United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Rouhani and Zarif Wish Jews Happy New Year

            On September 4, President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif used Twitter to wish a happy new year to the world’s Jews. “As the sun is about to set here in #Tehran I wish all Jews, especially Iranian Jews, a blessed Rosh Hashanah,” tweeted Rouhani. Iran is home to some 25,000 Jews—the second largest population in the Middle East outside of Israel. “Happy Rosh Hashanah,” wrote Zarif. In ensuing Twitter conversations about the messages, both the president and foreign minister seemed to distance themselves from former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial.

            Zarif’s Rosh Hashanah message was only his second tweet on his account, opened on September 2. The tweet sparked a revealing exchange with Christine Pelosi, daughter of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.  She tweeted that the new year would be “even sweeter” if Zarif would “end Iran’s Holocaust denial.” Zarif, known for a dry sense of humor, tweeted back, “Iran never denied it. The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone. Happy New Year.” Zarif later confirmed to The Iran Primer that he knew that he was communicating with Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi’s daughter. President Rouhani’s account retweeted Zarif’s reply to Pelosi.

            Iran’s Tasnim News Agency then asked the foreign minister about his statements on the Holocaust. Iranians condemn the “killing of Jews by Nazis, as we condemn the killing of Palestinians by the Zionists,” Zarif said. “Judaism is a divine religion that we respect in accordance with the teachings of our religion and our country’s constitution.” He added that Iran’s “Jewish compatriots are a recognized minority” and that they have a representative in parliament. “Jews aren’t our enemies,” Zarif clarified. He also claimed that “Zionists are a minority” among them. “The Zionists for 60 years used the Holocaust as a pretext for all the crimes against the Palestinians,” Zarif told Tasnim. Zarif posted the interview text on his Facebook account.
            Zarif and Rouhani’s tweets contrasted starkly with the tone of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who repeatedly challenged Israel’s right to exist between 2005 and 2013. “We say that this fake regime [Israel] cannot logically continue to live,” Ahmadinejad said at the 2005 World Without Zionism conference in Tehran. “Open the doors (of Europe) and let the Jews go back to their own countries.”  



US Expands Sanctions, EU Court Voids Others

            On September 6, Iran faced new sanctions imposed by the United States as the top European court mandated the lifting of sanctions on key Iranian banks and business.
The European Court of Justice criticized the European Union for relying on alleged insufficient or inconclusive evidence linking seven banks and companies to Iran’s nuclear program. E.U. officials were given two months to appeal the ruling before trade and financial restrictions are lifted. The companies in question included the state-owned Iran Insurance Company and Post Bank. Private companies included the Iranian Offshore Engineering & Construction Company, the U.K-based Persian International Bank PLC and Dubai-based Good Luck Shipping Company.
            The U.S. Treasury meanwhile targeted six Iranians and four businesses that allegedly helped Tehran evade oil sanctions. “Our sanctions on Iran's oil sales are a critically important component of maintaining pressure on the Iranian government, and we will not allow Iran to relieve that pressure through evasion and circumvention," said Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen. The U.S. Treasury targeted representatives of the National Iranian Oil Company and the Naftiran Intertrade Company based in the United Kingdom and Switzerland. One of the individuals, Seyed Seyyedi, ran a network of front companies in the United Arab Emirates. One company helped to secretly purchase oil tankers for the National Iranian Tanker Company. The following are excerpts from the U.S. Treasury press release.

            Seyed Seyyedi was identified pursuant to E.O. 13599 today for acting on behalf of various Government of Iran entities and front companies, including NIOC, NICO, as well as Sima General Trading. Treasury previously identified Sima General Trading as part of a network of Iranian government front companies in March 2013 for its role in the sanctions evasion scheme being carried out by the Greek businessman, Dimitris Cambis. Seyyedi's Sima General Trading helped finance a Cambis front company to purchase oil tankers while disguising the fact that the tankers were being purchased on behalf of the National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC). Cambis' front companies were used to deceive the international business community by obscuring the Iranian ownership of ships capable of carrying roughly 200 million U.S. dollars worth of oil per shipment. Treasury is also identifying the U.A.E. -based KASB International LLC, Petro Royal FZE, and AA Energy FZCO, each of which is controlled by Seyyedi and used by him to assist NICO and NICO front companies, such as Sima General Trading, in its sanctions evasion schemes.
            In addition to Seyed Seyyedi, Treasury is also identifying several other persons and entities for their links to the Government of Iran's operations to evade oil sanctions.
            Swiss Management Services Sarl is a Swiss company controlled by NICO Sarl and used by NICO to continue its operations on behalf of Iran following multiple U.S. sanctions actions targeting NICO and NICO Sarl. Mohmmad Moinie is Switzerland-based NICO Sarl's commercial director.
            Reza Parsaei is a director for NIOC International Affairs (London) Ltd. which was identified as an entity of the Government of Iran in July 2010. Parsaei has involved himself in a scheme to deceptively import Iranian oil into the EU. Parsaei also coordinates closely with another director for NIOC International Affairs (London) Ltd., Seyyed Mohamad Ali Khatibi Tabatabaei.
            Seyed Mohaddes and Mohammed Ziracchian Zadeh act as directors for the Iranian Oil Company (U.K.) Ltd., which was also identified as an entity of the Government of Iran in July 2010.
            Each of the individuals and companies sanctioned today were identified under E.O. 13599, which blocks the property of the Government of Iran, including those of individuals and entities identified as acting for or on behalf of the Government of Iran. Transactions by U.S. persons or through the United States with any of these entities are generally prohibited, and any assets they may have under U.S. jurisdiction are blocked. Further, foreign persons and financial institutions that facilitate transactions for such persons or provide them with material support may also be exposed to sanctions.

US Renews Sanctions Waivers for 11 Nations

            On September 6, the United States extended Iran sanctions waivers to Japan and 10 E.U. countries for significantly reducing their crude oil purchases from Tehran. Japan’s imports of Iranian oil in June 2013 were down 38.1 percent compared to a year earlier. Washington had already extended the waivers three other times for the 11 countries. They can be renewed again after six months. In June 2013, the United States renewed waivers for nine other countries including China, India and South Korea —three of Iran’s biggest oil buyers. The State Department is scheduled to decide whether to extend those waivers in December 2013. The following is the full text of Secretary of State John Kerry’s press statement.

            The United States and the international community remain committed to maintaining pressure on the Iranian Government until it fully addresses concerns about its nuclear program. That is why today I am pleased to announce that, based on additional significant reductions in the volume of its crude oil purchases from Iran, Japan has again qualified for an exception to sanctions outlined in Section 1245 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2012. 
            Additionally, 10 European Union countries – Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and the United Kingdom – have also qualified for a renewal of the NDAA exception because they have not purchased Iranian oil since July 1, 2012, pursuant to a decision made by the whole of the European Union in January 2012.  As a result, I will report to the Congress that exceptions to sanctions pursuant to Section 1245 of the NDAA for certain transactions will apply to the financial institutions based in these countries for a potentially renewable period of 180 days.
            Today’s determination is another example of the international community’s commitment to convince Iran to meet its international obligations.  A total of 20 countries and economies have continued to significantly reduce the volume of their crude oil purchases from Iran.  We have brought significant pressure to bear on the Iranian Government, and we will continue to work with our partners to ratchet up the pressure on Iran to meet its international obligations.

Report: Iran’s Strategy in Afghanistan

            Iran is set to play a major role in Afghanistan after the 2014 pullout of U.S. combat troops, according to a new report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. On August 5, 2013 — President Hassan Rouhani’s first day in office —Tehran signed strategic cooperation agreement with Kabul on economic, security and intelligence issues. So Afghanistan is now committed to cooperate with both Iran and the United States on security issues. But Tehran and Washington actually have common interests on Afghanistan. Neither country “wants to a recurrence of civil war—both prefer the emergence of a security landscape that promotes state building in Afghanistan’s nascent democracy,” argues the report. The following are excerpts with a link to the full text.  

            The signing of a strategic cooperation agreement with Afghanistan on security, intelligence and economic matters on Rouhani’s first day in office indicates that the Iranian Government has a strong desire to improve relations with its eastern neighbour and is eager to initiate security measures that could balance the USA’s influence in Afghanistan after 2014.
            This agreement includes cooperation in military training and measures to counter insurgency and organized crime, assistance with military operations, intelligence sharing on counter-insurgency matters, the expansion of trade and commerce, and the facilitation of tourism. It also states that the national security offices of both signatories will engage via trilateral mechanisms with the national security offices of India and Russia.
            The strategic cooperation agreement is significant insofar as Afghanistan has now agreed to cooperate with Iran as well as with the USA and other ISAF members on several security matters, including the conduct of joint military exercises.
            This signals to the USA that the Iranian Government wants to be recognized as a major regional actor in Afghanistan after 2014 and is prepared to help with the training of the ANSF after transition, albeit perhaps symbolically as it well understands that the bulk of training will require support from Western countries. The agreement to cooperate on security matters with India and Russia but not with Pakistan indicates the signatories’ perception of Pakistan as a threat to regional security.
Iran’s post-transition strategy in Afghanistan
Iran’s post-transition strategy will continue to be driven by its relations with the
USA and will be influenced by five factors:
(a) the likelihood of the USA’s maintenance of a significantly reduced but nevertheless sizeable troop presence in Afghanistan;
(b) an active insurgency continuing to threaten the fledging
Afghan democracy and generating instability near the Iranian border;
(c) the possible reintegration of the Taliban into Afghanistan’s political framework
through peace talks;
(d) the flourishing drug industry; and
(e) the continuation of Iran’s civilian nuclear programme and the likelihood of ongoing sanctions.
Relations between Iran and the United States
            Neither the USA nor Iran wants to see a recurrence of civil war—both prefer the emergence of a security landscape that promotes state building in Afghanistan’s nascent democracy. Nevertheless, Iran’s policy on Afghanistan will continue to be driven by its relations with the USA. The as-yet-undecided future international military presence in Afghanistan, along with the possibility that reconciliation could culminate in the Taliban’s return in some political form, could confront Iran with a scenario in which two of its main enemies play a strong role in Afghanistan after 2014. The presence of US bases, no matter how small, will remain a point of contention, and Iran will continue to demand exact details of military installations.
           Hence, Iran will continue to view any US efforts with suspicion and will advocate for the complete withdrawal of foreign troops and the closure of any US military bases, while tacitly acknowledging that the ongoing training and development of the ANSF into an effective force will be necessary to effectively oppose armed insurgents and stabilize the country. At the same time, any continuing US presence in Afghanistan could provide more hard-line Iranian officials with an opportunity to maintain a dual strategy aimed at bogging down US forces. Likewise, if Iran were to be attacked militarily, it could retaliate relatively easily by targeting US bases across its eastern border.
           The new Afghan–Iranian strategic cooperation agreement hints that the Iranian Government would prefer the post-2014 ANSF security training to be performed by security experts from the immediate region, possibly including Iran but not from countries with which it has animosities such as the UK and the USA. Future cooperation between Iran and the USA may draw on old relationships. It is plausible that Rouhani, in his previous capacity as National Security Advisor and secretary of the SNSC under Khatami, was well aware and supportive of Iran’s more open Afghanistan policy. In the wake of September 2001, Javad Zarif, Iran’s new foreign minister, is believed to have provided US troops in Afghanistan with Iranian intelligence.
           The appointment in May 2013 of James Dobbins, who like Zarif was a key participant at the 2001 Bonn Conference, as US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan is also timely and will help to foster bilateral Iranian–US talks on Afghanistan. Mohammad Ebrahim Taherian, Iran’s former ambassador to Afghanistan and Pakistan, seems to perceive Dobbins’ appointment as a positive signal, describing him as someone who ‘has lots of experience with regard to . . . Afghanistan and Pakistan . . . and has been able to manage issues well’.
           Yet, with existing conservative political coalitions in the Iranian leadership polarized and highly factionalized, it is not clear how much support Rouhani will achieve for a more cooperative approach to engagement with the USA. While the Supreme Leader stated in July 2013 that he was ‘not optimistic about negotiation with the US’ as he continues to consider them ‘unreliable and dishonest’, it is important to remember that he has previously condoned cooperation with the
USA on Afghanistan and Iraq.

Iran Factor in U.S. Syria Strike

            Iran has been a constant subtext of the Obama administration’s campaign to justify a military strike on Syria. Both proponents and opponents of a strike have have referred to Iran’s controversial nuclear program as a factor in deliberations. Proponents have argued that an attack could deter Iran from using weapons of mass destruction. But opponents have warned that a strike could escalate the Syrian conflict into a wider proxy war pitting the United States against Iran or risk blowback on the United States by Iran-backed groups. The following are remarks by top officials and members of congress.

Proponents of Limited Strikes
Secretary of State John Kerry
            “Iran is hoping you look the other way. Our inaction would surely give them a permission slip for them to at least misinterpret our intention, if not to put it to the test, Hezbollah is hoping that isolationism will prevail. North Korea is hoping that ambivalence carries the day. They’re all listening for our silence.
            “Even Assad’s supporters, Russia and Iran, say publicly that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable. And guess what?  Even Iran and Syria itself acknowledge that these weapons were used.  They just pretend that the other guys, who don’t even have the capacity to do it, somehow did it. 
            “And as the proof of the use becomes even more clear in the course of this debate, I think it is going to be very difficult for Iran or Russia to decide against all that evidence that there is something worth defending here.
            “If the Congress decides not to do this, it is a guarantee, whether it is with Assad in Syria, or nuclear weapons in Iran, or nuclear weapons in North Korea, we will have invited a for-certain confrontation at some point in time that will require you to make a choice that will be even worse, with a potential even greater conflict.
            “Iran and Hezbollah are two of the three biggest allies of Assad. And Iran and Hezbollah are the two single biggest enemies of Israel. So if -- if -- if Iran and Hezbollah are advantaged by the United States not curbing Assad's use of chemical weapons, there is a much greater likelihood that at some point down the road, Hezbollah, who has been one of the principal reasons for a change in the situation on the ground, will have access to these weapons of mass destruction. And Israel will for certain be less secure.”
            Sept. 3, 2013 in remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
            “Failure to act now will make this already volatile neighborhood even more combustible, and it will almost certainly pave the way for a more serious challenge in the future. And you can just ask our friends in Israel or elsewhere. In Israel, they can’t get enough gas masks. And there’s a reason that the Prime Minister has said this matters, this decision matters. It’s called Iran. Iran looms out there with its potential – with its nuclear program and the challenge we have been facing.  And that moment is coming closer in terms of a decision. They’re watching what we do here.  They’re watching what you do and whether or not this means something.
            If we choose not to act, we will be sending a message to Iran of American ambivalence, American weakness.  It will raise the question – I’ve heard this question.  As Secretary of State as I meet with people and they ask us about sort of our long-term interests and the future with respect to Iran, they’ve asked me many times, “Do you really mean what you say?  Are you really going to do something?”  They ask whether or not the United States is committed, and they ask us also if the President cuts a deal will the Congress back it up?  Can he deliver?”
           Sept. 10, 2013 in remarks to the House Armed Services Committee
Senator Robert Menendez (Democrat- New Jersey)
            “We will either send a message to Syria, Iran, North Korea, Hezbollah, al-Qaida and any other nonstate actors that the world will not tolerate the senseless use of chemical weapons by anyone, or we will choose to stand silent in the face of horrific human suffering.”
            Sept. 3, 2013 in remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Secretary of Defense Charles Hagel
            “Our refusal to act would undermine the credibility of America's other security commitments, including the president's commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The word of the United States must mean something. It is vital currency in foreign relations and international and allied commitments.”
            Sept. 3, 2013 in remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Senator Barbara Boxer (Democrat - California)
            “Iran will view us as a paper tiger, when it comes to their nuclear program, and that is dangerous not only for us and our friends but for the world.”
            Sept. 3, 2013 in remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Senator Marco Rubio (Republican - Florida)
            “The other [option], which some voices have advocated, is doing nothing. But that would guarantee the following outcome: an emboldened Assad, an emboldened Iran, increased instability in the country because portions of that country will still be ungoverned. And it will also send a message to the world that there is no red line that they should fear crossing. So Iran will move forward toward nuclear weapons… Israel may decide it needs to strike Iran unilaterally. Iran will move towards the bomb, which, by the way, it won't just be an Iranian bomb. It'll be a Turkish bomb as well and a Saudi bomb and maybe even an Egyptian bomb one day.”
            Sept. 3, 2013 in remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Proponents of Wider Strikes
Senator John McCain (Republican - Arizona), Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican- South Carolina)
            “We cannot in good conscience support isolated military strikes in Syria that are not part of an overall strategy that can change the momentum on the battlefield, achieve the President's stated goal of Assad's removal from power, and bring an end to this conflict, which is a growing threat to our national security interests. Anything short of this would be an inadequate response to the crimes against humanity that Assad and his forces are committing. And it would send the wrong signal to America's friends and allies, the Syrian opposition, the Assad regime, Iran, and the world – all of whom are watching closely what actions America will take.”
            Aug. 31, 2013 in a joint statement
Opponents of Strikes
Senator Rand Paul (Republican - Kentucky)
            “I think there's a valid argument for saying they'll [Israelis] be more likely to suffer an attack if we do this… If Iran gets involved, more likely or less likely that Israel launches a reprisal attack on Iran? There are all kinds of unknowns that I can't tell you absolutely the answer, and neither can you, but I think there's a reasonable argument that the world may be less stable because of this and that it may not deter any chemical weapons attack.”
Sept. 3, 2013 in remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Representative Rick Nolan (Democrat - Minnesota)
            “Beyond the potential for escalating the conflict and the killing, we risk danger to our ally Israel, involvement by the Russians and the Iranians, and blowback to the United States by radical groups operating in the region.”
Sept. 1, 2013 in a press statement

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