  Samanu: a sweet pudding made from sprouted wheat
Many Iranians have found these foods and other items increasingly expensive since 2012. Tightened international sanctions imposed over Tehran’s controversial nuclear program have dramatically raised prices. “I didn’t buy nuts last year, because prices were very high and I won’t buy them this year either,” a 37-year-old mother of two told The National in 2014.
The Count Down
After Chahar Shanbeh Soori, Iranians wait with their families and friends for the exact moment when the vernal equinox occurs, Tahvil in Farsi. Elders distribute sweets and children receive coins. People begin making short visits to the homes of friends and family throughout the day and night. At each house visit, hosts provide nuts, sweets, dried fruits and tea to their guests.
Sizdah Bedar

On the 13th day of the new year, Iranians try to get rid of the bad luck associated with the number 13 by spending the day outside having fun with family and friends. Many people pack picnic lunches and head to parks or the countryside. The tradition is known as sizdah bedar, or “getting rid of the 13th.”

Iranians also discard the sabzeh grass from the Haft Seen table, which collected all the potential bad fortune of a family during Nowruz. Some unmarried girls knot grass blades symbolizing the union of a man and woman in hopes of finding a husband before the next Nowruz.
The United Nations includes Nowruz on its List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Click here for more information.
*A previous version of this article was published in 2014.

Photo credits: Persepolis by alisamii (http://www.flickr.com/photos/alisamii/4806644274) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, Haji Firuz and Haft Seen Table by Robin Wright, Fire jumping by PersianDutchNetwork (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, Ash-e-Reshteh  by AilinParsa (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


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