Hassan Rouhani’s election to the presidency has improved prospects for ending 34 years of U.S.-Iran estrangement, according to a new report by the Congressional Research Service’s Kenneth Katzman. But the United States will still have serious concerns about the Islamic Republic even if the world’s six major powers and Iran reach a comprehensive agreement on the nuclear issue. Support for extremist groups, human rights abuses, weapons programs and efforts to destabilize the region are key U.S. concerns that predate the nuclear issue. The following are excerpts from the report.
Human Rights Practices
Iran’s human rights record is scrutinized by the United Nations and multilateral groupings.
Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has been active in blocking pro-reform websites and blogs and closing newspapers critical of the government, as well as arresting journalists and bloggers. However, some editors say that the government has become more tolerant of critical media since Rouhani took office. The Majles investigated the November 2012 death in custody of blogger, Sattar Beheshti; seven security officers were arrested and the Tehran “Cyber Police” commander was removed for the incident. Iran is setting up a national network that would have a virtual monopoly on Internet service for Iranians.
Independent unions are legal but not allowed in practice. The sole authorized national labor organization is a state-controlled “Workers’ House” umbrella.
Women can vote in all elections and run in parliamentary and municipal elections. They are permitted to drive, and work outside the home, including owning their own businesses, although less than 20% of the workforce is female and women earn nearly 5 times less than men. Nine women are in the Majles, but women cannot serve as judges. There was one woman in the previous cabinet (Minister of Health) but she was fired in December 2012 for criticizing lack of funding for medicines. Masoumah Ebtekar, a prominent woman who has held the position of a vice president in previous governments, was scheduled to be the first woman to deliver the Friday Prayer at Tehran University in January 2014, but her appearance was cancelled. Women are required to be covered in public, generally with a garment called a chador, but enforcement has relaxed since Rouhani took office. Women do not have inheritance or divorce rights equal to that of men, and their court testimony carries half the weight of a male’s. Laws against rape are not enforced effectively.
Religious Freedom Overview
Each year since 1999, the State Department religious freedom report has named Iran as a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). No sanctions have been added under IRFA, on the grounds that Iran is already subject to extensive U.S. sanctions. Continued deterioration in religious freedom have been noted in the past few International Religious Freedom reports, stating that government rhetoric and actions creates a threatening atmosphere for nearly all non-Shia religious groups.
Arrests of Dual
Iran does not recognize dual nationality. An Iranian American journalist, Roxanna Saberi, was arrested in January 2009 allegedly because her press credentials had expired, and was released in May 12, 2009. Three American hikers (Sara Shourd, Shane Bauer, and Josh Fattal) were arrested in August 2009 after crossing into Iran from a hike in northern Iraq. They were released in 2010 and 2011 on $500,000 bail each—brokered by Oman. Several cases remain pending, which U.S. officials say the raise during at the margins of the nuclear negotiations.
Former FBI agent Robert Levinson, remains missing after a visit in 2005 to Kish Island to meet an Iranian source (Dawud Salahuddin, allegedly responsible for the 1980 killing in the United
States of an Iranian diplomat who had served the Shah’s government). Iran denies knowing his status or location. In December 2011, Levinson’s family released a one-year old taped statement by him. In January 2013, his family released recent photos of him, and they acknowledged in late 2013 that his visit to Kish Island was partly related to his contract work
for the CIA.
A former U.S. Marine, Amir Hekmati, was arrested in 2011 and remains in jail in Iran allegedly for spying for the United States. His family has been permitted to visit him there. On December 20, 2012, a U.S. Christian convert of Iranian origin, Rev. Saeed Abedini, was imprisoned for “undermining national security” for setting up orphanages in Iran in partnership with Iranian Christians. His closed trial was held January 22, 2013, and he was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – Qods Force
Through its Qods (Jerusalem) Force (QF), the IRGC has a foreign policy role in exerting influence throughout the region by supporting pro-Iranian movements and leaders. The QF numbers approximately 10,000-15,000 personnel who provide advice, support, and arrange weapons deliveries to pro-Iranian factions or leaders in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Persian Gulf states, Gaza/West Bank, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. IRGC leaders have confirmed the QF is in Syria to assist the regime of Bashar al-Assad against an armed uprising, and it reportedly provided advisers to help the Iraqi government counter an offensive by Sunni Islamist extremists in June 2014. The QF commander, Brigadier General Qassem Soleimani reportedly has a direct and independent channel to Khamene’i. The QF commander during 1988-1995 was Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi, who served as Defense minister during 2009-2013. He led the QF when it allegedly assisted two bombings of Israeli and Jewish targets in Buenos Aires and is wanted by Interpol for a role in the 1994 bombing there. He allegedly recruited Saudi Hezbollah activists later accused of the June 1996 Khobar Towers bombing; and assassinated Iranian dissident leaders in Europe in the early 1990s.
International Atomic Energy Agency Investigations into Past Nuclear Weapons Research
Allegations that Iran might have researched a nuclear explosive device have caused experts and governments to question Iran’s assertions that it does not intend to construct a nuclear weapon. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been attempting to investigate information laid out in detail in an IAEA report of November 8, 2011, on Iran’s alleged research efforts on designs for a nuclear explosive device (“possible military dimensions,” PMD). Even though many questions about PMD persist, no IAEA report—or U.S. intelligence testimony or comments—has asserted that Iran has diverted any nuclear material for a nuclear weapons program.
Iran’s cooperation in addressing these issues appears to be improving as an interim nuclear agreement between Iran and the international community—the “Joint Plan of Action.” (JPA)—is implemented and a comprehensive nuclear agreement is negotiated. And the JPA stipulates that clearing up such questions must be part of a comprehensive nuclear settlement.
Chemical and Biological Weapons
Official U.S. reports and testimony state that Iran maintains the capability to produce chemical warfare (CW) agents and “probably” has the capability to produce some biological warfare agents for offensive purposes, if it made the decision to do so. This raises questions about Iran’s compliance with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which Iran signed on January 13, 1993, and ratified on June 8, 1997.
Ballistic and Cruise Missiles and Warheads
The Administration’s insistence that missile limitations be part of a comprehensive nuclear settlement is based, at least in part, on the apparent view that Iran’s ballistic missiles and its acquisition of indigenous production of anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) provide capabilities for Iran to project power. DNI Clapper testified on March 12, 2013, that the intelligence community assesses that “Iran’s ballistic missiles are capable of delivering WMD.” There has been a long-standing U.S. estimate that Iran would likely not be able to fully develop a missile of intercontinental range until 2015, although that time frame is not far away and there have not been any recent reports that Iran is approaching that capability.
Support for International Terrorism
Iran’s foreign policy has made use of groups that are named as terrorist organizations by the United States. Iran was placed on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism (“terrorism list”) in January 1984. The State Department report on international terrorism for 2013,36 released April 30, 2014, stated that Iran “continued its terrorist-related activity” in 2013 and that Iran “also increased its presence in Africa and attempted to smuggle arms” to oppositionists in Yemen and Bahrain. In 2012, Iran allegedly backed terrorist plots against Israeli diplomats and officials in such countries as India (in which the wife of an Israeli diplomat was wounded in an attack in Delhi in on February 13, 2012), Bulgaria (where a July 19, 2012, bombing killed five Israeli tourists), Thailand, Georgia, and Kenya. Other alleged plots took place in Azerbaijan and Cyprus.
In 2011 and 2012, U.S. officials asserted that Iran might be planning acts of terrorism in the United States itself. The assessment was based largely on an alleged Iranian plot, revealed on October 11, 2011, by the Department of Justice, to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States.
Some assert that Rouhani seeks to curb Iran’s support for militant movements in the region because their activities could injure his goals of broader international engagement. However, many doubt that Rouhani is able to curb Iranian support for terrorism. Rouhani is perceived as having no ability to remove the head of the Qods Force, Qasem Soleimani, who runs Iran’s external operations and reports directly to Khamene’i.
Supporting Militant Anti-Israel Groups
Iran has long opposed Israel as a creation of the West and an oppressor of the Palestinian people and other Arabs. Former president Ahmadinejad went well beyond that to statements that Israel should be destroyed. The Supreme Leader has repeatedly called Israel a “cancerous tumor.” Iran has hosted numerous conferences to which anti-peace process terrorist organizations were invited (for example: April 24, 2001, and June 2-3, 2002).
President Rouhani has sought to soften Iran’s image on this issue, in part by publicly issuing greetings to the Jewish community on the occasion of the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashana) in September 2013. Despite that outreach, in March 2014, Khamene’i questioned the Holocaust—an issue that Ahmadinejad had raised during his presidency and for which he had incurred major international criticism.
Iran’s support for Palestinian militant groups has long concerned U.S. administrations. The State Department report on terrorism for 2012 repeated previous year’s reports assertions that Iran provides funding, weapons, and training to Hamas, a faction of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the Al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC). All are named as foreign terrorist organizations (FTO) by the State Department for their use of violence against Israel. During the second Palestinian intifada (“uprising”) in January 2002, Israel intercepted a ship (the Karine A) carrying about 50 tons of Iranian-supplied arms bound for the Gaza Strip. The formal position of the Iranian Foreign Ministry is that Iran would not seek to block an Israeli-Palestinian settlement but that the process is too weighted toward Israel to yield a fair result.
Syria’s Bashar Al Assad has been Iran’s closest Arab ally, and Iran would suffer a considerable strategic setback if the Sunni-led rebellion in Syria succeeds in toppling his regime. Syria is the main transit point for Iranian weapons shipments to Hezbollah, and both Iran and Syria have used Hezbollah as leverage against Israel to try to achieve regional and territorial aims. Rouhani has not sought to slow Iranian support to Assad and it is not clear he would be able to change Iran’s overall policy were he to try to do so. However, Iran’s support for the beleaguered Iraqi government as of June 2014 could be draining off Iranian resources that might otherwise go to Assad.
U.S. officials and reports assert that, to try to prevent Assad’s downfall, Iran is providing substantial amounts of material support to the Syrian regime, including funds, weapons, and fighters. The State Department has said repeatedly that Iran has sent Qods Forces (QF) to Syria to advise the regime and fight alongside the Syrian military. Some experts say the Iranian direct intervention goes beyond QF personnel to include an unknown number of IRGC ground forces as well. The Iranian advisers also have helped Syria set up militia forces to ease the burden on the Syrian army. In May 2014, there were press reports that Iran was attempting to recruit Afghan refugees in Iran to fight in Syria.