United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Rouhani’s First US Television Interview

      In his first American television interview, President Hassan Rouhani signaled an interest in improving relations with the United States. Less than a week earlier, President Barack Obama revealed that he had privately communicated with Iran’s new president. Rouhani described the tone of Obama’s letter as “positive and constructive” in his interview with NBC.
      On Iran’s controversial nuclear program, President Rouhani seemed to indicate that his government had Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s approval to cut a deal. “We have sufficient political latitude to solve this problem,” the president said. Khamenei recently acknowledged that “heroic flexibility” is sometimes necessary in diplomacy. Rouhani also pledged that Tehran would never seek nuclear weapons.
            On domestic issues, Rouhani reiterated his support for freedom expression and opposition to extensive censorship. "People must have full access to all information worldwide," he said. Rouhani's interview came less than week before his debut at the United Nations General Assembly, scheduled for September 24. The following are excerpts with a link to the full transcript at the end.

U.S.-Iran Relations
            “From my point of view, the tone of the letter [from President Barack Obama] was positive and constructive. It could be subtle and tiny steps for a very important future. I believe the leaders in all countries could think in their national interest and they should not be under the influence of pressure groups. I hope to witness such an atmosphere in the future.
            “Anything is possible in the world of politics. It depends on having the necessary conditions. If in the first steps we see goodwill and good intention, mutual confidence and trust, and if we see that the Americans are talking from respectful positions, a lot of things could be put in the agenda. But the issue of nuclear talks is the most important test in this regard. If we see goodwill from both sides and good intention from both sides and reach a mutual agreement, the way would be paved for further talks regarding various issues.”
Nuclear Program
            “We have never pursued or sought a nuclear bomb and we are not going to do so. We have time and again said that under no circumstances would we seek any weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, nor will we ever... We solely are looking for peaceful nuclear technology.
            “In its nuclear program, this government enters with full power and has complete authority. We have sufficient political latitude to solve this problem.”
            “If they [world powers] want to resolve and settle down the nuclear issues of the Islamic Republic of Iran we should say that when Iran accepted the NPT [Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty] and all its activities are under the supervision of the IAEA and in all enrichment facilities there are the cameras of the IAEA and there are constant inspection of the IAEA inspectors, so what kind of concerns are there? Point is that could there be any concern at all?
             “All of those who are having enrichments are doing the same thing.  They are under the supervision of the IAEA. Of course there are some countries, you know them well, that are not under the supervision of the IAEA. They are not member states of the NPT.  But there is no concern regarding their activities. But there are concerns regarding a country which accepted all the rules and regulations. Therefore from our point of view, this is absolutely meaningless.”
            “We are very worried about war in our region.  We have the experience of a number of destructive wars in this region. The day we feel a new war is about to happen in our region, we consider its destructive consequences.  In the past few weeks, my government made many efforts to ensure that the region does not witness a new war. In this context, the cooperation between Russia and Iran has been notable.           
            “We are not the government of Syria. We are one of the countries of this region which is asking for peace and stability and the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction in the entire region.”
            “We consider war a weakness. Any government that decides on war, we consider a weakness. And any government that decides on peace, we look on it with respect for peace.”
Domestic Freedoms and Rights
            “We want the people in their private life to be completely free. In today's world, having access to information and the right of free dialogue and the right to think freely is the right of all people, including the people of Iran.”
             “The viewpoint of the government is that people must have full access to all information worldwide. Our opinion on this should be based on the protection of our national identity and on our morals.”
The Middle East
            “What is important for us is that the countries of the region and the people grow closer to each other and that they are able to prevent aggression and injustice.”’
            “What we wish for in this region is rule by the will of the people,” he said. “We believe in the ballot box. We do not seek war with any country. We seek peace and friendship among the nations of the region.”
Chemical Weapons
            “We are ourselves the victims of chemical weapons. Therefore, we are very sensitive about this weapon. We are wishing for the removal of all chemical weapons around the world and especially in the sensitive region of the Middle East. In this regard, we will not stop doing whatever we could possibly do.”
            Israel is an “occupier” nation that “does injustice to the people of the region and has brought instability to the region with its war-mongering policies… [Israel] shouldn't allow itself to give speeches about a democratically and freely elected government.”


Iran Frees Top Human Rights Activist, Others

Garrett Nada

            In the first big move on human rights since President Hassan Rouhani took office, Iran released noted activist Nasrin Sotoudeh on September 18. The government did not make a formal announcement, but Rouhani’s office retweeted reports claiming that seven other female prisoners and four male prisoners were also freed. The move comes on the eve of Rouhani’s debut speech at the U.N. General Assembly, scheduled for September 24.
            President Rouhani had pledged to ease restrictions and political expression during his campaign.
            Mohsen Aminzadeh, a former deputy foreign minister under reformist President Mohammad Khatami, was among the male prisoners who were released. He was jailed in 2010 for organizing protests and spreading propaganda against the regime. Iran has some 800 political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, according to an investigation by The Guardian.
      The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran talked to Sotoudeh shortly after she was freed. “When I was released, I did not sign for furlough. They told me, ‘You are free,’” Sotoudeh told the Campaign. “Other prisoners and lawyers should be released, too. They are there for political reasons belonging to a period that is over,” she added.
      Sotoudeh has been a political activist since the early 1990s and and defended some of Iran’s most prominent human rights activists, political dissidents and journalists. She played a prominent role after the disputed 2009 presidential election sparked the largest protests since the 1979 revolution. In one noted case, she worked with families who had members killed in the government crackdown after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection. Sotoudeh had also long been a champion of women’s demands for greater rights.

            Sotoudeh was arrested in September 2010 on charges of acting against state security and spreading propaganda. In 2011, a court sentenced her to 11 years in prison and barred her from practicing law or leaving Iran for 20 years. An appeals court later reduced the sentence to six years. She was placed in solitary confinement in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. She twice went on long hunger strikes.
            Even from prison, Sotoudeh remained outspoken. She reportedly wrote a public letter to the head of Iran’s judiciary thanking him for imprisoning her, as she would have been horrified to be free when her clients were imprisoned.
            Human rights lawyers have been at the forefront of activism in Iran for more than a decade. Shirin Ebadi, who defended leading dissidents, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. Sotoudeh was part of Ebadi’s Center for the Defense of Human Rights. Her arrest generated international attention. Last year, she was co-winner of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought awarded by the European Union. She shared it with Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who was under house arrest. As secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton called on Iran to release her.
            President Barack Obama mentioned Sotoudeh in his 2011 message marking Nowruz, Persian New Year.
            "For nearly two years, there has been a campaign of intimidation and abuse. Young and old; men and women; rich and poor – the Iranian people have been persecuted. Hundreds of prisoners of conscience are in jail. The innocent have gone missing. Journalists have been silenced. Women tortured. Children sentenced to death.
            "The world has watched these unjust actions with alarm. We have seen Nasrin Sotoudeh jailed for defending human rights; Jaffar Panahi imprisoned and unable to make his films; Abdolreza Tajik thrown in jail for being a journalist. The Bahai community and Sufi Muslims punished for their faith; Mohammad Valian a young student, sentenced to death for throwing three stones.
            "These choices do not demonstrate strength, they show fear. For it is telling when a government is so afraid of its own citizens that it won’t even allow them the freedom to access information or to communicate with each other. But the future of Iran will not be shaped by fear. The future of Iran belongs to the young people – the youth who will determine their own destiny."
            In response to the release of prisoners, the U.S. State Department issued the following statement on September 18.
            "We welcome today’s reports that the Iranian Government has released several prisoners of conscience, including human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh.  President Rouhani pledged repeatedly during his campaign to restore and expand freedoms for all Iranians, and called for expanded political and social freedoms, including freedom of expression.  In the months ahead, we hope he will continue to keep his promises to the Iranian people. 
            The United States will continue to urge the Iranian Government to take steps to improve the country’s human rights situation.  Accordingly, we renew our call today for Iran to release all prisoners of conscience in its custody." 
            Iranian news websites reported that seven other female political prisoners were released within the last day, including journalist Mahsa Amrabadi. Three other men in addition to Mohsen Aminzadeh were released, including reformist politician Feizollah Arabsorkhi.
            But Iran also still has many political prisoners either in prison or under house arrest—most notably former presidential candidates Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. In the past, Iran has released prisoners before appearances by senior officials abroad, but this is the most significant release. It is the latest in a series of significant moves by Tehran. Since Rouhani took office, Iran has reopened its House of Cinema and economic planning office.
            The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran recently published a report outlining 74 specific recommendations for Rouhani’s government to end systematic human rights abuses. It emphasizes the restrictions on freedoms of expression and association, and details recommendations to ameliorate the human rights situation in the country, including cooperating with U.N. human rights mechanisms and removing Internet censorship to allow free expression.
            “At a time when bloggers, journalists, and activists are being persecuted for expressing their opinions, Iran’s foreign minister has an official presence on social media websites that are blocked for ordinary Iranians,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “Rouhani is in a position to ensure that all Iranians have freedom of expression. To assure the international community that he is serious, Rouhani should continue to take the necessary steps to stop the egregious human rights violations in Iran.”

Khamenei on Diplomacy : “Heroic Flexibility”

      On September 17, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told Revolutionary Guards commanders that he is not opposed to more flexible engagement with the outside world. “I am not against proper political moves in diplomacy. I believe in what was named many years ago as ‘heroic flexibility,’” Khamenei said. Flexibility “in certain circumstances is positive and necessary.” The supreme leader did not specify if he was referring to negotiations over Iran’s controversial nuclear program. But Khamenei’s comments may have signaled support for President Hassan Rouhani or Iranian diplomats to meet Western leaders during the U.N. General Assembly opening next week.
            Khamenei, however, also stressed the need to understand the goals of opposing powers. “A wrestler sometimes shows flexibility for technical reasons. But he should forget who his opponent and enemy is,” he said, according to Iranian news agencies. The supreme leader’s office tweeted a translation of his remarks.

            Khamenei advised Iranians to evaluate the controversy over Tehran’s nuclear program in the context of challenges from “tyrannical governments” and “predatory international networks.” Khamenei referred to the United States and the West as “alarmist” elsewhere in his comments.
            The supreme leader also echoed President Rouhani’s warning to the Guards, just one day earlier, not to interfere in politics. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps “should know what it will guard. It is not necessary for it to act as a guard in the political scene, but it should know the political scene,” Khamenei said.  
Photo credit: Khamenei.ir via Facebook

Qods Force leader : A political funeral?

            Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani hosted what was almost certainly the most high-profile funeral held this year in Tehran. The funeral for Soleimani’s mother was an unusually public acknowledgment of his increasingly powerful role in the Islamic Republic. Iran’s political and military elite showed up to pay respects to Soleimani, who heads the Revolutionary Guards elite unit.

      The Qods Force runs the Islamic Republic’s foreign operations, including in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Lebanon, the Gulf and beyond. The unit is reportedly small, numbering about 12,000. Little reliable information on the force is available. And Soleimani (center) is also one of the most secretive Revolutionary Guards commanders.
      But in early 2008, Soleimani reportedly sent a message reflecting his power to General David Petraus, who was then commander of Multi-National Forces in Iraq. “You should know that I... control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan. And indeed, the ambassador in Baghdad is a Qods Force member,” he wrote, according to The Guardian.  Soleimani is also widely believed to be one of Iran’s most important foreign policy strategists, with major influence on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
     The funeral received unusually wide coverage in Iran’s media, which released dozens of pictures of top politicos paying their respects to Soleimani. The attendees were a who’s who of Iran, including former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (right), Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf and former Supreme National Security Council secretary Saeed Jalili. Others included current and former cabinet ministers, top clerics, and senior Revolutionary Guards commanders. President Hassan Rouhani, however, did not attend.
     Among the photographs released by both the Fars News Agency and the Islamic Students News Agency was one showing Jihad Mughniyeh (right), the son of Imad Mughniyeh, who was the military commander of Lebanon’s Hezbollah before his assassination in a 2008 car bombing. Mughniyeh, who was trained by the Revolutionary Guards and maintained close ties, reportedly had an Iranian wife and spent a significant amount of time in Iran. His son is twice pictured standing close to Soleimani.

Obama and Rouhani Exchange Letters

             President Barack Obama confirmed in a televised interview that he has exchanged letters with President Hassan Rouhani. This is the most significant direct communication between the United States and Iran in years— and at the highest level since Rouhani’s election in June. The revelation comes just a week before the two men will both speak at the U.N. General Assembly on September 24.

      President Obama “indicated that the U.S. is ready to resolve the nuclear issue in a way that allows Iran to demonstrate that its nuclear program is for exclusively peaceful purposes," said White House spokesman Jay Carney on September 18. "The letter also conveyed the need to act with a sense of urgency to address this issue because, as we have long said, the window of opportunity for resolving this diplomatically is open, but it will not remain open indefinitely," Carney said.
            The exact timing and origin of the exchange – first reported in Iran – are still unknown. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif first acknowledged the existence of private messages on September 9 during a visit to Iraq. He implied that the messages were primarily about Syria, Iran’s closest ally in the Middle East. Syria, ironically, may be bringing Washington and Tehran together. Tabank news website and Fars News Agency reported that Iran replied to Obama’s proposal to “turn a new page” in relations. Iranian agencies claimed that President Obama passed the letter to Rouhani through Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said during his visit in late August.
            In Washington, National Security spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan was asked about the letters but neither denied nor acknowledged their existence. She echoed President Obama’s previous remarks on Iran. Should President Rouhani’s government “choose to engage substantially and seriously to meet its international obligations and find a peaceful solution to this [nuclear] issue, it will find a willing partner in the United States,” Meehan told the Los Angeles Times in early September.
            Several days later, President Obama acknowledged the letter exchange in an interview with ABC that also covered Syria. “I think what the Iranians understand is that the nuclear issue is a far larger issue for us than the chemical weapons issue, that the threat against Israel that a nuclear Iran poses, is much closer to our core interests,” Obama said in the interview that aired on September 15. The following are excerpts.
            Have you reached out personally to the new president?
            I have.  And he’s reached out to me.  We haven’t spoken– directly.  But…
            Yeah.  And I think what the Iranians understand is that– the nuclear issue – is a far larger issue for us than the chemical weapons issue [in Syria], that the threat against Israel, that a nuclear Iran poses, is much closer to our core interests, that a nuclear arms race in the region is something that would be profoundly destabilizing.
            And so my suspicion is that the Iranians recognize they shouldn’t draw a lesson that we haven’t struck, to think we won’t strike Iran.  On the other hand, what they should draw from this lesson is that there is the potential of resolving these issues diplomatically. 
            You think they’re there?  You think they believe that?
             I think they recognize, in part, because of the extraordinary sanctions that we placed on them, that the world community is united when it comes to wanting to prevent a nuclear arms race in the region.  And you know, negotiations with the Iranians is always difficult.  I think this new president is not gonna suddenly make it easy.  But you know, my view is that if you have both a credible threat of force, combined with a rigorous diplomatic effort, that, in fact you can strike a deal. And I hold out that hope.
            Obama revealed the private communication at a critical juncture, barely a week before the U.N. General Assembly opening. Iran is also set to meet with the U.N. nuclear watchdog on September 27 in Vienna. And E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton hopes to schedule a new round of nuclear talks between Iran and the world’s six major powers — the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.
            “On the nuclear issue, the endgame should be a win-win,” Rouhani told state television in early September. “A win-lose game is meaningless. We are ready for this game. This job will begin in New York.” The Iranians have planned an ambitious schedule of events around the U.N. General Assembly. But not all of the dates and times have been publicized.
            • September 24: President Rouhani is scheduled to address the general assembly just hours after Obama’s speech.
            • September 26: Rouhani is set to address the Asia Society, global non-profit that aims to forge closer ties between Asia and the West.
            • Foreign Minister Zarif and E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton are scheduled to discuss the next round of nuclear talks. Ashton hopes to set a date for the talks.
            • British Foreign Minister William Hague’s office has indicated that he may meet Zarif. The meeting would be the first direct diplomatic encounter in two years. Britain withdrew its Tehran embassy after Iranian security forces reportedly allowed mobs to storm the compound in November 2011.
            • Iran’s delegation will almost certainly meet with the Russian one to discuss Syria and nuclear talks.
Photo credits: President Barack Obama By Elizabeth Cromwell (http://chesh.org/barack/DSC_0010.JPG) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons and President Hassan Rouhani via President.ir

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