September 19, 2013

NIAC Policy Memo: Positive Steps By Iran and the U.S.

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Positive Steps by Iran and the U.S.

Since taking office in August, Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani has sent positive signals and undertaken actions that suggest a nuclear compromise is achievable, U.S.-Iran tensions can be resolved, and the human rights situation in Iran can significantly improve.  While far more needs to be achieved, such small steps can create a virtuous cycle that helps overcome the mutual distrust on each side.

Nuclear Program

  • The office of the President has been given enhanced authority over nuclear negotiations:
    • The Foreign Ministry has taken over the nuclear negotiations from the Supreme National Security Council, a body which includes the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and is under the purview of the Supreme Leader. Foreign Minister Zarif will directly oversee nuclear negotiations.
  • Rouhani has made several positive appointments critical to nuclear negotiations:
    • Iran’s new Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, is a U.S.-educated diplomat with close contacts with officials including VP Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Hagel, and has a history of working to resolve U.S.-Iran relations. As a Senator in 2007, Biden told the Washington Post: “Zarif is a tough advocate but he’s also pragmatic, not dogmatic. He can play an important role in helping to resolve our significant differences with Iran peacefully.”
    • Rouhani has also appointed Ali Akbar Salehi, who advocated for the Supreme Leader to allow direct talks with the U.S., to head the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.
  • Iran’s government, including the Supreme Leader, appear to be laying the groundwork publicly for a compromise:
    • The Supreme Leader has endorsed Rouhani’s approach by calling for Iran to show “heroic flexibility” in nuclear negotiations, laying the groundwork for a compromise solution. The Supreme Leader has also endorsed Rouhani’s call for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, widely viewed as towing a hardline on the nuclear issue, to stay out of political matters.
    • Iran’s new President and Foreign Minister have articulated for both foreign and domestic audiences that acquiring nuclear weapons—or even allowing for the impression that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons due to lack of transparency—undermines Iran’s security interests:
      • In a 2006 article in Time, Rouhani argued that a nuclear Iran would “accord Iran no security dividends,” while destabilizing the region, prompting a regional arms race, and wasting scarce resources.
      • Rouhani has promised “to build trust and repair relations with the United States,” and indicated that Iran is willing to take steps to increase the transparency of the country’s nuclear program. 
      • Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif recently stated: “it is in Iran’s national security interest for the entire world to know that we do not want nuclear weapons; that nuclear weapons have no place in Iran’s security doctrine and even the perception in the world that Iran pursues a nuclear weapons program is detrimental to our security.” 
  • Iran has taken concrete steps to limit provocative nuclear advances:
    • According to the IAEA, Iran has been slowing its accumulation of 20% LEU by converting uranium hexafluoride gas enriched to 20% into oxide powder, thus ensuring that Iran’s accumulation of 20% LEU does not reach a threshold of 250 kg—the amount that, if enriched further to 90%, could be used for one nuclear weapon.
    • According to the head of Iran’s nuclear program, Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran plans to convert all of its 20% LEU to fuel for its medical research reactor, which would significantly reduce Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon with stockpiled uranium.
    • According to the IAEA, Iran has installed but is still not operating advanced centrifuges.

Human Rights

  • Prominent prisoners of conscience released: 
    • Imprisoned Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Soutodueh, whose case has been raised by President Obama and his administration as well as by the UN special rapporteur on Iran and human rights organizations, was released from prison on September 18, 2013, along with 10 fellow prisoners of conscience.
  • Hopeful signals for release of imprisoned Green Movement leaders:
    • Rouhani promised to work for a non-securitized environment in which the leaders of the Green Movement, Mir Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, and others detained after the 2009 elections would be released.
    • The Guardian reported that Mousavi and Karroubi have seen an improvement in the conditions of their house arrest.
    • The Supreme Leader agreed to allow the Supreme National Security Council to consider the release of Mousavi and Rouhani, which has raised hopes for their imminent release.
  • Positive outreach to Jews
    • Rouhani and Zarif both tweeted congratulatory messages to Jews in Iran and worldwide on Rosh Hashanah.
    • Also on Twitter, Iran’s foreign minister responded to criticism that Iran should stop denying the Holocaust by stating “Iran never denied it. The man who was perceived to be denying it [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] is now gone.”
    • On the campaign trail, Rouhani criticized Ahmadinejad’s “hate rhetoric.”


  • Questioning Iran’s support for Assad:
    • Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons created fissures within Iran’s political establishment, with former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, a close ally of Rouhani, blaming Assad for the attacks and comparing him to Saddam Hussein. 
    • Rouhani and Zarif both condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria, though did not attribute their use to Assad. However, Rouhani has indicated that they would accept the outcome of democratic elections in Syria, indicating that they may be open to a diplomatic transition that results in Assad stepping down.
  • Supporting diplomacy:
    • Iran has opposed military intervention while supporting the proposed Russian deal for the international community to secure and destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal.President Obama has implied that Iran has played a constructive role in convincing Assad to refrain from using chemical weapons.  
    • According to Obama, “Iran, you know, unfortunately was the target of chemical weapons at the hands of Saddam Hussein back during the Iraq-Iran War…. And you know, I suspect that some of Assad’s allies recognize the mistake he made in using these weapons and it may be that he is under pressure from them as well.”
    • Ali Shamkhani, Iran’s former defense minister under Reformist President Mohammad Khatami, was appointed to the head of the Supreme National Security Council.  He is the first Iranian of Arab descent to head either position, and is expected to utilize his strong relationships with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states to repair relations with those countries.

Positive Signals from the United States

  • President Obama initiated a private exchange of letters with Rouhani, proposing “to turn a new page” in relations with Iran and offering a potential loosening of sanctions in forthcoming talks.
  • Obama also stated that there are indications Rouhani “is somebody who is looking to open dialogue with the West and with the United States, in a way that we haven’t seen in the past. And so we should test it.”
  • Prior to Iran’s election in June, the administration also eased sanctions on personal communication devices, including laptops, mobile devices, software and virtual private networks.
  • A bipartisan group of 131 representatives, including leadership from each party, called Rouhani’s election a “major opportunity” and encouraged revitalized diplomacy with Iran, including through bilateral and multilateral talks and rolling back sanctions to obtain Iranian nuclear concessions.
  • At the first IAEA Board of Governors’ meeting since Rouhani’s election in early-mid September, world powers refrained from targeting Iran with additional pressure in order to give the new leader time to shift course.




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