United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

US Calls for Release of Iran Opposition Leaders

       On February 14, the U.S. State Department urged Iran’s government to release of former presidential candidates and Green Movement opposition leaders. Mir Hossein Mousavi (left) and Mehdi Karroubi (right) —a former prime minister and former speaker of parliament—remain under house arrest for their leadership of the Green Movement after the disputed 2009 election. The following is a statement by State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf.

Three Year Anniversary of the House Arrests of Iranian Opposition Leaders

             Three years ago today, the Iranian Government put former presidential candidates and opposition leaders Mehdi Karroubi, Mir Hossein Mousavi, and his wife, women’s rights advocate Zahra Rahnavard, under house arrest without formally charging them with any crimes.  We join the international community in condemning their continued imprisonment and the harassment of their family members, and in calling for their immediate release. 
            Iran’s constitution, its laws, and its international obligations guarantee its citizens minimum fair trial guarantees and provide that no one shall be subject to arbitrary arrest or detention.  The United States will continue to urge the Iranian Government to respect these obligations, and we renew our call for Iran to release all prisoners of conscience in its custody. 

Report: Understanding Iran’s New Leadership

            President Hassan Rouhani’s election has provided an opening for improved relations between Tehran and the West, according to a new report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Cornelius Alexander argues that Iran’s new, more conciliatory approach to solving the nuclear dispute, is “more than just talk, but the West will have to carefully calibrate its response to determine whether Rouhani’s changed rhetoric signals the beginning of a new direction for Iran.” The following are excerpts from the report.

The President’s Limited Powers
            At the domestic level, Rouhani quickly felt the limits to the powers his new office would wield, especially given his dependence on the supreme leader. While his mandate may be strong, [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei’s institutional grip on the presidency is stronger. This became clear with Rouhani’s selection of his ministerial cabinet, for which he accommodated the supreme leader’s express wish request that he withdraw the nomination of three individuals who had served as ministers under former president Khatami.60 Once sworn in as president, even his Khamenei-sanctioned list of ministers proved problematic for the conservative dominated parliament, which approved of only fifteen out of eighteen candidates.Parliament accused the three it did not confirm of being too close to the
“sedition” of the Green Movement.
            But Rouhani did successfully exercise his power on one critical issue—changing the composition of the nuclear negotiation team and shifting the responsibility for nuclear talks from the Supreme National Security Council to the Foreign Ministry. Now Mohammad Javad Zarif, former Iranian ambassador to the UN and Rouhani’s foreign minister, leads the negotiations. He stresses that there has been a shift in Iran’s approach by promoting “engagement” with other countries, first and foremost the international negotiation partners. At the same time, Zarif cautions that this reconsideration of Iran’s methods for enacting foreign policy “doesn’t mean a change in principles.”
            As Rouhani faces power struggles with the supreme leader, parliament, and the Revolutionary Guards, his position as a long-standing regime insider commanding influential networks will work to his advantage. He has held powerful positions in nearly all branches of government throughout his career, including as a high-ranking commander during the Iran-Iraq War, a longtime secretary of Iran’s national security council, and the country’s first chief nuclear negotiator. In addition, he has long been a member of both the Assembly of Experts—which elects the supreme leader for life and, theoretically, supervises his conduct in office—and the powerful Expediency Council.
            Rouhani also has at least conditional backing from the supreme leader to conclude the nuclear negotiations with a view to a deal that would give Iran some economic breathing room. Prior to Rouhani’s trip to speak at the September 2013 UN General Assembly in New York, Khamenei announced that he was “not opposed to correct diplomacy” and that he believed in “heroic flexibility,” a statement many interpreted to mean that he would be amenable to a negotiated compromise.63 This interpretation is consistent with the mixed reaction the president received upon his return from New York, with Khamenei explicitly expressing his support for Rouhani’s diplomatic efforts while cautioning that some of what occurred on the New York trip was “not appropriate”—widely understood as a reference to a phone conversation between Rouhani and Obama.
A Familiar Ideological Approach
            Since internal power relations are unlikely to change, the question of whether the seemingly “moderate” Rouhani stands for ideological change becomes pertinent. There is significant debate on this point, with some referring to his campaign promises of a government of “prudence and hope,” focused on economic revival and engagement with the world, and others pointing to the unwavering assertiveness of Khamenei’s regime.
With Rouhani’s election, a trained Shia cleric rather than a populist politician again holds the presidency. This means that his religious credentials align with those of the existing regime and that he adheres to the principles guiding the inner circles of the regime. Along these lines, a recent study portrays Rouhani as an “ideologue and defender of the Islamic Revolution” and an “abrasive intellectual.”
            So far, Rouhani’s rhetoric seems to indicate that he is embracing the regime’s ideological tenets and downplaying the more reformist promises from his campaign. Upon the confirmation of his presidency by the supreme leader, one day prior to his official inauguration by the parliament, Rouhani pledged to “take fundamental steps in elevating Iran’s position based on national interest and lifting of the oppressive sanctions.” In a speech following his public inauguration, he combined two themes from his campaign into a very general and ideology-free promise, saying that “moderation and tolerance . . . is the shared aspiration of all” and pledging to “safeguard the great achievements of the Islamic revolution . . . [and] address the concerns of the country and the shortcomings and the limited opportunities the people are suffering in the current situation.”
            Rouhani’s presidency has also seen evidence of the regime’s principled pragmatism and its focus on expediency. One example is the supreme leader’s credo of heroic flexibility, which was understood—in Iran as much as in the West—as an attempt by Khamenei to prepare the Iranian public for a compromise and signal to the international community that Rouhani should negotiate a settlement with his blessing. The supreme leader introduced this phrase, which before long was widely disseminated, during an address to a meeting of Revolutionary Guards commanders—that is, to the core of those hardliners that would have to be convinced of the virtues of an international understanding that would put at least some restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program and could signal the beginning of some kind of rapprochement with the United States.
            In introducing the concept of heroic flexibility, Khamenei used a metaphor of a wrestler who shows flexibility but does not forget who his opponent is. In doing so, he made it clear that this shift in policy was tactical in nature—the strategies may change, but the end goal would remain the same. As a senior adviser to Rouhani elaborated, heroic flexibility “does not mean retreating against the enemy but rather achieving the system’s interest by relying on principles and values.” This assessment echoes that of a hardline member of parliament who appears on the EU’s sanctions list: “Heroic flexibility,” Mohammad Saleh Jokar argued, “will never lead to surrender and compromise. Heroic flexibility means insisting upon principles and resistance in the path of defending the given rights of the Iranian nation.”
            Nor did the new, more flexible approach to diplomacy signal a substantial shift in the regime’s ideology, as was evident when the regime celebrated the anniversary of the November 4, 1979, seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. After Rouhani’s trip to New York, a domestic discussion had begun about the appropriateness of demonstrators shouting slogans such as “death to America” (marg bar amrika, also more mildly translated to “down with the United States”) in the midst of a potential thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations. Partly in response to the phone call between Rouhani and Obama, an article in the Iranian newspaper Asre Iran proposed replacing this chant with a more general call for “death to arrogance.” On the same day, former president Rafsanjani made a similar demand, invoking an argument allegedly made by Khomeini that public “death to” chants should be eliminated.
            The proposition to drop the familiar chant immediately met vigorous opposition from the security establishment around the Revolutionary Guards, but it has since received some careful support from people close to the supreme leader. After initially dismissing the idea, Khamenei’s representative in the Revolutionary Guards, Hojatoleslam Ali Saeedi, conceded that eliminating the“death to America” chant exemplifies the changing rather than fixed tactics the Islamic Republic uses to achieve its goals. He was quick to add, however, that “the change of tactics and methods can only take shape at the hands of the Supreme Leader of the time.”And even then, it would not mean an end to the anti-American sentiment that is so engrained in the Islamic Republic…
Accepting Established Norms
            On norms, Rouhani is very much in line with the general stance of the country toward international law—that is, he adopts a position of ambivalence. Nothing in his remarks or actions during his first one hundred days in office suggests that he would work against established international norms. However, several of his previous statements point to a manifest uneasiness with, if not outright disregard for, the rules of the world. Immediately after the overthrow of the shah, Rouhani called for an export of the Islamic Revolution even if this were to violate international law, saying it was “not important how the Westernized people judge” Iranians.
            In the early 1990s, at the height of the controversy around Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie, Rouhani made a dual argument about the edict calling for Rushdie’s death. He ascribed it merely to Khomeini in his capacity as a religious authority and not as the supreme leader and head of state. In this understanding, Iran was abiding by its obligations as a state according to international law because no government leader was calling for Rushdie’s execution, but Khomeini could still encourage individual actors to carry out the death sentence because he was speaking about a religious, not political, obligation. This display of “tacit external adherence, but internal opposition, to international law characterizes the Islamic Republic and Rouhani’s true commitment to its principles,” according to one expert.
            When Rouhani became Iran’s top nuclear negotiator in 2003, many in the
West—and especially in Europe—were hopeful that a preliminary deal could be concluded. This optimism proved well-founded, at least in the short term. With the Tehran Declaration of October 2003 and the Paris Agreement of November 2004, Iran opened its nuclear facilities to the IAEA and committed to voluntarily implement the provisions of an Additional Protocol to its IAEA Safeguards Agreement that would grant IAEA inspectors greater access to nuclear sites and require the state to issue a broader declaration of its nuclear activities. Rouhani also agreed to a voluntary suspension of Iran’s nuclear activities, for which he received international praise but was castigated at home. To build his defense—which he used extensively during his presidential campaign—in 2011 Rouhani published his memoirs as the head of the negotiation team, National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy.79 In an early sign of heroic flexibility, he claims he and his team tried to protect “the secrets of the country, and the honor and authority of the System . . . while at the same time building trust with the IAEA and various nations of the world”80—that is, giving away as little as possible while trying to make good on the country’s international obligations. Iran’s concessions of the time were thus acceptable to Rouhani only to the extent that they allowed the country to continue its nuclear program—for example, by completing installation work on the nuclear research facility in Isfahan or producing yellowcake uranium, a material used for weapons-grade enrichment—with much less international pressure.
            Rouhani was thus apparently in favor of furthering Iran’s nuclear program, a stance that raises the question of how he views the nuclear fatwa. There are very few instances in which he is on record speaking about this document. One is in an interview with the Tehran Bureau of PBS Frontline in which he recalls presenting the newly issued fatwa to the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and the UK in December 2004 in Tehran: “I told the three European ministers that they should know about two explicit guarantees from our side, one of which is the fatwa of the . . . [supreme leader]. He issued the fatwa and declared the production of nuclear weapons haram [forbidden]. This fatwa is more important to us than the NPT and its Additional Protocol, more important than any other law.” In the interview, Rouhani claims it was his own idea to bring up this issue during their conversation.
            Rouhani also appears to agree with the regime’s position on international norms regarding recognizing Israel, about which he has no inclination to mince his words. In an interview in 2001, he criticized the September 11, 2001, attacks as terrorist acts while claiming that anything Palestinians did against Israelis would be an act of self-defense: “Undoubtedly, if a country is invaded by an occupying force, and is fighting for the freedom of a land and country, then it is considered legitimate defense, even if it includes explosions, assassinations, and suicide operations.”
Shifts in Communication
            On one point, Rouhani has diverged significantly from the regime’s entrenched practices: there have been striking changes under the new president in Iran’s communication. For some, this is “only talk,” first and foremost for those who agree with the Israeli prime minister’s assessment of Rouhani as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” But communication is a political category of great importance. Talk without action still has significance simply because it matters how politicians talk to each other. Especially in this initial phase of new communication between Iran and the West, words can bear a symbolism that has political effect. Of course, if talk remains without actual backing for some time, it becomes empty.
Rouhani’s UN speech testified to the power words can have. Speaking a week before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Iranian president flatly refuted any notion of an “Iranian threat.” Instead, he declared that Iran “has been a harbinger of just peace and comprehensive security.” There was no Israeli official present at the speech to hear this, but there were plenty of journalists to report it. Western media jumped on the part of the speech in which Rouhani promised that Iran was “prepared to engage immediately in time-bound and result-oriented talks to build mutual confidence and removal of mutual uncertainties with full transparency.”
            While there were some new and hopeful words in this address, its tenor was a well-known one, steeped in praise for Iran and criticism of America. That said, there was also a follow-up in the form of a constructive first-ever P5+1 meeting with Iran at the level of foreign ministers—and hence the encounter between foreign ministers John Kerry of the United States and MohammadJavad Zarif of Iran, the highest level of bilateral contact between the two countries since the first year of the Islamic Revolution. In that sense, the speech can be seen as laying the groundwork for the meetings between the P5+1 and Iran that led to an interim agreement in late November 2013, less than two weeks after Rouhani formally concluded his first one hundred days in office.
            This new level of communication was facilitated by the fact that Rouhani has kept up lines of contact he established with his Western counterparts during his leadership of the Center for Strategic Research in Tehran, a think tank that conducts research for the Expediency Council on political and economic affairs. Through the center, Rouhani had access to both Iran’s intellectual elites and their international counterparts. So when EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton or European Parliament President Martin Schulz wrote letters to Rouhani to congratulate him on his inauguration, they were not addressing an unknown.
            It also helped that both Rouhani and Zarif, in addition to other members of Rouhani’s government, heavily engaged in the use of Twitter and Facebook even before assuming their offices. The simple fact that both politicians have accounts with these U.S.-based social media outlets and actively use them is meaningful. After only three months in office, the foreign minister had more than 550,000 likes on Facebook while the president’s English-language Twitter account had more than 120,000 followers. With countless tweets and retweets during his visit to New York, it is undeniable that Rouhani’s team knows about the power of social media.
            But in a country where access to international information and news on the
Internet is tightly controlled and social media sites have been generally blocked since they played a major role in organizing the 2009 revolt, Rouhani’s use of Twitter and Zarif’s activity on Facebook also send a mixed message. Here, too, it will be deeds that count—that is, the extent to which the Rouhani government lives up to its campaign promises to provide the citizens with free access to information. Hopes sparked briefly in mid-September when, in the week before the UN General Assembly, the banned social media sites were available throughout Iran—but only for a day, after which they were again blocked. Rather than a newfound freedom, this appears to have been a technical glitch or even a testing of the waters by elements within the establishment...
            On the international stage, Rouhani has made significant strides in improving Iran’s channels of communication. The United Kingdom and Iran have It is undeniable that Rouhani’s team knows about the power of social media. But in a country where access to international information and news on the Internet is tightly controlled and social media sites have been generally blocked, Rouhani’s use of Twitter and Zarif’s activity on Facebook also send a mixed message.


Click here for the full report.

Tags: Reports

IMF Report: Iran’s Economy Weak

            Government mismanagement, rampant inflation and international sanctions have taken a heavy toll on Iran’s economy, according to a new study by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Martin Cerisola, Assistant Director for the Middle East and Central Asia Department, visited Tehran from January 25 to February 8 to conduct organization’s first field-based research on Iran in nearly three years. “Inflation and unemployment are high, while the corporate and banking sectors show signs of weakness,” he said in a statement. Cerisola urged Tehran to advance “reforms to promote stability, investment, and productivity” to help with high unemployment and the low growth rate. The economy actually shrunk in 2013. Cerisola noted that the Hassan Rouhani’s administration has “begun the preparatory work” for reform.

            The IMF’s findings contrasted with the upbeat tone Tehran has taken since the interim nuclear agreement was brokered in November 2013. Officials have been optimistic about prospects for economic improvements and the eventual lifting of sanctions. But Cerisola warned that those prospects “still remain highly uncertain.” The following are excerpts from his statement. A more comprehensive study is slated for release in late March 2014.
Statement at the Conclusion of the 2014 Article IV Consultation Mission to the Islamic Republic of Iran
            “Large shocks and weak macroeconomic management over the past several years have had a significant impact on macroeconomic stability and growth. A combination of shocks, associated with the implementation of the first phase of the subsidy reform, ambitious social-programs inadequately funded, and a marked deterioration in the external environment stemming from the intensification of trade and financial sanctions, have weakened the economy. Inflation and unemployment are high, while the corporate and banking sectors show signs of weakness. These shocks have exposed structural weaknesses in the economy and in the policy framework.
            “Iran now stands at a crossroad. With risks that the economy could continue to face a low-growth and high-inflation environment ahead, there is a need to begin advancing reforms to promote stability, investment, and productivity. The new authorities should embark on a prompt and vigorous implementation of fundamental reforms to the frameworks supporting product, labor, and credit markets. These reforms would lay the basis for sustained high growth and lower unemployment, especially if the external environment continues to improve. The new authorities are well aware of these challenges and the need to advance reforms, and have begun the preparatory work in many of these areas.
            “The pace of contraction in economic activity is slowing. The economy has continued to shrink in the first half of 2013/14 (the Iranian calendar and fiscal years run from March 21 to March 20), and staff expects further but diminishing contraction in the second half, with real gross domestic product (GDP) declining by 1-2 percent in 2013/14. Twelve-month inflation has dropped rapidly, from about 45 percent in July 2013 to below 30 percent in December 2013. This drop reflects tighter CBI credit, the appreciation of the Rial, and global disinflation in some key staples. Inflation could end at 20-25 percent by end-2013/14.
            “Prospects for 2014/15 have improved with the interim P5+1 agreement but still remain highly uncertain. Under the current external environment, staff projects economic activity to begin to stabilize in 2014/15, with real GDP growing by 1-2 percent in 2014/15. Inflation would potentially decline to 15-20 percent, excluding the impact of planned higher domestic energy prices.
            “Comprehensive reforms are needed to address many complex challenges:


The Policies for Dealing with Stagflation
            A three-pronged strategy to arrest stagflation should be centered on: i) tightening monetary policy; ii) balanced fiscal consolidation; and iii) advancing supply-side reforms (see below).
•Tighter monetary policy will help entrench disinflation. Staff analysis suggests that the output costs of disinflation in Iran could be low. While some of the recent deceleration in inflation may be temporary, the steps taken by the CBI to remove the financing of the Mehr Housing program from its balance sheet bode well for controlling liquidity and stabilizing inflation in the future. It would be important to begin increasing profit rates gradually to firmly anchor expectations and contain second-round effects from the planned increases in domestic energy prices.
•Containing the general government fiscal deficit at around 2-3 percent of GDP should help balance the support for disinflation and the economy. The 2014/15 draft budget continues with the government’s decision to consolidate fiscal policy in light of the sharp decline in oil revenues. Staff welcomes the proposed measures to begin broadening the revenue base away from oil, most notably, the decision to bring forward and increase the scheduled value added tax (VAT) rate, as well as the reforms to strengthen tax administration, including the reform of tax exemptions for large non-taxpayers. Staff sees scope to further increase the VAT rate in the years ahead, as well as to introduce a capital gains tax on specific activities that have experienced large gains. These measures would help to improve the quality of the fiscal adjustment and help lay the ground for a sustainable fiscal policy ahead.
•With the economy vulnerable at this juncture, the timing of advancing the subsidy reform should be carefully assessed. Increasing domestic energy prices is an important step to continue with the much needed reform to reduce energy consumption, improve the efficiency of the economy, and help close an estimated cash deficit of the Targeted Subsidy Organization of about 1 percent of GDP. The authorities’ intention to adjust prices gradually is prudent given stagflation risks but, as the experience of the first phase showed, external shocks could significantly undermine the hard-won stability of the currency and the envisaged relative price adjustment. In addition, the reforms needed to tighten budget constraints in the corporate sector are difficult and have yet to be well-established, notwithstanding the envisaged support to specific sectors. Without these conditions, there are risks to sustaining consistent macroeconomic policies through such relative price change.
Strengthening the Policy Framework for Macroeconomic Stability
•Monetary policy needs to place greater emphasis on price stability. For this, the CBI’s mandate needs to be simplified and refocused toward price stability. The CBI also needs to be granted with the operational ability to target base money consistently, by being able to set profit rates at levels that allow its limited instruments to be used effectively to respond to macroeconomic conditions. It is essential to bring the institutional decision-making setup at the Monetary and Credit Council in line with those of countries that have successfully resolved chronic inflation…
•The intention to unify the foreign exchange market as external conditions normalize is welcome. In the transition, the authorities should continue to manage the exchange rate flexibly in light of external risks and still high inflation, which is eroding competitiveness. The assessment of the official exchange rate is subject to an unusual degree of uncertainty due to the external environment and prospects. In current circumstances, the official exchange rate would be moderately overvalued, with the parallel market rate closer to equilibrium.
Reforms to Promote Financial Stability, Jobs, and Growth
•The state of the banking system and the regulatory-supervisory framework. Staff noted an overall satisfaction among market participants with the direction the CBI is imparting to financial sector policies. Nonetheless, staff sees an urgent need to strengthen the CBI’s supervisory powers and enforcement capacity, as well as the legal protection of its staff. Staff welcomes the CBI’s initial steps toward a risk-based approach to supervision. Staff shares the view of some market participants about the scope for leveling the field of competition in the system through further privatization and reforms to government-mandated credit policies. Current proposals to deal with nonperforming loans and recapitalize public banks need to be better specified and should be supported by concrete restructuring plans and reforms to enhance their risk management and accountability. In terms of crisis preparedness, it would be important to strengthen the bank resolution framework and putting the deposit guarantee fund on a sustainable financial footing. Staff held discussions on the Anti-Money Laundering/Combating the Financing of Terrorism framework.
•Reforms to improve the business environment and foster employment are complementary. Discussions with representatives from different economic sectors suggest the need to enhance the enforcement of the rule of law and property rights, maintain policy and macroeconomic stability, and enhance the transparency of policy making. Facing large potential entrants into the labor force in the years ahead, reforms are needed to facilitate the reallocation of labor across sectors and lower nonwage labor costs. A review of labor regulations that ease the rigidity of contracts and costs of labor could help to significantly absorb discouraged and informal workers and facilitate youth employment.
Click here for the full statement by Martin Cerisola.

Members of Congress Support Iran Diplomacy

            More than 100 members of the U.S. House of Representatives have signed a bipartisan letter supporting diplomacy with Iran on its controversial nuclear program. They sent the letter to President Barack Obama just days before negotiations on a final deal are set to begin in Vienna. Representative David Price (D-NC) said, “I believe that we must take advantage of the opportunity before us to pursue a peaceful, diplomatic resolution to Iran’s nuclear program, and that we must resist calls by some in Congress to prematurely enact a bill or resolution that risks inadvertently derailing or impeding our ongoing negotiations.” The following is the full text of the letter and the list of signers.

Dear Mr. President,
As Members of Congress—and as Americans—we are united in our unequivocal commitment to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The proliferation of nuclear weapons in the
Middle East would threaten the security of the United States and our allies in the region,
particularly Israel.
The ongoing implementation of the Joint Plan of Action agreed to by Iran and the “P5+1”
nations last November increases the possibility of a comprehensive and verifiable international agreement. We understand that there is no assurance of success and that, if talks break down or Iran reneges on pledges it made in the interim agreement, Congress may be compelled to act as it has in the past by enacting additional sanctions legislation. At present, however, we believe that Congress must give diplomacy a chance. A bill or resolution that risks fracturing our international coalition or, worse yet, undermining our credibility in future negotiations and jeopardizing hard-won progress toward a verifiable final agreement, must be avoided.
We remain wary of the Iranian regime. But we believe that robust diplomacy remains our best
possible strategic option, and we commend you and your designees for the developments in
Geneva. Should negotiations fail or falter, nothing precludes a change in strategy. But we must not imperil the possibility of a diplomatic success before we even have a chance to pursue it.
1 Bass
2 Beatty
3 Bishop, Sanford
4 Blumenauer
5 Bordallo
6 Brown
7 Butterfield, GK
8 Capps
9 Capuano
10 Carson
11 Cartwright
12 Christensen
13 Clarke, Yvette
14 Clay
15 Cleaver
16 Clyburn
17 Cohen
18 Connolly
19 Conyers
20 Cooper
21 Courtney
22 Cummings
23 Davis, Danny
24 DeFazio
25 DeGette
26 DeLauro 27 Dingell
28 Doggett
29 Duncan Jr (R)
30 Edwards
31 Ellison
32 Enyart
33 Eshoo
34 Farr
35 Foster
36 Fudge, Marcia
37 Garamendi
38 Grijalva
39 Gutierrez
40 Hanna (R)
41 Holt
42 Huffman
43 Jackson-Lee
44 Johnson, EB
45 Johnson, Hank
46 Jones, Walter (R)
47 Kaptur
48 Keating
49 Kelly, Robin
50 Kildee
51 Kuster
52 Larson
53 Lee, Barbara
54 Lewis
55 Loebsack
56 Lofgren
57 Lynch
58 Matheson
59 Massie (R)
60 McCarthy
61 McCollum
62 McDermott
63 McGovern
64 McNerney, Jerry
65 Meeks
66 Miller, George 67 Moore
68 Moran, Jim
69 Negrete McLeod
70 Nolan
71 Norton
72 O'Rourke
73 Pastor
74 Payne
75 Pierluisi
76 Pingree
77 Pocan
78 Polis
79 Price, David
80 Rahall
81 Rangel
82 Roybal-Allard
83 Ruppersberger
84 Rush
85 Ryan, Tim
86 Sablan
87 Schakowsky
88 Scott, Bobby
89 Shea-Porter
90 Slaughter
91 Speier
92 Takano
93 Thompson, Bennie
94 Thompson, Mike
95 Tierney
96 Tonko
97 Tsongas
98 Van Hollen
99 Velazquez
100 Visclosky
101 Walz
102 Waters
103 Welch
104 Yarmuth

A Final Nuclear Deal: Getting from Here to There with Iran

Joe Cirincione

      The stakes could not be higher—or the issues tougher—as the world’s six major powers and Iran launch talks February 18 on final resolution of the Iranian nuclear crisis.
      The goal “is to reach a mutually-agreed long-term comprehensive solution that would ensure Iran’s nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful,” says the temporary Joint Plan of Action, which calls for six months of negotiations. If talks fail, the prospects of military action—and potentially another Middle East conflict—soar.
            Six issues are pivotal to an accord. The terms on each must be accepted by all parties—Iran on one side and Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States on the other—or there is no deal. The Joint Plan notes, “This comprehensive solution would constitute an integrated whole where nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”
1. Limiting Uranium Enrichment
            Iran’s ability to enrich uranium is at the heart of the international controversy. The process can fuel both peaceful nuclear energy and the world’s deadliest weapon. Since 2002, Iran’s has gradually built an independent capability to enrich uranium, which it claims is only for medical research and to fuel an energy program. But the outside world has long been suspicious of Tehran’s intentions because its program exceeds its current needs. Iran’s only nuclear reactor for energy, in the port city of Bushehr, is fueled by the Russian contractor that built it.
      Centrifuges are the key to enriching uranium. In 2003, Iran had fewer than 200 centrifuges. In 2014, it has approximately 19,000. About 10,000 are now enriching uranium; the rest are installed but not operating. To fuel a nuclear power reactor, centrifuges are used to increase the ratio of the isotope U-235 in natural uranium from less than one percent to between three and five percent. But the same centrifuges can also spin uranium gas to 90 percent purity, the level required for a bomb.
            Experts differ on how many centrifuges Iran should be allowed to operate. Zero is optimal, but Iran almost certainly will not agree to eliminate totally a program costing billions of dollars over more than a decade. Iranian officials fear the outside world wants Tehran to be dependent on foreign sources of enriched uranium, which could then be used as leverage on Iran—under threat of cutting off its medical research and future nuclear energy independence.
            Most experts say somewhere between 4,000 and 9,000 operating centrifuges would allow many months of warning time if Iran started to enrich uranium to bomb-grade levels. The fewer centrifuges, the longer Iran would need to “break out” from fuel production to weapons production.
            So the basic issues are: Can the world’s major powers convince Iran to disable or even dismantle some of the operating centrifuges?  If so, how low will Iran agree to go? And will Iran agree to cut back enrichment to only one site, which would mean closing the underground facility at Fordow?
            A deal may generally have to include:
      •reducing the number of Iran’s centrifuges,
      •limiting uranium enrichment to no more than five percent.  
      •capping centrifuge capabilities at current levels.
            In short, as George Shultz and Henry Kissinger say, a deal must “define a level of Iranian nuclear capacity limited to plausible civilian uses and to achieve safeguards to ensure that this level is not exceeded.”
2. Preventing a Plutonium Path
      Iran’s heavy water reactor in Arak, which is unfinished, is another big issue. Construction of this small research reactor began in the 1990s; the stated goal was producing medical isotopes and up to 40 megawatts of thermal power for civilian use. But the “reactor design appears much better suited for producing bomb-grade plutonium than for civilian uses,” warned former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Los Alamos Laboratory Director Siegfried Hecker.
            For years, Iranian officials allowed weapons inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear watchdog, intermittent access to Arak. Inspectors have been granted more access since the Joint Plan of Action went into effect on January 20. But satellite imagery can no longer monitor site activity due to completion of the facility’s outer structure.
            The reactor will be capable of annually producing nine kilograms of plutonium, which is enough material to produce one or two nuclear weapons. However, the reactor is at least a year away from operating, and then it would need to run for 12 to 18 months to generate that much plutonium. Iran also does not have a facility to reprocess the spent fuel to extract the plutonium. In early February, Iranian officials announced they would be willing to modify the design plans of the reactor to allay Western concerns, although they provided no details. 
3. Verification
            The temporary Joint Plan allows more extensive and intrusive inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities. U.N. inspectors now have daily access to Iran’s primary enrichment facilities at the Natanz and Fordow plants, the Arak heavy water reactor, and the centrifuge assembly facilities. Inspectors are now also allowed into Iran’s uranium mines.
            Over the next six months, negotiations will have to define a reliable long-term inspection system to verify that Iran’s nuclear program is used only for peaceful purposes. A final deal will have to further expand inspections to new sites. The most sensitive issue may be access to sites suspected of holding evidence of Iran’s past efforts to build an atomic bomb. The IAEA suspects, for example, that Iran tested explosive components needed for a nuclear bomb at Parchin military base.
      Iran may be forthcoming on inspections. Its officials have long held that transparency—rather than reduction of capabilities—is the key to assuring the world that its program is peaceful. They have indicated a willingness to implement stricter inspections required under the IAEA’s Additional Protocol—and maybe even go beyond it. But they are also likely to want more inspections matched by substantial sanctions relief and fewer cutbacks on the numbers of centrifuges in operation. At least four of the six major powers—the United States, Britain, France and Germany—will almost certainly demand both increased inspections and fewer, less capable centrifuges.
4. Clarifying the Past  
            The issue is not just Iran’s current program and future potential. Several troubling questions from the past must also be answered. The temporary deal created a Joint Commission to work with the IAEA on past issues, including suspected research on nuclear weapon technologies. Iran denies that it ever worked on nuclear weapons, but the circumstantial evidence about past Iranian experiments is quite strong.
            Among the issues:
      •research on polonium-210, which can be used as a neutron trigger for a nuclear bomb,
      •research on a missile re-entry vehicle, which could be used to deliver a nuclear weapon, and
      •suspected high-explosives testing, which could be used to compress a bomb core to critical mass.
      Iran may be reluctant to come clean unless it is guaranteed amnesty for past transgressions—and can find a way to square them with its many vigorous denials. And any suspicions that Iran is lying will undermine even rigorous new inspections that verify Iran's technology is now being used solely for civilian purposes.
      On February 8, in a potential breakthrough, the IAEA and Iran agreed on specific actions that Iran would take to provide information and explanations of its past activities. “Resolution of these issues will allow the agency to verify the completeness and correctness of Iran’s nuclear activities,” says Kelsey Davenport of the Arms Control Association, “and help ensure that Tehran is not engaged in undeclared activities.”   Resolving all past issues before a final agreement may prove difficult, however. Negotiations may instead produce a process for eventual resolution.
5. Sanctions Relief
            Iran’s primary goal is to get access to some $100 billion in funds frozen in foreign banks and to end the many sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy. Since the toughest U.S. sanctions were imposed in mid-2012, Iran’s currency and oil exports have both plummeted by some 60 percent.
            The temporary Joint Plan of Action says a final agreement will “comprehensively lift UN Security Council, multilateral and national nuclear-related sanctions…on a schedule to be agreed upon.” (It does not, however, address sanctions imposed on other issues, such as support for extremist groups or human rights abuses.) The United States and the Europeans may want to keep some sanctions in place until they are assured that Iran is meeting new obligations.
      The specter of the U.S. Congress will overshadow negotiations. Its approval will be required to remove the most onerous sanctions over the past five years. “The U.S. Congress will have to allow meaningful sanctions relief to Iran, just as Iran’s hard-liners are going to have to be convinced not to stand on principle when it comes to their ‘right’ to enrich and their demand to have all sanctions lifted,” says Brookings Institution scholar Ken Pollack, “The U.S. Congress is going to have to agree to allow Iran’s economy to revive and Tehran’s hard-liners are going to have to be satisfied with the revival of their economy and some very limited enrichment activity.”
6. The Long and Winding Road
            The final but critical issue is timing: How long is a long-term deal? It will clearly require years to prove Iran is fully compliant. But estimates vary widely from five to 20 years. Another alternative is a series of shorter agreements that build incrementally on one another.
            For all the big issues ahead, both sides have an interest in negotiating a deal. The world’s six major powers want to curtail more of Iran’s program, while Iran wants to revive its economy and normalize its international relations. If the negotiators succeed, they will make history. Their failure could open the path to a nuclear-armed Iran or a new war in the Middle East – or both.

Joseph Cirincione is president of Ploughshares Fund and author of Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World before It Is Too Late


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Photo credits: U.S. State Department, NuclearEnergy.ir, Amano and Zarif by Mueller / MSC [CC-BY-3.0-de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons


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