United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Nukes Unlikely to Change Iran’s Strategy

            Nuclear arms would be unlikely to change Iran’s fundamental interests and strategy in the Middle East, according to a new report by the Rand Corporation’s Alireza Nader. Tehran is primarily concerned with survival. So it probably would not attack Israel or U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf if it were to attain nuclear weapons, according to the report. The Islamic Republic would not likely use them against its Muslim neighbors either. Iran “does not seek to invade, conquer, or occupy other nations,” argues Nader. The following are excerpts, with a link to the full text at the end.

            •The Islamic Republic is a revisionist state that seeks to undermine what it perceives to
              be the American-dominated order in the Middle East. However, it does not have
              territorial ambitions and does not seek to invade, conquer, or occupy other nations.
            •Nuclear arms would probably reinforce Iran's traditional national security objectives,
              including deterring a U.S. or Israeli attack.
            • Iran is unlikely to use nuclear weapons against other Muslim countries, particularly in
              view of its diminishing influence and deteriorating economy; it is unlikely to use them
              against Israel given Israel's overwhelming military superiority.
            •The Iranian government does not use terrorism for ideological reasons. Instead, Iran's
              support for terrorism is motivated by cost and benefit calculations, with the aims of
              maintaining deterrence and preserving or expanding its influence in the Middle East.
            •Iran's possession of nuclear weapons will create greater instability in the Middle East.
              An inadvertent or accidental nuclear exchange between Israel and Iran is a dangerous
              possibility. However, there is not much evidence to suggest that rogue elements could
              have easy access to Iranian nuclear weapons, even if the Islamic Republic were to
            •Elements of the political elite, including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, may be fervent
              Mahdists or millenarians, but their beliefs are not directly related to nuclear weapons
              and will not shape Iran's nuclear decision making.
             There is substantial evidence to suggest that Iran would not be greatly emboldened by a nuclear weapons capability. Nevertheless, Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons will create greater instability in the Middle East. An accidental or inadvertent nuclear exchange between Iran and Israel would be a dangerous possibility. Moreover, quite aside from how Iran might behave, its possession of nuclear weapons could arguably set off a cascade effect, encouraging other regional rivals to move in the same direction.


Latest on the Race: Candidates on U.S. Ties

Garrett Nada

      After the economy, the most controversial issue in the presidential election is normalizing Tehran’s ties with the United States. For the first time, both major conservative and reformist candidates actually embrace the idea that direct talks could bring Iran out of isolation by lifting sanctions. They all stipulate that Washington must first change its behavior and tone, but their initial positions may indicate a new openness to diplomatic compromise.
            The foreign policy debate has also provided candidates with yet another opportunity to blast outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Many blame the president’s inflammatory rhetoric for damaging Iran’s standing worldwide. Ahmadinejad’s claim that the Holocaust never happened has even become a campaign issue.
        • “Where did the case of the Holocaust [denial] take us?” said Tehran mayor 
                Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, a conservative presidential candidate.
        • Ahmadinejad’s words “provided the Zionists with something to make a row about,”
               said Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, another candidate and a parliamentarian.
        • The president should “think before talking and avoid disparate words,” said Akbar
               Velayati, chief foreign policy adviser to the supreme leader.
            Iran’s supreme leader has the final word on foreign policy. A senior cleric explicitly warned candidates against discussing issues beyond the president’s authority. “You are neither competent nor authorized to decide on the resumption of ties with the United States,” Ayatollah Mohammad Emami Kashani, a member of the Assembly of Experts, said on May 3. The following are foreign policy positions of eight major candidates, according to Iranian news media. 
Mostafa Kavakebian, secretary general of the Democracy Party
• “Direct talks between Iran and the United States could be constructive and useful for both sides…”
• “Relations with United States are not a piece of merchandise you could buy right away. Rather we must be able to ward off sanctions and establish relations with the United States through a proper agenda and according to the 176th article of the constitution.”
• “Not all of our problems will be solved [by U.S. ties], rather the effects of the sanctions will at least be reduced…”
• “While I was in parliament, I presented a six-month plan which would improve Iran’s relations with the United States, and I still insist on this plan.”
Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, mayor of Tehran
• “It is wrong to tell society that the country’s problems will be resolved if we establish relations with the United States.”
• I “neither sanctify nor reject the possibility of holding direct talks with the United States.”
• Iran “should not be involved in disputes with other countries for no reason.”
• Iran needs “intelligent and rational” diplomacy.
• The nuclear energy program is “our most important foreign-policy topic.”
• Controversial and useless remarks “struck a blow against us…Where did the case of the Holocaust take us? We were never against Judaism; it’s a religion. What we opposed was Zionism.”
• Strengthening resistance under pressure is part of Iran’s strategy.
Hassan Rouhani, former head of the Supreme National Security Council
• “We should gradually harness this hostility [with the U.S.] and… move towards putting tension aside.”  
• “We must enter talks [with the West] only if we can guarantee our national interests…We must resolve the nuclear dispute. We must also stick to our nuclear [energy program]…”
• “No country can afford being cut off from the rest of the world.”
• Foreign policy should take a “rational direction.”
Mohammad Reza Bahonar, deputy speaker of parliament
• Tehran is ready for direct U.S. talks if the United States “does not have the upper-hand and a domineering position.”
• “We recognize U.S. interests… But when they [Americans] want to shake hands, they show an iron first to us. They should change that arrogant attitude first.”
• Build relations with all countries, except Israel, by 2025
• “Having or not having relations with a country is not a virtue.”
• Don’t change Iran’s nuclear policy and maintain the right to a civilian nuclear energy program.
• The nuclear issue needs to be solved through the United Nations, “not through political channels.”
• Fight terrorism and defend Muslims worldwide.
Mohammad Reza Aref, vice president under former President Mohammad Khatami
• Tehran would agree to bilateral talks with Washington if it stops setting conditions.
• Iran should depoliticize the controversy over its nuclear energy program and seek a win-win deal in negotiations.
• Direct talks with the United States would need to be regulated by the Supreme National Security Council.
• Iran should interact with all countries except Israel.
Ali Akbar Velayati, chief foreign policy adviser to the supreme leader
• Talks with Washington depend on U.S. behavior.
• Any direct negotiations with the United States would be based on the supreme leader’s guidelines.
• Expand relations with other countries and do not allow Iran to be driven into isolation.
• “Think before talking and avoid disparate words” in foreign relations.
• Continue “resisting against the expansionist policies of Western states.”
• Resolve economic issues through effective foreign policy and calculated steps
Mohsen Rezaei, Expediency Council secretary and ex-Revolutionary Guards chief
• “If negotiations take place between Iran and United States and end in failure, undoubtedly Iran will come under military attack…”
• Revamp foreign policy to confront sanctions more effectively.
Alireza Zakani, ex-health minister and current member of parliament
• “As for normalization of ties with the United States, Washington holds the key. It has to change its hostile attitude first.”
More "Latest on the Race"
Sampling of Iranian news sources for this article on the presidential race:


Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org


Iran Calls for Syrian Dialogue With Opposition

            In talks in Damascus and Amman in early May, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi called on the Syrian government to engage in dialogue with its “peaceful opposition.” But he made clear that Tehran still fully backs the government of President Bashar Assad. “Iran stands at the side of Syria in the face of Israeli aggression,” Salehi said in Damascus.
            Salehi met with Assad on May 7 after a two-day visit to Jordan. At a press conference in Amman, the Iranian foreign minister called for the formation of a “transitional government” that included both the current government and the opposition movements that had not taken up arms. He pointedly rejected any role for the al Nusra Front, a Sunni Islamist militia affiliated with al Qaeda.
           Salehi’s trip followed reported Israeli airstrikes on Iranian-made missiles bound for Lebanon’s Hezbollah on May 3 and a military complex near Damascus on May 5. The following are excerpted remarks by top Iranian and Syrian officials.

Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s foreign minister
            “The time has come to dissuade the Israeli occupier from carrying out such aggression against the peoples of the region… Iran stands at the side of Syria in the face of Israeli aggression, whose aim is to damage the security of the region and weaken the axis of resistance… We are fully confident that Syria will emerge victorious from the crisis…“ May 7 to Syrian news media
            “We reject any foreign intervention in Syria and we don’t want Syria to plunge into crisis… The Syria crisis and its consequences for the region are very heavy, and must be peacefully settled within the framework of a Syrian-Syrian solution… The repercussions of the Syrian crisis will reflect on neighboring states and other countries… If a vacuum is created, God forbid, the outcome will be unknown. We believe the Syrian crisis must be resolved peacefully…
            We have called for talks between the Syrian government and the peaceful opposition to form a transitional government… We have advised the Syrian government to sit with the opposition but not with the Nusra Front [an al Qaeda affiliate]…
            We do not want history to repeat itself. We have seen what such interference did in other countries…[Tehran is] helping Syria economically…” May 7 in a joint press conference with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh
           "We have engaged all the political currents in Syria and have worked to remove any obstacles that stand in the way of a national dialogue to be held in Damascus. We put forward an initiative for resolving the conflict and presented it to all the parties involved. We even announced our acceptance in advance of any plan that seeks a political resolution regardless of who proposes it. The regime has shown some flexibility and reacted positively to our efforts, and so have some factions in the opposition..." May 8 in an op-ed for Al Akhbar
Bashar Assad, Syria’s president
            “The Syrian people and their valiant army are capable of confronting the Israeli adventures, which are one of the faces of terrorism targeting Syria everyday… [The Israeli strikes were proof of] the implication of Israel and regional and Western countries..." May 7 to Syrian news media
Walid Moualem, Syria’s foreign minister
            “We have now been at war for two years. We are not afraid and we will not remain silent in the face of aggression..." May 7 to Syrian news media

Iran Urges U.N. Response to Israeli Strikes

Iranian Ambassador to the UN Mohammed Khazaee Visits Asia Society New York

      On May 6, Iranian Ambassador Mohammad Khazaee condemned the Israeli airstrikes on Syria as “blatant acts of aggression” and demanded an international response. The letter warned that Israel’s attacks will further destabilize the region.

      “Nothing can justify the use of force and act of aggression against a sovereign state,” he wrote U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Israel reportedly hit Iranian-made missiles bound for Lebanon’s Hezbollah on May 3. Israel then reportedly conducted an airstrike on May 5 that targeted the Jamraya military complex north of Damascus. The following is the complete text of Khazaee’s letter.
            I wish to draw your attention to the reports on the Israeli air strikes against Syria on 3 and 5 May 2013.
            The Islamic Republic of Iran expresses its deep concern over, and strong condemnation of such provocative and unwarranted attacks. We believe that such criminal and irresponsible act should be addressed by the international community, specially the United Nations and its relevant organs for the following reasons:
•These blatant acts of aggression are serious violation of international law, particularly the norms and principles enshrined in the United Nations Charter including its Article 2 (4) on the prohibition of the use of force against any Member State.
•Nothing can justify the use of force and act of aggression against a sovereign state and the aggressor must be held accountable for any consequences stemming from this condemnable and illegitimate act which endangers regional and international peace and security.
• It is obvious that the attacks represent serious escalation of tension and have grave destabilizing effects in the region.
            I would urge Your Excellency to address this issue of great concern to the United Nations based on the mandate bestowed upon you by the Charter for the purpose of maintenance of regional and international peace and security and prevention of further act of aggression.  
            I am sending identical letter to the President of the Security Council and the President of the General Assembly. It would be appreciated if this letter and its annexes could be circulated as a document of the Security Council and that of the General Assembly under agenda item 33 entitled “Prevention of Armed Conflict”.
            Please accept, Excellency, the assurances of my highest consideration.
Mohammad Khazaee
Ambassador and Permanent Representative
Photo Credit: Mohammad Khazaee at Asia Society New York by Bill Swersey via Flickr


How Deeply is Iran Enmeshed in Syria?

Will Fulton

            Israel carried out two airstrikes on Syrian targets in early May that significantly expanded the regional dimensions of Syria’s internal conflict. In the first strike on May 3, Israeli warplanes reportedly hit a convoy of Iranian Fateh-110 missiles destined for Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Israel then reportedly carried out a pre-dawn airstrike on May 5 that targeted the Jamraya military complex north of Damascus. Israel did not formally comment on its role in the strikes, but Western and Middle East officials have not hesitated in linking them to Israel. The two operations—the second and third Israeli strikes in 2013—reflect the growing sense that the Syrian domestic crisis is also evolving into a proxy war between the United States and Iran. (Picture: Syrian President Bashar Assad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei)

      The Fateh 110 is a short-range ballistic missile and one of the most accurate in Iran’s arsenal. Iran unveiled an upgraded version last year. Its range is about 185 miles, which makes it particularly useful for Hezbollah against Israel—and, in turn, for Iran’s regional strategy.
      In response to the Israeli strikes, Iranian Minister of Defense Ahmad Vahidi warned, "The inhumane measures and adventures of the Zionist regime in the region will surge anti-Zionist waves and shorten the life of this fake regime…. [Israel's] attack in Syria, which occurred with a green light from the U.S., pulled the curtain back on the relationship between the mercenary terrorists and their supporters and the Zionist regime."
            Vahidi also called for a regional response against Israel. Tehran "condemns the Zionist regime attack and recommends the regional countries to wisely stand against such aggressions," he told Fars news agency. The reaction from Vahidi, who is a senior Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander, may also signal a possible Iranian response. The Revolutionary Guards have taken the lead in training Hezbollah and aiding Syria militarily since the 1980s.
            In a rare public comment about Iran-Syria military ties, Gen. Ahmad Reza Pourdastan, commander of Iran’s regular Army ground forces, said the Islamic Republic is prepared to provide military training to the Syrian Army. “As a Muslim nation, we back Syria, and if there is need for training we will provide them with the training. But we won’t have any active involvement in the operations,” he said, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency.
            Israel's direct action against the Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria highlights the role that Iran and its allies increasingly play in the Syrian conflict. A new report entitled "Iranian Strategy in Syria" by the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for the Study of War outlines Iran’s role and goals in Syria. The following is an interview with Will Fulton, one of the report’s three co-authors.

Two years after Syria’s uprising began, what role is Iran now playing? What specifically is it providing to Syria?
      Iran continues to be Syrian President Bashar Assad’s key ally and source of support in this conflict. Iran is conducting an extensive, expensive, and integrated effort to provide the Assad regime with military, intelligence, economic, and diplomatic support. Iran’s security and intelligence services are training and advising Assad’s state military and security organizations, providing essential military supplies to the Assad regime, and directly supporting pro-government Syrian shabiha militias.
            Iran’s partners and proxies, including Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraq-based Shi’a militant groups — such as Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al Haqq — have also taken on a more direct combat role in recent months. These groups have made their presence and activities known on their social media outlets and by holding public events honoring members who have died while fighting in Syria. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s speech on April 30, 2013, in which he warned that Syria has “real friends in the region and in the world who will not allow Syria to fall into the hands of America or Israel,” was further indication that Iran and its partners are resolved in their support for Assad.
Which of Iran’s security organizations have provided support to Assad?
            Iran has committed its most important security organizations to the Syrian conflict. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Ground Forces (IRGC), its Quds Force, and Intelligence Organization have deployed senior personnel to Syria in support of the Assad regime. So have Iran’s Law Enforcement Forces and Ministry of Intelligence and Security.
            The forward deployment of high-ranking IRGC Ground Forces commanders is particularly unusual. The Quds Force is Iran’s traditional foreign military arm, while the IRGC Ground Forces are responsible for internal security and conventional operations inside of Iran. The evolution of an expeditionary training capability relying on the IRGC Ground Forces in addition to the Quds Force is a notable expansion of Iran’s ability to project its influence and military force well beyond its borders and immediate neighbors.
How does Iran move personnel and materiel into Syria?
            Aerial resupply is the most critical component of Iranian material support to Syria. Opposition gains in Syria have interdicted many ground resupply routes between Baghdad and Damascus, and the relative scarcity of Iranian port-visits in Syria suggests that Iran’s sea-lanes to Syria are more symbolic than practical. The air line of communication between Iran and Syria is thus a key vulnerability for Iranian strategy in Syria. Iran would not be able to maintain its current level of support to Assad if this air route were interdicted through a no-fly zone or rebel capture of Syrian airfields.
What are Iran’s goals and strategy in Syria?
            First and foremost, Iran aims to keep Assad in power for as long as possible. It is training and supporting the Syrian security apparatus to achieve this goal.
            But Iran is also hedging against the failure of this strategy by setting conditions to ensure Tehran’s ability to use Syrian territory and assets to pursue its regional interests should Assad fall. To that end, Iran is complementing its support for Syrian state security institutions with assistance to pro-government militias to develop proxies that may survive Assad. This aspect of Iran’s approach is congruent with Tehran’s longstanding efforts in Lebanon and Iraq, where it also built Shiite militias to ensure that its interests were protected even in the absence of effective or pliable host states.
Why has Iran invested so heavily in supporting Assad?
            Syria is vital to Iran’s strategic interests in the Middle East. It has long been Iran’s closest state ally. The Assad regime has provided crucial access to Iranian proxies, including Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which allows Iran to move people, weapons, and money to these groups through Syrian territory.
            Iran has invested in Syria as a strategic partner as part of its deterrence strategy on Israel and as an Arab ally in its rivalry with Turkey and the Persian Gulf states. Iranian officials have made the centrality of Syria to Iranian regional interests well known. “Syria is the golden ring of resistance against Israel, and if it weren’t for Syria’s active government the country would become like Qatar or Kuwait. Iran is not prepared to lose this golden counterweight,” Ali Akbar Velayati, senior foreign affairs adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, said on March 27, 2013.
            The Syrian conflict has already constrained Iran’s influence in the Levant. The fall of the Assad regime would further reduce Tehran’s ability to project power. Iran’s strategy in Syria thus far indicates that it is determined to defend its interests in this conflict.
Will Fulton is an Iran Analyst for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.
Click here for the new report, "Iranian Strategy in Syria," by the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for the Study of War.
Photo Credits: Syrian President Bashar Assad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei via Leader.ir and Khamenei.ir Facebook
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org

Connect With Us

Our Partners

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Logo