United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Obama at West Point : On Iran Diplomacy

      On May 28, President Barack Obama cited progress in diplomacy with Iran as an example of strong American leadership in his address to West Point military academy graduates. “It has been our willingness to work through multilateral channels that kept the world on our side” during nuclear talks, he said. The following are excerpts from his speech.

            Skeptics often downplay the effectiveness of multilateral action. For them, working through international institutions, or respecting international law, is a sign of weakness. I think they’re wrong. Let me offer just two examples why.
            In Ukraine, Russia’s recent actions recall the days when Soviet tanks rolled into Eastern Europe. But this isn’t the Cold War. Our ability to shape world opinion helped isolate Russia right away. Because of American leadership, the world immediately condemned Russian actions. Europe and the G-7 joined with us to impose sanctions. NATO reinforced our commitment to Eastern European allies. The IMF is helping to stabilize Ukraine’s economy. OSCE monitors brought the eyes of the world to unstable parts of Ukraine. This mobilization of world opinion and institutions served as a counterweight to Russian propaganda, Russian troops on the border, and armed militias. This weekend, Ukrainians voted by the millions; yesterday, I spoke to their next President. We don’t know how the situation will play out, and there will be grave challenges. But standing with our allies on behalf of international order has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future. 
            Similarly, despite frequent warnings from the United States, Israel, and others, the Iranian nuclear program steadily advanced for years. But at the beginning of my presidency, we built a coalition that imposed sanctions on the Iranian economy, while extending the hand of diplomacy to the Iranian government. Now, we have an opportunity to resolve our differences peacefully. The odds of success are still long, and we reserve all options to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. But for the first time in a decade, we have a very real chance of achieving a breakthrough agreement – one that is more effective and durable than what would be achieved through the use of force. And throughout these negotiations, it has been our willingness to work through multilateral channels that kept the world on our side.
            This is American leadership. This is American strength. In each case, we built coalitions to respond to a specific challenge. Now we need to do more to strengthen the institutions that can anticipate and prevent them from spreading.

Singing Amy Winehouse in Tehran

Robin Wright (for The New Yorker)

      For decades, both before and after his 1979 revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini railed against “Westoxication”—the poisoning of Iran’s Islamic society by Western culture. The new theocracy banned everything from music and dancing to modern art. Tehran’s National Museum of Contemporary Art crated away Picassos, Pollocks, Warhols, and Mirós worth billions. Even chess, a game with local roots, was banned. The Islamic Republic has been consumed ever since with its own clash of cultures.

            But female singers still face the toughest taboos. “Women’s voices should not be heard by men other than members of their own families,” Khomeini decreed. But when I was in Tehran, the fat woman literally sang in Iran—and Western pop songs, no less. To cheers and whistles in Tehran’s elegant opera house, Ghazal Shakeri belted out “Back to Black,” a provocative Amy Winehouse song. The lyrics had to be modified, but only a bit. Instead of “kept his dick with,” Shakeri sang “kept his lips with.” The performance was one of a dozen Western numbers incorporated into “The Last Days of Esfand,” an Iranian musical about a female psychiatrist treating a troubled young criminal. The two leads, Shakeri and a man named Ashkan Khatibi, sang several duets, including Abba’s rousing “The Winner Takes It All,” a poignant version of “Autumn Leaves,” and a spirited “Those Were the Days, My Friend,” which includes lines about raising “a glass or two” and singing and dancing forever. They were accompanied by three female backup singers (left).

Click here for the full article in The New Yorker.

Photo credit: Robin Wright

Javad Zarif on Iran’s Nuclear Negotiations

Robin Wright (for the The New Yorker)

      Iran and the six powers must address points of contention on virtually every aspect of a nuclear deal, from the future of suspect facilities to accounting for past programs, but Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has been noticeably upbeat about prospects for a breakthrough. I asked him how difficult it would be to reach an agreement. The red lines—particularly between Washington and Tehran—often seem insurmountable.
      “It’s going to be both hard and easy,” he said. “Easy, because ostensibly we have a convergence of views on the objectives. We don’t want nuclear weapons, and they say the objective is to insure Iran does not have nuclear weapons. So, if that is the objective, in my view it’s already achieved. We just have to find mechanisms for agreeing on the process.”
Click here for the full article in The New Yorker.

Photo credit: Robin Wright

Kerry on Amir Hekmati’s Detention

            On May 26, Secretary of State John Kerry released a statement marking the 1,000th day of U.S. citizen Amir Hekmati’s detention in Iran. Iranian authorities arrested Hekmati—a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen born in Arizona and a former Marine— in August 2011 for allegedly working for the CIA. A 2012 retrial overturned the espionage conviction and instead charged him with “cooperating with hostile governments.” He was sentenced to 10 years in prison. But on May 25, Hekmati’s lawyer said that he plans to appeal the sentence. The following is the full text of Kerry’s statement.

            On this Memorial Day, we honor brave Americans who gave their lives for the notion that someone else's freedom is connected to our own. But this Memorial Day also marks another milestone: 1,000 days since an American veteran, Amir Hekmati, was unjustly detained while he was visiting his family in Iran.
            Mr. Hekmati has spent almost three years in an Iranian prison on false espionage charges. We remain especially concerned about reports of Mr. Hekmati’s health in prison.
Mr. Hekmati’s family in the United States has endured the hardship of his absence for too long. He is the eldest son, and his family misses him and needs him home.
            We respectfully request that the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran release Mr. Hekmati so that he may be reunited with his family in the United States.

UN: Iran Complying with Interim Nuke Deal

            On May 23, the U.N. nuclear watchdog confirmed in a new report that Iran is fulfilling its commitments under the interim agreement. Iran has halted its most sensitive activities and rolled back its program in other key areas. Tehran, for the first time since 2008, has also provided the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with additional information related to past activities that may have been related to weapons research. The following are excerpts from the Arms Control Association’s analysis of the IAEA report by Kelsey Davenport.

            Taken together, Iran’s actions on the Joint Plan of Action and the November 11 agreement with the IAEA that are outlined in this report demonstrate that Tehran is fulfilling its obligations and willing to be more transparent about its nuclear activities. The cooperation provides some positive momentum as the P5+1 and Iran enter the final rounds of talks on a comprehensive agreement by July 20.
Key Findings:
•Iran provided the IAEA with information on exploding bridgewire detonators, one of the activities with possible military dimensions (PMDs), laid out in a November 2011 IAEA report. The IAEA is assessing that information.
•Iran agreed to an additional set of actions to provide the IAEA with more information regarding PMDs and outstanding concerns, including information on neutron initiators and explosives.
•Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium hexafluoride gas has dropped to 38.4 kilograms, down from 160 kilograms in the February report.
Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 3.5 percent has increased to 8,475 kg, up from 7,609 kg in the February report.
•Iran commissioned a facility that will convert 3.5 percent enriched uranium from hexaflouride gas to a less-proliferation sensitive powder form.
•Iran declared a new facility to the IAEA, a light-water reactor to produce medical isotopes that will be constructed near Shiraz.
•Iran and the IAEA are making progress on an updated safeguards approach to the Arak heavy water reactor.
Progress on Possible Military Dimension (PMDs)
            The May 2013 IAEA report shows progress on the agency’s investigations in the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program for the first time since 2008. The IAEA laid out its suspicions about past military activities related to weapons development in detail in a 2011 report, but discussions on these issues predated the public release of this information.
            Under the November 11 agreement, Iran agreed to complete six actions by February. More actions were agreed to at that point, including Iran’s agreement to provide the IAEA with information related to its development of exploding bridgewire detonators by May 15.
            While progress is being made on the questions related to PMDS, a number of other issues remain unresolved. The May report said that satellite imagery indicates further activity at Parchin, a site of interest in the IAEA’s investigations. Continued construction activities will make it difficult for the IAEA to conduct their investigation into the activities at this site.
            In addition to the PMD issues, the IAEA reported that Iran completed an additional six steps as part of the November 11 agreement. These steps include vists to a uranium mine and uranium concentration plant. Access to a laser enrichment center, updated information on the Arak heavy water reactor and discussions on its safeguards agreement, and information about uranium source material not being enriched.
            This information will help the IAEA evaluate whether or not Iran’s nuclear program is entirely peaceful, and build a baseline that can help ensure that materials are not being used for covert activities.
20 Percent Enriched Uranium Stockpile Drops
            Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium has dropped dramatically since implementation of the Joint Plan of Action. Iran now has 38.4 kg of uranium hexafluoride gas enriched to 20 percent in its stockpile.
            The reduced stockpile of 20 percent enriched material to 38.4 kg puts Iran even further from the 250 kg which, when enriched to weapons grade, is enough material for one nuclear weapon. The continued downblending and conversion extends the time it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material for a weapon, if it choses to do so.
3.5 Percent Enriched Uranium
            Iran is allowed to continue enriching uranium to 3.5 percent under the November 24 interim agreement, but agreed to convert the uranium enriched to that level during the six months of the initial deal to a powder form that can be used to fuel nuclear power reactors. Delays to that facility caused concern that Iran may not be able to meet this deadline, but the new IAEA report says that the facility was commissioned on May 10.
            According to the interim agreement with the P5+1, Iran will need to reduce its stockpile back down to less than 7,500 kg by July 20 by converting the excess from hexafluoride gas to the enriched uranium powder.
New Arak Safeguards Underway
            As per the terms of the November 24 agreement, Iran has halted installation of major components at the Arak heavy water reactor (IR-40), and provided the IAEA with updated design information on the reactor.
            According to the May 23 report, Iran and the IAEA met on May 5 to continue discussions about an updated safeguards approach for the reactor. They agreed to conclude the safeguards approach by August 25.
New Facility Declared
            Iran also updated its declaration to the IAEA by adding a new facility. In the previous report, Iran provided information to the IAEA about a planned light water reactor to produce medical isotopes. The May IAEA report says that Iran is planning to build that reactor at Shiraz. However, no timeline for construction was provided in the report.
Centrifuges Unchanged at Natanz
            The May IAEA report confirms that the number of centrifuges installed at Natanz remains unchanged at 15,420 IR-1 machines in 90 cascades, and 1,008 IR-2Ms machines.
            The number of IR-1 centrifuges enriching uranium to 3.5 percent at Natanz also remains unchanged from the prior two reports, with about 9,400 IR-1 machines operating in 54 cascades.
            Under the November 24 agreement, Iran committed not to install any further centrifuges at it Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz and not to operate any additional centrifuges beyond the number that were enriching at the time of the November agreement.
Research and Development Continues
            According to the May IAEA report, Iran has not begun testing a new centrifuge, the IR-8 at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz. Similar to the February report, the IAEA noted that a centrifuge casing for the IR-8 was installed, but it was not yet connected for testing.
            The IAEA noted that Iran is continuing to test other advanced centrifuges, the IR-4, IR-6, and IR-6s machines in single centrifuges and cascades at the facility.
            Iran is allowed to continue these research and development activities under existing IAEA safeguards as part of the November 24 deal.

Click here for the full brief.
Click here for the IAEA report.

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