United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Geneva Deal VI: Experts on Terms

            The following briefs analyze the terms of the interim deal on Iran’s controversial nuclear program.
International Crisis Group
The Iran Nuclear Accord: First Step in a Long Journey
            The International Crisis Group strongly welcomes the 24 November agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany). The accord – the principal thrust of which Crisis Group for some time has been calling for – is a testament to the effectiveness of diplomacy when conducted in a positive atmosphere.
            Although only a first step, the agreement has important implications. In particular, it freezes essential aspects of Iran’s nuclear activities – its stockpile of low enriched uranium; number of operational centrifuges; and work at the Arak heavy-water facility; rolls back Tehran's enrichment at higher concentration levels; and puts in place intrusive inspection mechanisms.
            The net result is to virtually eliminate the possibility of an undetected dash towards militarisation. For its part, Iran has gained tangible economic and humanitarian sanctions relief, a commitment that it will not be subjected to additional punitive measures at this time and implicit acceptance of a constrained and transparent uranium enrichment program on its soil…
Click here for the full text.
The Middle East Institute
The Iran Nuclear Deal: Risks and Opportunities for the Region
Paul Salem
            The nuclear deal with Iran, though still temporary and tentative, is ushering in a historic shift in the patterns of power, conflict, and diplomacy in the region. Like all historic shifts, it is laden with uncertainty and risk of new conflicts, but also carries with it potential opportunities for further diplomacy and finding common ground. Given the precedent of conflict and mistrust in the region, it is no surprise that the deal has raised concerns among many of America’s allies…
            The careening of U.S. policy from threats of war to sudden deals has left the region reeling. What has been achieved is potentially promising and very important. But the United States needs to move urgently, not only to reassure its allies about the nuclear issue, but also to discuss with them ways to build on the remaining sanctions and negotiations to move Iran toward positions that can provide a basis for regional stability and prosperity that would be in everyone’s interest.
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Center for Strategic & International Studies
The Best Deal with Iran That We Can Get
Anthony Cordesman
            One needs to be very careful about the deal the P5+1 has reached with Iran. It is still not clear that the Supreme Leader will accept it or that Iran will put it into practice. It is a preliminary agreement that must be followed up by lasting Iranian compliance, acceptance by the U.S. and other nations, and must be maintained indefinitely into the future.
            Making the agreement work requires a delicate balancing act by the U.S. and other members of the P5+1. The P5+1 must make it clear to Iran that any failure to honor the agreement will lead to even more stringent sanctions and that the risk of preventive strikes, extended deterrence, missile developments and a massive military build up in the Gulf remains real, all the while showing Iran that a real opening to the U.S. and the world offers it security and significant new opportunities for economic development...
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Geneva Deal VII: Nuclear Diplomacy in Iranian Tweets

            The chain of events that ultimately produced Iran’s nuclear deal with the world’s six major powers played out in a string of tweets between June 17 and November 24. The tweets began shortly after President Hassan Rouhani’s election and culminated with Foreign Minister Moh Zarif’s newsbreaking tweet, “We have reached an agreement.”

           In June, Hassan Rouhani defeated hardliners in the presidential election and pledged to improve Iran’s relations with the outside world —including the United States.
           Rouhani also suggested that Tehran could be more transparent on its nuclear energy program.
            Some hardliners criticized Zarif’s approach as too conciliatory. Others urged the Rouhani administration to publicize details of the talks. But Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned against questioning the negotiating team.
            Khamenei, however, was not optimistic about the next round of talks scheduled to begin on November 7.
            Foreign ministers from the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia rushed to Geneva as a breakthrough appeared imminent. But last-minute differences, reportedly spurred by French demands for tougher terms, blocked a deal that might have temporarily frozen Iran’s nuclear program in return for modest sanctions relief. Negotiators planned to meet again in Geneva on November 20.
           Secretary of State John Kerry implied in his comments to the press that Iran had objections to the proposal. Zarif responded in a tweet.
           Zarif posted a video charting the path forward for compromise on the nuclear dispute one day before the next round of talks.
           Khamenei welcomed the deal as a victory and example of Iranian resistance to excessive demands of Western powers.

The Iran Deal: A Humanizing Breakthrough

Robin Wright

            In 1981, I stood at the foot of the plane that flew the 52 Americans held hostage 444 days in Iran to freedom in Algiers. They were all pasty-faced and captive-weary as they disembarked into the cold January night. It was after midnight. Tehran had delayed their departure until after Jimmy Carter was out of office, one final slap at the president who had propped up the last shah until the end and later welcomed him into the United States.
           Weeks of tough negotiations in Algiers to free the hostages had been complicated because Iranians and Americans did not meet face-to-face. They mediated (in three languages) through the Algerians.

      So the recent talks in Geneva between Iran and the world’s six major powers produced far more than a long-elusive deal to restrict Iran’s nuclear program. The new diplomacy also produced real human contact. U.S. and Iranian diplomats have spent more time together over the past three months than in the entire three decades since the American Embassy takeover. They are learning how to talk to each other all over again—often in the same language. Geneva laid the cornerstone to defuse 34 years of both overt and covert confrontation over a host of other issues too. The interaction may even help end the Iran jinx that has tainted or tormented all six American presidents since the 1979 revolution.
            The hostage crisis cost Jimmy Carter a second term. The Reagan administration was shamed by clumsy secret diplomacy during the Iran-Contra scandal, which was initiated to free a new set of American hostages in Beirut but which ended up with the indictment or dismissal of top White House officials. The first Bush administration’s stab at Arab-Israeli diplomacy, centered on the 1991 Madrid peace conference, was matched by deepening ties between Iran and Palestinian rejectionists.
            The Clinton administration considered military retaliation against Iran after the 1996 attack on a U.S. Air Force facility in Khobar, Saudi Arabia killed 19 Americans and injured another 350. A Shiite group with Iran ties was suspected. The second Bush administration’s “axis of evil” language sabotaged collaboration in Afghanistan after the Taliban’s ouster in 2001, while the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions inadvertently strengthened Tehran’s hand by toppling its two biggest regional rivals.
            In contrast, Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif were photographed laughing together across the negotiating table in Geneva. In the wee hours of November 24, they shook hands—more than just politely—after signing an agreement opening the way for six months of even more intensive contact. No one noted that Kerry wore a (bright red) tie, but Zarif didn’t, in deference to the revolutionary dress code banning ties as symbols of Western influence—the kind of colorful anecdote once trotted out to underscore deep differences.
            Debate will rage from Capitol Hill to the Persian Gulf over specifics of the interim deal. Many both at home and abroad are dissatisfied. Some may try to scuttle it. The volume will almost certainly go up as diplomacy intensifies.
            But the reality is that Iran’s nuclear program is now too advanced to either bomb or sanction totally out of business. A deal should have happened a decade ago when Iran had less than 200 centrifuges to enrich uranium, the fuel for both peaceful nuclear energy and the world’s deadliest weapon. Now it has near 19,000. Both sides were too stubborn back then.
The conventional wisdom claims Iran came to the negotiating table under pressure from unparalleled economic sanctions. True. But the unacknowledged truth is that the outside world also went into diplomacy under pressure from Iran’s growing capabilities. Otherwise, the world’s six major powers could have just kept squeezing the Islamic Republic. Tehran also now has nuclear knowledge that can’t be bombed out of existence.
            So, ultimately, even a military strike would require diplomacy to prevent Tehran from rebuilding. The core issue is as much Iran’s long-term calculations as its capabilities.
Diplomacy is not only about preventing war. It’s also about healing. President Nixon’s diplomacy ended 30 years of deadly tensions with China, which included Beijing’s arming, aiding and sending troops to North Vietnam. President Clinton resumed relations with a reunited Vietnam 20 years after the United States lost more than 58,000 lives in a war to keep the Communists from consuming the south.
            The sprawling American Embassy compound in Tehran is not likely to reopen anytime soon. But in pushing for a nuclear deal, Geneva started the long and painful healing that could eventually alter Tehran’s calculations—not only about its nuclear program.

Robin Wright has traveled to Iran dozens of times since 1973. She has covered several elections, including the 2009 presidential vote. She is the author of several books on Iran, including "The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and transformation in Iran" and "The Iran Primer: Power, Politics and US Policy." She is a joint scholar at USIP and the Woodrow Wilson Center.


Photo credit: U.S. State Department


Breaking Taboos

            The following article was originally published as Viewpoints No. 45 by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Haleh Esfandiari         

            The Rouhani government, barely 100 days old, has delivered what no other Iranian government had achieved since the initiation of Iran’s nuclear program: a deal between the United States and Iran. An agreement between the P5+1 (five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) and Iran was announced in Geneva in the early morning hours of Sunday, November 24.

P5+1 Talks With Iran in Geneva, Switzerland
            The driving force behind the punishing unilateral, multilateral, and UN-imposed sanctions regime imposed on Iran was the United States; and these sanctions effectively broke the back of the Iranian economy. All along, Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; President Ahmadinejad, who left office only in August; commanders of the Revolutionary Guards; Friday prayer leaders; and other hardliners sang the same song: sanctions were ineffective; Iranians would weather any hardship. But this discourse could not be credibly sustained—not when the Iranian currency, the rial, lost 60 percent of its value, Iranian oil exports fell from 2.5 million barrels a day to 1.2 million barrels, inflation reached 40 percent; and not when the average Iranian found the cost of living crushing, when cheap Chinese and Indian goods flooded the market (undermining local industries because Iranian oil earnings could not be used elsewhere), when Iranian businessmen and the government were effectively shut out of the international financial and banking system; and when money in government coffers was fast disappearing. Clearly, something had to be done.
            It was Iran’s bazaar merchants, industrialists, bankers, and pragmatists among the politicians—men like former president Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani—who convinced the Supreme Leader that this situation was not sustainable. Hassan Rouhani, elected president in June on a platform that promised to resolve the nuclear deadlock, lift sanctions, and end Iran’s international isolation, should be given a chance to explore the possibility of a mutually acceptable nuclear accord and an end to sanctions. This meant talking to the Americans. Almost a decade ago the Supreme Leader had said in a speech in Mashad that he alone will decide when the right time is to talk to the Americans. The time had obviously come. 
            Significantly, when Rouhani announced a cabinet and appointed reformists, including pragmatic reformists like Mohammad Javad Zarif to head the foreign ministry, the Supreme Leader did not object—despite the fact that he had no love for the men who had served under the reformist president Mohammad Khatami a decade ago and despite the opposition of hardliners like Hassan Shariatmadari, the editor of Kayhan, a newspaper that speaks for the Intelligence Ministry and for the leader himself. Shariatmadari had urged parliament to reject Rouhani’s reformist selections for cabinet posts. But most, including Zarif, were confirmed.
            When Rouhani and Zarif came to New York to attend the opening of the UN General Assembly in September, Zarif broke one taboo when he held one-on-one discussions with his American counterpart, John Kerry. Rouhani broke an even bigger one when he took a phone call from President Obama on his way to the airport. Khamenei later, referring indirectly but unmistakably to the Rouhani-Obama conversation, said that some inappropriate things had occurred in New York. But the ice was broken, and even Khamenei endorsed his president’s diplomatic initiatives at the UN. It was these talks, and others Zarif held with foreign ministers of the P5+1 countries (there were officially unconfirmed reports of unpublicized meetings between Iranian and American officials), that led to a reconvening of the Iran-P5+1 negotiations—this time in Geneva. A first round of talks was held in October; the second in early November, and the third convened in Geneva last week.
            The Iranians, led by Zarif, came to Geneva this time well aware that the Israelis were opposed to any deal with Iran that fell short of entirely shutting down its nuclear program. They also knew that Israel had unlikely allies among the Arab states of the Persian Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia. The Gulf Arabs fear—indeed are terrified—that any agreement, no matter how modest, will provide the opening for the return of Iran as the “hegemonic” power to the region.
            Zarif also knew that his window of opportunity was short. If he could not take home an acceptable agreement in this or the next round of negotiations, Congress could impose another set of sanctions, aborting the negotiations and further punishing the already ailing Iranian economy. It was left to President Obama to attempt to persuade Israel and America’s Persian Gulf allies that a deal with Iran would not be a sellout and that the United States would not allow Iran to secure nuclear weapons. In this, he had limited success but clearly decided to proceed without Israeli or Arab blessings. The hard bargaining for the United States and its allies, and for the Iranians, took place in Geneva.
            Agreement on an interim deal was reached in the early hours of November 24. In brief, it freezes in place Iran’s nuclear program and rolls back significant parts of it in exchange for mild sanctions relief (estimated to be worth about $6 billion or $7 billion to Iran in released frozen Iranian funds and exportable goods). A “final” agreement is to be pounded out by the two sides over the next six months.
            Naturally, the terms of the agreement are being interpreted differently by officials in Washington and in Tehran. The Obama administration is strenuously defending and lauding the agreement. It prevents further expansion of Iran’s nuclear activities; bars currently idle centrifuges from being put in operation; requires Iran to transform its stock of 20 percent enriched uranium (but a step from fuel that can be used to make a bomb) to far less threatening forms of fuel; halts a range of activities at the heavy water facility at Arak; opens nuclear facilities at Fordow and Natanz to intensive inspections; commits Iran to address concerns about the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program; and, finally, provides a six-month window to hammer out a final agreement. The sanctions relief Iran is given is limited and reversible; and the most punishing sanctions, on oil sales and banking transactions, remain in place.
            The narrative officials are presenting in Tehran stresses the positives for Iran in the agreement. Rouhani noted that Iran retains the right to enrich; the progress it has achieved is secure activity at its major nuclear sites at Natanz, Bandar Abbas, Arak, and Isfahan to continue; sanctions are beginning to be lifted. He said nothing of the concessions Iran has made, nor of the intrusive inspections regime to which Iran has agreed. This is as it should be. The agreement in Geneva was framed to allow each side to take something home.
            But the United States with its P5+1 partners has gained a great deal; and Iran knows that if it fails to comply with its undertakings, or if no final agreement is reached in six months, sanctions relief will be reversed and the current sanctions regime will be tightened. For the moment, the agreement Rouhani and Zarif brought home from Geneva is being applauded at home. A huge crowd, mostly composed of young people, greeted Zarif at the airport when he returned from Geneva. Some hardliners are arguing Iran could have achieved better terms in Geneva. But most have lauded the Iranian team’s efforts. 
            The real work for the Iranian team is ahead of them. They will need to retain the support of the country, parliament, the hardliners, and of the leader. So far, Khamenei, without whose endorsement the Geneva agreement would not have been possible, seems to be on board. In an exchange of letters with President Rouhani on the signing of the Geneva agreement, he thanked and praised the negotiating team and attributed “this success” to “God’s grace and the support of the people of Iran.” He of course also emphasized that “firmness in the face of over-reaching demands” must remain the guideline of Iran’s officials.
Haleh Esfandiari is director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of “Reconstructed Lives: Women and Iran’s Islamic Revolution” and My Prison, My Home: One Woman’s Story of Captivity in Iran.”

Read Haleh Esfandiari's chapter on Iran's women's movement in “The Iran Primer” 


Photo credit: U.S. State Department

US Polls on Iran Nuclear Deal

            Nearly two-thirds of Americans support an agreement with Iran that would lift sanctions in return for Tehran restricting its nuclear program, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. Some 72 percent of Democrats surveyed support such a deal compared with 57 percent of Republicans. But only 36 percent of all participants are confident that such a deal would prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons. The poll was conducted between November 14 and 17 on the eve of new talks between Iran and the world’s six major powers.
            A CNN/ORC International poll also found that 56 percent of Americans support an interim deal. The results also indicated a partisan divide, with about two-thirds of Democrats supporting a deal. Only about 45 percent of Republicans were in favor of one. The following are excerpts from both surveys. 

The Washington Post/ABC News

Question: Thinking now about the situation with Iran, would you support or oppose an agreement in which the United States and other countries would lift some of their economic sanctions against Iran, in exchange for Iran restricting its nuclear program in a way that makes it harder for it to produce nuclear weapons?
Participants by Political Party
Question: How confident are you that such an agreement would prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons - very confident, somewhat confident, not so confident or not confident at all?

All participants
This Washington Post-ABC News poll was conducted by telephone among a random national sample of 1,006 adults. Click here for more detailed results.
CNN/ORC International
Nov. 18-20, 2013
            As you may know, the U.S. and other countries have imposed strict economic sanctions against Iran while that country has nuclear facilities which could eventually allow it to produce its own nuclear weapons. Would you favor or oppose an interim deal that would ease some of those economic sanctions and in exchange require Iran to accept major restrictions on its nuclear program but not end it completely and submit to greater international inspection of its nuclear facilities?

Favor: 56%
Oppose: 39%
No opinion: 5%
Click here for more detailed results

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