Summer 2013

In his Nile View column, Nabil Fahmy writes that a “cloud of concern and anticipation hangs over Egypt today.” Alas, you can say that about the entire Middle East. Seldom has the region as a whole been on such a knife’s edge. This issue of the Cairo Review focuses on Iran, where the election in June of Hassan Rowhani to become the country’s next president offers a new opportunity to break the diplomatic deadlock over Iran’s nuclear program. However, as former Rowhani aide Seyed Hossein Mousavian writes in “Five Options for Iran’s New President,” the danger of a military confrontation remains. In “Rowhani’s Challenge,” Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, cautions against the hope that the latest Iranian presidential election is a sign of meaningful democratic change.

Our Special Report on the Iran Dilemma contains a variety of other pieces: Nazila Fathi tracked down Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi for her take on the latest developments; Bijan Khajehpour, Reza Marashi, and Trita Parsi explain the problem with sanctions; Muhammad Sahimi deconstructs Iran’s nuclear program; Reza Sanati highlights the geopolitical struggle over Iran’s gas pipeline project; and Jonas Siegel and Saranaz Barforoush expose the flaws in Western media coverage of Iran. We’re grateful for the contributions of two authors—one Iranian, the other American—with particularly deep attachments to Iran: Abdulkarim Soroush, Iran’s leading philosopher, writes on democracy and Islam; and John Limbert, one of the U.S. diplomats once held hostage in Iran, makes a poignant case for a peaceful solution to the Iran crisis.

This issue also includes a Tahrir Forum section devoted to the crisis in Egypt, which deepened as we were going to press with the ousting of President Mohammed Morsi after Egypt’s second popular uprising in three years. AUC professors Tarek Selim, Laila El Baradei, and Ghada Barsoum explore the socioeconomic challenges threatening Egypt’s democratic transition. “Times have changed,” writes El Baradei, associate dean of AUC’s School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. “Global citizens have high expectations of their governments and have a right to a humane good quality of life. They also have a right to a government that tries to make them happy.”

Scott MacLeod
Managing Editor

No Jobs and Bad Jobs

Amr Hamid leaned forward. “I want social insurance and a pension,” he told me. “I want that when I need medical treatment, so I don’t have to pay a lot of money in a private hospital.” For nearly an hour, we have been discussing the difficult challenges facing young Egyptians in the labor market. Hamid has a job, but he is unhappy working as a teacher in a private school. Hamid, who is twenty-nine years old, holds a Bachelor’s degree in sociology from Ain Shams University. He is paid a paltry eight Egyptian pounds (about one dollar) per class session. He receives no social insurance. There is not even a signed contract with the school administration. Prior to this job, he worked as a store assistant in a small gift shop, but quit due to the low pay. His dream job is to work in government. After all, his late father had a government job and the family continues to receive a pension. A job in government has everything that Hamid currently lacks: social insurance, fixed work hours, a fixed salary, paid vacation days, health insurance, and job security. To Hamid, none of these are a luxury; it is what he needs to be able to marry and start a family.

Ahmed Saleh, who is twenty-eight, currently does not work.  He left his position at a building firm after being transferred from an office job to a construction site. His entire monthly pay would have gone toward the extra transportation cost in getting to the new location.  He was angry that he was moved without additional compensation to cover the expense. He was also upset because the owner had repeatedly promised to give him social insurance but never came through. Like Hamid, his solution is to get a job in the government. His retired father, who once held a government position, has been asking former colleagues if there is a job for Ahmed.

Hamid and Saleh are among the millions of young Egyptians who face a constrained labor market. Their cases illustrate two of the main problems: a high unemployment rate that is much higher than the global average, and an increasing deterioration in the quality of jobs, employment informality and a lack of access to social security. In the economic stagnation that has followed the January 25 revolution, limited employment opportunities for the young generation pose a serious challenge to Egypt’s social cohesion and democratic transition.

Two factors have consistently contributed to the poor employment prospects of young Egyptians. On the supply side, the youth population continues to grow due to a demographic bulge. Egypt currently has its largest cohort of youth in its history and equipping this large group with the skills necessary to compete in a globalized knowledge economy is a formidable task within an overly burdened and under-funded education system. On the labor demand side, the slow pace of job creation in the formal economy, and persistent low productivity and underemployment within the informal economy are limiting young people’s options.

The work experiences of Hamid and Saleh speak to what the World Bank describes as a prevalence of “bad” jobs in Egypt and throughout the Middle East region. These jobs offer low income and no benefits in the form of pension schemes, medical insurance, or potential for growth. Most of these low-productivity jobs are within the informal economy, where wage earners have no work contract and where employers and self-employed workers have no work permits and are mostly not registered. This means there are many methodological hurdles in measuring the size of the informal economy in a country. A 2012 report by the International Labor Organization (ILO) notes that 51.2 percent of non-agricultural employment in Egypt falls within the informal economy. And within the working population, a recent survey by the Population Council and the Information and Decision Support Center showed that work informality is more prevalent among working youth. The report showed that only 15.7 percent of young workers have a signed contract with their employers, and only 14.8 percent have social insurance benefits.

Despite the gravity of the job quality issue among working youth, it barely surfaces in policy discussions about youth employment in Egypt. Unemployment, specifically youth unemployment, has always been the focus of policies directed at youth. Policy makers have long been concerned about unemployment among educated youth due to the political volatility of the group. However, the failure to realize the gravity of job quality is proving to be very costly. It is worth keeping in mind that Mohammed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian who helped ignite the Arab Spring revolts with his act of self-immolation in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, was not jobless (as initially reported by some news media), but a frustrated street vendor protesting the injustices facing the sea of young workers in the realm of the informal economy.

This is not to downplay the problem of youth unemployment in Egypt. While the ILO reported a global youth unemployment rate of 13 percent in 2012, Egypt’s central statistical bureau, the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), reported a 39 percent rate among Egyptians aged twenty to twenty-four in December 2012. That figure is up from 33 percent in September 2011. This means more than one in three young people are unable to find work. Unemployment rates are known to be highest at the point leaving school, and young women are at a particular disadvantage in Egypt’s labor market. The unemployment rate among female youth in the same age bracket is 60.5 percent (compared to 32 percent among male youth). While most unemployed male youth do eventually find work, most young women move out of the labor force in conjunction with marriage and childbearing. Unemployment is actually highest among educated youth, particularly graduates of vocational secondary education.

Unemployment figures, although high, do not really capture the full problem of joblessness in Egypt. Unemployment is not the only criteria for the concept of joblessness. Following international definitions, the unemployed are those who not working for at least one hour per week and are available for work and actively searching for a job. Statistics on joblessness include the unemployed along with people who have given up searching for a job due to limited opportunities. This group of “discouraged” youth is particularly prevalent in rural areas in Egypt. These young people are not included in unemployment statistics because they have given up looking for work upon realizing that the search does not lead to employment. The Human Development Report for Egypt in 2010 estimated that the joblessness rate reached 60 percent in 2009 among young Egyptians between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine. So, two-thirds of these young people are neither in school nor employed. Unemployment statistics, while significant, only refer to a subgroup within this large group of jobless youth. If Saleh, who had to leave his job, continued to search for work, he would be considered among the unemployed. If he loses hope to find a job, which is a strong possibility, given the state of the economy, he is jobless.

Social Security, Fixed Salaries, and Job Security

Nevertheless, “bad” jobs also have a long-lasting negative impact. While unemployment is a problem that primarily affects young and first-time entrants to the labor market, low productivity jobs within the informal economy are a long-term problem with serious impact on Egyptians’ access to social security and other work benefits. If unemployment is a problem that affects youth currently seeking employment, work informality and low job quality are issues that also affect their future. In the current legal framework in Egypt, informality eliminates the potential for young people’s access social security in old age and at times of an inability to work due to unemployment, illness, or pregnancy. Informality also eliminates the possibility of access to health care insurance in Egypt.

For Hamid, Saleh, and many other young Egyptians I have interviewed, the government remains the dream employer. This has been repeatedly shown in polls and youth-focused studies. The government has everything they lack in their private-sector jobs: social security, fixed salaries, job security, paid leave, and in some cases a better pay structure. For young women, a government job has additional benefits. It would primarily provide paid maternity leave, a right denied by most private sector firms. It would also provide the opportunity of unpaid leave for child rearing, with the option of returning to work when she is ready. This is a benefit that cannot be obtained through a private sector firm. For women, there are some intangible benefits to a government/public sector job.  As one young woman working in the private sector described it, a government job is where “no one owns you,” referring to the relatively democratized relations of power in government job. Another unique feature appreciated by women in a government job relates to workplaces being more populated, compared to the predominantly small-size firms of the private sector. A populated work space has a reputation for reducing the risk of sexual harassment.

Yet, the government cannot and should not continue to provide jobs for the large cohorts of fresh graduates year after year. The government’s program of guaranteed employment for graduates, dating from the mid-1960s, has been slowed with the introduction of structural adjustment policies in the early 1990s. A bloated government body with surplus workers is not sustainable, and hence could not survive. As jobs in government and the public sector are now rare to find, young people speak of favoritism and cronyism as the sole means to secure these positions.

Effectively addressing youth employment requires an unwavering political commitment and concerted and sustained government efforts. These efforts hinge on a strong partnership with the private sector, civil society, and the youth themselves as key stakeholders in the process. International experience points to three areas of focus that should be central in addressing youth employment issues. First, there is a need for an economic environment conducive for job creation and sustained growth to meet the growing need for jobs. Second, interventions are needed to enhance the skill level of youth, to smooth their transition into the labor market and encourage entrepreneurship. Third, measures must be pursued to extend social security to workers within the informal economy, who constitute the majority of working youth.

Toward a Youth-Based Economic Policy

Job creation is central to any meaningful discussion of youth employment issues. While the government can no longer be the main employer of youth, it is the role of the government to enable an environment in which the private sector can develop to its full potential and play a role in generating employment and decent jobs. There is little consensus on what would trigger job creation in a specific economy. Approaches span from a focus on skill specialization to an emphasis on investment in physical capital and infrastructure. The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report for 2012 lists a number of pillars for productivity and economic growth. In post-revolution Egypt, a key pillar for economic growth is ensuring economic and political stability and a strong rule of law in the country. A stable institutional and market environment is pivotal to encouraging both domestic and foreign investment to create jobs.

A policy focus on job creation requires mobilizing resources in sectors with high employment potentials such as telecommunications. Recent studies highlight the opportunity of green jobs, such as those in agriculture, water management, recycling and waste management, and renewable energy. However, reports by the ILO on the “green economy” note that the skills required to participate in these markets need cultivating and upgrading.

The second area of policy focus relates to interventions needed to facilitate transition to the labor market are often referred to as active labor market policies. The programs fall within four main categories: providing training for the skills demanded by the labor market; giving search assistance and career counseling for job seekers; promoting entrepreneurship for employment generation; and subsidizing employment programs in the form of public works or temporary guaranteed employment schemes. Many of these have been implemented in Egypt with various degrees of success. The accumulated international experience shows that these programs need to be multifaceted and integrate an array of services in order to have the necessary impact. In skill training, for example, programs that are demand-driven, are connected to employers, and include work-place exposure do increase youth employability by providing them with market-relevant skills and social networks needed to find jobs. There is also a growing focus on “portable” or “soft” skills, which can be used in different jobs and include the ability to read and write, communicate with others, solve problems, and think independently.

Job search assistance and counseling are often described as the most cost-effective active labor market measures for youth employment. Despite this fact, there is little focus on employment services in Egypt. Career development offices are not a common service in public universities in Egypt, and such services are almost nonexistent for youth who do not enter university. Entrepreneurship promotion for youth employment has been one of the most widely implemented active labor market programs in Egypt, primarily through the government’s Social Fund for Development. But entrepreneurship is not a panacea, and young people who are unable to find employment might not be the best entrepreneurs given their limited skills and experience. Research shows that older and more educated entrepreneurs are more likely to be successful.

The third, and least discussed, area of policy focus should address the compromised quality of jobs available to young people. It is baffling that there is such policy neglect of this issue. The fact that most young people are working within the informal economy means that we have a generation who do not contribute to pension schemes and have no access to social security. The national social security scheme has actually suffered from the minimal contributions it receives from (young) workers and the increasing cost of its aging contributors. This alone should be reason enough to point policy intervention in the direction of extending social protection to workers. However, the issue of work informality is rarely addressed in policy circles in Egypt. And when it is addressed, it is often in the context of formalizing the informal to overcome tax evasion and not for the sake of extending social protection to its workers.

Experience in other countries highlights the importance of flexible and simplified contributory social security schemes that take into account the inconsistent income of workers in the informal economy. Progressive contributory schemes allow for government matching of contributions, as in some member countries of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. These programs allow workers to accumulate insurance funds to utilize during times of unemployment, illness, or in old age. Subsidizing the premium for self-employed workers in the informal economy who are unable to pay their contribution has been highlighted by the ILO as a means to extend social protection to the working poor.

Another approach that should be considered in Egypt in response to the limited social security available to working youth is the promotion of micro-insurance schemes provided by cooperatives, unions, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector. These programs have the potential of benefiting workers within the informal economy by protecting insurance policyholders from the financial consequences of various risks, including illness and death. Insurance can be a means through which the workers within the informal economy can amass a lump sum of savings through long-term life insurance policies. An Islamic insurance cooperative system, known as takaful, has grown in a number of Arab and Muslim countries. Because existing insurance models cater to higher income segments of the society, a system that reaches out to a lower-income clientele is needed.

A three-pronged policy approach—focusing on job creation, youth labor market insertion policies, and social security schemes—would place youth employment issues at the heart of Egypt’s economic and social policies. These policies need to take a gendered approach to address the increasing withdrawal of women from the labor market.

Finally, it is important for youth to have a voice in the process of addressing their employment issues. Engagement with youth, particularly those affected by unemployment, joblessness, or bad jobs, is central to a youth-focused policy framework for employment. Fragmentation and limited avenues for advocacy has meant that the youth are absent from policy process. It is unfortunate that angry demonstrations and sometimes violence have been the only means for the youth to be heard.

Ghada Barsoum is an assistant professor in the Department of Public Policy and Administration in the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo.

Make Your Citizens Happy!

When millions of people took to Egypt’s streets calling for bread, freedom, social justice, and human dignity, a regime was toppled. It was a regime that for decades had been accused of catering solely to the needs of the elite and the business community, focusing on enhancing economic growth, encouraging Foreign Direct Investment, all in good cause, but without giving due attention to the real needs and the expectations of vast numbers in the marginalized segments of the population. It was not only about poverty, as the slogans of the revolution pointed out; besides “bread,” there were more importantly calls for “freedom,” “social justice,” and ultimately “human dignity.” It is a phrase that summarizes what a humane quality of life is all about.

This is an important lesson for economists in Egypt and around the world. Regardless of the economic growth or economic development model pursued or implemented by a nation, there should be due consideration of the humanitarian impact of the growth path. There is a mounting realization that the overall objective of any development effort is achieving a positive and sustainable impact on the human quality of life. Over several decades of rigorous economic thinking, experts have come up with various models for economic growth and economic development and have moved a great way from just focusing on tangible material economic progress; to establishing a better link between economic development and human development at large. We have all gone through and witnessed—in various stages of our lives in different parts of the world—assorted implementations of these changing models and ideologies. In figuring out how to realize economic development, nations have tried different strategies derived from the Linear Stages model, the Structural Change models, the International Dependence models, the Neoclassical models and/or the New Growth or Endogenous Growth models. Under these different models, economists and development experts have grappled with problems of unemployment, income distribution, inflation, equity, access, and most significantly poverty, to name just a few everyday economic concerns. And each model or theory added some new dimension in helping solve the puzzle, and in contributing to the question of how to go about developing a nation.

Gross National Happiness

What is meant by humanitarian aspects of growth? In simple words, it means that economic growth efforts should take into consideration that citizens ought not to bear any negative impact from them, and that a humane quality of life that preserves human dignity should be the overall goal of any implemented economic and national development plan. The question of what constitutes a humane good quality of life has been intensively debated in economic literature. And among the generally agreed to notions in answering this question are those that relate to the realization of a humane good quality of life for citizens includes the attainment of three core values: “life sustenance, self-esteem, and freedom.” According to the American economist Michael P. Todaro, this means that for any economic development to be characterized as effective, it must have resulted in the satisfaction of basic needs for citizens (food, shelter, health, protection), in getting them to enjoy self-respect, or in other words dignity, and finally to enjoy freedom, and have a wide range of choices as regards economic and social matters. Evidently the exact definition of each of these three notions may differ from one nation to another, but the main values entailed are mostly uncontested; experts and laymen alike tend to elaborate on and add to them, rather than detract.

A sub-discipline of development ethics has emerged in the field of economics, which centers on figuring out how to integrate ethics in economics. Rather than focusing on increasing access to “goods” in life, the focus is on how to define and eventually realize a “good” life for citizens. An interesting measure for the “good” life, said to have been first conceived in the country of Bhutan in the 1970s, is the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index—a contrast with the more standard Gross National Product (GDP) indicator. The GNH tries to assess, in addition to economic performance and ecological protection, the degree to which development results in increased happiness for citizens. The nine equally weighted categories in the GNH index include: psychological well-being, time use, community vitality, cultural diversity, health, education, living standard, ecological diversity, and good governance. The idea of measuring happiness has been carried forth and adopted by various national and international bodies. Since 2005, the Gallup polling organization has conducted a “well-being” survey in 155 countries, assessing how adults evaluate their lives and the implications for the effectiveness and challenges of economic development. Meanwhile, the 2011 Human Development Report, by the United Nations Development Programme, discusses the notions of equity and sustainability for global citizens, and how any development effort should be undertaken in a fair manner to allow greater access to a better quality of life for the seven billion inhabitants of this planet. The report also assesses the perceptions citizens have of their own well-being.

In contrast, and repeatedly over the years, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank Economic Structural Adjustment and Debt Repayment Policies—bundled with the Washington Consensus frame of thinking—have been recommended to many developing countries and have been criticized because of the perceived dire impacts of these policies on the poor. Although the implementation of the policies may have helped in some cases and improved national economic indicators, many times they also led to political uprisings and enhanced dissatisfaction of citizens of the developing world. In Egypt, the Hosni Mubarak regime always claimed that it was going slowly and gradually with the implementation of the IMF structural adjustment policies to avoid negative impacts on the citizens, but it seems these claims were not entirely candid. In terms of economic growth in the 2000s, Egypt was achieving satisfactory performance. Through the implementation of a number of structural economic reforms, Egypt went from an economic growth rate of 4 percent in the financial year 2003/04 to over 7 percent in FY 2007/08. However, as a result of the global financial crisis, economic performance deteriorated later and went from 7.2 percent GDP growth in FY 2007/08 to 4.2 percent in FY 2008/09, and from Foreign Direct Investment amounting to $13.2 billion to $8.1 billion during the same period. Nevertheless, Egypt’s economic performance—even with these external crises—still amounted to 4.2 percent growth rate, and when compared to other countries in the Middle East, was considered satisfactory; the Middle East and North Africa region growth rate being only 2.4 percent during the same period.

However, despite the reported satisfactory economic performance in Egypt during the past decade, the rate of poverty had risen to unprecedented levels according to various estimations. World Bank records show an increase in the percentage of Egyptians living under the national poverty line rose from 16.7 percent in 2000, to 22 percent of the population in 2008. Other shocking World Bank figures, which were continuously contested by the government, showed that in 2008/2009, 44.1 percent of the population lived under the international poverty line of two dollars per day. Other studies showed a decline in the overall quality of life for Egyptian citizens. For example, when using a multidimensional measure for poverty by a UNICEF study, the percentage of children living in income poverty was reported to have increased from 21 percent in 1999/2000, to 23.8 percent in the year 2008/09, and was speculated to be continuously on the rise. Furthermore, and in spite of high national economic growth rates from 2005 to 2008, the total number of children in Egypt living in poverty increased substantially during the same period, from 5.7 million in 1999/2000, to seven million in 2008/09. Extreme poverty was reported to have increased from 2.9 percent to 3.8 percent of the Egyptian population between 2000 and 2005. In the 2011 Human Development Report, Egypt ranked 113 of 178 countries and was characterized amongst the group of Medium Human Development Countries having gone down one step from its 2010 ranking. The section on Egypt in the 2010 report notes that despite the improvement in per capita GDP between 2008 and 2010, the percentage of the poor increased from 19.6 percent to 21.6 percent, and there was an increase in the absolute number of poor. If we adopt the multi-dimensional measure of poverty implemented by a UNICEF study in 2010, nearly 84 percent of the Egyptian population would be characterized as poor in at least one dimension of poverty—those dimensions being income deprivation and other non-monetary dimensions such as education deprivation, shelter deprivation, water and sanitation deprivation, food deprivation, health deprivation, and information deprivation.

The problem is not the dilemma of a nation achieving economic growth yet failing to deal with poverty issues, and it is not only about income distribution. The problem is that in some instances, and Egypt is a good example, economic growth is realized but human development is not, and no one seems to care about citizens’ happiness and well-being. Egypt realized economic growth but there were many shortcomings in its education system in terms of both quality and quantity, in its healthcare services, in the availability of employment opportunities, in targeting subsidies, and in securing and enabling an environment of good governance where there is civic participation, transparency, rule of law, and effective government institutions. This led to a serious deterioration in the overall quality of life for Egyptian citizens, affected their overall level of satisfaction and perception of well-being, and when the pressures could not be tolerated any further, the situation exploded into revolution.

The Morsi Meter

What can be done now that we have learned our lesson as government officials and national planners? Part of the answer is a more effective management of our public organizations and public programs. In the field of public policy and administration, there is a new line of thinking that idealizes the importance of performance management, that gives great attention to setting clear quantifiable indicators to measure government performance and use the information derived from the measurement process to guide the decision-making process; a whole sub-discipline has now been established that is referred to as performance monitoring and evaluation (M&E). There are M&E departments and units, there are consulting bodies, there are professionals, academic courses of studies, associations, networks, plus training and development programs, all aiming to measure and assess government performance. This applies to government projects, programs, initiatives, and policies. Similarly, the new talk in the field is about the need for evidence-based policy making, where the idea is not to make decisions relying on whims, preferences, or desires of leaders and politicians, but to have measurable evidence to justify decisions and policy choices. The new dialogue also focuses on outcomes, rather than outputs, in our assessment. It is not enough anymore to say that 200,000 students graduated from our public universities (output). It is more important to find out what these students learned, what skills they developed, and whether the education they received enabled them to find jobs later in the market (outcomes). On the same note, it is not important to talk about increasing the number of hospitals built (output), but more significantly we should look at the quality of healthcare services they provide, to what extent they meet citizens’ needs and expectations, and to what extent they will lead to an improvement in the well-being of the people in the community (outcomes and long-term impacts).

In line with the trend towards performance management for governments, currently there is a plethora of international measures for government’s performance. These range from the Gross National Happiness indexes to the UNDP Human Development Indexes, on both an international and national level, to various assessments and rankings for the degree of good governance. The latter term, good governance, investigates the role of government as one of three main gears—with the private sector and civil society—that operates the social, political, and economic affairs and resources of a nation. Besides the regularly published and international Worldwide Governance Indicators from the World Bank, there is also the more comprehensive [Mo] Ibrahim Index of African Governance, and there are more specialized assessments such as one from Transparency International that look into degrees of perceived corruption around the world, and Amnesty International, which diligently documents and reports on the degree of civil liberties and human rights violations.

This line of thinking is very relevant to our discussion of humanitarian aspects of economic growth models. Governments should be held accountable for achieving real outcomes that meet the needs and expectations of their citizenry. Improved performance reference per capita income, growth rates, GDP, all should be paralleled with a rigorous monitoring and evaluation process of what that means in terms of the citizens’ quality of life and the realization of the outcomes and impacts that meet with the citizens’ needs and expectations, and simply makes them “happy.”

This is what Egypt needs. Times have changed. Global citizens have high expectations of their governments and have a right to a humane good quality of life. They also have a right to a government that tries to make them happy. During the political transition in Egypt, we have witnessed several changes of cabinet ministers. The current cabinet appointed by President Mohammed Morsi is kept on its toes by the continuous surveillance of its performance by various citizen groups and parties. The Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research, known as Baseera, has started conducting regular polls to assess citizens’ satisfaction with the president’s performance. This was unheard of before the revolution. Another interesting recent initiative is the Morsi Meter, a website that keeps track of the president’s promises, his self-imposed deadline of one hundred days, and what he has achieved. The Morsi Meter was inspired by the Obama Meter started in the United States to monitor President Barack Obama’s fulfillment of his campaign promises. Word travels fast, and global citizens are learning quickly from one another by sharing experiences and expectations.

The main message is that governments, and their economists and national planners, should work hard on delivering a humane quality of life for their citizens, as defined by predetermined, quantifiable measures of performance agreed upon in a democratic, transparent manner by representatives of citizens concerned. Citizens around the world have rising expectations. Their well-being should continuously be at the center of any economic development and national planning effort.

Laila El Baradei is the associate dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and professor of public administration at the American University in Cairo. She previously served for more than fourteen years as a faculty member at Cairo University. She has been a contributing author to the Egypt Human Development Report in 2004, 2008, and 2010, the Millennium Development Goals Second Country Report for Egypt in 2004, and the World Bank Country Environmental Analysis for Egypt in 2005.

Five Options for Iran’s New President

Nuclear negotiations lasting more than a decade between Iran and world powers have failed. The talks have been unable to reconcile the concerns voiced by the United States and other parties that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon with Iran’s insistence that its program is strictly peaceful and only intended for civilian energy production.

The window for a diplomatic breakthrough will be most opportune during the second term of President Barack Obama who, in his 2013 State of the Union address, called on Iran’s leaders to “recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution.”1 The election of a new Iranian president in June also offers the prospect of a fresh approach to negotiations.

There is, however, a risk that if the current American/Western policy of pressure politics continues, we will inch toward a military confrontation. In a broader sense, the outcome of the nuclear negotiations will have a profound impact on vital issues such as global nuclear non-proliferation, and the Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ) and Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East.

Publicly, the U.S. and other Western officials blame the failure of nuclear talks on Iran. The key question, however, is whether talks have failed because of the perceived Iranian intention to build a nuclear bomb, or due to the West’s unwillingness to recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium under international safeguards. Former U.S. officials Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, authors ofGoing to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran, recently addressed this issue, which rarely is part of Iran policy debates in the United States: “Washington’s unwillingness [to recognize the rights of Iran for enrichment] is grounded in unattractive, but fundamental, aspects of American strategic culture: difficulty coming to terms with independent power centers (whether globally or in vital regions like the Middle East); hostility to non-liberal states, unless they subordinate their foreign policies to U.S. preferences (as Egypt did under Sadat and Mubarak); and an unreflective but deeply rooted sense that U.S.-backed norms, rules, and transnational decision-making processes are meant to constrain others, not America itself.” 2

Iran, as a sovereign state and a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), is entitled to uranium enrichment. I believe that if Washington recognized Iran’s right to enrich, a nuclear deal could be reached immediately. Without this recognition, no substantial agreement will be possible.

Iran’s Nuclear Story

To assess whether Iran is building a nuclear bomb or is simply pursuing its legitimate rights, and to find a solution to the diplomatic stalemate, it is important to understand the evolution of Iran’s nuclear program and the core dispute with the West. The Iranian nuclear program has progressed through four major stages:

Nuclearization of Iran: Iran owes its entrance into the nuclear field largely to the United States, which entered into negotiations with the young Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1957 as part of President Dwight Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program. In the 1970s, the U.S. proposal to Iran was for the country to build twenty-three nuclear power plants by the 1990s. The first Iranian nuclear facility, the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), was built by the U.S. in 1967.3 During this period, the Americans and Europeans were competing to win lucrative projects to nuclearize Iran.

The United States and Europe had no objections to either Iran enriching uranium on its soil or investing in enrichment plants in Europe, despite the known fact that the shah had ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons. When asked in 1974 if Iran would eventually have a nuclear weapon, he replied, “without a doubt and sooner than one would think.” After India tested a nuclear device that same year, he said, “[Iran had] no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons but if small states began building them, Iran might have to reconsider its policy.”4

The West fully supported the Iranian nuclear program and without a doubt, if the shah were alive today, Iran would have multiple nuclear power plants, industrial scale uranium enrichment facilities, and a nuclear arsenal on a par with those of Pakistan, India, and Israel. 

No rights for civilian power plant: After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, although Iran decided to cancel or shrink the shah’s ambitious nuclear and military projects, the West withdrew from all nuclear agreements and contracts, which cost Iran billions of dollars. At that time, policy in the U.S. and the West was against Iran having a single civilian nuclear plant and they pressed Germany to withdraw from its contractual agreement to build the only Iranian civilian nuclear plant at Bushehr.5 In effect, the West denied the rights of Iran under article four of the NPT, which entitles signatory states “inalienable right” to pursue the use of nuclear energy “for peaceful purposes” and calls upon all parties to the treaty to facilitate the “fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials, and scientific and technological information” on peaceful uses of nuclear energy.6

No access to international fuel market: Following the 1979 revolution, Iran had no plans to have uranium-enrichment activities on its own soil. Iran had paid $1.2 billion for a joint venture with the French-based Eurodif consortium, to enrich uranium on French soil and supply fuel to the Tehran Research Reactor and Bushehr.7 The United States pressured the French to pull out of the deal. At the time, Iran even paid the United States to supply fuel for the TRR. The United States neither supplied the fuel nor returned the money paid.8

During my tenure as the director general for Western Europe in the Iranian foreign ministry in the mid-1980s and as Iran’s ambassador to Germany from 1990 to 1997, I frequently insisted to German and French interlocutors that Iran was not interested in having a domestic fuel cycle and that it was counterproductive to deny Iran the right to civilian nuclear power plants and access to the international fuel market. I repeatedly forewarned them that such a position would leave Iran with no choice but to proceed with efforts to reach self-sufficiency in the nuclear field, completing unfinished and paid-for projects.

No enrichment right for Iran: In 2002, Iran mastered enrichment.9 Shortly afterwards, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued the first resolution on Iran’s nuclear program. Subsequently, the EU3—France, Germany, and the United Kingdom—began diplomatic negotiations with Iran in October 2003, which lasted for two years.

Iran submitted different proposals to address the concerns of the international community, covering all major transparency measures and objective guarantees for non-diversion of Iran’s nuclear program toward a nuclear bomb. Iran agreed to all international transparency  arrangements, such as the Safeguard Agreement, Subsidiary Arrangement Code 3.1, and Additional Protocol. Furthermore, Iran, as a confidence building measure, agreed to suspend enrichment for about two years, cap enrichment at 5 percent, and maintain a limited stockpile of enriched uranium.10 Talks failed due to the U.S. policy of denying the legitimate rights of Iran for enrichment under the NPT.11 The “Nuclear Engagement Policy” came to an end, and Iran resumed enrichment to preserve its right under the NPT.

Since 2006, there have been several lost opportunities to achieve a breakthrough in talks between Iran and the so-called P5+1—the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany (a major trade partner with Iran). These lost opportunities include: the swap deal in 2009 on the simultaneous exchange of 3.5 percent stockpile for TRR fuel rods; Iran’s offer in 2010 to cap enrichment at 5 percent in return for fuel rods; the Turkey-Brazil-Iran swap agreement in 2010; and Iran’s offer in 2011 to halt 20 percent enrichment for TRR fuel.

The most important initiative, the Russian step-by-step proposal introduced in the summer of 2011, addressed all the concerns of the P5+1. Iran welcomed the plan, but the West did not. The proposal entailed the following points:12

– Implement the Additional Protocol and Subsidiary Arrangement Code 3.1 to ensure the maximum level of transparency.

–  Limit the level of enrichment to 5 percent to ensure no break out toward weaponization.

–  Halt installation of new generation of centrifuges.

–  Limit the number of enrichment sites to one.

– Address the IAEA’s concerns on all technical ambiguities including Possible Military Dimension issues (PMDs).

– Suspend enrichment for three months in order to address the requirement of the United Nations and the IAEA resolutions.

The aforementioned history suggests that the Iranian nuclear dilemma is centered on the legitimate rights of Iran to enrichment under the NPT and is not about building a nuclear bomb. Iran has signed onto every Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) convention, such as the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 1997; the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in 1996; and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1970. Such conventions entail rights and obligations for all signatories.13 The West, however, has chosen, contravening international law, to carry out a coercive policy whereby Iran is pressed on obligations while its rights are denied.

The NPT, therefore, has been used by the West as an instrument of pressure against Iran and to falsely accuse Tehran of seeking nuclear weapons. Such tactics serve as a means to justify punitive measures and eventual military action. The NPT is effectively serving as a platform to deny the legitimate rights of Iran and to rally the international community in endorsing and implementing the most draconian multilateral and unilateral sanctions ever levied on Iran.

As a result, Iran is increasingly disillusioned with international conventions that forego its rights but expect full commitment to obligations. This has led Iran to view the NPT as a national security threat, which is being used as an instrument by warmongers in the United States to press for measures to achieve their ultimate goal—regime change.

A Fresh Approach?

The new Iranian president’s first priority in office will be to manage the economic crisis. The nuclear standoff resulted in unprecedented unilateral and multilateral sanctions being placed on the country, a primary reason for its economic hardship. The new administration has five options for handling the nuclear stalemate and thereby also alleviating the effects of sanctions on the country.  

Continue to seek a peaceful solution to the standoff. In recent nuclear talks, to prevent Iran’s breakout capability and to ensure maximum level of transparency, the five major demands of the P5+1 were for Iran to: first, suspend 20 percent uranium enrichment activities and constrain the ability of Fordo, Iran’s second enrichment plant; second, limit 20 percent enriched uranium stockpile; third, implement the NPT Additional Protocol; fourth, implement the Subsidiary Arrangement Code 3.1 and; fifth, provide access beyond Additional Protocol to address Possible Military Dimensions (PMDs) concerns of the IAEA.14

Iran, in return, had two major demands: lifting sanctions and recognizing Iran’s rights under the NPT. Iran was ready to meet the demands but the P5+1 did not reciprocate accordingly, as the world powers were not prepared to lift substantial sanctions nor recognize Iran’s right to enrichment. A peaceful solution will only be possible if the major demands of the world powers and Iran are considered within a package, to be implemented in a step-by-step manner with proportionate reciprocation. 

Surrender Iran’s nuclear program. This move will be political suicide for any Iranian politician, particularly since the country has endured such severe economic and political ramifications. Reinforcing the importance of the nuclear program, Iranian lawmakers signed a petition urging the nuclear negotiating team to defend national interests. “The West must learn that Iran’s nuclear train, which moves on the rails of peaceful goals, will never stop,” the petition read.15

Tolerate the barrage of sanctions and other punitive measures. This would be neither bearable for Iran, nor, for that matter, for the United States. Washington has made it clear that it believes time is running out on nuclear negotiations. For its part, Iran cannot long tolerate the current punitive measures, which include: six United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions resolutions;16European Union and U.S. sanctions beyond the scope of the UNSC resolutions on oil and central bank assets;17 an intensifying cyber and intelligence war; the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists; and additional UN resolutions on human rights and terrorism.18 

Build a nuclear bomb as a tool for resolving the crisis peacefully. This option would have the following important benefits:

– Abandoning the notion of “all options on the table”—an implicit warning of a military attack (a benefit realized similarly by North Korea).

– Bringing an end to the U.S. regime change policy.

– Forcing the United States to recognize the rights of Iran for enrichment and end its wishful thinking that Iran would only enrich below 5 percent.

– Convincing the West to lift all sanctions in return for Iran dismantling the bomb.

– Realizing the “Mutual Assured Destruction” theory of the eminent American political scientist Kenneth Waltz, thus creating a strategic balance that reduces the possibility of war in the Middle East.

– Pressing Israel to accept a Middle East free from nuclear weapons and other WMDs.

Although Iranian proponents of this option are in the minority, the prolongation of the nuclear dispute, which continues to weaken Iran’s economy, will likely strengthen arguments for this position. Furthermore, it could be seen as a viable avenue to convince the West to recognize the rights of Iran for enrichment under the NPT. The Iranians recall that the West only recognized their rights for civilian nuclear power plant and access to the international fuel market when Iran mastered enrichment. Currently, the West demands a halt to Iran’s enrichment activity in return for support for civilian nuclear power plants and fuel guarantees from the international market. This precedent may push Iran to build the nuclear bomb and as a condition to disarm, demand that the West should alter its position and recognize Iran’s rights for enrichment.

Withdraw from the NPT and all WMD treaties. Iran can substitute the treaties with the supreme leader’s religious fatwa banning all WMDs. In this option, the West’s policy of “only obligations and no rights” would force Iran to change its posture on WMD conventions. This move will relieve Iran of its treaty obligations, which have been used by the West to place further sanctions on Tehran.

Withdrawing from the NPT has become an increasingly attractive option within the decision-making circles of the country. Alaeddin Boroujerdi, chairman of parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, recently stated: “It is not acceptable to Iran to respect the NPT and the Agency’s rules, while the U.S, and the West ignore the NPT, including its Article 6 [which underlines decreasing the number of nuclear weapons] and Article 4 [which stresses every country’s inalienable right to use the civilian nuclear technology],” Boroujerdi added that “all options are on the parliament’s table.”19

Hypocrisy and the NPT

The U.S. and Western punitive measures on Iran have exceeded those placed on North Korea, a country that withdrew from the NPT, built nuclear weapons, conducted three tests, and threatened to use them against the United States.20 And, at the same time, the United States and other Western countries have forged close nuclear cooperation with non-NPT nuclear weapons states such as India, Pakistan, and Israel.21 It is no wonder that the Iranians are growing frustrated with such international hypocrisy, which rewards violators and non-signatory states to the NPT with strategic alliances. Iranians are reaching the conclusion that they have paid a higher price for staying committed to the NPT and having no nuclear weapons.

The reality is that since the 1979 Revolution, the NPT has proven more harmful than beneficial for Iran. Instead, the NPT has effectively become a national security threat, whereby the West has used it as an instrument to bring Iran to the United Nations Security Council. Hypothetically, if Iran was not part of the NPT, or even possessed nuclear weapons (as Israel, India, and Pakistan do), there would be no legitimate and legal grounds for using “non-compliance” as a gateway to bring the country under such pressure. The main argument and justification in the West for continuing their punitive measures rests in the premise that, because there is suspicion over Iran’s intentions and perceived ambitions for nuclear weapons, there is no need to extend Tehran enrichment and other rights under the NPT.

The history of Iran’s nuclear evolution and the blatant use of double standards by the world powers to limit Iran’s nuclear progress and deny its rights render the “non-compliance” argument as yet another excuse to punish Iran. In 1979, Iran was in compliance with its NPT obligations, yet its rights under the treaty for having civilian nuclear power plants and access to international fuel market were denied. The IAEA found South Korea and Egypt in “non-compliance” in 2004−05, but neither country was referred to the Security Council, nor was sanctioned.

Ultimately, the Iranian nuclear issue is political in nature and the heated debate over the nature of Iran’s nuclear program will continue in the foreseeable future. On March 5, 2013, Hans Blix, head of the IAEA for sixteen years and in charge of the UN’s Iraq nuclear monitoring and verification group from 2000 to 2003, said:

So far Iran has not violated NPT and there is no evidence right now that suggests that Iran is producing nuclear weapons. The fact that Tehran has enriched uranium up to 20 percent leads to suspicion of a secret weapons program, however, no action can be justified on mere suspicions or intentions that may not exist.22

In 2011, Mohamed ElBaradei, another former head of IAEA, similarly said: “During my time at the agency, we haven’t seen a shred of evidence that Iran has been weaponizing, in terms of building nuclear-weapons facilities and using enriched materials.”23

The IAEA position changed once the Japanese diplomat Yukiya Amano became director general in December 2009. Amano said Iran had yet to clarify “outstanding issues which give rise to concerns about possible military dimensions to its nuclear program, including by providing access to all sites, equipment, persons, and documents requested by the agency.”24 U.S. diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks revealed Amano’s assiduous courting of American support. In an October 2009 cable, the U.S. diplomat Geoffrey Pyatt informed Washington that Amano is “solidly in the U.S. court on every key strategic decision, from high-level personnel appointments to the handling of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.”25

Analyzing Amano’s policy, Robert Kelley, a former U.S. weapons scientist who ran the IAEA action team on Iraq at the time of the U.S.-led invasion, said:

Amano is falling into the [former U.S. Vice President Dick] Cheney trap. What we learned back in 2002 and 2003, when we were in the run-up to the war, was that peer review was very important, and that the analysis should not be left to a small group of people… So what have we learned since then? Absolutely nothing. Just like Dick Cheney, Amano is relying on a very small group of people and those opinions are not being checked.26

The nuclear issue exemplifies Western attempts to deny Iran its inalienable right to peaceful nuclear technology. But such cases have been an ongoing saga since the 1979 revolution. Iran is signatory to all WMD conventions and has been in full compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) for the last fifteen years, since signing and ratifying.27 For example, Iran is a leading advocate for banning chemical weapons. The country was a victim of chemical weapons at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s regime during the Iran-Iraq war (and, it should be noted, Iran did not reciprocate in kind). Iran is well versed on the effects of such weapons.28 Yet, the West has denied Iran its rights under the CWC to receive assistance for the peaceful use and technology transfer within the chemical industry.

Iran commits to banning the use, acquisition, and procurement of WMDs not because of international treaty obligations but rather voluntarily based on the supreme leader’s fatwa. Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, Iran’s most senior figures have reiterated the official position on WMDs. Imam Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, enunciated his religious opinion on the proliferation and use of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, stating:

If they—the then Soviet Union and the U.S.—continue to make huge atomic weapons and so forth, the world may be pushed into destruction and major loss will afflict the nations. Everybody wherever he is, the writers, intellectuals, scholars, and scientists throughout the world, should enlighten the people about this danger so that the masses of people will stand up vis-à-vis these two powers themselves and prevent the proliferation of these arms.29

During the 1980−88 Iran-Iraq War, when 100,000 Iranians were killed or injured by Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons—developed with material and technology supplied by the West—Iranian military officials asked Imam Khomeini to permit them to reciprocate. He refused to give permission as it would have transgressed Islamic belief. That a country would, during wartime, refrain from responding in kind to the use of such weapons, which killed tens of thousands of its own civilians and military personnel testifies to the strength of such religious decrees.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the successor of Imam Khomeini, has followed the same policy on Iran’s commitment to the eradication of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. In August 2005 in an official statement, the Iranian mission to the IAEA stated:

The Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued a fatwa that the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam and that the Islamic Republic of Iran must never acquire these weapons.30

The supreme leader has continued to reaffirm his decree on many occasions, such as in the following statement:

We have often said that our religious tenets and beliefs consider these kinds of weapons of mass destruction to be instruments of genocide and are, therefore, forbidden and considered to be haram [religiously banned]. This is why we do not believe in atomic bombs and weapons and do not seek them… The Islamic Republic of Iran considers the use of nuclear, chemical and similar weapons as a great and unforgivable sin. We proposed the idea of ‘Middle East free of nuclear weapons’ and we are committed to it… I stress that the Islamic Republic has never been after nuclear weapons and that it will never give up the right of its people to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Our motto is: ‘Nuclear energy for all and nuclear weapons for none.’ We will insist on each of these two precepts.31

In January 2013, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman stressed that “there is nothing higher than the supreme leader’s fatwa to define the framework for our activities in the nuclear field.”32 Iran can therefore lay a new foundation for non-proliferation, based on Islamic values and principles, embodied in the supreme leader’s fatwa, and not on the NPT or other WMD conventions. In this way, the credit would go to Islam. As a goodwill measure, Iran would provide unfettered access to inspectors and declare its peaceful intentions. This would ensure Iran no longer permits the West to use the NPT and other WMD conventions as a means to press Iran and inflict economic, social, and political harm.

Seyed Hossein Mousavian is a former Iranian ambassador to Germany (1990
97) and spokesman for Iran’s team in nuclear negotiations with the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency (2003– 05). From 2005 to 2007, he served as foreign policy adviser to Ali Larijani, then secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and chief nuclear negotiator. Mousavian was head of the Foreign Relations Committee of Iran’s National Security Council from 1997 to 2005. He is the author of Iran-Europe Relations: Challenges and Opportunities and most recently The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: A Memoir. He is currently a research scholar at the Program on Science and Global Security in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.











11  Article IV of the NPT states, “Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty.”


13  Fact Sheets: Treaty Membership and Signatory Status












25 Ibid




29 Communication dated 12 September, 2012, received from the Resident Representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran concerning “Facts on Iran’s Nuclear Policy,” IAEA INFCIRC/842, 12 September 2012,

30 Iran’s statement at IAEA Emergency Meeting, Mehr News Agency, 10 August 2005, available at http:// mehr080905.html

31  Part 1: Khamenei on Nuclear Weapons, The Iran Primer, United States Institute of Peace, 31 August 2012,


Back from the Brink

Much has been written about the lack of political liberty during the thirty-year reign of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. But those three decades were also characterized by a lack of economic equity, and deteriorating standards of living. Historically, Egypt has enjoyed a diverse portfolio of resources—plentiful agriculture, hydroelectric power, petroleum and natural gas deposits, and an educated and available labor force. But management of such resources during the Mubarak era was plagued by political favoritism, financial corruption, and a failure to institute innovation-based policies or, for that matter, any system-based policies.

The Mubarak regime touted the relatively high growth rates in Egypt in the years before the 2011 revolution—even after the international recession occurred in 2008, Egypt’s GDP still reached a growth rate of 4.1 percent—but it was a mirage. The growth did not trickle down to the middle and lower classes, where social conditions actually worsened. This is what economists call “unbalanced development.” As Egypt neared the brink of revolution, more than half of all Egyptians were failing to attain the minimum level of sustained livelihood. Unemployment and inflation rates had continued to hit the poor harshly, with persistent double-digit levels in both economic indicators for more than three consecutive years. Moreover, wages lagged due to high levels of informal workers and child labor, ineffective mapping of skills to work requirements in the labor market, and a legal minimum wage of two Egyptian pounds ($0.35) per day, one-fifth the standard set by the United Nations Development Programme. By the beginning of 2011 it was clear that in Egypt, the rich were getting richer, the poor were getting poorer, and the middle class seemed to be disappearing altogether.

Conditions have only worsened since the revolution; including after the election of President Mohammed Morsi in 2012. People had high hopes for any indication of economic recovery, or an announced plan for a new economic system. However, the same economic problems persisted, and some indicators have even worsened. Unemployment remains in double digits, inflation has climbed further still due to the declining value of the Egyptian currency in the international foreign exchange market, and tourism receipts were at record low levels because of severe political instability. Egypt’s central bank has made repeated announcements about alarming—and ever decreasing—levels of its reserves, causing financial and economic ratings for Egypt to fall. Also, more critical economic problems emerged after the 2011 revolution, such as fuel shortages and electricity outages, and consequently interruptions in the water supply. In addition, political favoritism continued under Morsi’s rule.

It is imperative that Egypt now embarks on a new economic course. The need to rebuild is reason enough for the political factions to put their squabbles aside and unite in the greater interest of the country. Egypt does not need reform; it requires transformational change toward a completely new system. Reforming a system that has failed will not work. Understandably, many Egyptians from the political, social, and economic spheres are calling for reform, but the January 25 revolution clearly highlighted a system failure in the old regime. Thus, there must be new methods of governance, economic management, and political order, based on the principles of accountability and transparency.

What is needed is a bottom-up approach in accordance with the theories of Michael E. Porter of Harvard University. This would start with an examination of Egypt’s economic structure, and an analysis of past performance in the various sectors. In the belief that macro-economic management is critical for economic development, the model would then construct a new system based on a vision and plan for a brighter economic future. Porter’s method is based on looking at the “critical forces” that govern the sectoral structure of the economy. It builds on the market mechanism (micro-economy) yet does not deny the importance of macro-economic management through effective government regulation of such markets. Porter’s sufficiency condition to the achievement of both economic prosperity and social equity simultaneously is to look at the situation on the ground—not only on paper—and to cultivate the forces of the market with efficiency-driven government regulation mechanisms to dictate growth and innovation outcomes, and not vice versa.

Agriculture, Industry, and Services

The central role of agriculture in Egypt’s political, economic, and cultural heritage dates back to ancient times. Modern Egyptians remain faithful to agrarian traditions. In recent years, the agriculture sector has achieved steady growth rates of  3 to 4 percent per year. Yet, the sector continues to decline as an overall percentage of GDP. Agriculture, while employing 32 percent of Egypt’s labor force, contributes only 13 percent of GDP.

The agriculture sector is afflicted by numerous problems. It currently behaves according to the “low cost-low quality output trap” hypothesis. Land holdings are relatively small per investor, which works against economies of scale. Thus, the sector utilizes reduced expenditure measures to attain target profit margins, and this has been happening without enough technological mechanization due to a lack of funds in the sector. And consequently, the forces of low cost, low quality, and low output characterize the sector. But perhaps the most pressing problem is low labor productivity, as measured by international benchmarks as well as against other domestic sectors. Many factors contribute to the problem. One of them is the sheer size of Egypt’s homogeneous labor force (nearly seven million workers with similar skills, work ethics, and family culture). Another reason is the sector’s relative low wages, which are lagging behind the already low wage level in the Egyptian economy. This is a result of low levels of agricultural education and training, as well as severe land fragmentation; the subdivision of land parcels that hinders efficiency and productivity.

Another problem for the sector is inefficient water use. Low levels of investment in infrastructure, an old and inconsistent legal framework, and user subsidies have plagued Egypt’s water system. The sector experiences decreasing returns to scale given the high saturation of land—with farmsteads as well as real estate developments—in areas in close proximity to water sources notably the Nile River. Land reclamation for agricultural purposes seems to be the only means for so-called “horizontal land expansion”—in either direction from the Nile—but the high cost of reclaimed land, driven by competition from other sectors, poses a challenge.

Industry contributes to about 35 percent of Egypt’s GDP and to nearly one-fifth of its growth rate. About 17 percent of the labor force is employed in this sector. While the industrial sector does enjoy a higher labor productivity level compared to other Egyptian economic sectors, it nonetheless suffers from low labor productivity levels as measured against international benchmarks.

Low labor quality is a major problem, whether we are talking about skilled or unskilled workers. The reasons for this include Egypt’s poor overall educational system, the lack of practical training for skilled and unskilled workers, and an inadequate matching of skills with the needs of employers. Another problem is that industry faces technical constraints due to severely low levels of innovation. Egypt spends little on Research & Development (R&D), and there is an absence of the type of university-industry collaboration in R&D that is necessary for industrial competitiveness. Egypt’s dependency on imported technologies is another obstacle to industrial development. Factors such as ministerial decrees, sudden policy shifts, lack of transparency, and corruption combine to discourage technological upgrading and industrial innovation.

A fundamental problem hindering industrial development is state control and influence over the sector. The government’s power over the sector began back in 1961 during an era of nationalization under Egypt’s then leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, but has maintained its influence to this day, despite many attempts for privatization. Nasser’s endeavors in industrialization were based on the public sector with economies of scale, given the size of the Egyptian population at the time. It worked well for at least a decade, but was not sustainable due to a lack of technological progress and over-employment in public sector industries, such as textiles, iron and steel, home appliances, scientific research, and pharmaceuticals. Anwar Sadat’s open door policies in the 1970s were mostly geared towards open trade in consumption, rather than creating new industrial markets locally.

The efforts at privatization undertaken by the Mubarak regime resulted in crony capitalism—monopolies in industrial enterprises shifted from the state to a private sector with close political ties to Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party. The powerful monopolies of these tycoons, combined with historically weak supply-chain infrastructure, undermined any potential contribution to innovation from the private sector. Factors such as political favoritism, high levels of country risk, and a lack of information transparency encouraged the private sector to pursue short-term gains at the expense of long-term prospects. Consequently, local innovation has been geared toward reducing expenditures on total delivered cost reaching the consumer. Yet it generally overlooked the potential of high quality technological attributes for industrial production, the latter being a risky strategy due to insufficient local demand for high-priced industrial goods.

Egypt’s services sector contributes to 57 percent of the country’s GDP. The sector is dominated by three services, all of which are foreign dependent: tourism, which relies on visitors from abroad; telecom, which is largely foreign owned and depends on outside technology; and financial services, which rely on technology outside Egypt’s borders.

Foreign dependency is a potential problem because the sector’s investment funds and proceeds are not locally based. Nobel laureate Robert Solow’s growth theory argument states that local technological innovation, through capital investments, is the key to sustainable development. When such funds are foreign dependent, a lack of sustainability could be a problem.

Yet, foreign dependency provides a host of direct benefits and positive externalities to the economy as well. For example, the sector employs more than half of the Egyptian work force, making it the country’s leading job market. Services contribute to neutralizing the trade deficit via net exports. The sector is a main source of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), and an engine for driving business generally. And it is a means for spreading technology, efficiency, quality, and growth to other sectors of the economy.

A New Economic Vision

Competitive economies tend to produce higher levels of income for their citizens. Egypt, however, has not fared well in competitiveness studies. The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index (GCI) defines competitiveness as the set of institutions, policies, and factors that determine the level of productivity of a certain country relative to its peers. The level of productivity, in turn, sets the sustainable level of prosperity that can be earned by any economy. The productivity level also determines the rates of return obtained by investments (physical, human, and technological). Because the rates of return are the fundamental drivers of the growth rates of an economy, a more competitive economy is one that is likely to grow faster in the medium- and long-term.

Egypt’s GCI has been weak and erratic. It ranked 81 out of 139 countries in 2010 on the eve of the revolution, down from 70 the preceding year. The fall in rank indicated the persistence of an inefficient and stagnant economic system. The economy experienced an artificial growth trajectory due to the high financial profitability of a relatively few elite enterprises—there was though a lack of notable local innovation and no trickle-down (spillover) effects. This meant such economic activities had little impact on the masses.

The relatively high reported GDP growth rate in 2010 certainly did not reflect national productivity. Once again, growth rates alone turned out to be a poor indicator of economic development. Egypt’s lowest competitiveness rankings have been in the areas of corruption, macroeconomic environment, R&D spending, effectiveness of higher education and training, and labor market efficiency (the latter category scoring next to last in the rankings of all nations). Egypt received its lowest rankings in precisely the areas required for any sustainable level of competitiveness.

A brighter economic future is within Egypt’s grasp. There are a variety of solutions to some of the basic problems. For example, significant “scale and stretch” opportunities exist that can help the agricultural sector reach another level. There is strong potential for Egypt to expand into new markets, such as food processing and retail food chains and franchising. Better education and skills upgrading can help the sector’s abundance of low-cost labor achieve a value-added advantage. Egyptian farmers stand to make substantial gains by moving from traditional to mechanized agricultural techniques. Egypt has an opportunity to exploit its comparative strengths, including favorable weather conditions that allow for year-round cultivation, and the potential that land reclamation could increase crop outputs by 3.5 percent per year, thus exceeding its own population growth.

Egypt’s water subsidy has historically encouraged over-consumption. Coupled with a fixed Nile-basin water quota, Egypt now needs to reconsider its water policy. Re-allocating water subsidies and introducing fair water pricing formula to eliminate excess water demand is necessary. This will create an “equilibrium water usage” in the country, rather than over-consumption of a potentially scarce resource. Egypt must reach satisfactory understandings on water use with Africa’s Nile Basin countries, and partner with them to maximize agricultural efficiency. The goal should be growth in agriculture that will exceed growth in the population rate, an essential factor for achieving food security.

In order to reverse Egypt’s poor industrial performance, improving standards of quality, expanding R&D, creating university-industry partnerships, and upgrading the supply chain are all important pillars for success. Incentives to deepen existing investments and create new innovative industrial ventures are equally important. Another step is enforcing anti-monopolistic fair pricing practices. Egypt may have much to learn from the economies of the so-called BRICS nations—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—in terms of their industrial capacity, economies of scale and stretch, “Creating Shared Value” projects, industrial innovation, and locally-based multinational enterprises. The concept of Creating Shared Value using private investment for public interest, first introduced by Michael E. Porter and his colleague Mark R. Kramer, has been very successful in the BRICS economies. Egypt can borrow from such experiences, such as profit-seeking investments tackling public goods and services related to environmental pollution, infrastructure development, education scholarships, health-based research, and other national-based targets.

The future of Egyptian services could be quite promising if certain criteria are met. Exploiting the advantages of foreign dependency will be one of the key practices. For example, the foreign demand dependence in tourism can be turned into an intangible asset in the form of branding Egypt on a global scale. Dependency on foreign financing can be turned to an advantage by fostering partnerships with local entrepreneurs, and shifting FDI from capital-intensive to labor-intensive enterprises to reduce unemployment. Additionally, Egypt should promote value-added investments in the services sector, with the aim of yielding significant positive externality to other sectors of the economy.

To truly move forward, however, Egypt must adopt a vision to create an efficiency-driven competitive market in the short to medium term, and an innovation-driven society in the long term. Such a vision must be pursued in keeping with the January 25 revolution’s demands for equity and economic justice, more jobs and higher living standards. The economy needs to gradually shift from the extreme neo-classical liberal approach of the Mubarak era to a welfare state that also provides an open environment for investment and entrepreneurship. Three stages of implementation are required:

Short-Term Recommendations

The first stage—over a span of one to two years—is immediate intervention, with the objective of establishing the prerequisites for a systemized economy. To begin with, political unrest must cease or be reduced significantly. Public management systems must be restructured, and training programs to upgrade labor productivity upgraded. Transparency-driven regulations and mechanisms must be enacted to reduce corruption. Also, the application of “labor matching schemes” to operational performance in public enterprises should be mandatory, such that efficiency is the core criteria for job security. Public jobs must be mapped to the education skills required for work tasks, and in essence the whole labor market and the education sector should be mapped together in order to feed each other with operational skills, knowledge, and talent. Consideration should be given to revising the minimum wage structure to adjust for inflation, and index it to achieved educational levels.

Medium-Term Recommendations

The second and most challenging stage—over a span of three to five years—should be aimed at achieving an efficiency-driven economy with distributional equity among the masses. This stage requires transformational changes in the structure of the Egyptian economy, starting with the establishment of a national planning commission. Regulations must be implemented to enforce local quality standards in line with regional competition. An effort must be undertaken to radically improve and update the educational system across all levels, which would abandon a pedagogy based on rote memorization in favor of one that inculcates critical thinking skills. Meanwhile, a private education system as an alternative to free tertiary education should be created with links to public R&D and industry practice.

The Egyptian government should undertake a major overhaul of national infrastructure in this stage; among the aims would be tackling agricultural land fragmentation, improving supply chains for industry, and maximizing positive externalities in services. Policymakers should promote the concept of Creating Shared Value, thus igniting investment through an understanding of the interdependence of business and society. This would require the enactment of national mechanisms for cost-benefit analysis using economic and social-environmental evaluation of new investments, and abandoning sole reliance on financial cost-benefit assessments. In other words, economic value-added should receive priority in evaluating financial projects even under private sector investment. The government should allow subsidies for essential goods only when they remain in line with national competitiveness goals. It is no use for citizens to receive entitlements of subsidized goods and services if such goods and services fail to function properly. This doctrine concerning economic subsidies espoused by the Indian economist Amartya Sen, must be implemented to have a sustainable growth path based on efficiency.

Long-Term Recommendations

The third stage, spanning five to twenty years, is aimed at creating a sustainable, innovation-driven society based on international standards. Numerous critical elements must be achieved. One of them is a cultural transformation to develop a world-class educational system—not unlike the enlightenment that occurred in Egypt through the educational expeditions to Europe during the reign of Mohammed Ali. Another vital element is to spend a minimum of 5 percent of GDP (compared to the current expenditure of 0.5 percent) on R&D, with strong connections to the agriculture, industrial, and services sectors. Egypt must also undergo a radical shift toward an institutional culture as it relates to work ethics, corruption, and information transparency; a policy of zero-tolerance for corruption should be pursued. Finally, policymakers should seek to make Egypt an entrepreneurship hub for the region by promoting local and regional investments through a differentiated competitive advantage. Tourism is an obvious but by no means the only area ripe for a “branding Egypt” strategy.

Egypt needs a new manifesto, as demanded by the people, in the slogan Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice! Egyptians can unite around such a vision, whatever their ideology or religion, to achieve the dream of a better future. Leaders and policymakers must create the environment for making this happen.

Tarek Selim is a professor of economics and the chair of the Department of Economics at the American University in Cairo and an affiliate of the Microeconomics of Competitiveness Network at Harvard Business School. He is a research fellow at the Economic Research Forum for the Arab Countries. He previously served as a senior economic advisor for the Egyptian Competition Authority, and is a founding member of the Alfred P. Sloan Industry Studies Association at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Egypt, Energy, and the Environment: Critical Sustainability Perspectives.

An American in Tehran

As I was turning thirteen, I packed up everything I had to embark on a new life in Tehran with my Iranian mother and stepfather. In 1999, I left behind everyone and everything I knew in Los Angeles, including my American father. The culture shock was massive, to put it mildly. I had only been to Iran a couple times, including a trip as a child in 1991, the year Hollywood released Not Without My Daughter, the film starring Sally Field depicting the real-life story of an American woman who makes a daring escape from Iran with her child amid a custody dispute with her Iranian husband. About the only other thing I had learned about Iran was that a man called “The Shah” once lived there, and that he’d had an arch nemesis named Khomeini.

I’m happy to report that I’m much better informed today; I’m writing a Master’s thesis on Iran at the American University in Cairo. But back then, being a politically naïve teenager complicated my feelings of displacement and melancholy. One day reading aloud from the textbook about the Iranian revolution in my seventh grade history class, I got to the passage about Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989. I pointed out the mistake to my teacher. After all, how could the man be dead when his image decorated every street and public building in Tehran? My classmates erupted in laughter. It took me a while to distinguish the morality enforcers of the
komiteh from other branches of Iranian security; at the sight of ordinary conscripts, I would hurriedly tuck my hair under my headscarf, and put the sleeves of mymanteau all the way down so not even my nails would show.

Being an American in Iran initially filled me with paranoia. Somehow I believed that if my nationality was discovered, I could be taken hostage—like the Americans at the U.S. embassy in 1979. The bars on the windows of the Tehran International School reinforced my sense of dread. My young mind would wander to fantasies of American marines rescuing me from an Iranian prison. At the end of my first year of school in Tehran, I wrote “I Love Mullahs” in my textbooks before handing them back in—my own little insurance policy in case the Islamic Republic ever came for me. Whenever I saw American flags set ablaze or protesters chanting “Death To America” on state television, it confirmed my fear that Iranians hated the United States and everything about it.

Gradually I began to realize that as an American in Iran, I actually got a free pass from the
komiteh when they caught glimpses of my fuchsia-highlighted hair sticking out of my headscarf. Until then, nobody had bothered to fill me in on the long and complicated history of American-Iranian relations, such as how the Central Intelligence Agency was involved in the 1953 coup d’état that toppled Mohammad Mossadegh, the democratically elected Iranian prime minister. Coming of age in Tehran, I discovered that Iranians in fact loved Americans. As a fifteen-year-old American, the Iranian reaction to the September 11 attack on the United States made a deep impression on me; thousands of Iranians took to the streets, not to protest against the “Great Satan,” but to hold candlelight vigils for the lost American lives.

I started to realize that as the tumultuous events of 1979 receded into history, the hemlines of our
manteaux became shorter and our headscarves inched further back. Young people spent more time just hanging out in public, wedding celebrations grew louder, and cafés reverberated with Western pop music. It turned out that I didn’t miss too much in my adolescent years. I had my first kiss, and a couple of heartaches, in Iran. Well, I didn’t get to go to a prom, given that schools segregated the sexes. But we had house parties at the residences of ambassadors and diplomats, and I even hosted a few—with no komiteh in sight.

What touched me the most about Iran was the kindness and resilience of Iranians. Repeatedly they extended their hands to me, sharing the stories of their lives and country. Their capacity to survive and even in many cases thrive under difficult circumstances continues to astound me. After the upheaval of the revolution, Iranians have experienced an horrific eight-year war with Iraq, an economy crumbling from mismanagement and sanctions, witnessing a reform movement crushed, and, most recently, increasingly explicit threats of a foreign military attack on Iran’s nuclear program.

Through it all, Iranians have demonstrated a remarkable national pride, bound by a history and culture dating back several thousand years. They have taught me a great deal. And, that includes some street smarts: knowing how to operate in post-revolutionary Iran certainly helps navigating life here in post-revolutionary Egypt.

Oriental Hall, etc.

The official unemployment rate in Egypt rocketed to 13.2 percent in the first quarter of 2013. The news added to the gloom of Egyptians complaining that the country’s economic fortunes have taken a nasty turn for the worse since the January 25 revolution. However, there’s a crack of light in the darkness. Ayman Ismail, an assistant professor of management at AUC, says that entrepreneurship in Egypt is actually booming. According to Ismail, who holds the Abdul Latif Jameel Endowed Chair of Entrepreneurship, there has been a notable sprouting of business incubators in the past three years—including one that he has helped form at the School of Business. Young Egyptians are rushing to establish small startups, he says, partly because of the increasing scarcity of jobs in both government and the traditional private sector. While the trend is welcome, it won’t have an immediate impact. “There are three prerequisites for any economic growth in Egypt,” Ismail explained. “Political stability. Security. Rule of law.”

Experts participating in the Egypt-India Dialogue, a symposium on development sponsored by theIndian Embassy in Cairo, India’s Observer Research Foundation, and AUC’s School of Global Affairs and Public Policy in June, identified something they have in common: local media is playing a strong role, for better or worse, in shaping political discourse. Part of the problem in India, explainsSuhasini Haidar, an anchor for CNN-IBN (Cable News Network-Indian Broadcasting Network), is that a third of the country’s channels are owned by political organizations. “People who are not politically affiliated are finding it harder and harder to live in that television universe,” she says.Moataz Abdel Fattah, a professor of public policy and administration at the AUC, describes a similar media landscape in Egypt, but with a difference. With the unleashing of intense political competition after the fall of an authoritarian regime, he says, “We are discovering each other as Egyptians right now. The media plays an important role in that.”

Egypt’s Predicament

A cloud of concern and anticipation hangs over Egypt today. The mood is in stark contrast to the exuberant euphoria and inflated expectations that prevailed at the start of the January 25 revolution. Two and a half years after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, a year after the election of his successor, Mohammed Morsi, and after Morsi’s sudden ouster and the appointment of an interim president, Mansour Al-Adly, head of Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court, in July, the country is still searching for its identity. The mass protests, violence, and political vacuum illustrate Egypt’s dire predicament.

Our challenge is to understand not just what happened in Egypt, but why, and to lay out a framework for the country’s future development rather than just defining the end goal. In 2011, Egyptians knew what they were rejecting—the continuation of a structurally heavy and authoritarian political system, which essentially had usurped them of their right to participate in determining their own political future. What many failed to understand were the prerequisites for establishing a better alternative system that is democratic both in its representational concepts and in the exercise of its legislative, judicial, or executive authority. The lack of understanding of what constitutes a democracy is at the root of Egypt’s political woes.

Since the revolution, in spite of government resistance, Egypt has continued on the road towards more media openness, a course initially charted by Mubarak. The country has also seen the rise of individuals demanding their rights, far advanced from what existed in the past. However, Egypt has not yet started the true reconciliation process, nor is it any nearer the end of the democratic transition. As a society, it is actually becoming more divided and polarized. The reason for this is that the different sides of the political spectrum, between the conflicting positions of Islamists and the non-Islamist opposition, each wanting modern Egypt to reflect their divergent visions for society. Particularly but not exclusively true for the Islamists who do not want to include others in their ideological vision of Egypt.

Egypt cannot create a democratic system with one exclusive vision for society. Acceptance of the inevitable imperative of including others is the first step towards reconciliation. The new political system must be inclusive of all walks of life without distinction, discrimination, or undue advantage, irrespective of other beliefs. It cannot be considered a truly democratic representation otherwise. When discussing a state’s transitional experience, particularly in Eastern Europe, the focus has been on the changing the government personnel, recalibrating the civil service or bureaucracy to become compatible with the principles of the new state, and restructuring the security system. These are all important, however, what is often missed are the unique challenges faced in different circumstances even before a society gets a chance to redefine itself. The issues in Egypt and parts of the Arab world today are unlike those of Eastern Europe, where a clearly defined alternative vision for the society was widespread. In fact, the challenges in Arab societies are closer to the challenges faced before by South Africa in ending apartheid and even by India in fighting for independence. To add to the complexity, there is no Mandela or Gandhi in Egypt, on either side of the political spectrum.

At its foundation, a democratic Egypt must provide room and representation for Islamists and non-Islamists alike. Inclusiveness is the central pillar of a well-functioning democracy. All sides in Egypt must understand that winning the public mandate to govern is as much as ever about effective representation of all Egyptians as it is about promoting the programs consistent with the ideology of their natural constituency. Until they do, Egypt will continue in a vicious circle of political stagnation, making little progress towards a self-sustaining and equitable political system.

Nabil Fahmy, a former Egyptian ambassador to Japan and to the United States, is the dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo.

Power of One

After Iran’s revolutionary regime stripped Shirin Ebadi from her position as a judge in 1979—she had become one of the country’s first women magistrates in 1969—it might have learned a lesson: don’t mess with Iranian women. The move fed Ebadi’s determination to battle injustice in the Islamic Republic. With tenacity and courage, she became a founder of the country’s women’s rights and human rights movements. She took on the most dangerous cases, representing political prisoners as well as the families of intellectuals murdered by government death squads.

In 2003, Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts for human rights and democracy—the first Iranian and the first Muslim woman to receive the honor. Her acceptance speech in Oslo underlined her embrace of humanity and clarity of thought, qualities that have made her a unique moral voice. She decried global poverty, and the deaths of millions from AIDS; she went on to rebuke the United States for using terrorism as a pretext for war. And she warned, six years before the Green Movement protests in Iran, that if nations fail to respect human rights, “human beings will be left with no choice other than staging a rebellion against tyranny and oppression.

For thirty years, Ebadi’s office was a cramped basement lined with bookshelves below her modest family apartment in Tehran. These days she mostly works on planes and in hotel rooms as she moves around the world delivering talks and attending conferences, defending human rights and raising Iran’s case wherever she can. Death threats escalated after the regime crushed the democracy demonstrations four years ago, forcing her into exile in London. Iranian journalist Nazila Fathi interviewed Ebadi for the Cairo Review via Skype on June 23, 2013.

NAZILA FATHI: How do you interpret the election results?

SHIRIN EBADI: First, I need to explain that the elections were not free in a true sense, and so the reformist faction was not able to nominate its real candidate because it knew that he would not survive the vetting by the Guardian Council. Their ideal candidate was [former president] Mohammad Khatami, but they knew that the Guardian Council would not approve him. So then, they shifted to Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, thinking that he could attract voters. Rafsanjani was the head of the Expediency Council and no one imagined that the Guardian Council would bar the head of the Expediency Council from running. Hassan Rouhani was not the reformists’ first choice at all. But none of their candidates survived the vetting and so the reformists were divided: those who favored supporting Mohammad Reza Aref or Rouhani, because they were closer to the reformists’ position; and those who decided to boycott the election altogether. It was toward the last days of the campaign that the reformists noticed that Rouhani could win, if Aref pulled out of the race. Aref did withdraw, and so the reformists threw their support behind Rouhani.

NAZILA FATHI: What does Hassan Rouhani’s victory mean?

SHIRIN EBADI: People are extremely happy because the regime did not rig the vote the way it had in the past. People had expected Rouhani’s election, and so they see the honest vote-count as a step forward. But I must say that it’s a bit early to judge and say that Rouhani’s election is really going to be a step forward. We need to wait.

NAZILA FATHI: How do you interpret the turnout and the high vote for Rouhani, considering the anti-regime uprising and the repression four years ago?

SHIRIN EBADI: The Iranian people are very unhappy with their situation and want change. But don’t forget that in the past thirty-four years, they have lived through a revolution and eight years of war with Iraq. People are tired of violence and bloodshed. They want to live peacefully and bring about peaceful change. That’s why they saw the honest vote-count as a step forward and were thrilled. People are extremely discontent, but they are aware that if they resorted to violence, the regime would brutally confront them. Iranians don’t want to follow the Syrian model.

NAZILA FATHI: Saeed Jalili was Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s favorite candidate, yet he managed to garner only four million votes. What does this say about Khamenei’s popularity?

SHIRIN EBADI: According to the Iranian constitution, Khamenei holds maximum power while the president holds minimum power. It is natural that when people are discontented, they blame the most powerful leader for their problems.

NAZILA FATHI: What is your opinion of Hassan Rouhani?

SHIRIN EBADI: Well, it depends from which angle you want to look at him. Rouhani made a comment that made headlines. He said, “It’s good for the centrifuges to spin, but the economy must spin, too.” Some people optimistically think that Rouhani will be the man who can end the standoff with the West over Iran’s nuclear program. And perhaps by resolving that problem, the sanctions would be lifted, and therefore, part of the pressure on people would be eased. But I want to point out again that it is the leader, Khamenei, who makes major policy decisions, and based on what we know so far, Khamenei has not changed his position on nuclear policy. Therefore, Rouhani’s statements are merely slogans. If he wants to change those policies, he needs to have influence over Khamenei. Otherwise he cannot do anything. Let’s remember that Khatami was a reformist president for eight years and during four years of that time, he had a parliament dominated by reformists on his side. For four years, the reformists had their grip on the two major branches of government, the executive, and legislative, but they couldn’t implement any of their plans because Khamenei blocked them.

NAZILA FATHI: What do we know about Hassan Rouhani’s relationship with Khamenei? Does he have influence over the leader?

SHIRIN EBADI: Political relationships and decision-makings are often carried out behind closed doors. People don’t see anything, meaning they are strangers in the Islamic Republic and don’t need to know those details. I have no idea what kind of relationship the two men have.

NAZILA FATHI: Will the human rights environment improve under Hassan Rouhani’s presidency?

SHIRIN EBADI: It’s too early to say anything. But if he wants to improve human rights, Rouhani needs to require everyone within the establishment to abide by the law. He must take a step to secure the release of Mir-Hossein Moussavi, his wife Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi. None of them was ever put on trial or heard the charges against themselves. It is not even clear who gave the orders to put them under house arrest. And to keep them under their current conditions is clearly illegal. The need for their release has nothing to do with the fact that they were leaders of the Green Movement, but with the fact that keeping them under arrest is illegal. If Rouhani can secure their release in the first week of his presidency, that shows he is willing to use his authority as president to improve human rights.

NAZILA FATHI: What impact did Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency have on Iran?

SHIRIN EBADI: Unfortunately, his presidency over the past eight years has been destructive. His performance in all areas was negative. He doesn’t earn a positive point on the economy, foreign and domestic policy, or human rights.

NAZILA FATHI: What’s your assessment of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s impact on foreign policy and the economy?

SHIRIN EBADI: They are all related. When foreign policy is bad, it isolates the country. When a country becomes isolated, its trade with the outside world decreases. When trade decreases, it directly undermines people’s daily economic lives. Tourists don’t travel to a country that lacks security, which again undermines the economy. Therefore all problems are linked and I cannot separate one from another.

NAZILA FATHI: What is your personal opinion about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

SHIRIN EBADI: During his first term, he presented himself as a man utterly obedient to the leader. But during his second term, after he felt he had power, he began making statements that were different from his earlier positions. Maybe he hoped that he could build a support base for himself among the people. I believe he is an opportunist.

NAZILA FATHI: What is the meaning of the 2009 uprising in Iran?

SHIRIN EBADI: It has had a great impact on our history because the Green Movement is and was a peaceful movement that shows people’s discontent towards the regime. It was a massive movement that embraced people from different backgrounds. It is not a party-based movement—it is network-based and grows horizontally. This movement is still alive, and the best sign was the slogans that people were chanting just last week. One of them was: “Moussavi, even though it was late, I got your vote back.”

NAZILA FATHI: How do you describe the political situation in Iran today, considering that the 2009 uprising did not turn into a force like the Arab spring?

SHIRIN EBADI: Iranians are extremely unhappy but are not willing to get caught in violence. In the meantime, the regime is willing to resort to any measure to repress dissent. Under such circumstances, people have no choice but to resist so that in the long run, the regime gives in. This is a long-term process.

NAZILA FATHI: How do you see the role of the reformists? Can they survive?

SHIRIN EBADI: This will depend on the international situation and the sanctions. If Rouhani manages to ease sanctions and release political prisoners, it will help reformers to solidify their position.

NAZILA FATHI: How is the human rights situation in Iran today?

SHIRIN EBADI: It is in its worst situation. Political prisoners cannot enjoy the rights that other prisoners are given in prison. Their living conditions are tough, meaning they don’t get enough food, their health is bad, and they receive almost no medical care. Several prisoners have died in prison over the past four years. The latest victim died this week, Afshin Osanloo, a labor activist. He had served three-and-a-half years of his five-year jail term and was supposed to be released in eighteen months. He had a heart attack in prison. The government claimed that he passed away at the hospital where they took him. But his sister said in an interview that he had died by the time they dropped him at the hospital. He was only forty-two or forty-three, which reveals the poor living conditions in prison. There were still signs of torture on his body from the time of his arrest.

NAZILA FATHI: How many political prisoners do you think there are since 2009?

SHIRIN EBADI: The government never gives such numbers. What we learn is based on what prisoners’ families tell reporters. The government tries hard to discourage them from speaking out. It warns the families that speaking to media outlets outside the country is a crime and that if they speak to reporters overseas, the authorities will arrest them. There was a Kurdish activist named Shirin Alamkouhi, who was executed in 2010. Authorities detained her sister and mother for three months after they’d killed Shirin because they had given interviews to the BBC Persian service.

NAZILA FATHI: Why do you say the human rights situation is worse?

SHIRIN EBADI: The human rights situation has not been good since the beginning of the 1979 revolution. That was why the United Nations appointed a special human rights rapporteur to report on Iran’s human rights violations. There was always a rapporteur for Iran until the election of reformist president Mohammad Khatami in 1997. Khatami tried to improve Iran’s standing in the international community as well as its human rights record. However, the situation worsened after his presidency and so in 2011, the United Nations appointed a new rapporteur, Ahmed Shaheed, who is a Muslim. Unfortunately, Iran has refused to cooperate with him. The human rights situation is very bad in Iran. Many have died. The situation for political prisoners is worse than the situation for prisoners who have committed major crimes.

NAZILA FATHI: How do you assess the state of women’s rights in Iran?

SHIRIN EBADI: Fortunately, despite pressure, the women’s movement is alive and active. Members of the movement get together regularly. For example, they meet and visit families of political prisoners, gather for a birthday event or other reasons. They are active, and the reason for that is because this movement is a civil movement not a political one. Women will pursue their demands no matter who comes to power. Women have become very creative in terms of coming together and keeping their movement alive. For example, if you recall, the regime executed over three thousand, and according to some accounts, even a higher number of political prisoners, in 1989. Their mothers have come together and established a group called Mothers of Laleh Park. The  hold a vigil in Laleh Park regularly and this reminds people of what happened.

NAZILA FATHI: Your lawyer, Nasrin Soutoduh, remains in prison. What are her prospects?

SHIRIN EBADI: She is a lawyer and my colleague. One of the charges against her was her cooperation with me at the Center for Human Rights Defenders. She was sentenced to six years in prison and has already served three years. She is innocent and has committed no offense. She should be released, but unfortunately there is no sign that she will be released.

NAZILA FATHI: What role does the Internet play in Iran today?

SHIRIN EBADI: The Internet plays a very positive role. In 1989, the regime secretly executed more than 3,000 political prisoners and because the Internet was not available, people didn’t find out about the executions. But today, you see that the entire world learns about the death of a prisoner like Afshin Osanloo in a matter of half an hour. Without doubt, the flow of information helps improve the situation. If people are unaware of realities, they cannot improve the situation.

NAZILA FATHI: How do you view the impact of international sanctions on the Iranian regime?

SHIRIN EBADI: Iranian authorities make their decisions behind closed doors. Perhaps the sanctions have had indirect effects on decision makers; by that I mean by not rigging the votes, the regime wanted to show the international community that the system is democratic.

NAZILA FATHI: Have the sanctions hurt the people or the regime?

SHIRIN EBADI: People have suffered the most. They feel intimidated by them, but the sanctions have led to a drop in the regime’s oil revenues too.

NAZILA FATHI: Labor movements in particular seem disturbed by the effects of sanctions. Will workers influence the regime’s calculations?

SHIRIN EBADI: I have a different view. I believe when the sanctions pressure the regime, the regime goes after its own people. The Islamic Republic is at its weakest position, economically and politically, and it has lost its popular legitimacy. Therefore, it is using extreme pressure against civil movements. The regime’s oil revenue has dropped dramatically and the value of the country’s currency has plunged by a third. And inflation is skyrocketing.

NAZILA FATHI: What is your opinion about sanctions?

SHIRIN EBADI: I am against economic sanctions and I am in favor of political sanctions. And by that I mean measures that undermine the regime without hurting people. For example, the Iranian regime is broadcasting programs in sixteen different languages via satellite. It depends on Eutelsat, Asiasat, and Arabsat for beaming the programs. Why not block access to these satellites and cripple its propaganda arm? These kinds of sanctions do not hurt the people but hurt the regime. Or, for example, Western countries can blacklist authorities who violate human rights, ban them from getting visas to travel outside the country, and seize their bank accounts overseas.

NAZILA FATHI: What is your position on Iran’s nuclear program?

SHIRIN EBADI: It is all wrong. Many countries are shutting down their nuclear reactors for safety reasons, while Iran insists on building its own in Bushehr. Iran’s reactor is situated on fault lines and in fact, an earthquake shook Bushehr just this week. People are very concerned that a nuclear disaster like the one in Japan could repeat itself in Iran. In the meantime, Iran gets a lot of sunshine but the regime has not invested even ten dollars in solar power plants. Nuclear power plants are not safe for the environment. What do they want to do with the nuclear waste? I believe that we need to suspend uranium enrichment immediately—immediately—so that we can ease the sanctions.

NAZILA FATHI: Is Iran developing a nuclear weapon?

SHIRIN EBADI: I cannot make a comment because I have no information on that.

NAZILA FATHI: How can the dispute between Iran and the international community best be resolved?

SHIRIN EBADI: Iran must stop enriching uranium.

NAZILA FATHI: What are your concerns about the possibility of a foreign attack on Iran?

SHIRIN EBADI: I don’t see such a threat.

NAZILA FATHI: Can Iran learn lessons from the Arab democracy movements and change in the Arab world?

SHIRIN EBADI: These countries are very different from one another, but I hope that the Egyptians learn a lesson from the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Within four months after the victory of the revolution, before we had a parliament, a constitution, or a president, the Council of the Islamic Revolution voted that an Iranian man could marry up to four wives. That was the day that the regime laid the cornerstone for one discriminatory law against women after another. Because Khomeini was a charismatic character, Iranians did not oppose these laws. And so women began losing their rights and this became a trend to oppress other social groups as well. I hope the Egyptians and the Tunisians remember this and do not allow this to happen to their women.

NAZILA FATHI: How do you view the role that Iran has played with the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria?

SHIRIN EBADI: I am very sorry that by sending financial aid, weapons, and even fighters, the regime is helping Assad to kill civilians. Iran has to end its interference in Syria as soon as possible. It is the Syrians who should decide the fate of their country, not foreign states.

NAZILA FATHI: What is the focus of your work today?

SHIRIN EBADI: I left Iran in 2009. Many of my colleagues are still in prison. It is impossible to do any kind of human rights activity inside the country. That is why I live outside Iran. I travel around the world because I see myself as the spokesperson of my people. Because of censorship in Iran, the world cannot hear the voice of the people. It is the duty of Iranians outside to echo the voices of those inside Iran. I publish human rights reports every month in English and Persian and send them to international institutions. If you want to know where I live, I must say that I spend most of my time in airports and on planes. I have an office in London to organize my activities. In 2010 I founded a non-governmental organization called Center for Supporters of Human Rights. We hold various events, including seminars on women’s rights. We have an event during which we examine the impact of the women’s movement on Iran’s democratic movement. This project has attracted universities and they are co-sponsoring seminars on the subject.

NAZILA FATHI: What kind of pressure do you receive from the regime?

SHIRIN EBADI: Authorities went after my sister and my husband after they realized they could no longer arrest me. They arrested both of them. They tortured my husband to a point that he agreed to make false confessions against himself and me. They videotaped his confessions and broadcast it nationally for two consecutive nights. My sister came down with heart disease because of both mental and physical pressure in prison. Fortunately, both of them have been released, but the authorities constantly send me death threats through them. The regime seized all my assets and properties and put them on sale. With my Nobel Prize financial award I had bought an office for the Center for Defenders of Human Rights. They sold the office and took the money.

NAZILA FATHI: Tell us about your exile.

SHIRIN EBADI: I had made a commitment to speak at an event in Madrid months before the date for the [2009] election was announced. Therefore, I left Iran a day before the election with only a carry-on bag. I was flying KLM and had two stops before getting to my final destination, so I thought it was wiser if I travelled light. By the time the conference was over, Iran was no longer the country that I had left. Several of my colleagues were arrested and my family back in Tehran urged me not to return. My daughter was an intern in the Hague at that time. Instead of going to Iran, I showed up at her apartment. Since then, I consider myself a spokesperson for the Iranian people. A court sent a letter to my home in Tehran and summoned me. I have decided not to return as long as I cannot do human rights work inside the country.

Rowhani’s Challenge

In the lead up to Iran’s 2013 presidential election, Ali Khamenei, the country’s all-powerful supreme leader, declared that this election was the most important in the history of the Islamic Republic. He predicted that it would be a “political epic” (hamaseh-ye siyasi) unlike any other.1 Now that the election is over and the ballots have been counted, it is clear that Khamenei’s prediction was correct. It was a milestone of sorts, but not in the way that he and his hardline supporters had hoped for. The surprise win of Hassan Rowhani—who campaigned on a platform of “wisdom, moderation and awareness over extremism,”2 and who offered a vision of the future that contrasted sharply with the current policies and political trajectory of the Islamic Republic—has stunned Iran’s political establishment and baffled Iran watchers, while rejuvenating the country’s opposition Green Movement in the process.3
Immediately after the results were announced, the streets of Iran’s major cities were filled with Rowhani supporters, who celebrated all night. A massive and spontaneous countrywide street party unfolded. Defiant and jubilant slogans filled the warm summer night’s air: “Moussavi we have redeemed your vote,” “Political prisoners must be released,” “Ahmadi, Ahmadi, the Green Movement is alive,” “Salutations to Khatami, Greetings to Rowhani.” According to one report, “images of Moussavi were more prominent even than those of the newly elected Rowhani.”4
Leaders around the world to varying degrees have cautiously welcomed these election results. The departure of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from the international stage is arguably a key reason for this response, but what has also been reassuring is Rowhani’s campaign pledge to reduce regional and international tensions and to pursue a new Iranian foreign policy based on reconciliation, mutual trust, transparency and peace. Only Canada and Israel took a different view. Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird described the election as “effectively meaningless,” while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lamented Rowhani’s victory, pointing out that it would now be harder to rally the world against Iran’s nuclear program.5
How can we best interpret Iran’s recent presidential poll? How does this election compare with other elections that have taken place in post-revolutionary Iran, and what does it tell us about the internal politics of the country? What does Rowhani’s victory mean for the future of the country and for the myriad domestic and foreign policy problems confronting the Islamic Republic? It is relevant to address these questions in the context of the debate on political legitimacy in Iran today. Iran’s 2013 presidential election is an example of “electoral authoritarianism,” whereby ruling elites elaborate a façade of democratic competition in order to address a crisis of legitimacy, pacify reformists, conceal the coercive mechanisms of state power, and ultimately to reproduce their hegemony over the domestic political sphere.6
While Hassan Rowhani’s win is an important development, by itself it does not alter the basic structure of power inside Iran. On all the key issues that matter to the international community—the nuclear question, Iranian foreign policy in the region, respect for basic human rights and democracy—the final decision remains in the hands of a narrow group of actors whose power remains undiminished. Skepticism that a single presidential election will change the political trajectory of the Islamic Republic is certainly warranted. There are many unknowns, however, that might lead to surprises down the road.

Fair, but Not Free

Elections have always been important events in post-revolutionary Iran. Since 1979, regular presidential and parliamentary elections have taken place and, as of 1999, city and village council elections have also occurred at regular, four-year intervals. These elections have had high voter turnouts by both regional and international standards. Elections have been used by Iran’s clerical leaders to showcase to the world its domestic legitimacy and to offset criticisms of Iranian foreign and domestic policy. Elections have become more important for the Iranian regime as its international isolation has increased over the years and its confrontation with the West has deepened. A host of issues have been controversial, foremost among them Iran’s nuclear program. The message from Tehran to the West has been straightforward: “criticize us all you want but our policies are supported by our people,” or so the regime would have us believe.
Elections have also served a domestic purpose. They have helped to stabilize the regime by balancing factional conflict among ruling elites. This conflict has only deepened and expanded with the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. Today, deep divisions exist among prominent members of this group over the future direction of the country. More importantly, elections have played a critical role in channeling, managing, and deflecting rising social discontent among a wide cross-section of society. This applies especially to the urban middle class and Iran’s burgeoning youth population, whose demands for real and substantive democracy are increasingly difficult to suppress or ignore.
Despite the frequency of these national polls, for most of Iran’s post-revolutionary history, elections have generally been fair but not free. All potential candidates are carefully vetted by an unelected Guardian Council for ideological loyalty to the regime. True, after this process is complete, there has usually been a close correlation between the number of ballots cast and the final announced results. But this began to change in 2000, when Iran’s ruling oligarchy was faced with its biggest internal challenge since the revolution: the rise of a reform movement that sought to democratize the Islamic Republic from within.
Having won the presidency and the city and village council elections, the reformists were on the verge of another landslide victory in the 2000 parliamentary elections. This was when the first sign of explicit vote-rigging was witnessed. The Guardian Council delayed releasing the results, repeatedly declaring hundreds of thousands of votes invalid, in order to grant Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (who was then allied with the hardliners) one of the thirty seats allotted to the district of Tehran. It was hoped that if he could make it into parliament he would be a leading candidate for parliamentary speaker and would thus slow down the reformist tsunami that was sweeping the country. The electoral fraud at this time was so blatant, in part due to a vibrant press, that even after he was illicitly given a seat in parliament, Rafsanjani resigned in embarrassment—a move that highlighted the dubious nature of the process.7
In 2004, hoping to put an end to the reformist project, the Guardian Council banned thousands of reformist candidates from the parliamentary election on ideological grounds. This included eighty sitting MPs who had already been vetted by the same Guardian Council four years earlier. The reason for the ban was unequivocal: during their time in parliament they had demonstrated a serious commitment to democratization.
A year later in the 2005 presidential election, the Guardian Council again banned all the leading reformists. This ban was subsequently overturned by the supreme leader, after student demonstrations and a public outcry threatened to affect voter turnout. During the second round run-off, in part due to the political apathy of the middle class and a youth vote frustrated by the slow pace of reform, an obscure politician by the name of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected. Ahmadinejad ran on a populist platform with strong backing from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. He won the presidency but not before allegations of vote-rigging resurfaced. Two of the leading presidential candidates at this time, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mehdi Karroubi, both penned open letters of protest alleging significant vote tampering and rigging. In the interests of regime stability, however, no investigations were launched and the plaintiffs refused to pursue the matter.8 This issue of electoral integrity was to re-surface four years later, however, with enormous consequences for the stability of the Iranian regime.
The 2009 presidential elections were a turning point for the internal legitimacy and stability of the Islamic Republic.9 The most blatant vote-rigging in the history of the Islamic Republic took place at this time. Fearing a reformist comeback and based on a surge of support for Mir-Hossein Moussavi in the final weeks of the campaign, an elaborate electoral fraud was concocted and imposed on the Iranian people.10 While the full story of this event has yet to be fully chronicled, the motives of the Iranian regime in staging this electoral coup were the same: the threat of democracy had to be contained and terminated. In this latest battle, the Iranian regime ultimately prevailed through methods of state-sanctioned repression, Stalinist show trials of opposition leaders, mass arrests and incarcerations, political assassinations, and the construction of new and elaborate conspiracy theories that linked George Soros, the British government, and Saudi petrodollars to Iranian reformists in a plot to overthrow the Iranian regime. A series of continuous street protests that lasted six months shook the Islamic Republic to its foundations. Feuding between prominent members of Iran’s ruling elite and clerical community were on public display, and according to General Mohammad Ali Jafaari, the senior commander of the Revolutionary Guards, this series of events posed a greater threat to regime stability and political order than Saddam Hussein’s 1980 invasion of Iran and the subsequent Iran-Iraq War (1980-88).11
As a result of these events, political authoritarianism deepened at all levels and a massive crisis of legitimacy set in after the election. Ali Saeedi, the special representative of the supreme leader to the Revolutionary Guards, implicitly acknowledged this crisis when he noted that a key reason why there could not be a trial of the arrested leaders of the Green Movement was because of their popularity within Iranian society, including among senior clerics. This implied that their prosecution could lead to political instability.12
Further evidence of a legitimacy crisis was revealed by the Revolutionary Guards when they announced that 90 percent of their resources in Tehran were devoted to preventing a “soft war.” This term is used by the regime to refer to a foreign plot but in truth it is a code word that is employed to silence pro-democracy activity, in particular repressing civil society and preventing the free flow of information from entering the country from abroad.13 The case of BBC Persian Television (a service of the British Broadcasting Corporation, funded by the British government but editorially independent) perfectly exemplifies this crisis of legitimacy.
Launched in January 2009, the award-winning television service is accessible via the Internet and satellite transmission, and is geared toward a global Persian-speaking audience primarily inside Iran. BBC Persian Television quickly distinguished itself by virtue of its high quality programing, state-of-the-art technology, and professional journalism. It is for this reason that it became extremely popular, well-respected, and widely watched among Iranians.14 The response from the Iranian regime amplifies and reveals its legitimation crisis. It is not an exaggeration to state that, from the outset, Iran’s clerical leaders have been particularly obsessed with BBC Persian Television, and for all the right reasons. Not only is the service routinely and repeatedly criticized by official state and hardline media as part of an external plot to destabilize Iran, but its satellite transmissions to Iran are regularly jammed. More recently, however, as a way of pressuring Iranian staff to quit their jobs in London, the Iranian regime has begun intimidating, harassing, and even arresting their family members who reside in Iran.15 All of this begs the question: Why? What has BBC Persian Television done to have invoked this type of reaction, and what does this tell us about the Islamic Republic? The answer is unsurprising. BBC Persian Television reports the news factually and accurately, entertains a range of perspectives, and regularly debates issues that are relevant to contemporary Iranian politics and society. It is precisely for these reasons that the Iranian regime cannot tolerate its existence.


Iran and the Arab Spring

Iran’s 2013 presidential poll was shaped by a number of intersecting developments at the international, regional, and domestic levels. Internationally, Western criticism and economic sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program were key factors. Domestically, the fallout from the 2009 electoral coup deepened the crisis of legitimacy facing the Iranian regime. Regionally, however, the Arab Spring was an important development. It qualitatively changed the moral and political context of the Middle East, and this has had serious consequences for the Iranian regime’s approach to the 2013 elections.
One of the chief consequences of the Arab Spring has been that, for the first time in history, a global spotlight has been directed toward the region that highlights the voices of pro-democracy movements and exposes the behavior of dictatorial regimes. Sensitive to this new development, and not wanting to be equated with other repressive regimes facing internal insurrections, the Iranian leadership officially embraced the Arab Spring when it first emerged in Tunisia and Egypt. It attempted to own these uprisings by claiming this was the dawn of a new “Islamic Awakening,” inspired by the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the political theology of Ayatollah Khomeini.16
The problem with this narrative is that the participants of these revolts, both secular and religious elements, have explicitly repudiated this claim. In fact, Islamist parties and intellectuals have pointed to Turkey and Erdoğan as their political model, not to Iran and Khamenei. Secondly, the Iranian regime has been placed in the awkward position of publicly celebrating the Arab Spring while cracking down internally on similar protests at home. In February 2011, the Green Movement called for demonstrations in solidarity with Tunisia and Egypt, where a common street slogan was “Mubarak, Ben Ali, now it’s the turn of Seyed Ali [Khamenei].” These protests were crushed and the leaders of the Green Movement were placed under house arrest, where they remain today. This event was a tremendous embarrassment for the Iranian regime, and its timing could not have been worse. And then came Syria.
When the Arab Spring spread to Syria, Tehran found itself in the awkward position of opposing a popular revolution while backing one of the most brutal regimes in the region. This has led to a significant loss of Iran’s soft power in the Middle East, where it formerly enjoyed considerable popularity among the Sunni masses for its opposition to American and Israeli policies.17 One small part of this story, which highlights the political contortions that Tehran has performed, took place in August 2012, when newly elected Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi travelled to Tehran for the Non-Aligned Movement summit meeting. Iran’s leaders were thrilled about Morsi’s visit, but to their embarrassment, parts of his keynote speech at the conference had to be censored, resulting in a public relations disaster. Morsi’s reference to rebels fighting a repressive regime was deliberately altered by the official state media to make it seem as if he were referring to Bahrain and not Syria.18

“A Vote for the Islamic Republic”

As Iran’s leaders have repeatedly emphasized, during and after the election, the primary goal of the 2013 election was to encourage maximum voter turnout. The main audience was the West and the message they were hoping to transmit was that the Islamic Republic of Iran enjoys broad internal legitimacy. According to Khamenei, a “maximum turnout at the ballot box is more important than anything else for the country.” If the nation voted in huge numbers this “will prove its firm relationship and connection with the Islamic system and will once again make the enemy unfulfilled and hopeless.” He also observed that a “vote for any candidate is a vote for the Islamic Republic. It’s a vote of confidence in the system and the mechanisms of the election.”19 His concern about poor voter turnout reached new levels when, for the first time, he acknowledged there were people in the country who did not support the Islamic Republic. Nonetheless, he appealed to them to vote in the elections, in the name of the national interest. Doing so, he argued, would strengthen Iran against its foreign enemies.20
Six months before the presidential election, two revealing statements by senior regime officials highlighted the anxiety of Iran’s leaders toward the forthcoming election. On January 8, 2013, Ali Saeedi gave an interview to the Iranian Students’ News Agency, where he stated it was the responsibility of the guards to “rationally and logically engineer the elections.”21 This led to a huge outcry and debate about the validity of this election. Even Ahmadinejad jumped into the fray, fearing that these comments were directed at him, where he famously stated that “anyone who wants to manage the people, the people will manage them [instead].”22
Coincidentally, on the same day, Khamenei delivered a speech in Qom where he lashed out at those people, both inside and outside the country, who continued to speak about “free elections” in Iran. He stated: “It is obvious that the election must be free. Have not the more than thirty free elections over the past three decades been free? In which country are elections more free than in Iran?” Khamenei then pointed to why he thought a public debate on this topic was harmful: “Be careful that your statements do not dash the hopes of the people toward the elections. In which country are there no considerations for the qualifications [of candidates]? Why do you stress so much on this issue and try to create the idea in the thoughts of the people that participation in the election is futile?”23
This set the tone for a major policy initiative by the Islamic Republic to ban any public discussion of “free elections.” Raising this topic, it was officially announced, was aiding and abetting the enemies of Iran, and was tantamount to a form of sedition. Revolutionary Guard Commander Yadollah Javani led the charge with a lead article in the guards’ weekly paper, Sobh-e Sadegh, entitled: “Is the Slogan of ‘Free Election’ the Code Word for Another Sedition?”24 The answer he gave was yes. Hardline clerical hawk and chairman of the Guardian Council, Ahmad Jannati, weighed in on the topic during the official Friday prayer sermon, where he identified Hashemi Rafsanjani as a leading culprit in this alleged plot. He thundered: “To those who consider themselves seasoned politicians and who held senior positions in government, are you not ashamed that you use the same language as the foreign enemies of our regime and you repeat the words of outsiders?”25
Similarly, 219 members of the hardline-controlled parliament signed a statement of support endorsing Khamenei’s criticism of the free elections debate. Part of their statement read: “We warn all those domestic voices and broadcasters who call for free elections to learn from what happened to the other seditionists and remind all parties, groups, personalities etc. not to remain silent over this new sedition, to come forward and denounce this new sedition, thus denying a revival of the seditionists.”26
As the presidential election approached, the Iranian regime began to tighten the screws on civil society. Reformist journalists were arrested, publications were shut down, satellite jamming and internet censorship increased, and new restrictions were placed on foreign journalists. A special working group to monitor the elections was established, supervised by the head of the Iranian judiciary, which listed the following as criminal offences: any publication that tries to persuade people to boycott or limit their participation in the election; strikes or sit-ins related to the election; creating anxiety in the public mind about the elections; the public discussion of controversial issues related to ethnic or racial minorities; the publication of opinion polls about the election or the candidates; forms of political satire mocking the elections or any of the candidates.27 In justifying these new measures, Iran’s minister of intelligence, Heidar Moslehi, stated that the goal was to “prevent the emergence of sedition before the elections.”28 The word “sedition” is a code word for the Green Movement or pro-democracy activity more generally.
On May 21, Iranian state television announced the names of the candidates who were eligible to run for president. Of the 686 people who registered to run, only eight passed the scrutiny of the Guardian Council, most of whom were strong allies of the supreme leader.29 Not only were women explicitly banned from running, but a former president, Rafsanjani, was also excluded.30 Since 2009, Rafsanjani as well as another former president Mohammad Khatami, has been accused of complicity in trying to destabilize the Iranian regime by backing the Green Movement. They are viewed as insufficiently loyal to the Islamic Republic to be trusted with the office of the presidency lest they unleash popular forces that might lead to a repeat of the 2009 pro-democracy protests that rocked Iran. This fact was publicly acknowledged by Mohammad Esmail Kowsari, a member of the Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee. He explained one of the key problems with Hashemi Rafsanjani was that his repeated calls for “free elections” were based on international standards of elections and this was not in in line with the supreme leader’s opinion. “Unfortunately the standards of Mr. Hashemi regarding issues related to election are the standards and criteria of imperialist countries,” he explained, “whose elections only represent the views of certain classes of society, and the majority of the people, especially the lower class, are not represented.”31
The real prerequisite for running for high office in the Islamic Republic was publicly stated by the regime as the elections approached: loyalty to the supreme leader was the main criterion. This point has frequently been emphasized in the wake of the 2009 elections, and as Iran’s crisis of legitimacy has deepened, the same point has been repeatedly proclaimed by the senior leaders of the regime. For example, at the weekly official Friday prayer sermon on December 21, 2012, Ayatollah Mohammed Emami Kashani affirmed that the “the future president must answer to the call of the Leader and move in his direction.”32 A few weeks later at the same weekly gathering, amidst the furor over the “free election” debate and attempts to ban it, the hawkish cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami elaborated a little further on the topic: “If it were not for the supreme leader’s [efforts at preventing sedition], this revolution would have been destroyed,” he stated. “So do not go under the flag of parties, factions and groups; instead look only toward the supreme leader and work with him, because in Islam we do not have political parties and factions and that which will neutralize seditions is obedience to the supreme leader.”33
In sum, contrary to claims by several popular US commentators on Iran that these elections were fair (Hooman Majd), or that the “election was a real contest” (Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett), in truth they were arguably the least free and most unfair elections in the history of the Islamic Republic.34 More accurately, this exercise can be described as a textbook case of what scholars have called “electoral authoritarianism”, whereby ruling elites seek to present the image of free and fair elections while, in fact, these elections are a mechanism to block genuine democratization and perpetuate their rule.
Authoritarian regimes, however, are different from each other. Iran’s authoritarian political system co-exists with elements of democracy and totalitarianism to produce a unique brand. When it comes to national elections, the regime, in recent years, has attempted to accomplish two simultaneous goals: to ensure that candidates loyal to the authoritarian underpinnings of the Islamic Republic get elected (and democratic voices are excluded), while also attempting to ensure a high voter turnout. There is considerable tension between these two objectives. In order to accomplish the second, the regime is forced to tolerate a small degree of political pluralism among a carefully vetted group.

The Deep State       

Iran’s pro-democracy movement has welcomed the election of Hassan Rowhani. Many members of the movement remain in a state of euphoria, partly because of their ability to mobilize support for the one candidate with whom the Iranian hardliners were most uncomfortable with. They view this election result as small yet significant victory in the struggle for democracy because the Iranian regime has been forced to make a tactical concession due to pressure from below.35 There are now huge expectations of Iran’s new president-elect. Will he be able to live up to them? A sense of Iran’s recent political history suggests cause for caution rather than optimism.
Hassan Rowhani is a product of Iran’s national security and foreign policy community. Over the years, he has held several important positions. The most prominent of these has been as head of the National Security Council and chief nuclear negotiator from 2003–05. While he is not in the inner circle of the supreme leader, he is a trusted member of the regime, particularly on matters related to foreign affairs. Ideologically, he is a pragmatic-conservative and close to the worldview of Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani and the Kargozaran-e Sazandegi (Executives of Construction) party. While he seeks to be a bridge-builder between rival political constituencies in Iran, the task he has set himself is herculean. In a public statement following his victory, Rowhani outlined his domestic and foreign policy agenda, reminding his listeners that the “majority of Iranian people voted for moderation, collective wisdom, insight and consultation. Everybody should accept the people’s vote—the government should accept the people’s vote. The people have chosen a new path.”36
In assessing the prospects for political change in Iran under Rowhani’s presidency, an event sixteen years ago is worth recalling. At that time, there was similar excitement, euphoria, and enormous expectations about qualitative political change in Iran. Mohammad Khatami, was the surprise winner in a landslide presidential election in 1997 that promised to take Iran in a new political direction.
Despite the sincerity of his efforts and his early successes at democratizing and liberalizing Iranian politics and society, in the end Khatami failed to uphold his campaign promises. This was primarily because of a concerted conservative backlash, supported by the office of the supreme leader, which viewed Khatami’s reformist agenda as a direct threat to the structure of power inside the Islamic Republic. In other words, the republican and Islamic dimensions of Iran’s unique political system were clashing, and when the dust had settled, the Islamic dimension proved to be more durable.
If Hassan Rowhani attempts to live up to his campaign pledges and fulfill the democratic aspirations of those Iranians who voted for him, he will face the same obstacles that Mohammad Khatami did. Elections come and go in Iran, some are fairer than others (none of them are free), but there remains a core, neo-fascist element at the heart of this regime; a deep-state if you will. It is buttressed by oil revenue that greases an extensive patron-clientele network, and it cynically manipulates the themes of anti-imperialism and Islamic authenticity to preserve and perpetuate its political power. This is an enduring feature of Iranian politics and it will not go away without significant pressure from below, notwithstanding the continuing façade of free elections and the eloquent campaign speeches that accompany them.

Nader Hashemi is an associate professor of Middle East and Islamic politics and director of the Center for Middle East Studies in the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He is the author of Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies and co-editor of The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future and, most recently, The Syria Dilemma.

1     Ali Khamenei, “Remarks Before a Group of Educators,” (May 8, 2013).

2    Statement by Hassan Rowhani to the people of Iran as read on state television (June 15, 2013).

3    The two best interpretations of Iranian politics before and after the election are Seyedamir Hossein Mahdavi, “Can Iran Surprise by Holding a ‘Healthy’ Election in June?” Middle East Brief 73, (Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Brandies University, May 2013); and Daniel Brumberg and Farideh Farhi, “Real Politics in Iran?” Foreign Policy Middle East Channel (June 25, 2013)

4    Tehran Bureau correspondent, “Iranians Express Cautious Optimism after Hassan Rowhani’s Victory,” Guardian, Tehran Bureau blog (June 18, 2013). Also see, Robert Mackey, “Iran’s President-Elect Confronted with Plea for Detained Opposition Leader’s Freedom,” New York Times (June 17, 2013).

5    Joseph Brean, “Canada Doubts ‘Moderate’ President-elect will Affect Real Change,” National Post(June 16, 2013). The Canadian foreign minister, in part due to protests from Iranian-Canadians, retracted these comments and wrote a more nuanced and thoughtful open letter to the people of Iran that was published in Globe and Mail on June 19, 2013. On Israel, see Amos Harel, “With a Moderate as Iran’s New Face, Netanyahu will Struggle to Draw up Support for an Attack,” Haaretz (June 16, 2013).

6    For background see Andreas Schedler, “The Logic of Electoral Authoritarianism,” in Andreas Schedler, ed., Electoral Authoritarianism: The Dynamics of Unfree Competition (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2006), 1-23.

7    Geneive Abdo, “Vote-Rigging Scandal Mars Iranian poll,” Guardian, February 24, 2000.

8    Mehdi Karoubi,; Hashemi Rafsanjani,

9    Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future (New York: Melville House, 2011), xi-xxiii; and Nader Hashemi, “Renegotiating Iran’s Post-Revolutionary Social Contract: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Democracy inside the Islamic Republic,” in Mehran Kamrava ed., The Evolving Ruling Bargain in the Middle East (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming)

10  Scott Peterson, Let the Swords Encircle Me: Iran—A Journey Behind the Headlines (New York: Simon and Shuster, 2010); and Ali Ansari, Crisis of Authority: Iran’s 2009 Presidential Election(London: Chatham House 2010). Also see the BBC Persian documentary on the 2009 elections “Twenty Something of Khordad,” originally aired on June 12, 2013 and available at

11  His exact words were: “That test and its aftermath was a huge divine test for the Muslim people of Iran and the threat was much larger than that of the eight-year war for the revolution and Islam.” He added: “This test and event was, like the imposed war, a turning point for the revolution.” See Bahram Rafiei, “IRGC Concerned about 2013 Elections,” Roozonline, December 31, 2012.

12  “Those Who are Quiet about the Sedition are no Different than Those Who Support it,” Fars News Agency (January 1, 2012).

13  “More than 90 percent of the Resources of the Republican Guards in Tehran are Fighting a Soft War,” Fars News Agency (December 24, 2011).

14  “New Poll Results: Viewers of BBC Persian Service Double,” BBC Persian (April 2, 2013).

15  Interview with Sadeq Saba, BBC Persian (June 13, 2013).
Also see “BBC Condemns Iran of ‘Harassment’ ahead of elections,” BBC News (June 13, 2013).
Family members of the Radio Free Europe Persian Service (Radio Farda) have also experienced similar pressure

16  “Supreme Leader’s Speech to Government Officials and Participants of Conference on Islamic Unity,” 26th Conference on Islamic Unity in Tehran (January 29, 2013).

17  Barbara Slavin, “Poll: Sectarianism, Syria Drive Negative Image of Iran,” Al-Monitor (March 5, 2013).

18 “Bahrain Files a Protest With Iran over Translation,” Associated Press (September 1, 2013); and Thomas Erbrink and Rick Gladstone, “Summit Meeting in Iran Disrupted by Rebukes of Syria,” New York Times (August, 30, 2013). For a broader comparison between the rise of the Green Movement and the Arab Spring movements for democracy see, Nader Hashemi and Mahmoud Sadri, “The Arab Spring and Iran’s Green Movement: A Comparison” in Brian Calfano and Emile Sahliyeh eds., After the Spring: Looking Ahead to the New Seasons of Political Change and Stasis in the Middle East(Lanham, MD: Lexington/Roman and Littlefield, forthcoming).

19  “Supreme Leader of the Revolution: Regarding Some of the Issues Raised in the Debates I Have Things to Say at a Later Point,” Iranian Students’ News Agency (June 12, 2013); Remarks at ceremony on the 24th anniversary of the demise of Ayatollah Khomeini,” on June 4, 2013,

20 “Ayatollah Khamenei: Even Those Who are Not Supporters of the Regime Should Vote for the Sake of the Country,” BBC Persian (June 12, 2013).

21  “Ali Saeedi: It is a core responsibility of the Revolutionary Guards to rationally and logically engineer the elections,” BBC Persian (January 8, 2013). For a partial English translation see Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi, “Khamenei’s Representative in Revolutionary Guards: ‘The Logical and Rational Engineering of the Election’ is the Guards’ duty,”Al-Monitor (January 9, 2013).

22 “Ahmadinejad’s Warning to those People who Want to ‘Manage’ Them in the Elections,” BBC Persian (January 9, 2013).

23 Ali Khamenei, “Remarks before the people of Qom” (January 8, 2013).

24 Lead article in Sobh-e Sadegh (January 21, 2013), vol. 13, no 585. For a partial English translation by Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi see

25 “Ahmad Jannati: A Powerful Person Has Raised the Issue of Free Elections,” BBC Persian (January 11, 2013).

26 Statement by 219 parliamentary representatives in adherence of the recent remarks by the leader about elections, Iranian Student Students’ New Agency (January 13, 2013).

27 Saeed Kamali Dehghan, “Iranian Journalists Arrested in Raids on Newspapers,” Guardian(January 27, 2013).

Ahmed Shaheed, “Special Rapporteur’s March 2013 Report on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” (February 28, 2013).

On the special working group on the Iranian election see “Instances of What Constitutes a Criminal Offense Relating to the President Election has been Published,” Fars News Agency (February 11, 2013).
“Iran Accelerates Crackdown on Media and Dissidents Prior to Election,” International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (June 10, 2013).

28 “Minister of Intelligence: 600 Iranian Journalists Inside and Outside the Country have been Hit,” Radio Farda, (January 29, 2013).

29 “8450 Candidates for the City Council Elections have been Banned,” Radio Farda (May 26, 2013).

30 “Iran: Threats to Free, Fair Elections,” Human Rights Watch (May 24, 2013).

31 “The Criteria of Hashemi About the Elections are Different than the Criteria of Khomeini and Khamenei,” Fars News Agency (January 28, 3013).

32 “The Future President Must Answer to the Leader and Move in His Direction,” Fars News Agency (December 21, 2012).

33 “The Claim of ‘Free Elections’ is a Distorting Tactic of the Enemy,” Fars News Agency (February 1, 2013).

34 For Hooman Majd see his interview on Al Jazeera English on June 15, 2013; and for the Leveretts see their co-authored piece with Seyed Mohammad Marandi, “Rowhani Won the Election, Get Over It,” Al Jazeera English, (June 16, 2013).

35 Mohammad Ali Kadivar, “A New Oppositional Politics: The Campaign Participants in Iran’s 2013 Presidential Election,” Jadaliyya (June 22, 2013).

36 Thomas Erdbrink, “President-Elect Says He Will Engage With the West,” New York Times (June 29, 2013).

The Leader

In June 1989, Iran’s ruling clerics were in a bind. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had just died, at the age of eighty-six. Given the fractious politics in post-revolutionary Iran, it was vital that a successor be named as soon as possible to avoid a dangerous power vacuum.

But who could replace the very symbol of the Iranian revolution?

One candidate was already out of the running; Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, once the Imam’s designated successor. Khomeini effectively sacked Montazeri just three months earlier, for speaking out against the regime’s brutal excesses and questioning Khomeini’s reading of velayat-y faqih, which made clerics absolute rulers in Iran. But when the Council of Experts met in the Iranian parliament building within hours of Khomeini’s death, its members—all clerics—could not agree on a single individual to become Iran’s next supreme leader.

One of those clerics was Ali Khamenei, then forty-seven and sporting a black bushy beard, who had served as Iran’s president since 1981. Khamenei was a Khomeini protégé during the long struggle against Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. His underground activism landed him in the shah’s prisons six times. Later, after the victory of the revolution in 1979, he dutifully took up all the positions Khomeini instructed him to assume. In the meeting of the Council of Experts, Khamenei, himself just a mid-ranking cleric, spoke in favor of a council to replace Khomeini. But the idea garnered only a small number of votes.
Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a Khomeini confidante who had become the powerful speaker of the Iranian parliament, or Majles, stepped in. He lived next door to Khomeini and had sat at his deathbed; he informed the Council of Experts that Khomeini’s last wish had been for Khamenei to succeed him. According to Rafsanjani’s memoir, Reconstruction and Development, Khamenei objected to this idea. He protested that he had run for president only because Khomeini himself asked him to. He’d lost the use of his right arm in a terrorist explosion in 1981 and complained that official responsibilities tired him. He adored music and poetry, and preferred a task that would allow him more private time.

The prospect of appointing Khamenei was appealing for other reasons. Many members of the Council of Experts hoped to distance the regime from Khomeini’s hardline policies—his persistence in dragging out the war with Iraq for eight years, his anti-Western rhetoric, and his uncompromising attitude toward dissidents—that had isolated the country. Many clerics including Rafsanjani had come to believe that Iran needed more of a ceremonial supreme leader, and that steering the country in a new direction should be left to pragmatic politicians.

Khamenei was certainly known for his non-confrontational style. As president, he had allowed Khomeini to handpick his prime minister, Mir-Hossein Moussavi, who was responsible for the day-to-day affairs of the country. Khomeini once embarrassed Khamenei with a public lashing, accused him of being unaware of the principles of the regime and interfering in matters that did not concern him. Khamenei bowed in silence and never questioned Khomeini’s authority again.

And on that fateful day in June, members of the Council of Experts cast their ballots to choose Khomeini’s successor: Khamenei was elected overwhelmingly, with sixty votes out of a possible seventy-four.

Faith in the Almighty

For a quarter century, nobody has wielded more power in Iran than Khamenei, now seventy-five years old. Compared with Khomeini, or with Iranian politicians such as Mohammad Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Khamenei receives very little attention outside Iran. Even inside the country, though his portrait is plastered in offices and on billboards everywhere, he operates discreetly, usually far from public view. Yet Iranian presidents and parliaments have come and gone while his reign continues—and it has been an autocratic reign.

There is no case to be made that Khamenei rose to the top out of ambition; clearly he was initially chosen because he was considered a relatively weak figure, not a strong one. But the office he assumed was already an extremely powerful one, and it remains so. Before his death, Khomeini ordered a revision of the Iranian constitution in order to cement the authority of the supreme leader of Iran. It mandated Khomeini’s successor to safeguard the Islamic revolution, and gave him alone the final word on matters of state. To ensure regime survival at any cost, Khamenei has repressed dissent at home and isolated Iran in the international community. Fearing the loss of his power, he has even gone to extraordinary lengths to sideline erstwhile allies. The burden Khamenei carried and the power he inherited would transform the poetry-loving mullah into one of the age’s enduring authoritarian rulers.

Khamenei began his rule in 1989 with a typically humble statement: “I am an individual with many faults and shortcomings. I am truly a minor seminarian. However, a responsibility has been placed on my shoulders and I will use all my capabilities and all my faith in the almighty in order to be able to bear this heavy responsibility.” Khamenei declined to move into the modest home/office where Khomeini had lived since returning to Iran to lead the revolution. Khomeini had simply addressed supporters from his balcony, above the small backyard where they gathered. Khamenei moved into an extensive compound in downtown Tehran, close to both parliament and the president’s office. He hired a large staff and set up a modern bureaucracy to monitor the works of government ministries.

In recognition of his position as supreme leader, senior clerics in Qom had little choice but to elevate him from a mid-rank cleric to a senior one, making him an ayatollah. But Khamenei became wary that he might never command the respect of his peers—traditionally, the criteria for becoming a marjah is wide acknowledgement and respect for a cleric’s scholarly work and wisdom, not the assumption of political power. Khamenei began to dismiss senior clerics who had been close to Khomeini, including those in powerful positions in the regime—and replace them with mid-ranking clerics loyal to himself.

Khamenei shared Khomeini’s distrust of the army, which had rebelled against the previous ruler—the shah—and sided with the people. Khomeini had founded the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, an ideological force that was loyal to him and whose mission was to protect the revolution. Khamenei called the army and the Revolutionary Guards the two wings of the regime, but he invested heavily in the latter and expanded its militia, the Basij. He appointed their commanders and shuffled them regularly. Soon he surrounded himself with a network of petty clerics and Revolutionary Guards commanders—none with any notable revolutionary background.

Two ideological positions guided Khamenei from the beginning. Though paying lip service to freedom of thought, he has resisted demands for political and social liberties. He believes that permitting dissent, even limited dissent, amounts to the collapse of the revolution. He argued that the notion of freedom in Islam was different than that of the West. Islam favors protecting individuals not only from one another, but also from themselves and from society, he argued. In November 1991 he said: “Freedom doesn’t mean that one person, perhaps an influential orator, should be free to misguide an entire society.”

Secondly, Khamenei has fiercely opposed improving relations with the United States. Washington severed diplomatic ties in 1979, after Islamist students attacked the American embassy in Tehran, and held diplomats hostage with the backing of the Iranian regime. Khamenei has consistently repudiated rapprochement with the United States, and used animosity toward Washington as a tool to bolster his regime’s popularity. Dismissing talks with America as naïve, he has blocked any effort that could possibly lead to reconciliation. “Negotiation in political terms means a deal,” he said in May 1990. “It means compromise; it means that you need to give something to get something else in return. What do you want to give away from the Islamic revolution? The United States wants your loyalty to the revolution. It wants your pride. Are you willing to give it away?”

Unholy Alliances

Domestic power politics, as much as ideology, have shaped Khamenei’s autocratic rule. Rising public discontent after the destructive war with Iraq, and new domestic political and economic challenges, led Khamenei into a close alliance with Rafsanjani, who had succeeded Khamenei as president of Iran. As Rafsanjani wrote in his memoir, “We made important decisions together.”

Together they faced an emerging campaign led by Islamist intellectuals who had become disillusioned with the course of the revolution even before Khomeini’s death. With Khamenei in power, they became increasingly vocal in criticizing the regime for the lack of political and social liberties. They launched new publications, circulated treatises about democracy and Islam, and condemned the regime’s suppression of dissidents. They allied with Montazeri, under virtual house arrest in Qom, whose liberal tendencies made him a symbolic threat to Khamenei’s rule. In a speech in February 1996, Khamenei lashed back. “They have intentions to harm the system,” he declared. “They are the enemy.” Other opponents criticized Rafsanjani’s government for corruption, mismanagement, and soaring inflation.

At one point, the clash with domestic opponents even entangled Khamenei in questions about the murky death of Khomeini’s son, Ahmad. He died in mysterious circumstances in 1995 at the age of forty-nine, a week after giving a public speech accusing Khamenei and Rafsanjani of misrule. Iranian newspapers reported later in 1997 that the Intelligence Ministry, which fell under Khamenei’s thumb, was behind the killing of some eighty dissidents, including Ahmad. Khomeini’s grandson told Iranian scholar Emadedin Baghi that authorities had revealed to him that his father had been among the victims of those killings.

Khamenei endorsed Rafsanjani’s pragmatism in the post-Khomeini era. Rafsanjani abolished the war economy that had provided rationed food, and reinstated a more liberal economy, importing goods from American-made household appliances to technology. He built dams and roads, and revived a civilian nuclear program that had been interrupted by the upheavals of 1979. In 1995, Russia agreed to complete two nuclear power reactors in the southern city of Bushehr.

Rafsanjani began mending ties with Western countries and drew Iran out of its isolation. But Khamenei’s view of Rafsanjani soured over the latter’s olive branch to Washington. Khamenei believed that any kind of compromise with Washington would put Iran in a weak position and invite more pressure. Washington had repeatedly criticized Iran’s human rights records and attacked its radicalism at home and outside the country. In response, in nearly every public speech, Khamenei called the United States the “enemy” and “world arrogance.” He claimed that Washington intended to overthrow the Islamic regime. “The world imperialism is the enemy of the Islam because it knows that Islam is against its looting,” he said in February 1992. “Our enemies are afraid of the Islamic Republic because they know that our government is the first Islamic regime founded upon Islamic principles. It has massive support, and cut the hands of those who want to control our nation.” A decade later, in 2003, Khamenei’s rhetoric was unchanged. “What the United States, which has been spearheading the aggression against our Islamic revolution, expects from our nation and government is submission and surrender to its hegemony, and this is the real motive for U.S. claims regarding weapons of mass destruction, human rights, and democracy,” he said.

Khamenei faced the first serious challenge to his rule in 1997 with the election of Mohammad Khatami as Rafsanjani’s successor as president. Khamenei backed a conservative cleric who favored the status quo, while religious intellectuals supported Khatami, a former culture minister who campaigned on a platform to reform the Islamic system. Khatami talked about civil society and government accountability, new terms in Iran’s political discourse. With young people, women, and liberals quick to support the new face, Khatami won a landslide victory with a historic 20 million votes.

Khamenei viewed Khatami’s popularity as a major threat. The election unleashed a national debate about the future of the Islamic regime, the freedoms it needed to grant, and how much power the supreme leader should hold. Press freedom began to flourish, facilitating open discussion of these issues. But Khamenei’s judiciary proceeded to confront the emerging movement of Iranian democracy activists; it jailed reporters, and shut down dozens of publications.

The closure of a reformist newspaper in 1999 triggered the largest protests in the country since the revolution. Khamenei’s Basij militia force attacked a dormitory, where the students had held a vigil in support of the publication. It was brutal; they clubbed the students, pushed some of them out windows, and wrecked the rooms. One student was killed and dozens were seriously injured. The raid infuriated the nation and precipitated a week of massive protests. Khamenei appeared on television before a crowd of supporters, denouncing both the attack on the students and the protests as inappropriate. Wiping away tears, he said: “I have a worthless life and a maimed body. I have an honor which you have given me, but I will sacrifice all that to guard the revolution and Islam.” Immediately afterwards, Revolutionary Guards commanders published a letter to Khatami, warning that they would end the protests by force if Khatami did not withdraw his supporters from the streets. Fearing heavy bloodshed, Khatami complied.

Khamenei emerged triumphant and unchallenged. The showdown had exposed the hurdles that Iran’s 1989 constitution had created for democracy. Khamenei, alone, appoints the heads of the judiciary, commanders of the Revolutionary Guards and Basij, members of the Guardian Council who vet election candidates, head of the state television, and the ministers in charge of national security departments such as foreign affairs, intelligence, defense, and the interior. No one could challenge him.

Khamenei’s Man

In Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Khamenei finally had a president who promised to be a political and ideological ally. Khamenei clearly backed Ahmadinejad’s bid in the 2005 election. The Revolutionary Guards and Basij openly campaigned for him. A runoff vote pitted Ahmadinejad, a little known engineering professor who had served a brief stint as Tehran mayor, against Rafsanjani, a Khomeini confidante, former president, and a founder of the Islamic Republic. Ahmadinejad won, with seventeen million votes against Rafsanjani’s ten million. The message was clear: Khamenei was in charge.

At his inauguration, Ahmadinejad bent forward and raised Khamenei’s hand to his lips, reminding many of Khamenei himself kissing Khomeini’s hand in 1981 when he became president. Ahmadinejad publicly said that his relationship with Khamenei was that of a father and son. Khamenei backed Ahmadinejad when his economic policies caused skyrocketing inflation, when he cracked down on free speech, and when his rhetoric deepened Iran’s international isolation. Ahmadinejad put Iran at the center of controversy with provocative statements, such as calling the Holocaust “a myth,” and reviving a statement by Khomeini that Israel should be wiped off the map.

With high oil prices, and the United States mired in military operations in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan, Khamenei sought to expand Iran’s regional influence. He repeatedly said Iran could assist America in those countries if Washington treated Tehran as an equal partner. Khamenei would go as far as to claim that Iran was the inspiration for the “Islamic awakening” in Tunisia and Egypt. But during Ahmadinejad’s presidency it was Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear program that best reflected Iran’s determination—under Khamenei’s direction—to flex its strategic muscle.

Khamenei has consistently declared that Iran would not surrender to international pressure, including punitive economic sanctions. “They know that we are not after nuclear weapons,” Khamenei said in August 2006. “They are unhappy about scientific progress in an Islamic state, a country that has not surrendered to the policies of the United States, a country that has shown it is not afraid of America. They don’t want us to have the most important technology in the world, which is nuclear technology. But we have made our decision and are determined to continue the path of struggle that we opted for twenty-seven years ago.”

Taste of Freedom

Many Iranians remained disenchanted with the regime. Iranian society had gone under a metamorphosis since 1979. The majority of people now lived in the cities; they were literate and educated; more than half of university students were women. People had access to the Internet and satellite media—sources of information that shaped their views every day. Iranians had tasted freedom. Terms such as civil society and government accountability had become part of everyday vocabulary. Many believed the nation did not need “a father.”

When Ahmadinejad ran for re-election in 2009, millions of Iranians threw their support behind Mir-Hossein Moussavi—the politician who had served as Khamenei’s prime minister. Pro-reform activists, students, even Rafsanjani’s son and daughter, rallied behind him. Khamenei backed Ahmadinejad again. In the weeks leading to the election, people campaigned in celebratory convoys, believing they could use the election, the small window that the law granted them, to make a slight difference.

Voters flocked to the polls in huge numbers in the capital and in other cities. Historically, a large turnout meant victory for the pro-reform candidate. But ominous omens began to appear after the polls opened. Ahmadinejad’s government shut down Iran’s text messaging services; the tool that Moussavi’s campaign was using to monitor the balloting. Many polling stations lacked a sufficient number of ballot papers. In some areas, Basij forces attacked voters outside polling stations. An early official vote count put Ahmadinejad in the lead. Not long afterwards, Khamenei congratulated Ahmadinejad, signaling that the regime had made its choice.

The next morning, protests spread throughout Iran demanding new elections. With the streets still filled with demonstrators a week later, Khamenei took the podium at Tehran University to lead the nation’s Friday prayer service. With his disabled hand resting on a rifle, he denounced the protesters. “Flexing muscles on the streets after the election isn’t right,” he said. “It means challenging the elections and our democracy.” Without naming other presidential candidates, he called on them to pull their supporters off the streets. “If the political elite ignore the law—whether they respect it or not—they will be responsible for the ensuing bloodshed and chaos,” he warned.

Khamenei thus openly put himself at the forefront of the battle. The next day, Khamenei’s forces fired on the people. Dozens were killed, thousands arrested, and hundreds tortured. Many former officials and leading politicians, including some of the founding members of the revolution and two presidential candidates, Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, found themselves in prison. Around the country, protesters chanted “Death to Khamenei,” and “Death to the Dictator.”

Nazila Fathi was the Tehran correspondent for the New York Times from 1999 to 2009. She is the translator of The History and Documentation of Human Rights in Iran by Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel Peace laureate. She received a 2010 Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, and was a Joan Shorenstein Center Fellow at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in 2012. She is currently a research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School. On Twitter: @nazilafathi.

The Trouble with Sanctions

Sanctions on Iran have taken on a life of their own as the relationship between Washington and Tehran has steadily deteriorated. Sanctions were initially imposed nearly thirty-four years ago in response to the Iran hostage crisis—when revolutionaries seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held diplomats hostage for 444 days. Today, the U.S.-Iran conflict has expanded into numerous areas, but the United States and many of its allies insist on a core focus: they believe that the Iranian regime seeks to develop the technical capability and material to build nuclear weapons on short notice—though U.S. intelligence believes that Tehran has not yet made the political decision to weaponize its nuclear capability.1 For its part, Iran has long insisted that its nuclear program is for strictly peacefulpurposes. In an effort to blunt Iran’s presumed nuclear—and some would argue, regional—ambitions and increase its leverage vis-à-vis Tehran, Washington has spearheaded a potent barrage of unilateral and multilateral sanctions. Together with on-again, off-again negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council, Washington has pursued a carrot and stick strategy—now known as ‘dual track’—utilizing primarily negative inducements to convince Iran to change its nuclear policy.

Neither the sanctions nor the diplomacy component of the dual track policy has produced satisfactory results thus far. As of June 2013, seven meetings between Iran and the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1) have taken place over a four-year span. In contrast with most negotiation processes, the two sides actually came closest to a deal in their first meeting, in October 2009. Since then, diplomacy has steadily devolved into an exchange of ultimatums and mutual escalation—with Washington and Tehran taking turns not being able to take “yes” for an answer.

As in any negotiation, the devil is in the details—and there are many to discuss. But one detail stands out above all else: What kind of relationship does Washington want with Tehran? Over the duration of the Obama administration, America’s preference has been to work towards small confidence-building measures—without clarifying its long-term objectives. This is better than nothing, but due to the lack of trust between Washington and Tehran, small tactical steps are unlikely to work—and to date, they have not worked. If the Obama administration, together with its allies, does not decide on an end game—that is, a detailed vision for normal relations with Iran—it cannot clearly communicate to Tehran the goal of diplomacy, sanctions, cyber warfare, secret assassination, and any other form of pressure. This is rarely addressed. Unless Washington and Tehran can see the same light at the end of the tunnel, the reluctance to take risks for peace will likely remain. And they will be more likely to continue escalating the conflict toward a military confrontation that both sides would independently seek to avoid.

With strategic clarity lacking in both Washington and Tehran, investment in the coercive instrument of sanctions has grown significantly over the past four years—the severity of U.S.-led sanctions enforced over the past eighteen months has even taken veteran Iranian officials by surprise. The combination of sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors are estimated to have cut Tehran’s oil revenues by as much as 50 percent—from $100 billion in 2011 to approximately $50 billion in 2012.

Rather than attempting to impose a blanket economic embargo on Iran, the United States has instead used its massive leverage over the international financial system to create a new model for sanctioning Iran. It also laid the foundation for creating international buy-in through the three rounds of sanctions at the United Nations. Upon entering the White House, Barack Obama retained the same priorities, policy vehicles, and many of the same personnel on Iranian sanctions as his predecessor. Over the duration of his first four years in office, Obama signed into law the most comprehensive unilateral sanctions framework in history, led efforts to secure new multilateral sanctions at the United Nations Security Council, and played an instrumental role in convincing the European Union to implement its own set of unilateral sanctions.

Unilateral American sanctions have arguably inflicted the most pain on Iran during Obama’s presidency. In July 2010, he signed into law the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act, which updated the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996 with an array of punitive measures—two of which stand out: the sanctioning of providing gasoline and other fuels to Iran, and banning the sale of equipment and services that would help Iran increase its gasoline production capabilities.2 As these sanctions caused Iran’s imports to fall, the country was faced with potential fuel shortages, thereby forcing it to domestically produce gasoline that has caused the chronic pollution in Tehran to reach even more deadly levels.3

With the U.S.-Iran conflict no closer to a peaceful resolution after nearly three years in office, Obama authorized what has been brashly described by American officials as the “nuclear option” in Washington’s financial war against Tehran, by way of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2011 (NDAA).4 These sanctions restrict the access of foreign banks to the U.S. financial system if they process petroleum transactions with Iran’s central bank.5 Less than a year later, with congressional pressure unrelenting, Obama signed the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act (ITRSHRA). Building on the NDAA sanctions, ITRSHRA cuts off access to the U.S. market for companies that do business with Iran’s energy sector and freezes the U.S. assets of persons, insurers, and lenders that facilitate repatriation of Iranian oil revenues and/or do business with the National Iranian Oil Company and the National Iranian Tanker Company.6 Gary Ackerman, a Democratic Party congressman from New York, describes the intent of this mixture of unilateral American sanctions: “The goal… is to inflict crippling, unendurable economic pain [in Iran]. Iran’s banking sector—especially its central bank—needs to become the financial equivalent of Chernobyl: radioactive, dangerous, and most of all, empty.”7

With Tehran now facing what many consider the most draconian sanctions regime in history, does this mean sanctions are working? Have sanctions increased the likelihood of a compromise in the nuclear standoff? Or, are sanctions causing hardliners in Tehran and the West to dig in their heels and eschew the compromises that will be necessary for a peaceful resolution to the crisis?

Iran sanctions are a highly politicized issue, with domestic political ramifications in Washington and Tehran, as well as in Tel Aviv and Brussels. Though sanctions have been the primary policy tool used by the West since concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions intensified in 2002, thus far they have failed to alter Tehran’s nuclear policy. The question remains: Why? To better understand how sanctions have played out over the years, it is useful to deconstruct the stated objectives of sanctions, the internal state of play in Iran in response to sanctions, and the effect that sanctions have (and do not have) on the diplomatic process.

Changing Iran’s Calculus

The Obama administration has made sanctions the center of its Iran policy since the first round of negotiations with Tehran collapsed in November 2009, although its motivations for doing so and its public pronouncements about the objectives have varied. Perhaps the most commonly stated objective is changing Iran’s nuclear calculus, with sanctions being the primary tool used to raise the cost of Iran’s nuclear pursuits. The overarching goal is to make the cost of continuing Tehran’s nuclear path too high to bear, thereby leading to a change in its nuclear policy. The strategy envisions a three-part scenario in achieving this goal: devastate the Iranian economy with a tacit understanding that civilian Iranians will be hurt in the process; as sanctions take root and permeate Iranian society, civilians together with various stakeholders will pressure the government and potentially create regime-threatening protests; with the economy weakened—and new fissures created within Iranian society and among Iranian stakeholders—the Islamic Republic’s regional and international strategic objectives become too costly to continue at current levels.

A subset of changing Iran’s nuclear calculus is getting Tehran back to the table and negotiating in good faith. This logic supposes that sanctions will force key stakeholders in Tehran to believe that returning to negotiations and seeing them through is the only avenue for ending the forms of pressure that threaten their domestic, regional, and international priorities.

Another key driver of sanctions involves domestic politics in the United States and in Europe. One of the objectives, say some sanctions advocates, is to strengthen the credibility and leverage of pro-engagement camps, thereby providing political cover for politicians who favor non-military solutions to the conflict between Iran and the West. In the United States and within the European Union (EU), sanctions serve as a shield against political attacks from neoconservatives who label negotiations with Tehran as a demonstration of weakness and naiveté. In Tehran too, sanctions indirectly support the engagement camp also, by reminding citizens of the consequences of hardline policies, and providing leverage for factions favoring détente with the West.

Some Western officials also present sanctions as an alternative to an American or Israeli attack on Iran, by helping delay Iran’s nuclear program and thereby adding more time for diplomacy. Rhetoric within the Obama administration has stressed a preference to resolve differences over Iran’s nuclear program diplomatically, while also emphasizing “all options are on the table”—including war—to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. American and European officials further believe that effective sanctions may help dissuade Israel from launching a unilateral strike on Iran; Israel has laid down numerous red lines over the past decade in an effort to demarcate specific developments in Iran’s nuclear program that would trigger an Israeli attack.

Political signaling is another key driver of sanctions, with the signals intended to reach three key audiences: to show political constituents in the United States that Washington is increasing pressure on Tehran to unprecedented levels; to show Middle Eastern allies and foes that America is still in charge and make an example of Iran for its challenge to Pax Americana in the region; and thirdly, to show the world that Iran is paying such a heavy price for its nuclear pursuits that no country should seek to emulate Tehran’s path to nuclear capability.

In order to maintain and increase the heavy price that Tehran pays, a special emphasis is given to maintaining unity within the P5+1. This logic infers that Washington must seek to maintain a multilateral approach toward Iran regarding the nuclear issue—because Tehran is highly adept at exploiting rifts in the international community. Sanctions are the baseline tactic that the P5+1 can agree on in an effort to maintain international unity around diplomatic efforts to place red lines on Iran’s nuclear program.

While these motivations for sanctions are not mutually exclusive, the central objective is to change Iran’s nuclear calculus and force it to agree to a deal that it otherwise would refuse or has already refused. Since that specific objective has not been achieved thus far, sanctions cannot be deemed to have been successful. This begs another question: Why haven’t Iranian stakeholders capitulated in some way under the pressure of severe sanctions?

The Western Animosity Narrative

Sanctions have had a devastating impact on the Iranian economy. Numerous regime stakeholders openly acknowledge this, although they also blame Iran’s economic decline on a number of other factors such as subsidy reforms, varying degrees of mismanagement, and long-standing corruption.

Representatives from the Iranian Chamber of Commerce have said that 50 percent of the economic predicament is a direct consequence of sanctions and the other 50 percent is due to failed economic policies.8 Mohsen Rezaei, secretary of the Expediency Council and former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, believes that 40 percent of the current economic problems are due to sanctions, blaming the rest on mismanagement as well as corrupt networks that are “trying to benefit from the current chaotic situation in the economy.”9 The deputy speaker of the Iranian Majles, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, has said that external sanctions are causing 50 percent of the current economic difficulties, with the rest being the consequence of weak political decisions and structural issues.10

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is steadfast in his defiance of sanctions. The escalation of sanctions has enabled him to strengthen a powerful pre-existing narrative that portrays Western powers as a brutal, immoral group of governments out to ‘get’ Iran, and that their core interest is to keep Iran underdeveloped and dependent. This narrative serves to maintain unity in a fragmented power structure by sustaining the image of an unrelenting enemy. This in turn justifies a feared security apparatus—to counter that enemy—and mobilizes the support of a minority segment of society that can be paraded as “popular support” when needed—on the anniversary of the revolution, during elections, etc.

As long as the narrative of Western animosity remains in place, Khamenei will justify the empowerment of his military-security apparatus as a necessary instrument for countering threats against the Islamic Republic.11 In January, he commented that “the sanctions are meant to strain the people’s patience, incite the people to oppose the Islamic Republic, and increase the pressure on Iranian officials in order to alter officials’ calculations”—in other words, he continues to promote the image of a strong external enemy and the imperative ‘not to give in.’12 Khamenei’s formula for countering the sanctions—which he describes as “economic warfare”—has been dubbed the ‘economy of resistance, a vague term for a greater degree of protectionism, support for domestic industry, and lowering the Iranian economy’s dependency on oil exports.

Khamenei may be the supreme leader, but his position on nuclear policy is not immovable. There are Iranian domestic interests and structures that can challenge his narrative, and create counter narratives enabling a policy course correction. But they are unlikely to do so in the absence of clear, tangible, and positive potential outcomes in the event of an Iranian nuclear policy shift. To provide some degree of flexibility, Khamenei allows experiments, but does not commit to them until he gets a sense of security about the initiatives—an Iranian version of “leading from behind.”13 Indeed, the supreme leader can hide behind an array of institutions when he needs to justify or delay a decision. So, a critical question is how key constituencies read the current state of play, especially those layers of power that are closer to Khamenei.

Waiting for Sanction Fatigue

While there is wide acknowledgement in Iran that sanctions have created economic and social costs for the country, individuals close to the core of Iran’s power structure are relishing the narrative of resistance. According to this line of thought, while Iran suffers economically, it is also gaining newfound respect on the international stage due to its refusal to succumb to Western pressure. “Those who are witnessing how Iran is managing its enormous challenges develop a new level of respect for Iran, and that has given Iran a new credibility on the international stage,” one influential parliamentarian remarked. “Iran has become a role model for developing countries and there is a greater willingness among developing nations to work and trade with Iran.”14 While the idea that Iran is viewed as a role model or with greater respect is certainly debatable, it is an argument that is frequently cited by officials as a vindication of their narrative.

Moreover, this narrative contends that as long as Iran stands firm, global sanction fatigue—including in Europe—will ultimately cause the collapse of this policy. A senior decision-maker in Tehran spoke confidently of the belief that Europe cannot stomach a return to sanctions-based policies reminiscent of those imposed on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. This in turn will slowly unravel the coalition against Iran. “The sanctions—and especially the continuation of these sanctions—have exposed Washington’s true character to many international players, including Western countries,” he said. “I believe that the Europeans won’t continue to blindly support the U.S. strategy, and the time will come when the EU or some of the European countries will go a different path and Iran will wait for that break.”15 A Majles deputy close to Speaker Ali Larijani echoed this sentiment, expressing a degree of skepticism regarding Europe’s dedication to sanctions: “In the Majles presiding board, there is an understanding of what the U.S. is doing. We understand that they have a strategy to antagonize Iran. However, the big puzzle is the EU’s behavior. It seems as if the Europeans have fallen into an American-Israeli trap and they don’t know how to come out of it. If they continue this way, they will lose more and more of their economic foothold in Iran.”16

Iranian regime officials—aiming to bolster Khamenei’s hardline narrative—seek to politically capitalize on the negative impact of sanctions in order to influence the Iranian populace’s attitudes towards the West. Rather than denying the negative impact of sanctions, decision-makers in Tehran increasingly acknowledge them to vindicate their claims of Western hostility towards Iran. “It’s true that the sanctions are imposing an economic cost on the Iranian people and the regime, but they are also imposing a social cost on the U.S.,” one influential policymaker said. “The Iranian people are learning more about the hypocrisy and the true image of the West. I believe that the Iranians are becoming more and more anti-Western and that will have long-term costs for the Western countries in our region.”17 Although it is unlikely that sanctions will turn the entirety of Iran’s population against the West, Iranians inside Iran have increasingly voiced their displeasure with both the government and the sanctions that create new hardships.18 A senior Iranian diplomat echoed as much: “The society has become nuanced in its political awareness. It can analyze to see how far the current economic conditions are a result of Western pressure and Western double standards and to what extent it is the doing of the Iranian government.”19 Accurate polling is questionable in Iran, yet a long series of studies—including a recent scientific poll conducted by Gallup—supports the notion that a strong plurality of the Iranian population tends to put the blame for the economy on the U.S. rather than on the Iranian government.20 If this trend holds, the regime will find more opportunities to strengthen its narrative of resistance and blame the West for Iran’s deteriorating economy as the duration and bite of sanctions intensifies.

Overall, the strategic outlook of Iran’s supreme leader is to maintain a clear distance from the United States. However other stakeholders have developed alternative agendas. Some segments of the Iranian power structure view a good relationship with the West as a prerequisite for Iran’s economic and technological progress. Others believe that Tehran should ease tensions with the West to provide a greater degree of peace and tranquility in the region. However, as long as the antagonistic policies of Western countries remain in place, the Khamenei discourse will continue to dominate.

Undermining Reform

A critical step for sanctions to succeed in changing Iran’s nuclear calculus is to create room for the emergence of a competing narrative that paves the way for a shift in policy. Though the repressive nature of the Iranian regime and its efforts to eliminate any public debate about the nuclear issue renders the emergence of such a public narrative next to impossible, this does not necessarily hold true for narratives within the inner circles of the regime. Thus far, however, no such counter narrative appears to have emerged among influential elements of the Iranian elite.

“Even though regime members outside the core can have a voice and influence, it is sad to say that none of them actually has a strategy on how to amend the national security policy,” a regime insider explained. “Therefore, the core around Ayatollah Khamenei is not only the most powerful, but also the only group that has a strategy, i.e. the ‘strategic distance and antagonism’ to the U.S.”21 At present, there is no discernible competing strategy to the current narrative favored by Khamenei and the layers of power closest to him. While mainstream conservatives may be more amenable to negotiations and a nuclear compromise, they have not formulated a strategy accordingly, as they feel that the dominant narrative will hold firm. The other reason for the lack of a counter narrative can be found in the failure of Western countries to craft and communicate an alternative scenario. In Iranian eyes, there are no indications of how the dynamics of nuclear negotiations would change if Iran indeed changed its policy. These interest groups do not seem impressed by offers of the removal or suspension of some sanctions. Consequently, the core narrative is not only unchallenged during internal debates, but it is further consolidated by continued external antagonism.

A former high-level diplomat and foreign ministry official described the result of this trajectory: “The status of being in an ‘economic war’ means that a lot of the actual issues in the country cannot be debated, which is also impeding the political development of the country. The situation has undermined the position of the reformists and empowered the hardline elements.”22

Iranian intellectuals critical of the regime—even though they have diverging views on whether the Iranian government should show more flexibility or whether Western countries should adopt a new policy—tend to agree that sanctions only reinforce the dominant anti-Western narrative, thus making it very difficult for any other perspectives to emerge. There is also agreement with the notion that sanctions have undermined the domestic process of democratization, which in turn has aided long-standing efforts by hardline forces to dominate Iranian politics.23

A former mayor of Tehran points out that neither Iran’s elite nor its society at large wish to see the destruction of Iran. Therefore, he says, any internal or external push that would bring Iran to the brink of “economic destruction” will be met with a harsh reaction. The problem, he adds, is that most Iranian elites have not decided whether the West or their own regime is primarily responsible for the country’s sanctions predicament.24

Regime Change?

Stark divisions over foreign and domestic policy among the Iranian elite are unmistakable. However, those divisions do not appear to have affected regime cohesion around the nuclear issue or on the response to sanctions. And if elite insiders are to be believed, sanctions have helped strengthen cohesion rather than intensify rifts. A serving senior minister articulated his view accordingly: “The main objective of these sanctions has been to impose regime change or at least to weaken the Iranian regime. They have failed in that objective and in fact, they are strengthening the core of the Iranian regime, because they have regime constituents.” The minister says that the main result of sanctions is their socio-economic costs including the negative impact on Iran’s economic development. Another current official with influence over Iran’s economic policies shared this sentiment: “Western governments thought that Iran would collapse economically after the central bank sanctions. Well, now they know that they have failed. If they continue this way, it will just strengthen Iran’s resolve to confront the West.”25

Naturally, regime officials will tend to toe the party line, which does obscure a clear picture of the thinking inside the system. However, when crosschecked with former regime officials and regime-critical intellectuals, a similar sentiment emerges. A former deputy foreign minister candidly describes a line of thinking that exists beyond the supreme leader’s inner circle: “It was obvious to us that the sanctions’ pressure will increase and it was also clear to us that the main target was to weaken the regime, but that compelled us to stay strong, work together, and prove the Western strategy wrong.”26 A former senior Iranian diplomat shared this sentiment, saying that he believes continued sanctions will further harden Iran’s position in future diplomatic negotiations.27 It is reasonable to believe that beyond these statements of bravado, a more conflicted situation exists. The critical question, however, is whether those internal divisions are having an impact on the strategic calculations of the regime.


Private Sector Pressure

For its part, the private sector is unhappy about the current state of affairs, especially the negative impact of sanctions—and government policies—on private sector activity. But in their private lobbying campaigns, rather than pushing for a different foreign policy, they have tended to focus on lobbying the government to secure concessions for the private sector, thereby acknowledging that they do not have the necessary political influence to change nuclear policy. The main forum for such lobbying has been regular sessions titled “Dialogue between the Iran Chamber of Commerce and the Government,” which involve the president of the chamber (Mohammad Nahavandian) and key ministers (finance, commerce and industry, agriculture, petroleum, etc.). Ayatollah Khamenei’s decision to declare the current calendar year as the “Year of Domestic Capital and Domestic Industry” is likely related to these lobbying efforts.28

Thus far, the private sector has secured a number of concessions. Numerous product categories of imports have been included in the currency exchange priorities so that such companies can use favorable currency exchange rates for their imports.29 The implementation of the second phase of subsidy reform has been delayed (this was achieved through direct interaction between the private sector representatives and the Majles).30 A decree by the Expediency Council on “Drive to Self-Sufficiency in Industry, Agriculture, Defense, and Security” has been finalized—a document to promote local industry and local production. This was also the result of lobbying with the Expediency Council.31 Permits have been issued for private sector companies to participate in the exportation of petroleum (including crude oil) and petrochemical products.32

In February 2013, Ayatollah Khamenei signed a decree on “General Policies on Domestic Production and Protection of Iranian Labor and Capital.”33 The latest evidence that domestic industry is lobbying to improve the investment environment manifested itself when the supreme leader’s decree highlighted twenty-three new benefits to Iran’s private sector, including but not limited to: promotion and protection of the production of strategic goods, as well as goods that are required for domestic manufacturing; completion of the value chain of raw materials and products, and an end to the sale of raw materials; promotion of producing goods in the domestic market, the competitive production of which will lead to net hard currency revenue for the economy; management of hard currency resources emphasizing the needs for domestic production and entrepreneurship aiming at maintaining the value of the national currency; an increase in the role of the private sector and cooperative sectors in domestic production; and the breaking of all monopolies in production, commerce, and consumption.

While it is correct to say that a number of these initiatives will also benefit the quasi-governmental sector, the central point is that the Iranian business community (private or quasi-governmental) is mainly focused on improving its own operational and investment climate rather than lobbying for a change in nuclear strategy. Moreover, while Western intelligence suggests that the Iranian business community has put pressure on Khamenei to shift his nuclear stance, no publicly available information has been able to confirm this. In spite of the bite of sanctions, Khamenei’s narrative of resistance continues to dominate, and key stakeholders seem more intent on seeking concessions from the government rather than pressing for a change in its nuclear policy.

Talking to America

While there was greater diplomatic activity in 2012 and 2013 compared to 2011, there are no signs that sanctions have compelled Tehran to ‘come back to the table’ in the manner that the sanctioning states desire. Meetings over the past year have failed to produce a compromise. Tehran signaled openness to halting the production of medium-enriched uranium (MEU) at the 19.75 percent level—a level of enrichment needed to produce medical isotopes for cancer patients, but also an important step closer to the 90 percent level required for nuclear weapons. However, Iran resisted calls to cease activities at its heavily fortified underground enrichment facility in Qom and ship out its stockpile of MEU. In return, Tehran sought the lifting of sanctions and/or upfront recognition of its right to enrich—demands the U.S. and its allies rejected. Tehran dragged its feet in scheduling the most recent meetings, either seeking to create the perception that it is in no hurry, or truly believing that it could afford to play for time—or perhaps seeing little benefit in coming to the table at all. In any case, there are no signs yet that the sanctions noose around Tehran’s neck, as State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland has put it, has softened the Iranian negotiation position.34

Some foreign policy hands in Tehran contend that in spite of increasingly uncontrollable infighting within the regime, viewpoints among various political factions have converged on the nuclear issue. Even influential foreign policy experts, who were sidelined by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and later joined opposition leader Mir-Hossein Moussavi’s presidential campaign in 2009, believe that “succumbing under pressure only invites more pressure,” and have even privately circulated proposals such as withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Though Iranian officials no longer deny the immense impact of sanctions on the Iranian economy, Khamenei has reinforced his refusal to allow sanctions to affect Iran’s nuclear policy. Iran won’t negotiate “with a gun held to its head,” he stated on February 7, 2013, in response to Vice President Joe Biden’s call for direct U.S.-Iran talks. In a speech on February 16, he expanded on his reasoning with a direct reference to sanctions and the notion that Tehran will react positively to incentives as opposed to pressure:35

Sanctions are painful and they are a nuisance, but there are two ways to react to such pain: One group are those who start begging for forgiveness, but a brave nation like Iran will try to mobilize its inner resources and to pass through the “danger zone” with determination and courage… The Americans should show that they don’t want to bully us, that they won’t engage in evil acts, show us that their words and deeds are not illogical and that they respect the rights of the Iranian people, show that they won’t push the region into further confrontations and that they won’t interfere in the internal affairs of the Iranian people—they will see that the Islamic Republic has good will and the people are logical. This is the only way to interact with the Islamic Republic.

The sanctions have, however, achieved one outcome: There is an elevated and intense debate in Tehran on the issue of talking to America for the purpose of establishing a better relationship with Washington. It is in this context that Khamenei’s statement is so critical, as he is not rejecting the argument that Iran should establish relations with Washington, but rather the notion that it should do so while facing escalating economic pressure orchestrated by the United States. Khamenei is in essence declaring that the conversation about establishing relations with the U.S. (by first accepting the invitation for bilateral talks) will not translate into real action until Washington’s sanctions-based approach is ended.36

Although the deep-seated distrust between the United States and Iran has also been heightened by sanctions and the crisis over Tehran’s nuclear program, these are only two of many issues dividing them. However, the nuclear program remains the top priority for U.S. policymakers working on Iran—often to the detriment of more important issues, such as the deteriorating human rights situation in the Islamic Republic.

An Iranian nuclear bomb is neither imminent nor a foregone conclusion. The sixteen U.S. intelligence agencies judge with high confidence that Iran has conducted no nuclear weapons-related experiments since 2003, that it currently has no nuclear weapons program, and that it has not made the political decision to pursue nuclear weapons.

In theory, this provides ample political space for Obama to pursue a sustained process of diplomacy dedicated to ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program remains verifiably peaceful. In practice, however, we often see the opposite from Washington—self-imposed time limits on diplomacy, unprecedented coercive measures, and sensationalistic government-fed journalism about an imminent Iranian nuclear weapon. Why the disconnect?

At present, Iran is pursuing a strategic middle ground called nuclear latency: It aims to build a nuclear energy program that would allow for the production of a nuclear weapon on short notice if an existential threat came to the fore. This is often referred to as the “Japan option”—after the country that has made significant investments in peaceful nuclear energy without developing key expertise to produce a nuclear weapon or its corresponding delivery systems. Like Japan, Iran’s technological sophistication, its access to uranium and plutonium, and its experience launching satellites and missiles lend credence to the argument that it could theoretically build a nuclear weapon. But even after doing so, a weapon would require at a minimum one full year to complete—and American intelligence would almost certainly detect such efforts.

Nuclear latency does not violate Iran’s international obligations, but it does arguably provide the Islamic Republic with a geostrategic equalizer in a region that America has dominated for decades. Numerous alternative explanations for opposing Iran’s program have been offered: Iran’s nuclear program will stunt the growth of nascent and future democracies in the region, fatally undermine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, cause Iran’s Arab neighbors to lean toward Tehran, or encourage nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East.

Some of these concerns hold merit, others are more far-fetched. But all of them fall under the umbrella of a larger concern—arguably America’s primary concern—regarding Iran’s nuclear program: a nuclear-capable Iran will enable the emergence of a regional power that fundamentally rejects the notion of a Pax Americana for the Middle East.

And therein lies the rub: Iran will not enter into the regional security framework as it exists today, and the United States will not change the existing framework to accommodate Iranian preferences and goals. At face value, this seemingly zero-sum game puts Washington and Tehran on a collision course that can only end in war unless one side blinks.

The saving grace, which prevents this scenario from becoming a forgone conclusion, is that to date, diplomacy has not really been tried. There has been one forty-five-minute bilateral meeting between the United States and Iran during Obama’s first four years in office. This does not constitute a real diplomatic effort. Embarking upon a sustained diplomatic process on Iran’s nuclear program will not solve the larger U.S.-Iran conflict. But it can serve as an important foundation from which dialogue can continue on other equally important issues.

Drinking the Cup of Poison

Overall, sanctions have succeeded in putting tremendous pressure on the Iranian economy. Rather than show greater flexibility, however, the Iranian government’s response thus far has been responding in kind by increasing pressure on the West. Tehran has continued to expand its nuclear program, it has sought ways to circumvent sanctions rather than acquiesce to them, and it has doubled down on the foreign-threat mindset that empowers Iran’s hardline security and intelligence communities—the very elements that benefit from a continuation of the crisis. All this indicates a significant gap between the stated goals of the sanctions policy—a change in the Iranian calculus in regard to its nuclear program—and what sanctions have actually achieved.

Some sanction advocates posit that sanctions will not necessarily yield results in a linear manner; Tehran, they explain, may be able to resist sanctions for an extended period of time, only to massively yield to the pressure after an inflection point has been reached. The view suggests that judging the track record of sanctions thus far is therefore inappropriate and misleading. In an arena where diplomatic efforts are judged harshly and expected to yield extensive results almost instantaneously, this argument also accepts a political reality in which timelines and deadlines for sanctions can hardly be guaranteed.37

However, even if the notion of a non-linear process is accepted, signs of an inflection point must become evident at some stage, such as the emergence of a narrative within the elite that challenges the status quo policy and presses for a change. The existence of widespread discontent and anger against the Iranian regime should not be misconstrued as such an inflection point, that is, as pressure from society (or stakeholders) to shift Iran’s nuclear policy per se.

Sanctions have thus far failed to produce an inflection point, nor are they likely to do so. The combination of suppressing open debates about the nuclear issue, the manner in which sanctions “vindicate” Ayatollah Khamenei’s narrative of Western animosity aimed at “defeating Iran,” and the absence of convincing and enticing incentives—such as meaningful sanctions relief—to change Iran’s nuclear policy has prevented the emergence of a credible counter narrative within the Iranian elite. In the words of Roberto Toscano, a former Italian ambassador to Iran:

“[P]ragmatic voices within the regime… should be capable of convincingly stressing that both national interest and regime survival would be better pursued by abandoning not only [Iran’s] provocative rhetoric but also its ideological intransigence. The problem is that this is made more difficult by sanctions, a godsend for those who are trying to rally Iranians around the regime and against external pressure.”38

Moreover, stakeholders in the system such as the business community have focused on seeking economic concessions from the regime rather than lobbying for a shift in Iran’s nuclear stance. The absence of meaningful sanctions relief on the negotiating table appears to have prevented the emergence of incentives for the business community to forcefully challenge the regime’s nuclear strategy.

Successful cases in which enormous external pressure shifted the Islamic Republic’s policy on a central national security issue—such as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s decision to “drink the cup of poison” and end the debilitating war with Iraq—included both a challenge to the dominant narrative and influential stakeholders pushing for a policy shift. In the case of the Iraq-Iran war, this was made possible because it was clear to the Iranians that accepting a UN-mediated truce would unquestionably end the war with Iraq and they had confidence that Saddam Hussein could deliver on his end of the bargain. Tehran does not perceive a similar situation today, as two key issues remain unclear to the regime: What sanctions would be lifted if Iran were to succumb to Western pressure, and perhaps more importantly, whether the West has the political ability to deliver on sanctions relief.

An Existential Concern

A pressure strategy that lacks the sophistication and flexibility to help unravel the dominant narrative in the sanctioned state and entice stakeholders to push for policy changes is unlikely to succeed and may be counter-productive. In the case of Iran, a continuation of the current approach will likely consolidate the anti-Western narrative and render a compromise more difficult.

The United States and the EU believe sanctions have put Iran on a one-way path towards economic collapse unless it yields on the nuclear issue. Accepting the P5+1 proposal is a rational move, as they see it, and rejecting it is either the result of miscalculation or ideological rigidity.

Iran perceives a different reality. Khamenei’s behavior suggests he is aware of his regime’s unpopularity. Since 2009, the regime has lost several constituencies, rendering the few who support the regime and believe it to be legitimate all the more politically crucial to regime survival. To these constituencies, the narrative of resistance against the West to uphold Iran’s independence is essential. Any move by the regime that will be perceived by this constituency as a capitulation to Western demands, i.e. a violation of the regime’s narrative, risks turning them against the Khamenei. Mindful of Khamenei’s already weak support base, the loss of these last constituencies could be existential and prove a greater threat to the regime’s survival than even a military confrontation with the United States. While the regime does not hold out hope for actually winning a war against the U.S., it certainly believes it can survive a war—and even come out of it stronger at home. Thus, it is highly unlikely that the regime will succumb to the sanctions pressure at a time when its narrative remains unchallenged within the elite, key stakeholders are not visibly lobbying for policy shifts, no meaningful sanctions relief is put on the table by the P5+1, and capitulation poses an existential threat to the regime.

Any calibration of the sanctions policy should focus on promoting a discourse that can undo the consolidated narrative that Western governments are opposed to Iran’s progress, and can offer a solid prospect—such as meaningful sanctions relief—and clear arguments to Iranian stakeholders who have the ability to change the debate inside Iran. These measures can dramatically change the prospects of shifting Iran’s nuclear calculus.

This essay is adapted from “Never Give In and Never Give Up: the Impact of Sanctions on Tehran’s Nuclear Calculations,” a study published by the National Iranian American Council in March 2013.

Bijan Khajehpour
is the managing partner of Atieh International, a strategic consultancy, which he co-founded in 1994. He has contributed to Iran at the Crossroads and Security in the Persian Gulf: Origins, Obstacles, and the Search for Consensus, among other books. He is an editorial board member ofGoftogu, a Persian quarterly on culture and society.

Reza Marashi
 is research director at the National Iranian American Council in Washington, DC. He previously served in the Office of Iranian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Policy, Atlantic, and National Interest. On Twitter:@rezamarashi.

Trita Parsi
is the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council in Washington, DC. He is the 2010 recipient of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. He is the author ofTreacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel, and the United States, which earned a 2008 Arthur Ross Book Award from the Council on Foreign Relations. His most recent book is A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran. On Twitter: @tparsi.

1     Unclassified Statement for the Record on the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence by James R. Clapper, director of National Intelligence, January 31, 2012, available at

2    The Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010, available at

3    Thomas Erdbrink. “Annual Buildup of Air Pollution Chokes Tehran,” The New York Times, January 6, 2013, available at

4    Jay Solomon. “Senators Press Obama on Iran’s Central Bank,” The Wall Street Journal, August 8, 2011, available at

5    Imposition of Sanctions with Respect to the Financial Sector of Iran, available at

6    The Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act, available at:

7    Donna Cassata. “Congress Rebuffs Easing of Iran Sanctions,” Bloomberg Businessweek, December 9, 2011, available at

8    Interview with Iranian Chamber of Commerce official in Tehran

9    Ahmad Rezaie. “Mohsen Rezaei: Poverty and Economic Sanctions are the Main Opponents of Iran’s Next Government,” Kabir News, November 27, 2012, available at

10  Interview with Bahonar on Iranian television, aired October 29, 2012

11  Survival of the Islamic regime is an important factor in decision-making and behavior. As long as it provides the basis for the regime behavior, it can be easily justified. Even the Expediency Council, which Rafsanjani heads, is an institution to provide for the “expediency of the regime,” i.e. an instrument to prolong the life of the regime

12  Full text of Khamenei’s speech available at

13  One good example of such an experiment was direct U.S.-Iran talks over Iraq in 2006

14  Interview with senior Majles deputy who is relatively influential in the top layers of the regime

15  Interview with former high-ranking minister who is still influential in the key foreign policy and national security circles

16  Interview with Majles deputy close to Ali Larijani

17  Interview with former high-ranking minister who is still influential in key foreign policy and national security circles

18  Numerous interviews with Iranian businessmen, students, and retirees. See also “Killing Them Softly: The Stark Impact of Sanctions on the Lives of Ordinary Iranians,” International Civil Society Action Network (July 2012), available at

19  Interview with senior Iranian diplomat

20 Mohamed Younis. “Iranians Feel Bite of Sanctions, Blame U.S., Not Own Leaders,” Gallup, February 7, 2013, available at

21  Interview with well-positioned businessman with links to the security apparatus

22 Interview with former high-level diplomat and foreign ministry official

23 Interviews with five Iranian intellectuals who wished to remain anonymous

24 Interview with a former mayor of Tehran

25 Interview with current official in the country’s business community who has influence over trade and economic policies

26 Interview with former deputy foreign minister who is still close to the foreign policy and national security circles

27 Interview with former senior Iranian diplomat

28 This is what Khamenei entitled the current Iranian year in his March 2012 New Year speech, available at

29 Izabella Kaminska. “Iranian Rial-ity, or When Gresham’s Law Goes Awry,” Financial Times, October 8, 2012, available at

30 “Iran Parliament Votes to Suspend Subsidy Reform Plan,” Reuters, October 7, 2012, available at

31  For more on this decree, see (in Persian)

32 “Iran Busts Sanctions with Private Oil Sale,” UPI, May 11, 2012, available at

33 Khamenei’s full decree available at (in Persian)

34 “E.U. Agrees to Ban Iranian Oil Imports,” Voice of America, January 3, 2012

35 “Iran’s supreme leader rejects direct talks with U.S., Associated Press, February 7, 2013; “Iran’s Khamenei rebuffs U.S. offer of direct talks,” Reuters, February 7, 2013. Khamenei’s full speech available at Aftab News, (in Persian); and interview with foreign policy expert at government think tank, January 2013

36 Conversation with senior Iranian diplomat, November 2012; conversation with foreign policy advisor to the Iranian National Security Council, November 2012

37 See Trita Parsi. A Single Roll of the Dice—Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran (Yale University Press, 2012) and others

38 Email correspondence with Ambassador Roberto Toscano, February 19, 2013

Pipeline Politics

Officials from Iran and India came up with an intriguing idea back in 1989: transporting Iranian natural gas to the growing Indian market. As they began to explore the various options, the officials decided to expand their dialogue to include Pakistan, with the notion of constructing a pipeline that would carry the Iranian product both overland to the Pakistani market and through Pakistan to India. The projected Iran-Pakistan-India Pipeline (IPI) would stretch 1,724 miles, or 2,775 kilometers.

A decade after its tumultuous revolution and only a year out of the brutal Iran-Iraq War, Iran desperately needed investment in its energy infrastructure to help chart its post-revolutionary future. The country was seeking to repair damage caused by the war as well as finance new ventures. Iran hoped for an opportunity to exploit its natural gas reserves—the world’s second largest. The mega-project could spur economic prosperity in the provinces where the pipeline ran, and becoming a major energy exporter beyond being merely an oil producer stood to enhance Iran’s regional and global stature.1 The prospect of supplying energy to two major markets just next door, both destined for economic growth in the post-Cold War era, was an enticing one for Iran.

For India and Pakistan, the energy needed to fuel economic growth projections could not be provided by indigenous sources. Though both states had sought to diversify their energy sources, with natural gas being a critical component of their strategy, inadequate domestic reserves rendered those plans unviable without foreign supplies. Thus, gaining almost exclusive access to Iran’s vast gas reserves via the pipeline would go a long way toward buttressing diversification and energy security. For its part, Pakistan had an additional incentive; the lucrative revenues that would come from transit fees. Finally, the economic integration inherent in the project offered the possibility of improving strained India-Pakistan political relations. Hence, some dubbed the IPI the “Peace Pipeline.”

It seemed too good to be true, and perhaps it was. Despite the obvious benefits of the IPI pipeline to regional economic growth and political stability, the idea became ever more deeply entangled in strategic contests, involving not only traditional regional rivalries such as that between India and Pakistan, but the broader U.S.-Iran conflict, which invariably draws in other countries. For much of the last quarter century it appeared that, one way or the other, the pipeline would become a casualty of geopolitics. Perhaps the biggest blow to the IPI pipeline was the tightening of American unilateral and multilateral sanctions on Iran, which would include punitive measures against India and Pakistan if they pursued the project with Iran. Lately, however, the pipeline has been showing new signs of life. Changing regional dynamics—most importantly, Russia’s entry into pipeline deal making—have improved prospects for the IPI once again.

The Mumbai Factor

The longstanding animosity between India and Pakistan worked against early success in the IPI negotiations. Pakistan also had its differences with Iran, as the two countries were supporting opposite sides in Afghanistan (Iran sustaining what became the Northern Alliance, and Pakistan backing the Taliban in southern Afghanistan). The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 altered geopolitical calculations for many nations concerning energy security. For example, Iraq and Kuwait had together supplied two-thirds of India’s oil imports, which were severely interrupted by the war.2In 1993, India signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Iran for energy cooperation, and began exploring pipeline options with other Persian Gulf states as well. India had determined that the overland pipeline was the most economically attractive and achievable option of natural gas sector cooperation with Iran. Shipping liquefied natural gas (LNG) or constructing an underwater pipeline between Iran and India were far more expensive alternatives. For Iran, sanctions would make those options more difficult to achieve due to difficulties finding external investment and expertise. In 1995, Pakistan signed an agreement with Iran to actually begin the early phases of constructing the overland pipeline. But an impediment arose when Pakistan discovered new natural gas reserves, which temporarily cooled its desire for foreign supplies.

At the beginning of the 2000s, the pendulum swung again. Pakistan realized that its indigenous natural gas reserves were fundamentally inadequate for its growing domestic needs. Unlike India, which had only begun to include natural gas in its national energy mix, Pakistan had long utilized and depended upon natural gas. The rise in oil and natural gas prices focused Indian and Pakistani decision makers on the need for continual supply diversification in order to counteract the steadily increasing costs of energy imports. So in 2003, Iran and Pakistan established a Joint Working Group, and once again began discussing the viability of the pipeline. The IPI project received another boost with the thawing of Pakistan-India relations in the same year, enabling the two countries to once again explore the possibility of energy cooperation and increased trade. The new optimism did not last long. Three main factors worked to stall progress once more: fundamental disagreements about pricing, concerns about Pakistani border security, and the massive opposition to the pipeline by regional and global stakeholders, most notably the United States.

From a macro perspective, pricing differences could be expected, given that the global gas market does not have the same pricing mechanisms as its oil counterpart. A major sticking point during the negotiations involved the question of periodic reviews of the projected twenty-five-year agreement.3 Based upon the particular price, and depending upon volatility, these periodic reviews could be either advantageous or disadvantageous to either the producer nation or the consumer nation. Finding the right balance was key, so that each party felt that its economic interests were not being harmed.

In the IPI pipeline’s case, several issues were at stake. Iran’s concern was the selling price, and how to renegotiate prices based on fluctuations over time. Pakistan drove a hard bargain over transit fees. And Pakistan and India both were concerned with how the final price of natural gas would be quantified. Eventually, the Joint Working Group had achieved much agreement. Even the thorny question of periodic pricing reviews was resolved with an agreement to let future price changes be decided by an independent arbiter.4

But by the time the Joint Working Group had come to these agreements, other issues began to intervene. From the start, border security, chiefly concerning Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, was a major concern. As the IPI pipeline would traverse through the center of this very restive province, apprehension over security had always permeated discussions regarding the project. As the Pakistani researcher Mehvish Nigar Qureshi has noted, the unequal distribution of revenue generated from resources in Baluchistan had already added to local grievances.5 In the past, militant groups targeted both state institutions and gas pipelines. And regional events, such as the U.S. invasion and occupation of neighboring Afghanistan, as well as the projection of U.S. power in Pakistan and the region generally, has only exacerbated the problem. Iran has thus been concerned not only with how domestic instability in Pakistan would affect pipeline security, but also whether U.S. opposition to the project might eventually lead to American-inspired physical sabotage.

India seemed to share Iran’s concerns. And, from the outset, Indian officials had been wary of the Pakistani link in the pipeline; they worried that Islamabad would be able to use the gas pipeline as a political weapon. Increasingly, India fretted, too, about political instability in Pakistan, wondering if Islamabad would retain the ability to guarantee the flow of energy supplies through Baluchistan even if its intentions were to do so. The trepidations of Iran and India eventually helped put the IPI pipeline idea in limbo.

Working against progress on the pipeline and economic integration generally were the traditional suspicions between India and Pakistan. Though chiefly related to Kashmir, the instability in Afghanistan greatly contributed to another downward trend in bilateral relations following the 2003 thaw. The Pakistani government had long suspected that India might utilize its massive investments in post-Taliban Afghanistan as leverage against Pakistan. And though Pakistan had quickly sided with the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, it always had to balance its relationship with the United States with practical considerations toward its former Taliban clients—many of whom now resided in Pakistani territory. Islamabad, in fact, never really committed to either side, but was always hedging. The overt Indian support for the new political order in Afghanistan contrasted with Islamabad’s deep mistrust for the Hamid Karzai government and further strained the relationship between Pakistan and India. The strain was evident in the weakening of anti-terrorism cooperation between the two countries.

The Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008, carried out by the militant group Lashkar e-Taiba (LeT), effectively paralyzed all economic cooperation between India and Pakistan—and undermined potential future progress on the IPI pipeline. Though there has been no verifiable evidence of direct knowledge, involvement, or assistance by the former administration of President Asif Zardari of Pakistan in the Mumbai terror attacks, LeT’s open presence within the country—particularly the freedom of movement it had enjoyed and possible links to the country’s intelligence service—has enraged India. India formally withdrew from the project a few months later, bringing the feasibility of the IPI pipeline, some twenty years after the idea was first launched, into serious doubt.

Energy Diplomacy

For American strategic thinking, progress on the IPI pipeline would be a major setback for its sanctions policy against Iran. It would produce a significant precedent of open defiance to the U.S.-led sanctions. But more significantly, it would create conditions where America’s sanctions policy would be eroded by the economic dependence of Pakistan and India on Iranian natural gas.

The systematic overt and covert opposition of the United States and its allies had long been seen as the greatest hurdle to the completion of the IPI pipeline. Due to primarily U.S. sanctions against Iran—a staple of American policy towards the country since the Iranian Revolution—any nation that conducted major economic transactions with the Islamic Republic risked severe punitive measures. Since 1996, under the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, later called the Iran Sanctions Act, American sanctions had taken the form of extraterritoriality, by which Washington would impose unilateral sanctions on third parties that interacted with Tehran.

Yet, from Washington’s standpoint, while the threat of sanctions on Pakistan and India did help delay the pipeline, they were not enough to affect the fundamental policy calculations in Islamabad and New Delhi on the feasibility of the project. Thus, Washington needed to offer inducements as well.

In May 2008, the Heritage Foundation released “The Proposed Iran-Pakistan-India Gas Pipeline: An Unacceptable Risk to Regional Security,” which provided a clear look at what had already become a bipartisan American policy.6 On publication, many of the recommendations that the Heritage Foundation made were already visibly underway. However, the report was significant in that it spelled out an integrated approach, which included changing the domestic and regional conditions that had combined to make the IPI pipeline a potentially viable enterprise.

The report’s main recommendations included:

—Stepping up U.S. energy diplomacy to discourage pursuit of the pipeline, including bilateral dialogue with India and Pakistan.

—Encouraging greater LNG capacity in India and Pakistan.

—Supporting the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline as an alternative to the IPI pipeline.

—Expanding energy cooperation with India within the framework of the Asia-Pacific Partnership.

—Pursuing U.S.-India civil nuclear cooperation.

—Assisting Pakistan in building large-scale hydroelectric projects, and LNG terminals to meet its growing energyand electricity demand.
The Heritage Foundation’s advocacy boiled down to mass public diplomacy against the IPI pipeline, the encouragement of LNG transport (which is markedly more expensive than pipelines) and other alternative sources of energy, and the bolstering of nuclear cooperation with India and Pakistan—for energy generation purposes. Basically, diplomacy pursued in conjunction with the latent threat of sanctions against both nations if they chose to move ahead with Iran on the IPI pipeline.

The American approach enjoyed a good degree of success. Washington signed a deal in 2005 to support the Indian government’s surging power needs via the construction of civilian nuclear power plants. The deal was met with stiff resistance from many domestic critics in India, and greeted with alarm by some American critics. Indian skeptics saw an affront to Indian sovereignty; under the accord, India had to separate its nuclear program into civilian and military components, and make the civilian part accessible for international inspections.7 But within three years the accord passed through the maze of bureaucracy—the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.S. Congress, and the Indian parliament—and came into force in October 2008. It was hoped that the deal would serve as a useful precedent for non-proliferation policy, and increase the percentage of India’s nuclear-generated electricity capacity, which the International Energy Agency (IEA) put at a mere 0.7 percent in 2009.

Meanwhile, and in line with U.S. strategy, India increased its LNG imports from 3.49 billion cubic meters (bcm) in 2004−05 to 12.31 bcm in 2009−10.8  Most of the additional LNG came from Qatar, an American ally—again in line with the policy of expanding U.S.-India energy cooperation to develop and disseminate technologies within the framework of the Asia-Pacific Partnership.

India had begun to see that the geopolitical disadvantages of the IPI pipeline were now outweighing the potential economic benefits of the project. A deterioration of Indian-Iranian relations became a factor in India’s decision to withdraw from the IPI project. New Delhi was influenced by its growing relationship with various states that have antagonistic relations with Iran, specifically some Arab countries in the Gulf, and Israel. Saudi Arabia in particular had long pressed India to limit its economic ties with Iran, and rely on the Arab Gulf states for more of its hydrocarbon imports. The relationship between India and Israel had evolved from simple economic ties to a burgeoning defense and intelligence sharing relationship. Some Indian policy analysts came to doubt the very concept and potential of strategic Iran-India ties, arguing that interaction between New Delhi and Tehran had become mostly on a case-by-case basis.9 Some believe that Indian officials must have shared Washington’s concerns about Iran, noting that energy security is too vital for India to have scrapped the IPI project solely due to American pressure.10  For its part, Iran grew increasingly suspicious of India, with Iranian analysts perceiving that India had simply played the “Iran card” to exact concessions from the West.11

Pakistan, however, saw things differently. It did not have the same policy flexibility as India, due to Islamabad’s reliance on natural gas—in 2009, according to the IEA, it accounted for 31.9 percent of Pakistan’s energy basket. Moreover, deteriorating relations with Washington over suspicions of Pakistani collusion with the Taliban and its allies further undermined prospects for U.S.-Pakistan energy cooperation.

Pakistan had long attempted to obtain external investors for the IPI pipeline. Major foreign energy companies, such as Malaysia’s Petronas, Royal Dutch Shell, France’s Total, and Australia’s BHP, had expressed interest in a consortium to fund the huge endeavor. But with escalation of U.S. pressure, these firms gradually walked back their interest. Although Iran had begun construction of the pipeline on its territory, India’s exit from the project essentially reduced it to an Iran-Pakistan venture. Due to investment concerns, and Pakistan’s domestic economic deterioration, even Pakistan’s involvement was in doubt. The “Peace Pipeline” seemed doomed.

Russia to the Rescue?

In the last few years, however, a series of seemingly disconnected events and trends have created conditions in which the IPI pipeline has once again become a viable option.

Due to the extreme imbalance of power in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, Pakistan was highly vulnerable to American pressure. After the Indian exit from the IPI project, Washington began to publicly and forcefully ask Pakistan to formally withdraw from the project as well, and accept some of the inducements India had been given. After the Obama administration’s intensification of sanctions, Riyadh also openly pushed Islamabad to ditch its project with Iran. Washington’s strategy was essentially to publicly force Islamabad to adopt its policy preferences.

But the ensuing deterioration in U.S.-Pakistan relations halted any real progress towards energy cooperation, forcing Pakistan to think again about the eventual prospects for the IPI pipeline. Though Pakistan had enlisted as an ally in the American war on terror, its relationship with Washington significantly worsened in 2011 after the killing of Osama Bin Laden in an American military raid on the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. This episode triggered extreme anger and mistrust on both sides. The Americans felt betrayed, having provided Pakistani security forces with billions of dollars for anti-terror cooperation only to discover that Bin Laden was hiding out in Pakistan right under their noses; Pakistan, for its part, was humiliated by the raid’s violation of its sovereignty. Intermittent U.S. drone strikes into Pakistan against suspected Taliban targets still add to the embarrassment felt by the country’s political elite and to the fury felt by the general population.

The important new variable in favor of the IPI pipeline was the entry of Russia into the deal. Moscow’s interest had an economic and strategic rationale that predated the events that led to the project’s collapse in 2009. Russia possesses the world’s largest reserves of natural gas, with Iran holding the second largest reserves. As the Turkish scholar Bezen Coşkun has highlighted, Russia is keen to protect the primacy of Russian natural gas in the European energy market—a Russian vital interest—to the extent of ensuring that Iran is neutralized as a potential competitor in the future.12  Iran has shown interest in joining the Turkey-Austria pipeline, known as the Nabucco project, and presents itself to Europe as an alternative to Russia as a natural gas supplier.13

Russia’s involvement in the IPI pipeline makes good strategic sense. It would help steer Iranian gas exports away from European consumers, thus strengthening Russia’s leverage in the European market.14And by joining the IPI project, Moscow could become an indispensable partner with three major regional players: Iran, Pakistan, and India. Once again, Russia can deal with—and control—potential energy rivals through cooperation.15

In early 2012, Pakistan formally reached out to Russia to secure finances for the IPI pipeline. Russia in turn requested that Pakistan award Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, a non-bid $1.2 billion slice of the pipeline-laying contract.16 The move would give Russia an exclusive position in the construction of the pipeline in Pakistan, and a significant stake in the overall IPI enterprise. The prospects for reviving the pipeline were further aided by the completion of the Iranian portion of the pipeline up to the Pakistani border, inaugurated by the heads of state of both countries in March 2013. These developments have inspired Pakistan to take a more defiant posture against the threat of U.S. sanctions, publicly projecting that its portion of the pipeline would be finished by December 2014.

Add to the mix that Washington had proved unable to sponsor meaningful alternatives that would fundamentally change the energy equations for the better in Pakistan or in India. For example, as part of its energy diplomacy, the United States pushed the proposed Trans-Afghanistan pipeline (TAPI) as an alternative to the IPI pipeline. But the venture has questionable feasibility in at least the foreseeable future. India would have the same concerns about Pakistan as the transit country; the persistent security problems inside Afghanistan—the country remains an active war zone, with U.S. troops due to withdraw in 2014—make the project implausible in the near term.

The United States has experienced mixed results from its energy diplomacy. While security issues have paralyzed energy cooperation with Pakistan, political problems have undermined the potential for U.S.-India cooperation. The much-heralded nuclear cooperation has seen few tangible benefits, remaining largely stagnant since 2009. Lisa Curtis, a co-author of the Heritage Foundation report, says that an important problem is the Indian parliament’s move to virtually shut out American companies from India’s civil nuclear industry.17 Another hurdle for India’s nuclear program is the galvanizing of anti-nuclear activists in the country after the nuclear power disaster in Fukushima, Japan.18

The most successful element of American policy has been the growth of LNG in the Indian energy market, which has given India a modest degree of diversification. But LNG has not fundamentally addressed India’s mounting energy problems. It is impractical for India to depend on exports of LNG from the United States, and the utility of LNG imports generally depends on factors outside India’s control, such as the global price. A realization has begun to dawn in India that New Delhi is paying a high price by opting out of the IPI pipeline.

This was dramatically brought home by the sweltering summer days of July 2012, when India experienced the biggest systematic power outage in recorded history. The outage affected twenty of the country’s twenty-eight provinces, cutting off electricity to some 700 million people and causing large chunks of the economy to grind to a halt. While the exact causes of the blackout remain contested, the broad consensus is that the hydroelectric component of India’s electricity generation, which contributes roughly 19 percent to the country’s electricity consumption, severely dropped production due to unexpected low rainfall from a weak monsoon season. The episode once again highlighted India’s lack of sufficient energy diversification—an imbalance that has not been rectified by inducements such as the U.S.-India nuclear deal or the increase in LNG imports. India, in other words, remains in search of a comprehensive solution to its energy needs. In Pakistan, meanwhile, the energy crisis has evolved into a threat to the government, compounding the security, demographic, social, and economic problems that the country faces.

Robin Mills, an energy consultant and author of Capturing Carbon: The New Weapon in the War Against Climate Change, has argued that domestic energy restructuring would go a long way in both Pakistan’s and India’s quests for greater energy security.19 This would entail addressing consumer payment delinquencies and electricity theft, reducing subsidies, improving the climate for investment in offshore and shale gas, and broadening the use of solar and wind power.20  Yet, considering the sheer amount of time that would take Pakistan and India to implement such measures and the growth trajectories of both economies, it is difficult to see how they will manage to feed their energy needs without a substantial outside source of energy that would fundamentally alter, for the better, their quest for continued supply diversification. It has been this very calculation that has always kept the IPI project alive, albeit at times in hibernation.

Diminishing American Influence

The IPI pipeline is like a chain; it has many links. For it to properly function, all the links need to withstand the pressures that could make them snap. The pressures remain in force. But due to domestic and regional factors, these links are strengthening in ways we have not seen before, thus giving the IPI pipeline a second chance.

With the Iranian section completed, Gazprom’s entry into the scheme as a major investor makes Pakistan the country to watch. The ability and willingness of Pakistan to buck outside opposition and forge ahead with construction will be crucial. Russia’s role will be critical as well: Will Moscow follow through with the Gazprom investment? Or will it play the “Pakistan card” as leverage in its complex geopolitical dealings with Washington?

The importance of the pipeline—as a major engine of economic growth, and to promote political and strategic interdependence in the subcontinent—will ultimately depend on India. Many Indian policy analysts now see India becoming more independent in its energy policy, in part due to a perception of diminishing American influence in the region. The United States, thanks to development of new energy resources in North America, is becoming less reliant on conventional supplies from the Persian Gulf. In turn, Gulf energy resources are becoming a greater factor for Asian nations, notably India and China. This leads to a conclusion that India has sufficient incentive to assert the independence of India’s foreign policy and defy the threat of American sanctions over the IPI pipeline.21 To India, the IPI pipeline is evolving from being a potentially critical part of its energy diversification policy to a component of India’s larger geostrategic interests. If the pipeline’s construction within Pakistan penetrates all the way to the Indian border, as it was originally planned to do, an energy-needy India may be hard pressed to ignore it.

Reza Sanati is a research fellow in the Middle East Studies Center at Florida International University in Miami. He has contributed to Alternatives: Turkish Journal of International Relations,Christian Science Monitor, National Interest, PBS, and Al-Monitor, among others. On Twitter:@rzsanati.

1     Nadeem Shahryar and Timothy Boon von Ochssée, “The Iran-Pakistan-India Pipeline Project: Cross-Border Gas Pipeline Challenges,” IGU Magazine (April 2009).

2    David Temple, “The Iran-Pakistan-India Pipeline: The Intersection of Energy and Politics,” IPSC Research Papers (New Delhi, India: Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, April 2007): 6.

3    Abbas Maleki, “Iran-Pakistan-India Pipeline:,” MIT Center for International Studies Audit of the Conventional Wisdom (September 2007).

4    Anoop Singh, “The Economics of Iran-Pakistan-India Natural Gas Pipeline,” Economic and Political Weekly 43, no. 37 (September 13, 2008).

5    Mehvish Nigar Qureshi, “Energy Crisis in Pakistan: A Threat to National Security,” Issra Papers 2009, ed. Major General Azhar Ali Shah (Islamabad: Institute for Strategic Studies, Research, and Analysis [ISSRA], National Defence University 2009).

6    Ariel Cohen, Lisa Curtis, and Owen Graham, “The Proposed Iran-Pakistan-India Gas Pipeline: An Unacceptable Risk to Regional Security,” (The Heritage Foundation, May 30, 2008): 13-14.

7    Ramesh Phadke, “India Should Beware of U.S. Motives on Nuclear Deal,” (Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, May 3, 2007).

8    Ann-Sophie Corbeau, “Natural Gas in India,” (Paris, France: International Energy Agency, 2010): 31.

9    Harsh V. Pant, “India’s Relations with Iran: Much Ado about Nothing,” The Washington Quarterly 34, no. 1 (2011).

10  Uma Purushothaman, “American Shadow over India-Iran Relations,” Strategic Analysis 36, no. 6 (2012).

11  Maleki, “Iran-Pakistan-India Pipeline.”

12  Bezen Balamir Coşkun, “Global Energy Geopolitics and Iran,” Uluslararası İlişkiler 5, no. 20 (Winter 2009): 186.

13  Nikolay Kozhanov, “Russia’s Relations with Iran: Dialogue without Commitments,” (The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, June 2012): 24.

14  Coşkun, “Global Energy Geopolitics and Iran,” 186.

15  Coşkun, “Global Energy Geopolitics and Iran,” 186.

16  Agha Iqrar Haroon, “Iran and Pakistan Keep Working on IPI Gas Pipeline Project,” Tehran Times(August 8, 2012).

17  Lisa Curtis, “Going the Extra Mile for a Strategic U.S.-India Relationship,” (Heritage Foundation August 20, 2012), 1̲7.

18  Curtis, “Going the Extra Mile for a Strategic U.S.-India Relationship,” 1̲7.

19  Unpublished Interview: Robin Mills. Interview by Reza Sanati, May 18, 2013.

20 Ibid.

21  P. R. Kumaraswamy, “India’s Iran Defiance,” IDSA Comment (New Delhi, India Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, March 19, 2012).

Nuclear Narratives

On September 27, 2012, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a presentation at the United Nations about Iranian nuclear capabilities. It featured a simplistic, cartoon-like drawing of a bomb and a hand-drawn “red line,” indicating that Iran’s accumulation of enriched nuclear material in excess of the amount represented by the red line would constitute justification for a military attack on Iran. Netanyahu did not mention any other option.

The Wall Street Journal
’s coverage of the presentation focused on the differing official opinions about Netanyahu’s claim that “the international community needed to be prepared to attack no later than summer of 2013 to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear bomb.” The New York Times coverage of the event focused on how Netanyahu’s deadline represented a “softening” of the Israeli position as part of a “difficult dispute with the Obama administration.” Britain’s Financial Times focused on divining Netanyahu’s motivation for the speech: “[The address] was a highly public argument for a stronger U.S. threat to attack Iran if it does not back off from what the Israeli leader described as the final push toward a nuclear weapon.”

Absent from much of the news coverage of Netanyahu’s presentation was a thorough evaluation of Iran’s actual nuclear capabilities, or of the full range of options available to policy makers. The news coverage made it seem as if the only choice facing the international community was when to threaten to attack Iran’s nuclear program, and what Iran needed to do to avoid being attacked.

The media coverage was representative of larger patterns we found in a study of the way in which six leading newspapers in the United States and Britain have framed events related to Iran’s nuclear program over the past four years. Rather than thoroughly exploring Iranian intentions and capabilities—and the factors affecting security strategy on all sides—much of the news coverage has focused on the political and diplomatic back and forth between government officials, particularly on what different American, European, and Israeli officials say and, more briefly, what Iranian officials say back.

Rather than asking why officials say what they say, and how best to settle the dispute on terms acceptable to all, news coverage—and as a consequence, public discussion—has been caught in a constrained and distorted narrative of how Iran threatens global security and how best to coerce it to stop. It is a narrative that has only a passing resemblance to the complex contours of the dispute, but one that holds vast and potentially dire consequences.

Echoing the Official Line

There can be little doubt that English-language news media coverage plays an important role in American and European public perceptions about Iran’s nuclear program and in the official policy response to it. Media scholars and political scientists have found that certain news outlets’ framing of the debate about Iraq’s supposed stores of weapons of mass destruction in 2002 and 2003 was found in hindsight to have profoundly affected public discussion of the threat posed by Iraq and increased the popular and political support for preventive military action.

With the international stakes as high, if not higher, in the case of Iran and its nuclear program, the question becomes how is news media coverage affecting public perceptions, and, ultimately, the policy options available to decision-makers? This was the driving question behind “Media Coverage of Iran’s Nuclear Program,” the study conducted by the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM). The study examined the news coverage of six prominent and agenda-setting English-language newspapers (the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post,Financial Times, Guardian, and Independent) during four three-week periods throughout the past four years.

In this instructive but admittedly limited sample of newspaper coverage of Iran’s nuclear program, many of the same patterns that plagued news coverage prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq reappeared: an overreliance on official government sources; a narrow framing of the dispute that hews closely to official preferences; and a lack of precision and context in discussing Iranian nuclear capabilities and intentions.

For example, nearly 70 percent of the sources quoted or relied upon in the 1,232 articles analyzed in the CISSM study were associated with a national government, with U.S. and Iranian officials making up 36 percent and 23 percent, respectively, of all government sources. As a consequence of this heavy reliance on official government sources, news coverage emphasized how officials saw the dispute and what officials argued was the preferred or necessary policy course.

The most prominent example of this pattern was the reporting about the Obama administration’s “two-track policy” of coercive diplomacy. Newspaper coverage of the 2009 Geneva negotiations and the subsequent fuel-swap deal focused on what officials from the United States and Western European states saw as the acceptable outcome of negotiations: Iranian concessions, including full cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and tight restrictions or prohibitions on Iranian dual-use nuclear capabilities. A September 27, 2009 Washington Postarticle reported that “[I]f Tehran does not respond seriously by year’s end [to U.S. demands], the United States and its partners could begin to push for crippling sanctions.” Similarly, an October 2, 2009 Wall Street Journal argued: “Despite initial signs of progress in talks… U.S. officials are expected to push for new U.N. or unilateral sanctions unless Tehran backs up its word with actions in coming weeks and months.”

When negotiations didn’t yield the expected outcome within the U.S.-imposed time frame, coverage focused on the necessity of sanctions to further pressure Iran. While some newspaper coverage focused on the likely inability of sanctions to produce Iranian concessions, few articles explored other potential policy options that might lead to a mutually agreeable outcome and avoid military action. Even fewer mentioned the possibility that pressuring Iran further could actually lead to regional instability or to an Iranian decision to build a nuclear weapon.

When the UN Security Council finally debated and passed an additional sanctions resolution in June 2010, the logic of the sanctions went mostly unquestioned in newspaper coverage. Instead, a majority of the coverage focused on the belief held by U.S. officials and others that the sanctions, in the words of a June 10, 2012, Washington Post article, “should prompt the Islamic Republic to restart stalled political talks over the future of its nuclear program.” Coverage during this period did give some attention to the failed diplomatic efforts of Brazil and Turkey to avoid the sanctions, but didn’t address the substantive critique made by Brazilian and Turkish diplomats of the sanctions resolution and the policy course adopted by the United States, China, France, Russia, the U.K. and Germany (the P5+1).

The news coverage examined in the CISSM study also lacked the necessary precision, context, and sourcing for assessments of Iran’s nuclear capabilities and intentions. Competing official and independent estimates and statements certainly made it difficult for reporters and editors to clearly describe Iran’s nuclear capabilities and intentions. But more often than not, coverage of Iran’s nuclear program simply included a restatement of some of the often-competing official claims. Rarely were the conclusions of all available estimates considered; and rarely were they synthesized sufficiently and put in the necessary context.

The February 2012 release of an IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear activities provided a window into how the newspapers covered this topic. The report noted that Iran had begun enriching uranium up to 20 percent U-235 in the Fordo enrichment facility and was enlarging its total stockpile of this type of uranium.

A February 25, 2012 Washington Post report was careful to characterize Iranian advances in uranium enrichment as moving Iran closer to having the requisite material to build a nuclear weapon, without suggesting that Iran had actually decided to build a weapon. The article did not acknowledge, however, that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which Iran is a party, does not prohibit non-nuclear weapon states from enriching uranium up to 20 percent U-235 or limit the amount of such material they may have for peaceful purposes, such as fueling a research reactor or producing isotopes for medical use, so long as these activities are under IAEA safeguards. Instead, the report focused on the degree to which Iran’s activities moved it closer to having enough low enriched uranium and centrifuges to be able to produce a weapons’ worth of highly enriched uranium in a relatively short amount of time, should it choose to do so, and in the likelihood that the “advances” in Iran’s enrichment program were in excess of what Iran needed to meet its stated goals.

Other coverage of the IAEA report was less nuanced, instead using less precise language about Iran’s “nuclear ambitions” and simply presenting Iran’s claims and U.S., European, and Israeli suspicions about Iranian nuclear activities: “New suspicions over Iran’s nuclear ambitions emerged Friday,” reported a February 25, 2012 Wall Street Journal article. “Iran has dramatically accelerated its production of enriched uranium in recent months while refusing to cooperate with an investigation of evidence that it may have worked on designing a bomb,” a February 25, 2012 Guardian report read.

The approach of this coverage reflected the efforts of competing governments to frame public understanding of the policy choices confronting officials. While U.S., European, and Israeli officials often had varying assessments of Iranian capabilities and intentions—and varying preferences for how to address what they perceived to be the threat posed by Iran—all understood the basic dynamics of international diplomacy and domestic politics: portraying Iran’s advances as evidence of dangerous intentions and growing capabilities to make weapons, as some of the coverage of the IAEA report did, made it easier for officials to advocate for a more urgent response to Iran’s nuclear activities, possibly including the use of military force. Putting Iran’s advances in the context of previous assessments, as some of the articles did, left open the possibility that additional coercive measures or diplomacy could succeed in thwarting Iran’s nuclear advances.

Questioning Iran’s Intentions

Other characteristics of news coverage of Iran’s nuclear program included the degree to which coverage placed on Iran the burden for resolving the dispute over its nuclear program, and the manner in which negative sentiments about Iran colored newspaper coverage.

Coverage of the September 2009 revelation of the  existence of the Fordo enrichment facility provided a clear example of how newspaper coverage framed Iran as fully responsible for causing the dispute, and therefore fully responsible for the concessions necessary to end it. The coverage acknowledged that U.S. and European leaders were using the construction of an undeclared centrifuge facility at a hardened site near a military base as leverage in upcoming negotiations with Iran, but it gave little consideration to Iran’s claim that it had done so in response to foreign threats to destroy its less protected centrifuge facility. A September 26 Guardian article explained how U.S. and European leaders saw the Fordo revelation as an opportunity to “demand” that Iran take “concrete steps to restore ‘confidence and transparency’ in the country’s nuclear program.” In other words, according to the coverage, the negotiations were exclusively about Iranian behavior—what it was willing to do and not do. As a consequence of its failure to disclose the site earlier, Iran did bear some responsibility; but to place the entire burden on Iran is to ignore a tumultuous history of past negotiations and actions about which all parties have felt aggrieved, and of the well-established tenets of the non-proliferation regime.

Coverage of the negotiations that followed the Fordo revelation referred regularly to the hope that pressure on Iran would force it to engage in “serious negotiations.” However, the coverage did not describe in any detail what behavior would demonstrate that Iran was “serious” about negotiations and how such behavior would differ from previous behavior. Indeed, at times it seemed that “serious negotiations” was a euphemism for conceding to U.S. demands. The coverage never questioned whether the United States or the P5+1 was doing enough to convince Iran that it was serious about seeking a negotiated resolution on mutually acceptable terms, or how American interests and domestic politics constrained Washington’s policy approach.

When the negotiations yielded agreement in principle on a deal for Iran to swap much of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium for fully manufactured nuclear fuel using uranium enriched outside of Iran, newspaper coverage was cautious, focusing on the potential benefits of the deal if Iran would quickly accept specific terms of the U.S. proposal to prove that it was not just “playing for more time.” As an October 2 Wall Street Journal article noted, “Iranians may be seeking to defuse pressure for sanctions while continuing their nuclear program.” A Financial Times article from the same day was considerably more skeptical: “A deal remains a long shot. At stake is whether Iran builds a nuclear infrastructure that, despite all its protestations, would make it much easier to produce fissile material for a bomb.” None of the coverage questioned whether it was necessary or productive to demand that Iran quickly take or leave the deal, at a time when internal politics prevented Iranian leaders from making a quick decision.

Again, the point is not that Iran is blameless and undeserving of suspicion, but that there are complicated international and domestic contexts to the broader dispute that need to be acknowledged. Indeed, if these contexts are understood fully, one would appreciate the degree to which Iran has equally significant reason to be suspicious of U.S. and international motives and behavior. For instance, the United States has a significant and active military presence in the Middle East, Persian Gulf, and Afghanistan, and together with Israel, the United States has been waging a covert campaign to forcibly undermine Iran’s nuclear program.

The generally prevalent negative sentiments toward Iran are most clearly seen when coverage of Iran is compared with international responses to similar events and behavior by other countries. A September 26, 2009 Independent article published a day after the Fordo revelation contrasted calls to lift economic sanctions against Burma with calls to further sanction Iran and suggested that this “double standard” might be Iran’s fault because it is “a particularly difficult country to deal with,” and because “its ambitions and its willingness to compromise are so uncertain.”

Negative sentiment toward Iran was also pervasive in 2010 coverage of the public debate about imposing another round of punitive sanctions against Iran. Iran’s behavior was characterized as sneaky: “Iran and its state-backed enterprises have become adept at skirting sanctions,” read a June 10, 2010 Independent article; “a shadowy network of Middle East gasoline suppliers is already undermining U.S. efforts to pile pressure on Tehran,” read a June 17, 2010 Wall Street Journal article.

While Iran might indeed have developed sophisticated ways to get around UN and national economic sanctions, that could be because it views the sanctions aimed against it as illegitimate and part of a campaign to weaken the government and interfere in the inner-workings of the country. Moreover, the Iranian government and the Iranian people may see the ability to circumvent sanctions as innovative or resourceful, not merely evasive, but none of these alternative interpretations was explored in news media coverage of this issue.

Differences in newspaper coverage of Iranian and Israeli ballistic missile tests also demonstrated underlying sentiments about Iran. In the days leading up to the October 2009 Geneva negotiations, Iran test-fired a few types of ballistic missiles and coverage of these tests focused on the degree to which the events were meant to send a belligerent message to U.S., European, and Israeli officials prior to negotiations. According to a September 29, 2009 Independent article, the Iranian missile tests were a “show of defiance.” This report also emphasized the offensive capabilities of the tested missiles and the fact that their capabilities put Israel within range.

In contrast, when Israel was set to test-fire missiles as part of its anti-ballistic missile program development in early 2012, the emphasis of newspaper coverage was on the missiles’ defensive capability rather than whether its actions provoked concern. Underlying this coverage is the assumption that Iranian missile capabilities pose a threat, while Israeli capabilities are non-threatening and justified. While this could be the case, it’s also possible that Iran’s security strategy rationally justifies its missile capabilities and that Israeli capabilities are threatening to some.

Another aspect of newspaper coverage that could be seen as revealing underlying sentiments about Iran is how frequently Iran is referred to as an “Islamic republic.” The newspapers in this study rarely referred to Iran by its formal name, the Islamic Republic of Iran, on first mention, instead simply referring to the country and its government as “Iran.” Yet on second mention, newspapers regularly referred to the country and the government as “the Islamic republic.” Iran is a theocracy, where Islam is a central part of governance and society, yet in using this alternative term, news outlets implied that Iran’s Muslim identity made it different—and potentially more threatening—than other countries. By comparison, although the formal name of Pakistan is the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, it is rarely if ever referred to by these newspapers as the “Islamic republic.”

Informed Public Discussion?

None of the patterns that were found in recent newspaper coverage of Iran’s nuclear program were terribly surprising. Media scholars and observers have long hypothesized and experimentally confirmed that reporters and editors tend to index their news coverage of foreign policy events to official viewpoints and that public discussion about policy options tends to be limited by the scope of official preferences. News media also have a well-documented tendency to portray “out” groups, such as communists during the Cold War or Muslims after the September 11 attacks, in negative or at the very least suspicious ways. A 2007 study by scholars at Louisiana State University confirmed that the same is true regarding portrayals of Iran and Iranian officials in some coverage of Iran’s nuclear program.

The effects of these tendencies, however, have varied with the nature of events. Sometimes they lead news media to inform public discussion in a way that eventually feeds back into official discussion; sometimes they simply affect official discussions, which are then recycled by reporters and editors who rely predominantly on official sources. Sometimes sentiments presented in news coverage influence public sentiment; and sometimes they simply reinforce already-held public sentiments. In English-language news coverage of Iran’s nuclear program and the outcome of the international dispute about it seldom are these tendencies sidestepped altogether. Journalists rarely seem to find a way to inform public discussion with opinions and policy ideas from outside of official circles, which could then inject new perspectives and possibilities into official debates.

The tendency of some news media to rely so heavily on official sources and to adopt the framing of U.S. and European government officials leads to a focus on official conceptions of the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program and on official preferences for how to deal with it. Again, while there is variation in official U.S., Israeli, and European policy circles about the threat posed by Iran and how to confront Iran’s nuclear program, the baseline view is that Iran’s known nuclear capabilities, its unreasonable and ideological disposition, and its past interference in regional affairs pose direct threats to U.S., European, and global interests in the Middle East. To address this threat, the international community needs to pressure Iran—with economic sanctions or threats of military attack—to restrict its nuclear activities. Much of the news coverage examined in the CISSM study reflects and reinforces these official views.

Indeed, Iran’s nuclear program is worthy of international scrutiny; some questions about past Iranian research related to nuclear weaponization remain unresolved. But why is the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program, which by all accounts has not actually developed nuclear weapons, seen so differently by officials than the threat posed by a North Korean regime that has built and tested nuclear weapons? Why can the United States and its international partners be satisfied with patiently and vigilantly limiting the nuclear threat from North Korea but not Iran? Is the threat posed by Iran made larger or smaller by the coercive diplomacy and punitive economic sanctions that have been the dominant approach advocated by U.S., European, and other government officials? These types of questions, which leave room for alternative conceptions of the threat posed by Iran and how to resolve the ongoing dispute, are often overlooked as news media focus primarily on official pronouncements and framings.

The news coverage examined also tended to marginalize public opinion, especially if it was skeptical of official narratives. For instance, official policy discussions about Iran’s nuclear program in February and March 2012 as captured in news coverage, focused on the possibility and rationale for Israel and/or the United States to attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure in order to impede its nuclear program. Meanwhile, public opinion in the United States and elsewhere showed a considerable reluctance to attack Iran. Only 25 percent of Americans surveyed in a March 2012 Program on International Policy Attitudes poll supported an Israeli military attack against Iranian nuclear installations, while more than 74 percent of respondents thought the United States should work through the UN Security Council, presumably by engaging a broader set of stakeholders, to achieve a peaceful resolution. More recently, a June 2013 New York Times/CBS poll found that nearly 60 percent of Americans surveyed believed that the threat posed by Iran could be contained—nearly the same number that felt that the threat from North Korea could be contained. These sentiments were rarely represented in news coverage during the periods examined. These patterns point to an important incongruity: while newspaper coverage constrains public and official discussion, the public doesn’t always buy the official line.

The tendency of some English-language news coverage to place on Iran the burden to resolve the dispute about its nuclear program also significantly constrained policy and public discussions. Identifying the appropriate policy course depends on whether one sees the failure to resolve the dispute as a result of Iranian intransigence and unwillingness to engage in “serious negotiations,” or as a consequence of the P5+1 trying to apply inequitable rules on the use of nuclear technology and materials. If the latter were the case—and this is not the majority opinion among U.S., European, Israeli, and other officials and as a consequence was rarely expressed in news coverage—then resolving the dispute might require the P5+1 to assure Iran that it would not be kept from or punished for engaging in activities protected by international law. Similarly, if what is perceived and reported as Iranian intransigence or lack of sincerity is seen instead as a reasonable Iranian response to what Iranian officials view as threats from Israel and the United States, then P5+1 policy makers are foolhardy to wait for Iran to agree to terms that could institutionalize what it views as a strategic disadvantage.

Perhaps most troubling of all of the patterns identified in the study is the tendency to associate negative sentiments with Iran. If policy makers or members of the public perceive Iran as implacably hostile toward some of its neighbors, other actors, or the international system as a whole, or as preternaturally untrustworthy—as some of the news coverage examined suggests it is—then it will be that much more difficult to conceive of and execute a consensual resolution to the dispute.

If the goal of news media is to act in the public interest, to hold public officials accountable, and to permit an informed public to play a constructive role in the foreign policy decisions made by their governments—in their name—then journalists ought to consider more carefully how they go about framing the facts and assessments that animate complex policy issues such as Iran’s nuclear program and how the international community could and should respond. Without considering these fundamental characteristics more carefully and reflecting a broader spectrum of viewpoints and policy possibilities in their coverage, they are liable to repeat the mistakes that contributed to disastrous policy choices in the past.

Jonas Siegel 

is project manager and outreach director at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland. He previously served as editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Saranaz Barforoush is a PhD student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. From 2002 to 2008, she worked as a reporter and translator for Iranian newspapers and weekly magazines, including Hamshahri Daily, Asr-e-ertebat, Zanan, and Hayat-e-no.

House of Injustice

A wretched judiciary is tyranny’s strength, and a strong judiciary makes for wretched tyrants. Today in Iran, the weakest and most wretched branch of power is the judiciary.

In democratic states, the most unprotected of people find some protection in the law and the judiciary. We’ve heard it said that democracy is history’s destination, and the last stop for the convoy of civilization; we can at least agree that the right to self-determination is the highest demand and right of the modern human being.

Muslims and Arabs are currently welcoming the enchanting peacock of freedom and burying the cruel dragon of tyranny. These are auspicious days, when dictators go to hell and the gates of heaven open to the victims of their cruelty. Iranians led the way in 2009, but they were thwarted and the ugly monster of tyranny beat them down again. Now, it is the turn of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and then Syria to spread the wares of justice and to bring down the walls of enslavement.

It is a pleasant dream: the ogres of oppression in chains, and the angels of justice on the wing. But if this sweet dream of rule by the people and freedom ends with—and is reduced to—elections alone, it will have been a dream unfulfilled. We Easterners have been so stung by the arbitrariness of despots that we see freedom as the end of the dark night of capricious rule and the dawn of rule by the people, the collective will, general elections, and referendums. We consider free elections and the sending of the people’s representatives to the legislature and the executive as the pinnacle of democracy. As soon as a nation opts for free elections, we feel confident that the people have been victorious in their struggle, that repression has been defeated, and that the return of tyranny has been made impossible. But we overlook a mighty truth: the judiciary plays an enormous role in strengthening rule by the people, in wresting people’s rights from the power-holders, in bolstering the law, in underpinning civic life, and in consolidating justice and liberty. This truth is so mighty that we can go so far as to say that the judiciary is the core of rule by the people, and the parliament is its form and crust. And it goes without saying that turning the crust into the core and the core into the crust will leave us with an inverted system.

Take Iran today. Officials hold elections with a hundred ruses and tricks, and send fraudulent deputies into parliament to legislate. We cry to the skies at all this cheating, express our hatred of these bogus deputies, and at this betrayal of our votes. Peaceful protesters march in the streets and are shot for asking, “Where is my vote?” We suffer a thousand indignities. Our sons and daughters end up in torture chambers. They are beaten and raped. Shattered and desolate, they crawl into a corner of a hospital or a psychiatric ward. We pay this high a price in order to have an honorable parliament, representative deputies, and useful and just laws. Should we not ask ourselves whether we would need to pay this grievous price if we had an effective judiciary, and strong, independent judges? And whether such deadly weeds would grow in our garden, whether we would have so many political problems, and whether our people would have to suffer such horrors if we had judicial officials who put the fear of God into the nation’s traitors, who shamed offenders before the public and punished their wrongdoings, and who sided with the wronged and upheld justice?

Iran’s leader once said: “The people should fear the state.” I say, yes, they should fear, but not the police, not the leader, not torturers, not interrogators, not marauders, not informants, not lawbreakers; they should fear courts and the judiciary. Torturers, MPs, and the leader, too, should feel that the judiciary will stand up to them. It is impossible for rule by the people to be robust and effective whilst the judiciary is feeble and ineffectual.

Our tyrannical rulers boast of possessing the same dominion and justice as Ali. They repeat, night and day, in mosques and from pulpits, that an infidel took Ali, the caliph, to a judge and emerged victorious. Never mind the leader; not even the lowly, sanctimonious clerics on the peripheries of the leader’s retinue ever risk being taken to court. Their immunity is unassailable. And—numerous though their sins may be—their holiness never falters.

The situation has reached a point where we must take the lamp of courage, as we did in the early days of Iran’s Constitutional Revolution, and start looking for a house of justice again. We have sought justice and interpreted it as freedom, whereas we should seek freedom and interpret it as justice. We never rejected justice, but we failed to revere it as we should have done. We took the crust and neglected the core, and now neither our core nor our crust is functioning. We’re glad neither in our hearts nor our bodies.

We forgot that, in a tyrannical system, the first organ that stops functioning is the judicial heart, and that when our heart is so feeble, having a strong and robust body is little more than a naïve and ridiculous dream.

What’s more amazing is the deviousness of our peddlers of religion who disregard all the experiences of other countries and seek the answer to everything in Islam; but, despite the emphasis placed by Islam on this issue, they’ve stripped the judiciary of all its independence.

Not long after the 1979 revolution, we saw and we realized that clerics believe in neither freedom nor choice/elections. They view both freedom and choice as products of liberalism, permissiveness, and immorality. We realized that they are better acquainted with duties than with rights. We realized that all the books on fiqh barely contain half a chapter, nay, half a page, on the people’s rights. The graduates of the religious schools in Qom and Najaf are uninterested in modern philosophy and law. They seek their ideal and their utopia in pre-modern, duty-oriented communities, which are the breeding ground of tyrants. And it is only perforce and as political ornamentation that they have submitted to the corrupt offspring of Western culture; i.e. a parliament.

Their conception of the Prophet, too, is much the same. One man, who had been disqualified in an election, took his grievance to one of the clerical members of the Guardian Council and said: “If you don’t uphold my right, after Judgment Day I’ll complain about you to the Seal of the Prophets.” The cleric smiled and said: “Let me set you straight; the Seal of the Prophets believes in neither freedom nor elections.”

We slowly discovered and digested these facts, and stopped working with the clerics. But we found what they did to the judiciary in the Islamic Republic indigestible. If the books on fiqh do not speak about freedom, elections, and parliaments, and if clerics have not made any effort to square these concepts with fiqh, there most certainly is a very mighty tome in fiqh on the subject of grievances and adjudication. Experts in fiqh are proud to have studied it at length and in detail, and have produced some innovative and subtle ideas on this subject. And the independence of judges is the keystone and the keynote of all their views. And it has to be said that, every now and then, there were some very good judges during the Islamic caliphate. But what is there to be said on this subject when it comes to the Islamic Republic’s absolute rule of a cleric—which has left little to behold when it comes to the law and adjudication? If our legislature and executive are slumbering, our judiciary is thoroughly dead; if the former two are weak, the latter one is wretched.

The judiciary, which is supposed to be the people’s refuge, is now such a reprobate that the people must seek refuge in God. The charms and the bribes of power holders have rendered judges totally ineffectual. Those who rob the people of their security can live in full security. Murderers can slay writers and intellectuals in broad daylight and then enjoy a night of restful sleep. Members of theBasij militia viciously break students’ arms and legs, and receive a pat on their backs for their efforts. Torturers rape detainees and are rewarded with bonuses. The heroes of the nation are locked up in jail or in their houses, and the judiciary is as silent as death.

And the ruling cleric’s mercenaries travel the world to explain to non-Muslims that the people’s rights are fully respected in the Islamic Republic; that there is no cause for alarm, and that the judges who are appointed by the leader do not issue verdicts on the orders of the leader’s lackeys and secret agents. And the amazing thing is that benevolent individuals in Iran keep demanding free elections instead of asking why the judiciary has so parted ways with justice.

In the newly liberated Muslim countries, too, all the talk is of parliament and elections. It is as if all that’s required is for a few deputies to be freely sent to parliament; then, the gates of democracy will swing open before the people and the air will fill with the heady scent of justice. The victory of Islamic parties in the recent elections in several countries has further fanned the flames of this conception.

Scarcely anyone is speaking of the strength and soundness of the judiciary, and hardly anyone is mentioning judicial independence, which is the fount and the central pillar of rule by the people.

My message and my advice to you dear people who have recently embraced freedom and rid yourselves of the ogre of tyranny is this: Do not focus all your political efforts on your future parliament. Devote a share of your time to ensuring that your judiciary is honorable and independent. Remember that a wretched judiciary is tyranny’s strength and a strong judiciary makes for wretched tyrants. It is this noble organ that will drive away that ignoble ogre. Rule by the people will not be strengthened and will not endure other than with the support and backing of a popular, strong, and independent judiciary that upholds the law.

And the people who are thinking about Islamizing the state and implementing the sharia—those who view liberalism and secularism as a monster—should know for their part that judicial independence is one of the firm, self-evident principles of the precepts of fiqh; it has nothing to do with liberalism and secularism. And working to this end is pleasing both to God and to man; it will bring you blessings both in this world and the next.

I have another piece of advice: If you are determined to have a state that is based on a rejection of arbitrary rule and on respect for the people’s votes (which is a laudable notion), why not also insist on the election of the judiciary’s top officials, and include an article to this effect in your constitution? In this way you will ensure that you have knowledgeable, just, and honest judicial officials, who are not appointed by and are not subservient to the state, and who, with the backing of the people, will stand up to any state officials who break the law.

Watching the free elections and the comings and goings of chancellors and prime ministers from the West, being dazzled by the media frenzy, and imagining that this is what democracy and freedom mean, whilst overlooking the judiciary—which is the guarantor of this sturdy system—is not a sign of wise statesmanship.

I am aware that my words will raise two grave questions in my readers’ minds. The first is, this strong judiciary will only guarantee judicial justice, whereas we also need distributive justice, which hinges on a strong parliament.

My answer is: Certainly, this is true. Rule by the people needs both fair laws and the courageous implementation of the law, and the judiciary is only responsible for dealing with disputes and punishing offenders. Be that as it may, without a strong and just judiciary, the fairest of distributive laws will not produce any benefits and will only be subverted by the nation’s traitors.

The world of Islam, which has been living with the dragon of tyranny for quite some time, should throw open all its windows to elections in order to rid itself fully from this blight. It must allow the rule of the people into every sector and think of ways of tackling any concomitant ills. This will prevent the return of the dragon and the disappointment of those who have longed for and struggled for justice.

The second question is this: What kind of laws will this strong judiciary side with and, in an Islamic society, will it, for example, rule in favor of stoning adulterers and killing apostates?

When the judiciary becomes the sole arbiter, no other religious or non-religious arbiter will take it upon itself to sanction the shedding of human blood on this or that pretext. For example, the kind of sanctioning that we saw in the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani in Iran, which backed the killing of an Azeri writer, and which was followed by opportunistic, publicity-seeking cheering by the cleric’s son.

It is time for Muslims and their religious and ideological leaders to submit to the religious and extra-religious principle that states: “Do unto others as you would be done by.” It is time, in other words, to coordinate lawmaking and judicial affairs with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is the product of collective human thought and consensus; to abandon discrimination and view all human beings as equals; to seek religiosity less in fiqh and more in virtue and religious knowledge and experience; and to stop clutching the husk of the sharia and clutch the precious kernel of spirituality instead.

Let clerics, for their part, be the smiling face of Islam. Let them value their soft power and not crave hard power. Let them allow the mighty notion of right into their old, duty-oriented fiqh. Let them stop trying to find the answer to every question in religion. Let them throw the gates open to answers that are produced by independent, rational thought. And let them rest assured that rationality will not force the sun of truth to set.

Abdulkarim Soroush is the author of more than twenty books in Persian on religion and philosophy. Since 1983, he has served as a researcher at the Institute for Cultural Research and Studies in Iran. After the 1979 revolution in Iran, he was appointed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to serve on the Cultural Revolution Institute, a body tasked with restructuring the country’s universities. A prominent critic of clerical rule in Iran, he is a co-founder of Kiyan, a leading intellectual journal. He has been a visiting professor at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale universities as well as at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin. His essays have been translated into English in the volumes Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam and Islam and Dissent in Postrevolutionary Iran.

Road to Nowhere

In a century on the Iranian stage, the United States has gone from stranger to friend to master to enemy. Beginning as a minor player, it then became a friend of Iran’s struggling democratic movement; then a political puppet master supporting an autocratic monarch; and finally a sworn enemy determined to overthrow a defiant Islamic Republic. For the last three decades, the United States and Iran have been caught in a downward spiral of mutual hostility. The two sides have glared at each other across an abyss trading insults, accusations, threats, and sometimes worse. American officials talk about “mutual respect” yet call the Islamic Republic “odious” and insist that it must “change its behavior.” Iranian officials, when asked how relations might improve, have nothing to offer beyond reciting a list of accumulated grievances going back sixty years.

Matters were not always this dark. The United States was originally on the right side of Iranians’ century-long struggle for dignity, independence, and a government that treats its people, including its women, with decency. Now, however, both sides have become captive of bad assumptions, sterile slogans, mistrust, misreading, and ingrained hostility. Both sides now risk sliding into a disastrous and unequal armed conflict that neither country says it wants.

Escaping the grip of all this suspicion, resentment, and accumulated grievance will take more patience and forbearance than either side has so far demonstrated. The path of U.S.-Iranian relations is littered with the wrecks of efforts to change the rancor into something more productive in which the two sides can at least talk to each other—if not as friends, then as two states with interests that sometimes conflict and sometimes coincide. In the past three decades, when efforts to change the relationship and establish dialogue based on mutual respect and mutual interest have run into difficulties, both sides have reverted to the dysfunctional patterns of the past, saying, in effect, “Well, we are being reasonable, but how can we deal with them who are so (unreasonable, irrational, devious, stubborn, bullying, etc.)?” One side paints the conflict as an encounter between rational Westerners and unpredictable Orientals. The other side paints it as an encounter between bully and victim (or, in Imam Khomeini’s words, “the wolf and the sheep”).

Shahs and Great Games

The United States first encountered Iran (then known in the West as Persia) in the second half of the nineteenth century. It was an unfortunate time for Iran. Disastrous military defeats, bloody religious conflicts, economic decline, poor education and health, misrule, and corruption had brought Iran to one of the lowest points in its long and often glorious history. The historian Ervand Abrahamian estimates that during the 1900−06 period Iran’s literacy rate was 5 percent and its citizen’s average life expectancy was thirty years. There were no universities and only 2,000 students were enrolled in state schools.

Iran remained nominally independent thanks only to its position in the Great Game between Britain and czarist Russia. That nominal independence, however, did not mean that Iranians controlled their own affairs; both foreigners and Iranians under foreign “protection,” enjoyed immunity from local law. The Qajar Dynasty ruler, unrestrained by any constitutional system until 1906, pawned the country’s economic resources (including its oil) in return for loans and quick cash to finance his court and foreign trips. The country’s only effective military force, the Persian Cossack Brigade, was led by Russian officers. The greatest humiliation came in 1907 when Britain and Russia divided a weak Iran into “spheres of influence,” an arrangement that gave Russia a free hand in the economic and population centers of the north, while giving Britain a buffer zone in the barren southeast to protect its vital interests in India.

In this unhappy setting, in the early twentieth century, the small Iranian intelligentsia—both clerical and secular—began a struggle to limit the arbitrary power of the ruler and to make Iranians masters in their own house. Americans were mostly outside this struggle, and their limited involvement was usually positive: missionaries provided Iranians schools and hospitals; American advisors in 1910−11 worked with the new parliament to bring order to Iranian finances; and a young missionary schoolteacher, Howard Baskerville, became “the American martyr” in 1909 when he was killed fighting against royal forces seeking to suppress the new constitution.

World War II and its aftermath made America an important new factor in the Iranian political arena. The United States became a leading player in a new form of the Great Game, now called the Cold War (1945–91). In the original nineteenth-century version, Britain and czarist Russia competed for influence in Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Iran. In the updated version, the Soviet Union replaced imperial Russia and the United States took over the role formerly played by Britain. Iran, which had been just one piece of this game, now became a major prize and Iranian oil, which had not been a factor in the nineteenth century, now became part of the stakes. Communism—and anti-communism—added an ideological component to the contest.

Whatever its motivation, the United States held a generally positive position among Iranians until the coup of August 1953, which was backed by the Central Intelligence Agency. That action led to twenty-five years of close association between Washington and Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Although there had been considerable American sympathy for the Iranian position in the dispute with Great Britain and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company over control of Iranian oil, Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and his National Front in the end fell victim to Cold War calculations and American domestic politics. Mossadegh never seemed to appreciate the realities of the American political scene, while the British skillfully played on the rampant fears of communism infecting American society at the time.

Rule of the Mob

The United States initially hoped to salvage something from the turmoil of the Islamic Revolution and the fall of the Iranian monarchy in February 1979. Caught unaware by the fury and scope of many Iranians’ hostility to the shah, the Carter administration continued to see Iran in Cold War terms, as a piece in an updated Great Game between competing superpowers. Since 1945, basic American policy had been consistent: keep the Soviets away from Iranian territory, the Iranian government, and Iranian oil. In doing so, Washington had chosen to back the shah and his government as the linchpin of this strategy. If the shah’s system was brutal, inefficient, repressive, and corrupt, so be it. After 1973, when Iran gained a huge windfall from high oil prices, the country became an important customer of American exports, both civilian and military. Before the revolution broke out, an estimated fifty thousand Americans—many working on defense contracts—lived in Iran, and at least an equal number of Iranians, including students and military trainees, lived in the United States.

The United States, like most of the world, was unprepared when the shah’s rule collapsed in 1979 following a year of protests and calls for Islamic government and an Islamic Republic. The first American reaction was an attempt to build a relationship with the new Iran—which retained the geography and the oil wealth of the old one—on the basis of shared hostility to the Soviet Union and Iranian suspicions of Iraq. The efforts foundered on the hostility of extremists of both right and left in Tehran. The former suspected the Americans of using Iranians’ anti-Soviet sentiments to recover their earlier influence and eventually destroy the revolution; the latter saw the Americans attempting to resurrect the anti-Soviet alliance they had made with the shah.

The final break began nine months after the revolutionaries’ victory. In November 1979, in response to President Carter’s decision to admit the deposed shah to the United States for medical treatment, a mob overran the American Embassy in Tehran. What had begun as a 1970s-style student sit-in became a major international crisis when the authorities in Tehran endorsed the mob action. The American staff became hostages for fourteen months, diplomatic relations were formally broken, and extremists used anti-American hysteria and “holy defense” against Iraq to take total control of the Iranian state.

Conventional Washington wisdom said that tempers would cool with the January 1981 release of the American hostages and the passage of time, and that after a few years officials of the United States and Islamic Republic would be talking—not necessarily as friends—about issues that mattered to both countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, narcotics trafficking, navigation in the Persian Gulf, terrorism by Sunni extremist groups, and (later) even Syria. However, those conversations have not happened, except in the most limited form. Instead, sixty years after the 1953 coup and thirty-four years after the 1979 embassy seizure, the estrangement persists and both Iran and the United States continue to nurture their grievances. Wounds still fester and events of decades ago cast long shadows over current relations.

“Goodwill Begets Goodwill”

The United States and the Islamic Republic have found themselves stuck for over thirty years on a road to nowhere. When officials—from either side—do seek to leave that road and change the relationship into something more productive for both sides, they are met with profound mistrust, misreading, misunderstanding, bad assumptions, bad timing, and sometimes just bad luck. Most administrations in Washington would have preferred to ignore Iran after seeing how the embassy hostage crisis of 1979−81 cost Jimmy Carter his presidency and how revelations of secret arms sales to Iran in 1986 shook Ronald Reagan’s administration: apparently nothing good could come from dealing with Iran. Despite these disastrous precedents, in his January 1989 inaugural address, President George H.W. Bush made his “goodwill begets goodwill” pledge to Iran, but by time he ran for re-election in 1992 he had decided the political price was too high.

In 2008, Barack Obama, then a U.S. senator running for president, said he was ready to engage the Islamic Republic on matters of mutual interest. After his inauguration in early 2009, he launched an effort to begin a dialogue, demonstrating some important symbolic shifts in American policy. He sent Nowruz (Iranian New Year) greetings to both the Iranian people and, pointedly, to “the leaders of the Islamic Republic”—a major change of language. He quoted Persian poetry, implicitly recognizing the historical greatness of Iranian civilization. He spoke of engagement without preconditions on matters of mutual interest and based on mutual respect. The last point, in particular, was something that the Iranians had always insisted was vital to any discussions.

Obama has had little to show for these efforts. Since he assumed office, there has been only one acknowledged high-level meeting between Iranian and American officials—when Iranian National Security Council chief and nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili met his American counterpart, the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William J. Burns in Geneva in October 2009. The two apparently reached an agreement about supplying enriched nuclear fuel rods for the Tehran Research Reactor; but the deal subsequently fell victim to Iranian mistrust and domestic politics, and to ill-considered remarks in Washington. Since that time, the Iranian side has denied there ever was such an agreement, and Jalili himself has avoided any bilateral discussions with his American counterparts at subsequent meetings between Iran and the so-called P5+1 (the five United Nations Security Council permanent members plus Germany) to discuss Iran’s nuclear program.

Bad Luck, Bad Timing

Why has Iranian-American hostility persisted for so long? Why are the two sides unable even to talk about their differences? In a reasonable world, officials from Tehran and Washington—recognizing a shared interest in avoiding armed conflict—would be meeting discreetly and searching for the common ground on issues such as Afghanistan, where at least some interests coincide. These contacts might not lead to the reopening of formal diplomatic relations, but their absence need not prevent such meetings. Both sides could recognize areas where agreement is not possible and avoid sermonizing and asking for the impossible. American officials, for example, know that the Islamic Republic is not going to establish relations with Israel in order to please Washington; Iranian officials, for their part, know the United States is not going to endanger its relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, for the sake of better relations with Tehran.

Bad luck and bad timing have played their parts in the stalemate. In May of 2010, for example, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva negotiated a nuclear fuel arrangement in Tehran (the so-called “tripartite agreement”) that would have delivered about 85 to 90 percent of what had been agreed to in Geneva eight months earlier. In this deal, Iran agreed to give up about half of its supply of 3.5 percent low-enriched uranium (LEU) in return for 20 percent enriched fuel rods for the Tehran Research Reactor, which manufactures isotopes for cancer treatments. While the details of the Tehran and Geneva agreements were different, they were close enough for negotiators to work out the differences.

Rather than react to the agreement with standard temporizing of diplomatic language about “the need for further study and clarification” however, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rejected it immediately saying that the newly drafted UN Security Council sanction resolution was the best response. The issue became personal for me when, as a Department of State official, I had to explain her response (without guidance) to the Persian-language service of German radio. I could only guess that the problem was timing. As I sometimes do when I have no good answer, I took refuge in Persian poetry, a famous line from Ostad Shahriyar:

O, love of my life, you finally came to me. But why now?

What was possible in October 2009 was no longer possible eight months later. The political ground, both domestic and international, had shifted, and the U.S. government had invested too much into building international and congressional support for a UN sanctions resolution that required agreement from all five permanent members and at least four non-permanent members of the UN Security Council.

The Purity of Indignation

By early 2010, President Obama had found himself in the same situation with Iran as his predecessors—on a road littered with the wrecks of failed attempts to deal with the Islamic Republic. Successive American administrations, unable to ignore Iran, had attempted to bribe it, coerce it, isolate it, overthrow it, or make peace with it. A combination of mistrust, ineptitude, impatience, and bad luck on both sides had ensured that nothing would work.

Ten years previously, in late 2001 and early 2002, Iranian and American diplomats had worked together closely and effectively to create arrangements for a new government in post-Taliban Afghanistan. The American representative at those negotiations, Ambassador James Dobbins, has described how his Iranian counterpart played a vital role in convincing Afghan factions to cooperate and how the counterpart proposed that the Iranian and American militaries work together in training a new Afghan military. Those efforts collapsed, however, with President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” speech of January 2002 and his administration’s hostility to anything that suggested common interest or cooperation with the Islamic Republic.

In Barack Obama, the Islamic Republic encountered its worst nightmare: an American president it could not portray as an enemy. The oligarchs of Tehran found themselves facing something much more dangerous than an enemy. They now had to deal with someone who quoted Persian poetry, sent them New Year’s greetings, and spoke of “mutual respect.” They were caught off guard. Reacting to George W. Bush and his axis of evil rhetoric had been easy. Reacting to the new reality, which discredited Tehran’s traditional anti-American slogans, was much more difficult than the old practice of trading insults and threats.

It appears, however, that the Obama administration never appreciated the power of its new approach. Nor could the administration follow a promising but unfamiliar path. Rather than persist in a policy that was disarming a defiant Islamic Republic, Washington refused to face the uncertainties that came with this change of direction. At the first hurdle, the Obama administration seemed to give up and respond, “Well, we tried being reasonable, but how can you deal with anyone as irrational as them?” There was neither the patience nor the political will to pursue a different path with Iran. Nor was there the clarity of purpose for the administration to absorb setbacks and initial rejections. What did the United States want from its Iran policy? What was the goal? Was it a relationship that allowed the two sides to talk, even if they were not friends? Or was the goal a moderate Islamic Republic that acted more in accordance with American aims? Whatever the goal, the administration gave up quickly and reverted from the unfamiliar path of building a new relationship to the familiar and dysfunctional patter of denunciation and punishment.

By late 2009, the optimism of the earlier months had faded, and the Obama administration faced frustration. The flawed Iranian presidential elections in June had, from Washington’s point of view, chosen the wrong person. Tehran authorities met protests from the defeated candidates’ partisans of the “Green Movement” with brutal suppression by militias and revolutionary guard units. President Obama’s second message to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sent before the elections and purportedly proposing dialogue and engagement, remained unanswered. The October 2009 agreement on fueling the Tehran Research Reactor had fallen apart, although (or perhaps because) President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed it was a good deal for Iran.

President Obama nonetheless continued to make gestures toward Iran. In a clear reference to Iran in his December 2009 speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, he stated:

Let me also say this: the promotion of human rights cannot be about exhortation alone. At times, it must be coupled with painstaking diplomacy. I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach—and condemnation without discussion—can carry forward a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door.

The administration, however, proved unable to follow the path its leader had laid out. Faced with frustration and a disappointing response from Tehran, Washington—while proclaiming its commitment to diplomacy and engagement—retreated into the policies it knew well, and that had failed to change anything in thirty years. It proclaimed a “two track” policy with Iran that would combine offers of engagement with increased pressure; the latter in the form of new economic sanctions, both unilateral and international.

All of this sounded reasonable when explained by official spokespersons, who talked about “helping Iran to change its calculus.” They claimed pressure was not the preferred method, and explained, “It’s not about sanctions first, it’s about negotiations first.”

In reality, however, there was only one track, and that was pressure. Administration officials found themselves spending most of their time and energy pursuing sanctions, and spending almost no time looking at possible engagement. It was not easy for the administration to create an international consensus—both within and without the United Nations—in favor of a new sanctions regime. Officials devoted much of their time to visits and phone calls with Russian, Chinese, European Union, NATO, and other counterparts. Internal meetings supposedly about Iran were 95 percent sanctions. Iran was irrelevant to the discussions.

Although creating new sanctions and negotiating with the parties involved was difficult and time-consuming, it was at least terrain familiar to American officials. Negotiating sanctions and punishing the Islamic Republic for its misdeeds was something they had been doing since 1979, and by 2009 they were good at it. American officials had built their careers on bashing Iran, albeit with no discernible positive results. But, after three decades of punishment, the Islamic Republic survived. It still pumped and sold oil at high world prices. It remained hostile to the United States and its friends. It showed no sign of modifying those policies on human rights, its nuclear program, and Middle East politics that the United States found objectionable. Although American officials could do what they knew, they were at a loss about how to undertake the “painstaking diplomacy” the president had called for in Oslo or how to give Iranians the “choice of an open door.” Basically, what they did not know how to do was change thirty years of futility and frustration into a more productive relationship that would serve American national interests.


Iran Without a Map

In June 2010, the UN Security Council approved Resolution 1929 imposing new economic sanctions on Iran. Individual countries and international coalitions then went beyond UN measures in hindering the Iranian banking system, reducing or ending Iran’s sales of crude oil, limiting investment in the Iranian oil and gas industry, and restricting sales of refined petroleum products to Iran. The U.S. Congress for its part has repeatedly passed new sanctions legislation against the Iranian government and individuals, and has mandated penalties against foreign companies that do business with Iran.

But, as Lewis Carroll put it in Alice in Wonderland, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there, and all these measures lack any defined purpose. Without such a purpose, it has been impossible to define their success. If we do not know our goal, then how are we to know if we are achieving it or not? There are roughly three views about the purpose of sanctions, and each one has its own criteria for success. Depending on one’s chosen set of goals, one can—with perfect justification—claim failure or success for the sanctions.

—The sanctions are meant to persuade Iran to negotiate seriously with the international community about the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. As stated in May 2013 to the BBC by U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, “As long as Iran is not willing to really answer the concerns of the international community… about its nuclear program then it will continue to face isolation and sanctions.”

—The sanctions are meant to bring so much hardship to Iran that it will eventually give in to the demands of the international community in order to save the Islamic Republic from total collapse. This view replays the events of July and August 1988, when Imam Khomeini was forced (in his own words) to “drink the cup of poison” and accept a ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq war.

—The sanctions are meant to bring so much hardship to Iran that eventually a suffering population—perhaps helped by outsiders—will rebel against their oppressors and bring down the entire system. This view replays, in a modified version, the events of 1951−53 when an international embargo against Iranian oil exports severely weakened Mossadegh’s Nationalist government.

By most accounts, Iran is facing economic difficulties from inflation, shortages of imported goods, closed factories, a falling currency (the rial), reduced crude oil exports, and an inability to access the international financial system. What defies analysis, however, is which of the country’s difficulties arise from the sanctions and which from mismanagement and corruption—long-running problems for an economy that should have prospered from high world oil prices. Those currently in office in Tehran have blamed their predecessors for mismanaging the economy, for using the sanctions to excuse incompetence, and for the inept diplomacy that has made so many needless enemies for the Islamic Republic.


Obligations and Rights

Although the U.S. and Iran have numerous grievances against each other, in recent years the question of Iran’s nuclear program has become central to their exchanges. The issues are complex, but Iran, on its side, insists that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful, that it is in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and that it has the right to enrich uranium under that treaty. It also claims that it is ideologically and politically opposed to nuclear weapons. The United States, supported by its Western allies, insists that Iran has not met its obligations under the NPT, is hiding parts of its program, has not allowed international inspectors to visit key facilities, and is enriching uranium to a level beyond what is needed for nuclear energy production.

If the matters in dispute were entirely technical, there would be an obvious solution in which Iran would receive significant relief from economic sanctions and would be allowed to enrich uranium to 3.5 percent, the level needed to fuel power plants. In return, Iran would submit to rigorous international inspections and end any enrichment levels higher than 3.5 percent. Iran would also receive a guaranteed fuel supply for the Tehran Research Reactor under some variation of previous, aborted agreements.

The nuclear issue, however, goes beyond the technical. It has become so central and symbolic for both sides, that neither Washington nor Tehran is capable of making the concessions the other side says it needs. Ahmadinejad’s provocative anti-Israel rhetoric and Holocaust denials have made the problem worse by placing the nuclear issue center stage and playing into the hands of politicians in Israel and the United States who present Iran and its nuclear program as an existential threat. In Tehran, people reportedly joke that Ahmadinejad was an agent of the Mossad.

The two sides have been talking past each other in repeated rounds of negotiations under the auspices of the P5+1. Yukiya Amano, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), noted in early June 2013 that after twelve rounds of negotiations between his organization and Iran—beginning in January 2012—the talks are “going around in circles.” In reality the two sides are negotiating about different things. For the United States and its allies, the issues are Iran’s “obligations” and legal matters such as levels of enrichment, Article 3.1, and the Additional Protocol of the NPT. For Iran, however, the issue is not its “obligations” but its “rights.” Behind those rights lie questions of sovereignty, national status, and Iran’s place in the world. “Why,” Iranians ask, “should we be penalized for doing what Switzerland and Finland are allowed to do?” To use Ahmadinejad’s phraseology, although Iran has no plan to build nuclear weapons, only Iranians have the right to make that decision. In his speeches he insists that no outside power or group—not the United States, not the United Nations, not the IAEA—has the right to tell Iran what to do.

Behind these unproductive, “asymmetric” negotiations lie ghosts of history and two hundred years of Iranian grievance against foreign powers, particularly Britain, Russia, and the United States. From the early nineteenth century, those powers imposed and deposed Iran’s rulers, stole its resources, occupied and seized its territory, and violated its sovereignty at will. In response to this story of victimization, the Iranians have often encountered oblivious foreigners who cannot understand these pent-up grievances, real or imagined, and who answer Iranians’ insistence on gaining their “rights” with incomprehension and insistence that Iran must fulfill its obligations.

No Iranian politician can be seen as weak on what Iran insists are its rights in the nuclear issue; and no American politician can afford to meet Iran’s maximalist demands. As long as the nuclear issue occupies center stage, there will be little progress or change in the long cycle of hostility. Compounding the problem is the fact that the other issues, where there is possible common ground, have become hostage to the blocked nuclear talks. The result has been an unbreakable stalemate in which the two sides engage in repeated and futile meetings then blame each other for the resulting impasse. Stuck in repeated failures on the nuclear issue, the sides cannot explore areas where agreement might be possible and where they might discover that, if they say yes, the sky will not fall.

In Search of a Small Gate

This paralysis has kept the parties on a road to nowhere and reinforced existing and negative stereotypes that Iranians are unreasonable dissemblers and that Americans are bullies who want only to break the will of a defiant Islamic Republic. Is there a way off this road? Is there a way for the United States and Iran to stop exchanging threats and insults and begin talking about their differences in a way that lowers the risk of armed conflict? Is there a way to achieve, in the words of an April 2013 Iran Project Study, “a pragmatic relationship that manages tensions and facilitates collaboration on issues of common concern?” In a more rational world there would be, but so far neither side has shown the patience, forbearance, and political will to act in its own long-term interest.

On the American side, officials need to put reality behind their oft-stated preference for negotiation over pressure. The so-called “two track” policy combining negotiations and pressure has been a farce. There is only one track, and pressure (mostly by way of sanctions) has been Washington’s single means of persuading the Iranians, although the aim of that persuasion remains unclear.

Americans have a poor record of reading the motives and actions of the Islamic Republic, which has its own politics and dynamics. Previous attempts to do so have led to fiascos such as Reagan’s covert arms sales to Iran and George H. W. Bush’s “goodwill begets goodwill” promise. The fact is that leaders in Tehran will make decisions based on their own logic and their own views—right or wrong—of national interest and national survival. Like almost all states in the region, the Islamic Republic feels threatened, and, even when evidence of threat is missing, can interpret events such as domestic criticism as proof that outsiders are bent on its overthrow.

In such a negative atmosphere, it will be very difficult for any American administration to convince Tehran that it does not seek to destroy the Islamic Republic. For Washington, however, there are some first steps that can be taken toward breaking the impasse:

Have Goals. Make a list, as Richard Nixon did when he went to China in 1972, of “what we want” and “what they want.”

The President Must Lead. If the American goal is a different relationship with Iran, the president has to lead the process and lead the administration in pursuing that goal. He cannot leave Iran policy in the hands of officials who are victims of “oldthink” and know only how to impose sanctions and punishment.

Control Rhetoric. Phrases such as “change their behavior” and “odious regime” have no place in diplomacy and only invite more futile exchanges. The June 2013 White House and State Department statements on the Iranian presidential elections, for example, are full of ungracious phraseology that feeds the Islamic Republic’s anti-American propaganda machine. Such rhetoric also contradicts statements that the United States intends to engage Iran on the basis of mutual respect.

Have Patience and Forbearance. With all of the residual hostility and suspicion, an open American hand will not be shaken the first (or second) time it is offered. There will be setbacks, but we should not give up at the first disappointment.

Look For Areas of Agreement. The nuclear problem, because of mistrust and the high stakes involved for both sides, may be too hard to solve directly. The entire relationship should not be held hostage to a nuclear agreement. Instead, to break the wall of suspicion, the two sides should find other areas beyond the nuclear issue where agreement is possible.

These suggestions are not a magic formula for ending America’s lengthy and unproductive downward spiral of hostility with the Islamic Republic. We may apply all of the above and still fail. What is certain is that what the United States has done for over thirty years has brought no result beyond, in President Obama’s words, “the satisfying purity of indignation.” The hostility and suspicion remains, and Tehran and Washington are still unable even to talk about their differences.

With Iran, it is clear for the moment that the large gate to a general settlement and a new relationship is closed. Each side has too many stored grievances and has made too many assumptions about the malign intentions of the other. What is needed is what the Hungarians call the kiskapu, the small gate, the loophole, where suspicions, negative preconceptions, bad assumptions, and political agendas will not block some narrow passage to progress.

Changes at this narrow gate may be small and symbolic: an agreement to meet, a prisoner quietly released, a handshake, a change in tone of public statements, or even something left unsaid. All these small things, applied with patience—plus an American presidential decision that the United States is determined to find a different relationship with the Islamic Republic—may enable us to step back from the brink of an armed conflict that will do irreparable damage to both sides.

John Limbert is the Class of 1955 Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. During a thirty-four-year career in the U.S. Foreign Service, he served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran from 2009 to 2010, and as ambassador to Mauritania between 2000 and 2003. From 1979 to 1981, Limbert was among fifty-two Americans held hostage after the seizure of the U.S embassy in Tehran. He is the author of Iran: At War with History, Shiraz in the Age of Hafez, and Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History.

Atoms for Peace

Iran’s program to construct a complete nuclear fuel cycle, and in particular its uranium enrichment program, has been the subject of intense discussions and diplomatic activity for over a decade. The program has greatly increased tensions in the already strained relations between Iran and Western powers, and in particular the United States, which have united to impose harsh economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic. The U.S. threats against Iran intensified during the George W. Bush administration, which was explicit in its threats but in practice did little beyond rhetoric. In contrast, the Barack Obama administration has waged an all-encompassing war on Iran, including not only economic war in the form of tough economic sanctions, but also sabotage of Iran’s nuclear facilities through computer viruses, such as the Stuxnet (1) and Flame (2) worms, and other covert activities.(3) Though not proven, and denied by the United States,(4) Iran also believes that Washington has been involved in the assassination of its nuclear scientists.(5)

Ironically, while the United States opposes Iran’s nuclear program today, it played a critical role in its inception. The first discussions on developing a nuclear infrastructure for Iran took place in 1955, two years after the coup—supported by the Central Intelligence Agency—that overthrew the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. The first concrete step, however, was taken in 1957 when the United States signed an agreement with Iran on civilian nuclear cooperation. This was promoted as part of the U.S. Atoms for Peace Program that was supposed to provide technical assistance to the signatories, as well as leasing them enriched uranium, and carrying out joint research on the peaceful use of nuclear energy. In 1959, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi ordered the establishment of the Tehran Nuclear Research Center (TNRC) at the University of Tehran, and began negotiating with the United States to purchase a 5 megawatt (MW) reactor for the center. To this date, the center remains one of Iran’s main nuclear research organizations.

In September 1967, Iran received from the United States 5.54 kilograms of enriched uranium, of which 5.16 kg contained fissile uranium isotopes (which could be used in a nuclear bomb), to use in its research reactor at the TNRC. In addition, Iran received 112 kg of plutonium, of which 104 kg were fissile isotopes.(6) The safeguarded 5 MW nuclear research reactor, the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), a pool-type, water-moderated reactor, which was supplied to Iran by the U.S. firm GA Technologies, began full operations at TNRC in November 1967, using 5.58 kg of 93 percent enriched uranium. The fuel was provided by the American firm United Nuclear Corporation. In addition, the United States supplied Iran hot cells, which are heavily shielded rooms with remotely operated arms used to chemically separate material irradiated in the research reactor, possibly including plutonium laden “targets.”

On July 1, 1968, the first day that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was opened for signatures, Iran signed the treaty. It was ratified by the Majles, the Iranian parliament, on February 2, 1970. The U.S.-Iran agreement, the Cooperation Concerning Civil Uses of Atoms, which had been signed in 1957, was extended on March 13, 1969 for another ten years. The first announcement on Iran’s intention to construct nuclear power plants was made on December 18, 1972, when Iran’s ministry of water and power began a feasibility study for the construction of a reactor in southern Iran.

This brief history describes Iran’s first steps to entering the “nuclear club”—the nations that have nuclear technology and know-how. In the 1970s, the United States and its European allies, and in particular France and Germany, played fundamental roles in helping Iran develop an infrastructure for an extensive nuclear program.(7)

In my student days, I had a personal experience related to the program. I moved to the United States in March 1978 with a scholarship from the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) to study for a PhD. But, the scholarship never arrived, because by the fall of 1978 the Iranian revolution was gathering steam, and the shah’s government was on the verge of collapse. After the February 1979 revolution toppled the regime, the provisional revolutionary government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan decided to drastically scale back the scope of Iran’s nuclear program. When I visited Iran in June 1979, about seven months after the victory of the revolution (which I supported) and visited the headquarters of the AEOI, I was told that my scholarship had been cancelled—before it had ever started.

Going Underground

The Iran-Iraq War began when, with U.S. encouragement, Iraq invaded Iran on September 22, 1980. The superior firepower of Iraqi forces, and the constant threats by Saddam Hussein that if Iran did not accept his terms for a ceasefire, Iraq would unleash new weapons with “unimaginable power,” as well as reduced oil production after the revolution amid projections of a dramatic increase in domestic consumption, forced Iranian leaders to reconsider their decision to scale back the nuclear program. The thinking was that nuclear power will address some of Iran’s energy needs, reduce the pressure for increasing oil production, and lessen environmental pollution, while nuclear technology in Iran will be a deterrent against hostile foreign powers. Then prime minister Mir-Hossein Moussavi8—the current leader of the democratic Green Movement who has been under house arrest since February 25, 2011—was one of the most ardent supporters of the program and pushed the leadership to restart the nuclear program.

Thus, beginning in 1982, Iran began pressing West Germany to complete the two promised nuclear reactors in Bushehr, in southern Iran by the shores of the Persian Gulf, which the shah had contracted and had largely paid for, but had been left incomplete after the revolution. Iran tried any and all reasonable approaches in order to get West Germany to live up to its obligations; it never succeeded. In fact, between 1982 and 1995, Iran openly attempted to restart its nuclear power program, but was thwarted by the United States at every step.(9) If anything, Iran’s efforts were clearly indicating to the world that it was pursuing a nuclear power program, and was doing so with utmost transparency. Iran’s initial transparency was, in fact, even deeper than trying to convince West Germany to finish construction of the two reactors in Bushehr.

In 1983—exactly twenty years before Iran acknowledged the existence of the Natanz facilities for uranium enrichment—it asked the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to provide it with technical assistance in setting up a pilot plant for the production of UF6, uranium hexafluoride, which is used for enrichment. During the shah’s reign, work had already begun to convert one type of uranium oxide (U3O8) into another type, UO2, which is used in the production of UF6. In 1974, and with France’s help, the Esfahan Nuclear Technology Center (ENTEC), an Iranian nuclear establishment, had been set up to work on the complete nuclear fuel cycle. The ENTEC had been established by the shah in 1974 to act as a center for the transfer and development of nuclear technology, and to contribute to the establishment of home-grown expertise needed to sustain a program for nuclear reactor technology and fuel cycle.

We should recall that helping a member state with such a project is one of the main functions of the IAEA. According to Article XI.A of the statute of the IAEA:(10)

Any member or group of members of the Agency desiring to set up any project for research, or development of practical application of, atomic energy for peaceful purposes may request the assistance of the Agency in securing special fissionable and other materials, service, equipment, and facilities necessary for this purpose. Any such request shall be accompanied by an explanation of the purpose and extent of the project and shall be considered by the Board of Governors.

In order to approve the request, the Board of Governors of the IAEA must give due considerations to “The inability of the member or group of members making the request to secure the necessary finances, materials, facilities, equipment, and services…” (Article XI.4 of the statute) and “The special needs of the under-developed areas of the world…” (Article XI.6)

In October 1983, the IAEA dispatched a team of experts to Iran, led by Herman Vera Ruiz, an IAEA official tasked by Deputy Director-General Maurizio Zifferero. The team visited ENTEC. In November 1983, Ruiz recommended to Zifferero and to Hans Blix, then director general of the IAEA, that the IAEA provide assistance to Iran’s nuclear research program, and provide expert services in a number of areas. In particular, the report stated clearly the IAEA’s intention to:

Contribute to the formation of local expertise and manpower needed to sustain an ambitious programme in the field of nuclear power reactor technology and fuel cycle technology.(11)

However, the technical assistance never materialized, because as Mark Hibbs wrote in a little noticed article:(12)

Sources said that when in 1983 the recommendation of an IAEA mission to Iran were passed on to the IAEA’s technical cooperation program, the US government then “directly intervened” to discourage the IAEA from assisting Iran in production of UO2 and UF6. “We stopped that in its track,” said a former U.S. official.

Therefore, as early as 1983, not only did the IAEA know Iran’s intentions for setting up a uranium enrichment program with complete transparency, the IAEA also violated both the spirit and the letter of the NPT, its own statute, and its obligations toward Iran by buckling under U.S. pressure and refusing to go forward with the recommendations of its own experts, hence being involved in an illegal endeavor. The United States also convinced Russia in the early 1990s not to sell Iran a centrifuge plant. And, in February 2003, after Iran announced officially the existence of the Natanz facility, Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the IAEA, said:(13)

This comes as no surprise to us, as we have been aware of this uranium exploration project [in Saghand, in the province of Yazd in central Iran] for several years now. In fact, a senior IAEA official visited this mine in 1992.

The United States also knew in the early 1990s that Iran was trying to import the parts for a centrifuge plant. For example, Italian intelligence agencies had reported that in 1991, the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran had submitted an order for a centrifuge component. However, the United States believed that the technical problems were too complex for Iran to overcome and, therefore, it believed that Iran would not be able to set up a uranium enrichment facility any time soon. Experts have often made mistakes in underestimating the strength of science in Iran and the ingenuity they show in working with whatever crude design they get their hands on.(14)

Thus, Iran learned a lesson: it could not set up the enrichment facilities with full transparency, because the United States would stop the effort at their inception. Beginning in 1987, while it was pursuing its nuclear power program openly, Iran also began quietly developing a uranium enrichment program based on whatever design it could obtain.

On January 8, 1995, Iran and Russia signed an agreement for Russia to complete the construction of the Bushehr light water nuclear reactor. Subsequently, the administration of the then Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, which was trying to improve Iranian relations with the United States, signed an agreement with the American oil firm Conoco on May 6, 1995 to develop a huge Iranian offshore oil field in the Persian Gulf, even though a European oil company was the actual winner of bidding for the contract. But, in response, the Bill Clinton administration prevented Conoco from moving forward with the work, and in July 1996 it imposed complete economic sanctions on Iran, in violation of the Algiers Agreement of January 1981 with Iran that had ended the U.S. embassy hostage crisis.

The Natanz Revelations

On February 9, 2003, Iran’s program and efforts for building sophisticated facilities at Natanz and several other cities that were already producing enriched uranium were disclosed. Then President Mohammad Khatami announced the existence of the Natanz (and other) facilities on Iran’s national television and invited the IAEA to visit them. On February 21, 2003, Mohamed ElBaradei, the then IAEA director general, and a team of IAEA inspectors visited Iran. In the same year, the IAEA experts and inspectors visited Iran several more times. A preliminary report was submitted to the Board of Governors in July 2003, with a follow-up report on August 26, 2003. On September 12, 2003, the IAEA issued Iran an ultimatum to reveal all the details of its nuclear activities by October 31, 2003.

The existence of the Natanz facility was first revealed by an Iranian dissident group, the Mujahedeen Khalq. Critics of Iran’s regime often point to the construction of the Natanz enrichment site as proof that it has something to hide. In addition to the fact that Iran had tried to set up a nuclear fuel cycle with the IAEA help and in full transparency but had been thwarted by the U.S., we also need to consider Iran’s legal obligations. The Subsidiary Arrangements General Part of the Safeguards Agreement(15) between Iran and the IAEA,(16) that was in force between 1976 and February 26, 2003, called for provision to the IAEA of design information on any new facility no later than 180 days before the introduction of nuclear materials into the facility, and the provision of information on a new location outside facility (LOF), together with the report relating to the receipt of nuclear material at the LOFs. Beginning in 1992, the standard Subsidiary Arrangements part of the Safeguards Agreement changed, but Iran was not a party to such changes until February 2003.

Thus, in not declaring to the IAEA the existence of the Natanz site up to 180 days before introducing nuclear materials into the site, Iran had not violated its legal obligations. The difference between a clandestine but legal nuclear program and illegal activities has not been understood by the Western press. Indeed, in his report to the IAEA of June  26, 2003 [17] to the IAEA,(17) ElBaradei did not declare Iran in breach of its Safeguards Agreement.

In 1992, the Board of Governors of the IAEA began asking member states to accept the updated Subsidiary Arrangements, called Modified Code 3.1, which required member states to notify the IAEA as soon as they made the decision to set up a new nuclear facility. Iran accepted the updated Arrangements on February 26, 2003, and began implementing it on a volunteer basis until the Majles ratified the modification of the international agreement between Iran and the IAEA. However, after the United States and its allies pushed for sanctions on Iran in the United Nations Security Council in 2006, and the Majles refused to ratify the modification, Iran declared to the IAEA that it would no longer abide by Modified Code 3.1,(18) and returned to the original, Code 3.1.

In Search of Agreement

Under pressure by the European Union, and under constant threats of military attack by the George W. Bush administration, Iran began negotiating with Britain, France, and Germany—the group known as the EU3. The talks resulted in the Sa’dabad Declaration(19) between Tehran and the Europeans. (Sa’dabad is the presidential palace in Tehran.) According to the declaration:

Having received the necessary clarifications, the Iranian Government has decided to sign the IAEA Additional Protocol and commence ratification procedures. As a confirmation of its good intentions the Iranian Government will continue to co-operate with the Agency in accordance with the Protocol in advance of its ratification.

While Iran has a right within the nuclear non-proliferation regime to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes it has decided voluntarily to suspend all uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities as defined by the IAEA.

Thus, Iran agreed to suspend all activities related to uranium enrichment, which it did. The declaration was followed by the Paris Agreement(20) between Iran and the EU3 on November 14, 2004. The agreement stipulated that, “the E3/EU and Iran have agreed to begin negotiations, with a view to reaching a mutually acceptable agreement on long-term arrangements. The agreement will provide objective guarantees that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes. It will equally provide firm guarantees on nuclear, technological, and economic cooperation and firm commitments on security issues.”

But, both the Sa’dabad and Paris agreements ultimately failed because, despite promising to address Iran’s security concerns and offering extensive economic incentives, the EU3 failed to deliver its part of the bargain. Its proposal, submitted to Tehran in early August 2005, contained only vague promises for the distant future and no security guarantee that Iran would not be attacked, in return for the elimination of a solid fact on the ground—Iran’s nuclear facilities.(21) A European diplomat was quoted as saying “We gave them a beautiful box of chocolate that was, however, empty.”(22) Khatami, the reformist Iranian president at that time, had warned European diplomats in advance of the formal submission of their proposal that it would be rejected by Iran, unless the EU3 addressed Iran’s concerns. They did not pay any attention to Khatami’s warning. And as expected, the EU3 proposal was swiftly rejected, and Khatami ordered the end of suspension of the program in the last days of his administration. The Natanz facility for uranium enrichment resumed its work in January 2006.

Meanwhile, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president in June 2005. Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary from 2001 to 2006, who was deeply involved with the negotiations with Iran, has said that it was the Bush administration that seriously weakened Iran’s moderates with his belligerent policy toward Iran, hence helping the rise of Ahmadinejad to power.(23) Thus, the West scuttled the opportunity to reach a diplomatic resolution with a reformist administration in Iran because it wants Iran to completely end the program, which was, and still is, unacceptable to Iran.

Six Cases of Non-Compliance

With Iran implementing, on a voluntary basis, the provisions of the Additional Protocol, the IAEA began to inspect Iran’s nuclear program very closely. After what ElBaradei called the most intrusive and extensive inspection in the history of the IAEA, the Agency discovered and Iran admitted the following:

  • In 1991 it had imported from China 1800 kg of uranium compounds (UF4, UF6, and UO2), and that it used them in experiments to test its conversion processes.
  • It had used a small amount of its imported UF6 in the P1 centrifuges (the original Pakistani centrifuge) at the Kaalaa-ye Electric Company centrifuge workshop. Up to nineteen centrifuges were used. Note, however, that the existence of the workshop at Kaalaa-ye Electric is not, by itself, a breach of the Safeguards Agreement. In fact, according to Iran’s original Safeguards Agreement, so long as nuclear materials have not been introduced into the centrifuges, even the manufacturing of centrifuges does not have anything to do with the IAEA.
  • From 1989−93 Iran had carried out experiments that produced Polonium-210, a highly radioactive but unstable material with a short half-life. While Polonium-210 does have civilian applications, it can theoretically be used for initiating the fission chain reactions that result in a nuclear explosion. Due to its instability, however, Polonium-210 is not used for this purpose.
  • It had developed a laser facility for uranium enrichment at the TNRC, and another in Lashkar Abad, a suburb of Tehran.
  • In 1993, it imported in 50 kg of natural uranium metal. Eight kilograms of it were used at the TNRC while experimenting with atomic vapor laser isotope separation, with another 22 kg of the metal utilized in similar experiments in Lashkar Abad. It should be noted that Iran abandoned the experiments soon thereafter, and that the idea of using laser separation had been suggested to Iran by the U.S. in the late 1970s. In addition, the United States allowed Iran to purchase laser equipment in 1978.
  • Iran carried out, between 1988 and 1993, plutonium separation experiments (in very small amounts) using UO2.

There were other, minor issues that have been described elsewhere.(24) After extensive discussions with Iran and having checked all of its explanations, on February 22, 2008, ElBaradei submitted a report [25] to the Board of Governors of the IAEA that declared satisfactory resolution of all the issues.(25)

But, before ElBaradei’s report was submitted, Iran informed the IAEA in October 2005 that it would no longer abide by the provisions of the Additional Protocol, which it had previously been implementing on a volunteer basis. The reason given by Iran was that the three European Union members that had been negotiating with Iran reneged on their promise to make a comprehensive proposal that would address Iran’s legitimate security concerns, and expand commercial relations and nuclear cooperation between Iran and the European Union. The August 2005 proposal from the EU3 to Iran was considered insulting by Iranian leaders, and was rejected immediately. After Iran’s nuclear dossier was sent to the United Nations Security Council in March 2006, and the council approved the first round of the economic sanctions against Iran in early 2007, Iran informed the IAEA that it would no longer abide by the provision of Modified Code 3.1 of the Subsidiary Arrangements of its Safeguards Agreement. The Iranian parliament never ratified the two agreements anyway.

The “Stolen” Laptop

Given ElBaradei’s February 2008 report, it would have been reasonable to expect that Iran’s case before the IAEA Board of Governors and even the United Nations Security Council would be closed, and events would return to an everyday setting. But, that did not happen. Two days after ElBaradei presented his report to the Board of Governors, Olli Heinonen, then the IAEA’s deputy director general for safeguards, presented a briefing to the Board in Vienna in which he presented a dark view of Iran’s nuclear program under the guise of “Agency Evaluation,” as if his employer had not just declared its satisfaction with the resolution of many issues that, up until then, had been considered “crucial” and “critical.” Heinonen spoke about three supposedly secret projects: Project 5, which converts UO2 to “green salt” (so named due to its color and smell) or uranium tetrafluoride (UF4), an intermediate compound in the conversion of uranium ore to gaseous UF6; Projects 110 and 111, which design the firing device and re-entry vehicle for a missile; and Project 3.12, which tests high-power explosives. The same accusations were repeated in the IAEA’s reports of May 26, 2008 and September 15, 2008.

What was the source of the new “information” and “data” that Heinonen was basing these accusations on? A laptop had been purportedly stolen in Iran, taken out of the country, and made available to Western intelligence agencies in Turkey. The laptop supposedly contained some of the most sensitive and classified information on Iran’s nuclear program.

The existence of the laptop had been known since 2004. The first reference to it appeared on November 17, 2004, when then secretary of state Colin Powell briefly referred to “new, missile-related” intelligence on Iran. But, most experts cast doubt on the authenticity of the laptop’s documents, if the laptop actually existed at all. A senior European diplomat was quoted by theNew York Times saying “I can fabricate that data. It looks beautiful, but is open to doubt.”(26)Another European official was quoted as saying, “Yeah, so what? How do you know what you’re shown on a slide is true, given past experience?” A senior U.S. intelligence official was quoted saying, “It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that beautiful pictures represent reality, but that may not be the case.” Another U.S. official was quoted as saying, “Even with the best intelligence, you always ask yourself, ‘was this prepared for my eyes?’” Julian Borger of the Guardian quoted an IAEA official saying “There is doubt some doubt over the provenance of the computer.”(27) Many writers including Gareth Porter28 have analyzed claims about the laptop, and cast serious doubts on the authenticity of any document that have might been on the purported laptop. So, for a while the laptop and its documents as evidence of a “smoking gun” have disappeared. But, it will re-emerge.

Enrichment Under the Mountain

On September 21, 2009, the Iranian government sent a letter to the IAEA to declare that it was constructing a second uranium enrichment facility in Fordo, near the holy city of Qom, 100 miles south of Tehran. Four days later, in a hastily arranged news conference in the midst of the G20 summit in Pittsburgh, President Obama, flanked by Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain and French President Nicholas Sarkozy, declared that the United States, Britain, and France had provided the agency the day before with detailed information about the Qom facility. Whether the construction of the Fordo site constituted a violation of Iran’s Safeguards obligations remains a matter of contention. According to Obama, other U.S. officials, and some experts Fordo represented a gross violation of Iran’s Safeguards Agreement. Others disagreed. But rhetoric and finger pointing aside, Iran’s possible violation of its Safeguards Agreement should be studied in the context of the Subsidiary Arrangements of the Agreement.

As pointed out earlier, Code 3.1 of the Subsidiary Arrangement of the original Safeguards Agreement (as specified in 1976) stipulated that Iran must declare to the IAEA the existence of any nuclear facility no later than 180 days before introducing any nuclear material into the facility. In 1992 the Board of Governors of the IAEA amended the Subsidiary Arrangements rules and developed the Modified Code 3.1, which requires a member state to notify the IAEA “as soon as the decision to construct or to authorize construction has been taken, whichever is earlier.” It also developed the Additional Protocol to the Safeguards Agreement, which empowers the IAEA to carry out intrusive inspections of any site in its member states.

After the Natanz enrichment site was officially disclosed to the IAEA in February 2003, Iran agreed, on February 26, 2003, to implement the provision of the Modified Code 3.1. More precisely, Iran agreed to voluntarily implement the Modified Code 3.1, and in December 2003, the Additional Protocol—until ratification of both by the Majles. Iran followed the provision of Modified Code 3.1 until March 2007. But, in February 2007, the Board of Governors of the IAEA sent Iran’s nuclear dossier to the United Nations Security Council. In retaliation, Iran notified the IAEA in March 2007 that it would no longer voluntarily observe Modified Code 3.1, and would revert to the original Code 3.1, which only required a 180-day notification. The IAEA responded:

In accordance with Article 39 of Iran’s Safeguards Agreement, agreed Subsidiary Arrangements cannot be modified unilaterally; nor is there a mechanism in the Safeguards Agreement for the suspension of provisions agreed to in Subsidiary Arrangements.

While the statement is correct, Iran’s position is that it has no obligation toward the Modified Code 3.1, since the Majles never approved the change in the Safeguards Agreement. An international treaty signed by any state goes into effect only if it has been ratified by that nation’s parliament. This is beyond dispute. And, after the 1979 revolution toppled the shah’s regime, it was written into law that all the international agreements signed by the government must be approved by the Majles. Even the Sa’dabad Declaration and the Paris Agreement stated specifically that Iran’s implementation of the Additional Protocol remained voluntary until Iran’s parliament approved it. Thus, the same must be true of Modified Code 3.1.

Regardless of its legal status, the Fordo site, which was brought online in 2011, has deeply concerned Western powers, as it is buried deep underground, beneath a mountain, and would be very difficult, if not impossible to demolish by bombing, for example. It has been designed to house 2,976 centrifuges in sixteen cascades. As of May 15, 2013, 2,710 centrifuges have been installed—and all of the inefficient IR-1 type, although more advanced centrifuges have been manufactured, and will be installed soon.

Fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor

The original Tehran Research Reactor that Iran obtained from the United States in 1967 used high-enriched uranium as fuel. In 1987 the core of the reactor was redesigned by Argentina to convert it into a reactor that uses low-enriched uranium (LEU) at 19.75 percent. Argentina also supplied Iran with 115.8 kg of the fuel. The TRR supplies medical isotopes for about 850,000 Iranian patients annually. It also produces isotopes for research activities. In 2009 Iran informed the IAEA that it would soon run out of fuel, and asked the agency to resupply it. A preliminary agreement was signed between Iran and the Agency in October 2009, according to which Iran would ship most of its then stockpile of (insufficiently enriched) LEU to Russia and France, and in return would receive fuel suitable for the TRR. The agreement broke down after Iran set conditions for its implementation, which were rejected by the United States and its allies.

Then, on May 17, 2010, Iran, Turkey, and Brazil announced that they had reached an agreement under which Iran would send 1,200 kg of its LEU stock —enriched at 3.3 to 3.7 percent—to Turkey to be stored and safeguarded there by the IAEA.(29) In return for the transfer of its LEU, Iran was supposed to receive 120 kg of uranium fuel rods, enriched at 19.75 percent, for the TRR. The agreement was also rejected by Washington and its allies because by May 2010 Iran’s stockpile of LEU had increased substantially and, thus, they wanted Iran to transfer more of the stockpile to Turkey. This Iran was not willing to do.

Iran then announced that it would produce its own fuel for the TRR. Though there was considerable skepticism that Iran had the technological know-how to do this, it has, in fact, succeeded. Iran has used the Fordo site mostly for producing uranium enriched at 19.75 percent. The latest IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program—issued on May 22, 2013—indicates that Iran has produced 324 kg of 19.75 percent enriched uranium, of which 142 kg has been converted to fuel plates, which are very difficult to use for further enrichment.(30) The remaining 182 kg is less than what is generally believed to be necessary to make one nuclear warhead. In effect, the United States and its allies provoked Iran to begin enriching uranium at a level higher than 3.5 percent.

The IAEA Changing of the Guard

On December 1, 2009, Japanese diplomat Yukiya Amano succeeded ElBaradei as the director general of the IAEA. He issued his first report on Iran on February 18, 2010.(31) The tone of Amano’s report was in sharp contrast with ElBaradei’s.(32) Speculating without presenting any evidence, Amano talked about the “undeclared nuclear materials” in Iran’s possession that, if true, would represent a gross violation of Iran’s Safeguards obligations. It also demanded a visit to Iran’s heavy water production plant near the city of Arak, although the plant is not covered by Iran’s Safeguards Agreement.

Amano’s stance, however, should not come as a surprise. Documents released by Wikileaks indicate that Amano, rather than being a neutral and objective director general, is firmly in the American corner. In a cable dated July 9, 2009, the U.S. chargé d’affaires at the U.S. mission to the IAEA, Geoffrey Pyatt, stated that “Amano attributed his election to support from the U.S., Australia, and France, and cited U.S. intervention with Argentina as particularly decisive,” and said that Amano’s primary goal was “implementing safeguards and UNSC [United Nations Security Council]/[IAEA] Board resolutions” to impose economic sanctions against Iran.(33) The United States had also complained to Amano about some IAEA experts under ElBaradei who “have not always been helpful to U.S. positions.” Once in office, Amano removed those “unhelpful” experts from key positions. He eliminated the agency’s office of external relations and policy coordination that, under ElBaradei, had questioned some of the judgments made by the Safeguards department inspectors.(34)

Pyatt also reported that Amano had consulted with Israel’s ambassador to the IAEA, Israel Michaeli, “immediately after his appointment,” that Michaeli “was fully confident of the priority Amano accords verification issues,” that he discounted some of Amano’s public remarks about there being “no evidence of Iran pursuing a nuclear weapons capability” as mere words that Amano had to say “to persuade those who did not support him about his ‘impartiality,’” and that Amano wanted to have “consultations” with the head of the Atomic Energy Commission of Israel.

In another cable, dated October 16, 2009, the U.S. mission to the IAEA reported that Amano “took pains to emphasize his support for U.S. strategic objectives for the Agency. Amano reminded ambassador [Glyn Davies] on several occasions that… he was solidly in the U.S. court on every key strategic decision, from high-level personnel appointments to the handling of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program. More candidly, Amano noted the importance of maintaining a certain ‘constructive ambiguity’ about his plans, at least until he took over for DG ElBaradei in December [2009].”(35)


A “Game Changing” Report

On November 8, 2011, the IAEA released its most comprehensive report on Iran’s nuclear program.(36)Some observers called it the most anticipated report in the history of the agency, because for at least two weeks prior to its release, Western media was already reporting various—leaked—aspects of the report, and it was generally described in such dire terms as “game changing” and “landmark.” But, the report simply rehashed the old allegations that Heinonen had made in his presentation to the Board of Governors of the IAEA in February 2008, based on the “stolen” laptop. The 2011 report made no mention of the laptop at all, however, simply because by then it had been totally discredited. The new IAEA report claimed it had corroborating evidence supplied by up to ten member states about the same allegations. No country was specifically mentioned, nothing was said about how the member states had obtained the intelligence, and no dates were given as to when the evidence had reached the agency.

Two of the most interesting aspects of the report were on a then unnamed foreign scientist who had supposedly helped Iran’s nuclear program, and new allegations—or more precisely, the rehashing of old allegations—about Parchin, a conventional military site twenty miles southeast of Tehran that Iran had been using for several decades to produce ammunition and explosives for its armed forces. Parchin is not a nuclear site and, therefore, is not covered by Iran’s Safeguards Agreement.

The Foreign Scientist

In its report, the IAEA stated:

The Agency has strong indications that the development by Iran of the high explosives initiation system, and its development of the high speed diagnostic configuration used to monitor related experiments, were assisted by the work of a foreign expert who was not only knowledgeable in these technologies, but who, a Member State has informed the Agency, worked for much of his career with this technology in the nuclear weapon program of the country of his origin. The Agency has reviewed publications by this foreign expert and has met with him. The Agency has been able to verify through three separate routes, including the expert himself, that this person was in Iran from about 1996 to about 2002, ostensibly to assist Iran in the development of a facility and techniques for making ultra-dispersed diamonds, where he also lectured on explosion physics and its applications.

The IAEA report acknowledged that “there exist non-nuclear applications, albeit few” for the exploding bridge-wire detonators (EBWs) that the scientists were allegedly working on. But, Scott Peterson of the Christian Science Monitor quoted Robert Kelly, an American nuclear engineer and former IAEA inspector who was among the first to review the original data (supposedly coming from the laptop) in 2005, saying, “The agency is wrong. There are lots of applications for EBWs. To be wrong on this point, and then to try to misdirect opinion shows a bias towards their desired outcome… That is unprofessional.”(37)

This scientist turned out to be Vyacheslav Danilenko,(38) a Ukrainian scientist employed for six years by Iran. David Albright, president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, and his collaborators had alleged that Danilenko was hired specifically to work on refining Iran’s nuclear designs.(39) Albright had even given a “private briefing” for “intelligence professionals” right before the IAEA report was released in which he named Danilenko as the foreign expert who had been contracted by Iran’s Physics Research Center in the mid-1990s, and identified him as a “former Soviet nuclear scientist.”

But, the allegation fell flat and proved unsustainable. It turned out that Danilenko was not a nuclear scientist at all,(40) but one of the world’s leading experts on producing industrial nanodiamonds using sophisticated explosives technology.(41) But, because he had been trained at a Russian institute that did undertake research on nuclear warheads, the assumption by Albright and company was that he must have learned about nuclear explosives. Danilenko himself, now seventy-eight years old, denied that he was involved in Iran’s nuclear program.(42)

Visiting Parchin

In its report, the IAEA also alleged that Iran had built a containment chamber in Parchin for experiments that it has—again allegedly—carried out with high explosives that are relevant to triggering a nuclear reaction.(43) The IAEA has demanded to visit the site, but Parchin is not a nuclear site, and has never been declared as such. Therefore, because Iran no longer abides by the provisions of the Additional Protocol, it has no legal obligation to allow a visit, even though a visit might be very good for demonstrating a spirit of cooperation between Iran and the IAEA.

In addition, the allegations are not about recent activities, but regard what might have happened in Iran over a decade ago. In 2004, the IAEA demanded to visit Parchin and on September 17, 2004 ElBaradei announced that the agency had found no sign of nuclear-related activity at the Parchin.(44)“We are aware of this new site that has been referred to,” he said, then added, “We do not have any indication that this site has any nuclear-related activities. However, we will continue to investigate this and other sites, we’ll continue to have a dialogue with Iran.” Because at that time Iran was observing the provisions of the Additional Protocols, two visits were allowed by Iran in 2005, one in January and a second one in November.(45) Both times Heinonen led the IAEA inspectors.

The first time they visited five different locations within the complex. After turning down the IAEA’s request for a second visit in March 2005, Iran did allow it later in the year, in November. The inspectors again visited five buildings, but then demanded a “surprise” visit to a sixth location, which was granted. Nothing was found that indicated any activity consistent with the allegations.

Why the allegations were revived in the 2011 IAEA report is not clear. Iran and the IAEA were in the midst of negotiating an agreement that would allow the agency to visit Parchin again—the agreement still hasn’t been finalized as of mid-2013, although Iran’s ambassador to Russia has said that Tehran will allow IAEA experts to visit Parchin, if the agency signs a relevant protocol that contains all its concerns and questions about the site.(46) The Iranian press quoted Heinonen at that time saying, “The Parchin case has joined history,” implying that its case was closed.

Despite this, there have been all sorts of unfounded allegations about what is going on in Parchin.(47)Even laying asphalt at Parchin has been called suspect.(48) Such allegations have been thoroughly refuted.(49)

The fact is there is no evidence that Iran has an active nuclear weapon program, or that it has any secret parallel program. In every single report that the IAEA has issued over the past ten years, it has always certified that there is no evidence that Iran has diverted its nuclear materials and technology from peaceful purposes to a non-peaceful program. The U.S. Intelligence Estimate of November 2007 declared that Iran has not had any nuclear weapon program, at least since 2003.(50) Since then, this main conclusion has remained unaltered.(51)

Is There a Political Will?

As things stand currently, the IAEA continues to inspect and monitor all of Iran’s nuclear sites, and continues to certify that Iran has not diverted any nuclear material to non-peaceful purposes. A visit to Parchin has remained a matter of contention. The IAEA continues to press Iran to respond to the allegations made in its November 2011 report, but Iran has refused to do so—on the grounds that the allegations are baseless—and will continue to do so unless the IAEA presents evidence in support of the allegations to Iran.

Meanwhile, Iran continues to expand its nuclear infrastructure, its stockpile of LEU, and its number of centrifuges. As of the latest IAEA report issued on May 22, 2013, Iran has 8,960 kg of LEU, of which 2,603 kg has been converted to fuel plates. Iran also has 13,551 IR-1 centrifuges in Natanz, in addition to those in its facility at Fordo. Iran has also announced plans for ten other enrichment sites, the locations for five of which have apparently been decided. The construction of the IR-40 Reactor, a heavy water nuclear reactor near Arak is also proceeding.

Over the past two years a series of negotiations between the P5+1 group—the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany—and Iran has taken place, first in Istanbul, then in Baghdad and Moscow, and most recently in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Both sides have moved somewhat from their previous, seemingly inflexible positions. Whereas the P5+1 originally demanded that Iran shut down the Fordo site permanently and stop enriching uranium at 19.75 percent, it now only asks for a temporary suspension. Whereas Iran had declared that it would never agree to any halt in its enrichment activities, it suggested in Almaty to stop enrichment at 19.75 percent for six months. Though these concessions have not been enough for a breakthrough, they do indicate that a diplomatic solution is possible, if both sides have the necessary political will.

Most objective experts agree that a clear framework for a diplomatic solution to the standoff is already in place.(52) It consists, for example, of the following principles:

  • Iran must suspend enrichment at 19.75 percent for a fixed, mutually agreed period of time. In return, the European Union must allow oil tankers that carry Iran’s oil to non-European nations to be insured by European companies, and suspend sanctions on Iran’s central bank.
  • Iran must ship out its stock of 19.75 percent enriched uranium to Russia and France for conversion to fuel rods. This arrangement was agreed to in October 2009, but the agreement ultimately failed. In return, the P5+1 must supply fuel for the TRR—the same 19.75 percent enriched uranium converted to fuel rods.
  • Iran must then reactivate the provisions of the Additional Protocol of its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA. That will give the IAEA intrusive authority to inspect any suspected site in Iran, including Parchin. In return, the West must lift some important sanctions simultaneously with Iran’s actions under the above two points.
  • Iran must agree to adhere to Modified Code 3.1 of its Safeguards Agreement. In return, the P5+1 and, in particular, the EU must cancel oil sanctions.
  • Iran must agree to zero stock of 19.75 percent enriched uranium on its soil, implying that it must ship abroad the enriched uranium, both the current stock and in the future, and limit the number of enrichment sites and centrifuges to a mutually agreed upon number. In return, the P5+1 must lift its remaining economic sanctions.(53)

The only thing required for such an agreement is political will on both sides.

Muhammad Sahimi is a professor of chemical engineering and materials science at the University of Southern California. He has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Wall Street Journal, Harvard International Review, and Progressive, among others. He is co-founder and editor of the website, Iran News & Middle East Reports.

1     Ivanka Barzashka, “Are Cyber-Weapons Effective? Assessing Stuxnet’s Impact on the Iranian Enrichment Programme,” RUSI Journal 158, no. 2, (April 2013).

2    Alexander Gostev, “The Flame: Questions and Answers,” Securelist (May 28, 2012).

3    Muhammad Sahimi, “The Decade-Long Covert War against Iran,” Tehran Bureau (January 15, 2012).

4    “U.S. Denies Role in Iranian Nuclear Scientist’s Death,” Voice of America (January 12, 2012).

5    Ali Vaez and Charles Ferguson, “Killing Iranian Nuclear Scientists is Counterproductive and Wrong,” The Atlantic (January 13, 2012).

6    “U.S. Supplied Nuclear Material to Iran,” Digital National Security Archive (January 29, 1980).

7    Muhammad Sahimi, “Iran’s Nuclear Energy Program. Part V: From the United States Offering Iran Uranium Enrichment Technology to Suggestions for Creating Catastrophic Industrial Failure,”Payvand News (December 22, 2004).

8    Muhammad Sahimi, “The Political Evolution of Mousavi,” Tehran Bureau (February 16, 2010).

9    Muhammad Sahimi, “Iran’s Nuclear Program. Part I: Its History,” Payvand News (October 3, 2003).

10 “The Statute of the IAEA,” International Atomic Energy Agency.

11 Mark Hibbs, “U.S. in 1983 stopped IAEA from helping Iran make UF6,” Nuclear Fuel 28, no. 16, (August 4, 2003). Re-published by Cyrus Safdari, Iran Affairs (July 30, 2009).

12  Muhammad Sahimi, “Iran’s Nuclear Energy Program. Part VII: Are Referral of Iran’s Nuclear Dossier to the Security Council and Resolutions 1696, 1737, and 1747 Legal?,” Payvand News(December 5, 2007).

13  Charles Digges, “Iran Admits to Uranium Mines and Reprocessing Plans,” Bellona (February 13, 2003).

14   William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, “As Crisis Brews, Iran Hits Bumps in Atomic Path,”The New York Times (March 5, 2006).

15  “The Text of the Agreement Between Iran and the Agency for the Application of Safeguards in Connection with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” International Atomic Energy Agency (December 13, 1974)

16  Mohamed ElBaradei, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” International Atomic Energy Agency (June 6, 2003)

17  Mohamed ElBaradei, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” International Atomic Energy Agency (June 6, 2003)

18  Muhammad Sahimi, “Has Iran Violated its Nuclear Safeguards Obligations?,” Tehran Bureau(September 27, 2009).

19  Iran Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Statement by the Iranian Government and Visiting EU Foreign Ministers,” International Atomic Energy Agency (October 21, 2003).

20  Mehr News Agency, “Iran-EU Agreement on Nuclear Programme,” International Atomic Energy Agency (November 14, 2004).

21  Muhammad Sahimi, “Iran’s Nuclear Energy Program, Part VI: The European Union’s Proposal, Iran’s Defiance, and the Emerging Crisis,” Payvand News (September 9, 2005).

22  Muhammad Sahimi, ‘The Isolation of Ahmadinejad,” Tehran Bureau (April 30, 2010).

23  Jack Straw, “Even if Iran Gets the Bomb, It Won’t be Worth Going to War,” The Telegraph(February 25, 2013).

24  Muhammad Sahimi, “Iran, the IAEA, and the Laptop,” Antiwar (October 7, 2008).

25  Mohamed ElBaradei, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions 1737 (2006) and 1747 (2007) in the Islamic Republic of Iran,”International Atomic Energy Agency (November 19, 2008)

26 William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, “Relying on Computer, U.S. Seeks to Prove Iran’s Nuclear Aims,” The New York Times (November 13, 2005).

27  Julian Borger, “U.S. Intelligence on Iran Does Not Stand Up, Say Vienna Sources,” The Guardian(February 23, 2007).

28 Gareth Porter, “The Mysterious Laptop Documents: ‘Evidence’ of Iran Nuclear Weapons Program may be Fraudulent,” Center for Research on Globalization (November 18, 2010).

29  Muhammad Sahimi, “Major Deal Agreed on Tehran Uranium,” Tehran Bureau (May 17, 2010).

30  Yukiya Amano, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and Relevant Provisions of Security Council Resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” International Atomic Energy Agency (February 21, 2013).

31  Yukiya Amano, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and Relevant Provisions of Security Council Resolutions 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008) and 1835 (2008) in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” International Atomic Energy Agency (February 18, 2010)

32  Muhammad Sahimi, “Politicizing the IAEA against Iran,” Antiwar (March 13, 2010).

33 “U.S. Embassy Cables: UN Nuclear Chief Promises to Take a Low-Profile Role on Iran,” The Guardian (December 2, 2010).

34  Julian Borger, “Nuclear Watchdog Chief Accused of Pro-Western Bias Over Iran,” The Raw Story(March 22, 2012).

35  “U.S. Embassy Cables: New UN Chief is ‘Director General of all States, but in Agreement with Us’,”The Guardian (December 2, 2010).

36  Yukiya Amano, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and Relevant Provisions of Security Council Resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” International Atomic Energy Agency(December 8, 2011).

37  Muhammad Sahimi, “The IAEA Report on Iran’s Nuclear Program: Alarming or Hyped?,” Tehran Bureau (November 9, 2011).

38  Scott Peterson, “Iran Nuclear Report: Why it May Not Be a Game-Changer After All,” The Christian Science Monitor (November 9, 2011).

39  Joby Warrick, “IAEA Says Foreign Expertise has Brought Iran to Threshold of Nuclear Capability,”The Washington Post (November 7, 2011).

40  David Albright, Paul Brannan, Mark Gorwitz, and Andrea Stricker, “ISIS Analysis of IAEA Iran Safeguards Report: Part II—Iran’s Work and Foreign Assistance on a Multipoint Initiation System for a Nuclear Weapon,” Institute for Science and International Security (November 13, 2011).

41  Gareth Porter, “IAEA’s ‘Soviet Nuclear Scientist’ Never Worked on Weapons,” Antiwar (November 10, 2011).

42 “On ‘Nuclear Iran’ Allegations: Nanodiamonds Ain’t Nuclear Bombs,” Moon of Alabama(November 7, 2011).

43  Heather Maher and Mykola Zakaluzhny, “Former Soviet Scientist Denies Helping Iran’s Nuclear Program,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (November 16, 2011).

44  “Parchin,” Wikipedia (Accessed June 10, 2013).

45 “Parchin Nuclear Facility,” Global Security.

46  Eleni Stamatoukou, “Iran to Allow Visit to Parchin Nuclear Site,” New Europe (May 20, 2013).

47  Muhammad Sahimi, ‘Intervention Proponents Try to Scuttle Nuclear Talks with Iran,” Tehran Bureau (May 22, 2012).

48  Associated Press, “Iran may be Cleaning up Nuke Work,” USA Today (March 7, 2012).

49  “Iran Laying Asphalt at the Suspect Parchin Site,” Institute for Science and International Security(May 22, 2013).

50  Yousaf Butt and Dan Joyner, “Paving, Penetrators, and the Parchin Probe: Issues in Environmental Sampling by the IAEA,” Arms Control Law (May 29, 2013).

51  “National Intelligence Estimate: Iran—Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities,” Council on Foreign Relations (November, 2007).—nuclear-intentions-capabilities/p14937

52   James Risen and Mark Mazzetti, “U.S. Agencies See No Move by Iran to Build a Bomb,” The New York Times (February 24, 2012).

53  “Main Points of a Possible Agreed Framework between the I.R. of Iran, the People’s Republic of China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States,“ Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.

54  Muhammad Sahimi, “A Win-Win Road Map for Nuclear Negotiations with Iran in Moscow,” The Christian Science Monitor (June 18, 2012).

Stumbling to Tehran

Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran. By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett. Metropolitan Books, 2013. 496 pp.

I vividly recall the excitement those of us in Chicago’s No War on Iran Coalition felt in October 2007 when Esquire published a profile—as the teaser text read—of two “former high-ranking policy experts from the Bush administration [who] say the U.S. has been gearing up for a war with Iran for years, despite claiming otherwise.” It was one of those moments that left-wingers revel in, when figures from inside the national security apparatus come out of the woodwork and echo what those of us agitating on the outside have been saying, but with a gravitas and on a stage that antiwar voices can only dream of having.

The Leveretts were consummate insiders; both had served in the State Department as well as on the National Security Council, and Flynt also had been a senior analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency. Richard N. Haass, a pillar of the American foreign policy establishment (currently president of the Council on Foreign Relations), was the best man at their wedding. They had left the George W. Bush administration in 2003 “because of disagreements over Middle East policy and the conduct of the war on terror,” as Flynt reports on his website. Like many realists, they had locked horns with the administration’s increasingly belligerent neocon faction. On Iran, they had become outspoken critics of the warpath the administration seemed to be on; a course they warned was cataclysmic.

The Esquire article went viral in antiwar circles. The leftosphere ate it up. I printed out several copies of it to hand out at meetings of our group. The Leveretts provided intellectual catnip for those of us arguing and organizing against a U.S. attack on Iran, which in that final year or so of the Bush era felt like a very real prospect.

Less than two years later, the Washington power couple made waves of a very different sort, and alienated many of their erstwhile admirers. In the summer of 2009, with millions of Iranians on the streets—initially to protest what they believed to be a stolen election, but subsequently to decry the violent repression with which the first wave of notably peaceful demonstrations were met—the Leveretts went to bat for the Islamic Republic. On June 15, the day that roughly a million Iranians held a silent rally in Azadi (Freedom) Square in Tehran, the Leveretts published an op-ed article in Politico with the title “Ahmadinejad won. Get over it.” This became their hobby horse for the next several years. Like battering rams, the Leveretts dismissed any and all suspicions about the authenticity of the 2009 election results as baseless. And they went much further, painting a fawning, romantic portrait of the Islamic Republic—especially of its most hardline, reactionary elements—and heaped scorn on Iran’s Green Movement, and seemingly anyone who expressed support for it. The label “pro-Green” became a term of abuse in their polemics, as if to disqualify the views of anyone sympathetic to the movement.

Going to Tehran could have been a major contribution to the very important debate regarding the future of American policy toward Iran. Indeed, with their pedigrees in the national security establishment, the Leveretts are ideally positioned to champion the case for normalizing relations between the United States and Iran—a case that desperately needs to be both made and heard in Washington. Lamentably, their ideological contortions get in the way and derail the effort.

To be sure, the book is not without its strengths. The penultimate chapter, “Iran and America’s Imperial Turn,” offers a trenchant and valuable critique of the follies and failures of U.S. policy toward Iran going back three decades. The concluding chapter, “The Road to Tehran,” advances a bold proposal for realigning Washington’s relations with Tehran. The Leveretts revisit Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 trip to China, an overture that dramatically recast Sino-American relations. It is a story, they contend, that “offers valuable insights into how the United States might finally break out of its Iran policy straightjacket.” Indeed, they consider this “Nixonian moment” the “greatest achievement of American diplomacy in the past half century,” and call for a new Shanghai Communiqué that would set U.S.-Iran relations on the path to rapprochement, which, they argue, would benefit American strategic interests in much the way Nixon’s China breakthrough did.

This argument is compelling and refreshing. It seems especially relevant with the election in June of Hassan Rowhani as Iran’s president. There is widespread hope in Western circles (and indeed in Iran) that if ever there was a moment for a breakthrough in the tormented relationship between Washington and Tehran, this is it. Not since the period from 1997 to 2000, when Mohammad Khatami and Bill Clinton overlapped, have both countries had liberal/moderate/reformist presidents at the same time. With George W. Bush’s ascension to the White House in January 2001, there was a hardliner in Washington and a reformist in Tehran; until Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 2005. That evened the score with reactionaries in both capitals, until 2008, when Barack Obama’s election put a liberal in the White House, but a hardline counterpart remained in office in Tehran. With the election of Rowhani, who is more of a moderate/conservative pragmatist than a reformist, but one very much in debt to the reformist camp, there is a genuine chance for something akin to the Shanghai Communiqué.

Also valuable is their analysis of the thwarting of the Tehran Declaration in 2010. Turkey and Brazil worked out an arrangement with Iran—at Obama’s direction—aimed at resolving the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. Turkish and Brazilian officials got Iran to agree to a nuclear fuel swap deal. The deal, the Leveretts point out, “met all of the American president’s conditions” as outlined in letters Obama sent to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The negotiations, according to Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, “followed precisely the script that had been on the table for some months and whose validity had been recently reaffirmed at the highest level.” Yet Washington immediately rejected the deal that Turkey and Brazil had pursued at its urging and introduced a new United Nations Security Council sanctions resolution.

Erdoğan and Lula, write the Leveretts, “came to believe that, in reality, they had been set up to fail.” Their “main offense, from an American perspective, was that they had gone to Tehran and succeeded in brokering a deal.” Amorim and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu warned that squandering the opportunity that the Tehran Declaration presented “may well be regretted for generations to come.” Not only was this a failure to make progress on the Iranian nuclear standoff, it was a slap in the face to Turkey and Brazil, U.S. allies, and emerging powers on the global stage. The Leveretts are correct in viewing this affair as a blown opportunity conducted in bad faith.

But the Leveretts get it badly wrong when they go out of their way and expend considerable effort not only to portray the Islamic Republic in the most flattering terms, but to disparage Iranian dissidents and trash the democratic Green Movement. They claim to be merely describing Iranian political realities in calm, sober terms, providing a corrective to the “wishful thinking” about Iran that they believe prevails in Washington. But it’s clear from Going to Tehran and their other writings that the Leveretts have taken sides in Iran’s internal political battle—with the regime’s most reactionary elements, and against the country’s human rights activists, dissident intellectuals and journalists, trade unionists, and women’s rights activists.

Part Two of the book, “The Islamic Republic as Legitimate State,” concludes with sections titled “Canonizing the Green Movement” and “Beyond the Green Movement.” The Leveretts treat sermons and statements by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with breathless reverence while taking Green Movement leader Mir-Hossein Moussavi to task for being too defiant of Khamenei. They regard Khamenei’s judgments as “wholly appropriate,” but say that Moussavi “damaged his credibility,” that turnout for Green protests was “embarrassingly low,” and the movement is in “intellectual disarray” and lacking “a coherent agenda.” The widely documented repression unleashed on nonviolent demonstrators in 2009 and 2010—brutal beatings, killings, mass arrests, torture and rape of women and men—was, in their eyes, “relatively restrained” and “should be considered in the context of Iran’s history.” They dismiss claims that there was a “bloody crackdown” as “caricatures.”

The Leveretts regard themselves as realists. Their explicitly Nixonian argument for a new American approach to Iran along the lines of the Shanghai Communiqué is pure realpolitik—they advocate rapprochement because they believe it is in America’s strategic interests. But their approach to Iran’s domestic politics—their partisan support for one faction over another—is decidedly un-realist. From a realist point of view, the internal politics of other countries are irrelevant—what matters is not the form of government or domestic arrangements of other countries but their strategic interests and how they go about advancing them in the international arena. Realists don’t grant importance to the internal political affairs of other countries, let alone take sides in them, as the Leveretts brazenly do with Iran.

Why do the Nixonian Leveretts make this very un-realist move? Because the demonization of the Islamic Republic and the “canonization” of the Green Movement, in their view, have “weakened support among Western elites and publics for diplomatic engagement with Tehran.” Their counter-narrative of a legitimate—indeed vibrant and democratic—Islamic Republic, and an incoherent and unpopular Green opposition, is thus designed to bolster the case for rapprochement.

This concern has some merit. The upheaval following the June 2009 election in Iran did have a chilling effect on the prospects for diplomatic progress. It was difficult to pursue diplomacy with the Islamic Republic amidst its biggest, bloodiest crackdown in twenty years. Even Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and one of the leading advocates of diplomatic engagement with Tehran, called for a “tactical pause” during the thick of the repression in the summer of 2009.

But there is no contradiction between advocating rapprochement between the two countries and denouncing the Islamic Republic’s human rights violations. Indeed the Green Movement itself has long supported normalization of relations between Washington and Tehran. In fact, an end to the longstanding hostilities between the two countries would benefit Iran’s democratic opposition. Washington’s saber-rattling has long been a lifeline to Iran’s hardliners, allowing them to justify their repressive measures as necessary to defend the Iranian people against the enemy at the gates. Without that external threat, Iran’s democratic movement would have more breathing space.

To the extent that Western opponents of diplomatic engagement with Iran invoke the Islamic Republic’s repression or human rights record, they are wrong—and out of step with the Green Movement, which, despite its own suffering at the hands of Iran’s repressive state apparatus, wants to see U.S.-Iran relations improved. These are separate issues—the United States should pursue a new Iran policy, and the Islamic Republic’s repression should be opposed (though I agree with the Leveretts that the United States is not the right messenger for this message—that’s the place of global civil society, not foreign governments). The Leveretts aren’t amiss in advocating rapprochement, or in worrying about its prospects being undercut by misplaced arguments about human rights. But they are dead wrong to whitewash the Islamic Republic and to disparage its domestic opponents. If anything, those of us who strongly support diplomatic engagement and resetting U.S. policy toward Iran will have to disassociate that position from the Leveretts, who have freighted it with their tortured logic.

Danny Postel is the associate director of the Center for Middle East Studies in the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He is the author of Reading “Legitimation Crisis” in Tehran: Iran and the Future of Liberalism, and co-editor of The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future and The Syria Dilemma. He is a contributing editor of Logos: A Journal of Modern Society & Culture, and previously a senior editor of openDemocracy. He blogs for Truthout, Critical Inquiry, and Huffington Post. On Twitter:@dannypostel.

The Way of the Knife

The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth. By Mark Mazzetti, The Penguin Press HC, 2013, 400 pp. 

When the calls home stopped in November of 2011, friends assumed the worst for Jude Kenan Mohammad. A few years earlier, the young Pakistani-American born in North Carolina had come under the sway of a radicalized Islamic preacher, who taught him about violent jihad and urged him to seek out his roots in Pakistan. Soon, Mohammad departed for Pakistan’s tribal lands where, apart from some calls to family on the holidays, he all but disappeared.

In May, the White House finally acknowledged what many back in North Carolina had long come to believe: Mohammad had been killed by an American drone strike one and a half years earlier. There had been no trial, no public presentation of evidence. He would have been twenty-three years old.

Mohammad’s death was just one small piece of a decade-old, shadowy war started in the years following the September 11 attacks by President George W. Bush and expanded with unwavering intensity by his successor, Barack Obama. Waged high in the skies above rural Pakistan and Yemen, and in the back alleys of Somalia and Afghanistan, it is a war that has received virtually no scrutiny from the public, even as it summarily takes the lives of thousands of individuals, many of them innocent civilians—and a few, like Mohammad, American citizens.

A slew of new books seek to cast light on the private meeting rooms and hidden bunkers from which this covert war has been conducted, among them Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield; Daniel Klaidman’s Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency; and Mark Mazzetti’s The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth. Mazzetti’s is the most richly illustrative of the internal tensions and often careless decision making of America’s leaders in the last decade—and the least burdened by outrage.

The result, from the veteran New York Times national security reporter, is an even-handed tale of this era that will likely leave the reader outraged nonetheless. As senior members of the George W. Bush administration scrambled to confront a new terrorist reality after 9/11, they reshaped America’s military into a second spy agency, a task for which it was poorly equipped. Meanwhile, as Mazzetti scrupulously documents, the Central Intelligence Agency found itself converted from the delicate art of spycraft into a paramilitary “killing machine, an organization consumed with man hunting.”

“Increasingly they were mimicking each other,” Mazzetti writes of the ensuing confusion and discord in the world of black ops. “The CIA… becoming ever more a lethal, paramilitary organization, and the Pentagon ramping up its spying operations to support a special-operations war. There were no clear ground rules.”

Some of the details of how this came to pass may not surprise a close reader of the news. Eager to prosecute the “war on terror,” the Bush administration sought to cut through bureaucratic red tape wherever possible, without regard for the fact that much of it had been set up in the wake of past controversies. When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asked a man who would go on to become his chief of special operations whether it was legal for the Pentagon to conduct operations in countries with which the United States was not actively at war, the man replied that it was, comparing it favorably to Richard Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia and Laos during the Indochina conflicts. Never mind that those strikes were among the most scandalous acts of Nixon’s scandal-laden tenure.

This idea that history repeats itself is a central theme of Mazzetti’s book. Back in the 1980s, before there was the infamous Blackwater organization, there was a little-known, off-the-books Pentagon spy unit known as Intelligence Support Activity. The unit’s secret budget and retired special operators became “the perfect ingredients for a toxic recipe,” Mazzetti writes. It was shut down within two years, after a blistering inspector general report complained that the government “should have learned the lesson of the 70s” about creating such units.

But “memories are short,” Mazzetti writes. Instead, over the past fifty years, a “familiar pattern” has played out: “Presidential approval of aggressive CIA operations, messy congressional investigations when the details of these operations were exposed, retrenchment and soul-searching at Langley, criticisms that the CIA had become risk averse, then another period of aggressive covert action.”

This concept of the inevitability of presidential overreach helps explain why these failings seem to continuously recur, but it can also have a distasteful exculpatory effect. And it does little to explain one of the greatest mysteries of the present era of unaccountable, secret warfare: how did a former constitutional law professor, who campaigned specifically on drawing down extrajudicial forms of warfare and detention, come to expand those very programs instead?

Here the book leaves its sole frustration, for even as Mazzetti details Obama’s shortcomings—the failure to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, the ratcheting up of the drone war to unprecedented levels—he chooses not to weigh in on whether such actions taken ten years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 deserve harsher scrutiny than ones taken in the immediate aftermath.

“The foundations of the secret war were laid by a conservative Republican president and embraced by a liberal Democratic one who became enamored of what he had inherited,” Mazzetti writes at one point. History will have to decide who deserves the harsher judgment.

Joshua Hersh is the Beirut-based Middle East correspondent for the Huffington Post. He previously covered foreign policy for the same publication in Washington, DC. On Twitter: @joshuahersh.

The Dispensable Nation

The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat. By Vali Nasr. Doubleday, New York, 2013. 320 pp. 

On his last trip to Afghanistan, in October 2010, Holbrooke pulled General Petraeus aside and said, ‘David, I want to talk to you about reconciliation.’ Petraeus replied, ‘That is a fifteen-second conversation. No, not now.’”

From the moment Barack Obama became president, the White House refused to entertain the idea that the war in Afghanistan could come to an end through political means. This is but one of the failings recounted by Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, in The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat, a searing indictment of the Obama administration’s approach to foreign policy, particularly in the Muslim world. The critique is all the more telling because it comes from an insider: from 2009 to 2011, Nasr served as senior advisor to Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Opportunities for American engagement in the Muslim world have changed dramatically over the past few years, and the fast-moving nature of the continued Arab Spring revolutions means that they won’t wait around for U.S. leaders to grab them. Other established and rising powers like China, Russia, Turkey, and Iran are vying for influence in the new Middle East, yet a guarded United States seems to be opting out of the competition.

Obama took office with campaign promises that he would win the “good war” in Afghanistan, while winding down the “bad war” in Iraq. But his administration was wary of involvement in the region following the disastrous George W. Bush years, and so embraced a decidedly light footprint rather than a broader strategy for dealing with the deeply entrenched issues there: namely the spread of jihadist militancy, the festering Israel-Palestine wound, and a myriad of economic and societal challenges.

The hands-off approach might not have proved disastrous, but it hasn’t been particularly successful either. Iraq is consumed by sectarian violence and its increasingly autocratic government has grown closer to Iran, consequences that Nasr argues might have been mitigated if the administration had ordered a more gradual withdrawal of troops and had engaged constructively with the Iraqi people in the wake of the war. But the Iraq war was not “Obama’s war,” so the president felt little responsibility for its aftermath.

Meanwhile, in the war that Obama did lay claim to, the prospects of a peace deal with insurgents have all but faded from view, as talks between the United States and the Taliban ground to a halt. The Taliban officials who traveled to Qatar in 2010 for the negotiations are now just “enjoying the air-conditioning, driving luxury cars, and making babies,” as Nasr puts it. There are many competing explanations as to why negotiations with the Taliban haven’t worked out. Some of the people involved say the Taliban has no interest in laying down its weapons and rejecting Al-Qaeda. Others—like Nasr—argue that Obama didn’t give reconciliation even half a chance. What seems clear is that the U.S. approach has never been consistent—whether under Bush or Obama—thus giving the Taliban little reason to trust that Washington will actually do what it says it’s going to do.

By Nasr’s account, the Obama administration has let domestic political considerations—re-election prospects as well as the domestic opponents’ relentless attacks on anything that might be construed as a White House “failure”—get in the way of smart foreign policy. The most damning allegations he makes involve the White House’s sidelining of the officials at the State Department who were calling for a negotiated end to the war in Afghanistan—including Holbrooke—largely for petty political reasons. Holbrooke had been a fervent supporter of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the 2008 Democratic primary campaigns, and his robust foreign policy credentials threatened the clout of the president’s National Security Council—and Obama clearly wanted to keep U.S. foreign policymaking inside the White House. “At times it appeared the White House was more interested in bringing Holbrooke down than getting the policy right,” Nasr writes.

Politics aside, the Obama administration should be given credit for some positive developments in Afghanistan. Although reconciliation doesn’t seem like a viable option anymore, massive U.S. investment in Afghanistan’s infrastructure and security forces may ensure that the population will not be subjected to draconian Taliban rule after the U.S. withdrawal at the end of 2014. Nor is it likely that Al-Qaeda will ever again find safe haven there.

Nasr argues that the Obama administration deferred to the military on the issue of reconciliation out of fear that the president would be seen as “soft” on foreign policy if it engaged in negotiations with the Taliban. The government’s top generals, including then-commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan General David Petraeus, were opposed to bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table until after the 2010 “surge” had a chance to put the insurgents at a disadvantage on the battlefield.

There seems to be little disagreement among those who have reported on U.S. foreign policy over the past five years that the Obama administration defers heavily to the Pentagon and the CIA. Far from being the dovish president that many Americans expected, Obama has taken quite a militarized approach to foreign policy. On Afghanistan, “the White House decided early on to walk in lockstep with the military,” writes Nasr. And on Pakistan, Daily Beast reporter Daniel Klaidman has written that the president once told a meeting of cabinet officials, “the CIA gets what it wants.” Nasr’s vantage point from inside the State Department gives readers a unique perspective on how foreign policy decisions were made during Obama’s first term: in his words, by “a White House that had jealously guarded all foreign policy making and then relied heavily on the military and intelligence agencies to guide its decisions.”

And the CIA did get what it wanted in Pakistan during the Obama administration—though that may be changing with reports that the robust paramilitary capabilities the agency built up over the past decade will soon be drawn down. Drone strikes soared to their peak in Pakistan during 2010, when drone-fired missiles were striking North Waziristan every three days, on average. It is unclear what the goal of the drone campaign was; strikes certainly weren’t a last resort. Under Obama, the drone program went from a decapitation strategy that targeted high-value Al-Qaeda leaders, to a counterinsurgency campaign that frequently targeted low-level Taliban militants. Just 2 percent of some 3,000 casualties from drone strikes in Pakistan have been known militant leaders, and the perception that Pakistani sovereignty continues to be violated has fueled anti-Americanism there. Nasr observes, “The president seemed to sense that no one would fault him for taking a ‘tough guy’ approach to Pakistan.” But, by taking a counterterrorism-only approach in the region, the Obama administration has arguably helped destroy whatever tenuous relationship the United States had with Pakistan when it took office in 2009.

If in Afghanistan and Pakistan the Obama administration has substituted tactical counterterrorism victories for long-term strategy, “its approach to unfolding events [in the Middle East] has been wholly reactive,” in Nasr’s view. In response to the intrusive nature of George W. Bush’s policies in the Arab world, the Obama White House has endorsed a cautious strategy, making decisions only when its hand is forced. That approach is a sad excuse for a strategy, which should provide a framework within which the United States can leverage diplomacy, trade, aid, and the threat of military action to actively influence and shape events abroad to protect American interests and uphold American values.

Clearly, the United States is shrinking from its leadership role in the world by interacting with adversaries largely through the ten-foot pole of drone strikes and economic sanctions. Nasr’s experiences at the State Department are a powerful testament to that. Yet, at times, his argument is clouded by his emotions: a deep respect and affection for Holbrooke, and anger and disillusion toward the Obama administration. By Nasr’s account, Obama never agreed to meet one-on-one with Holbrooke, though Nasr often makes bold claims about what the president “felt” and “thought” about different policies or events, with scant evidence given to support his perceptions.

The insider perspective in The Dispensable Nation provides invaluable insight for those concerned with how U.S. foreign policy is formed. It also demonstrates that a shrinking U.S. role in the world is not going to be a good thing for anyone. With the largest economy in the world, America remains a major driver of global economic development. And no other nation has matched or is currently willing to match American use of foreign policy for good—from rebuilding Europe after World War II to ending a genocide in Bosnia in the 1990s. Similar existing crises in Syria and elsewhere cry out for the attention of the world’s superpower. Ignoring them should not be an option.

Jennifer Rowland is a program associate in the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation in Washington, DC. She is a regular contributor to and edits the AfPak Channel and its daily news roundup for Foreign Policy.

The United States and Iran

Remarks by President Barack Obama in Celebration of Nowruz (March 20, 2009)
Source: The White House

Today I want to extend my very best wishes to all who are celebrating Nowruz around the world.

This holiday is both an ancient ritual and a moment of renewal, and I hope that you enjoy this special time of year with friends and family.

In particular, I would like to speak directly to the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nowruz is just one part of your great and celebrated culture. Over many centuries your art, your music, literature, and innovation have made the world a better and more beautiful place.

Here in the United States our own communities have been enhanced by the contributions of Iranian Americans. We know that you are a great civilization, and your accomplishments have earned the respect of the United States and the world.

For nearly three decades relations between our nations have been strained. But at this holiday we are reminded of the common humanity that binds us together. Indeed, you will be celebrating your New Year in much the same way that we Americans mark our holidays—by gathering with friends and family, exchanging gifts and stories, and looking to the future with a renewed sense of hope.

Within these celebrations lies the promise of a new day, the promise of opportunity for our children, security for our families, progress for our communities, and peace between nations. Those are shared hopes, those are common dreams.

So in this season of new beginnings I would like to speak clearly to Iran’s leaders. We have serious differences that have grown over time. My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community. This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.

You, too, have a choice. The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations. You have that right—but it comes with real responsibilities, and that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization. And the measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy, it is your demonstrated ability to build and create.

So on the occasion of your New Year, I want you—the people and leaders of Iran—to understand the future that we seek. It’s a future with renewed exchanges among our people, and greater opportunities for partnership and commerce. It’s a future where the old divisions are overcome, where you and all of your neighbors and the wider world can live in greater security and greater peace.

I know that this won’t be reached easily. There are those who insist that we be defined by our differences. But let us remember the words that were written by the poet Saadi, so many years ago: “The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence.”

With the coming of a new season, we’re reminded of this precious humanity that we all share, and we can once again call upon this spirit as we seek the promise of a new beginning.

Thank you, and Eid-eh Shoma Mobarak.
Remarks by President Barack Obama Marking Nowruz (March 20, 2010)
Source: The White House

Today, I want to extend my best wishes to all who are celebrating Nowruz in the United States and around the world. On this New Year’s celebration, friends and family have a unique opportunity to reflect on the year gone by, to celebrate their time together, and to share in their hopes for the future.

One year ago, I chose this occasion to speak directly to the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and to offer a new chapter of engagement on the basis of mutual interests and mutual respect. I did so with no illusions. For three decades, the United States and Iran have been alienated from one another. Iran’s leaders have sought their own legitimacy through hostility to America. And we continue to have serious differences on many issues.

I said last year that the choice for a better future was in the hands of Iran’s leaders. That remains true today. Together with the international community, the United States acknowledges your right to peaceful nuclear energy; we insist only that you adhere to the same responsibilities that apply to other nations. We are familiar with your grievances from the past—we have our own grievances as well, but we are prepared to move forward. We know what you’re against; now tell us what you’re for.

For reasons known only to them, the leaders of Iran have shown themselves unable to answer that question. You have refused good faith proposals from the international community. They have turned their backs on a pathway that would bring more opportunity to all Iranians and allow a great civilization to take its rightful place in the community of nations. Faced with an extended hand, Iran’s leaders have shown only a clenched fist.

Last June, the world watched with admiration, as Iranians sought to exercise their universal right to be heard. But, tragically, the aspirations of the Iranian people were also met with a clenched fist, as people marching silently were beaten with batons, political prisoners were rounded up and abused, absurd and false accusations were leveled against the United States and the West, and people everywhere were horrified by the video of a young woman killed in the street.

The United States does not meddle in Iran’s internal affairs. Our commitment—our responsibility—is to stand up for those rights that should be universal to all human beings. That includes the right to speak freely, to assemble without fear, the right to the equal administration of justice, and to express your views without facing retribution against you or your families.

I want the Iranian people to know what my country stands for. The United States believes in the dignity of every human being, and an international order that bends the arc of history in the direction of justice: a future where Iranians can exercise their rights, to participate fully in the global economy, and enrich the world through educational and cultural exchanges beyond Iran’s borders. That is the future that we seek. That is what America is for.

That is why, even as we continue to have differences with the Iranian government, we will sustain our commitment to a more hopeful future for the Iranian people. For instance by increasing opportunities for educational exchanges so that Iranian students can come to our colleges and universities, and to our efforts to ensure that Iranians can have access to the software and Internet technology that will enable them to communicate with each other and with the world without fear of censorship.

Finally, let me be clear: we are working with the international community to hold the Iranian government accountable because they refuse to live up to their international obligations. But our offer of comprehensive diplomatic contacts and dialogue stands. Indeed, over the course of the last year, it is the Iranian government that has chosen to isolate itself and to choose a self-defeating focus on the past over a commitment to build a better future.

Last year, I quoted the words of the poet Saadi, who said: “The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence.” I still believe that. I believe it with every fiber of my being. And even as we have differences, the Iranian government continues to have the choice to pursue a better future, and to meet its international responsibilities, while respecting the dignity and fundamental human rights of its own people.

Thank you, and Eid-eh Shoma Mobarak.
Remarks by President Barack Obama Marking Nowruz (March 20, 2011)
Source: The White House

Today, I want to extend my best wishes to all who are celebrating Nowruz in the United States and around the world.

Each year of my presidency, I have marked this holiday by speaking directly to the people of Iran. That is what I would like to do once more.

This is a holiday for the Iranian people to spend time with friends and family, to reflect on the extraordinary blessings that you enjoy, and to look forward to the promise of a new day. After all, this is a season of hope and renewal. And today we know that this is also a season of promise across the Middle East and North Africa, even as there are also enormous challenges.

I believe that there are certain values that are universal: the freedom of peaceful assembly and association, the ability to speak your mind and choose your leaders. And what we are seeing across the region is the insistence on governments that are accountable to the people.

But we also know that these movements for change are not unique to these last few months. The same forces of hope that swept across Tahrir Square were seen in Azadi Square in June of 2009. And just as the people of the region have insisted that they have a choice in how they are governed, so do the governments of the region have a choice in their response.

So far, the Iranian government has responded by demonstrating that it cares far more about preserving its own power than respecting the rights of the Iranian people.

For nearly two years there has been a campaign of intimidation and abuse. Young and old, men and women, rich and poor—the Iranian people have been persecuted. Hundreds of prisoners of conscience are in jail. The innocent have gone missing. Journalists have been silenced. Women tortured. Children sentenced to death.

The world has watched these unjust actions with alarm. We have seen Nasrin Sotoudeh jailed for defending human rights; Jaffar Panahi imprisoned and unable to make his films; Abdolreza Tajik thrown in jail for being a journalist; the Bahai community and Sufi Muslims punished for their faith; Mohammad Valian, a young student, sentenced to death for throwing three stones.

These choices do not demonstrate strength, they show fear. For it is telling when a government is so afraid of its own citizens that it won’t even allow them the freedom to access information or to communicate with each other. But the future of Iran will not be shaped by fear. The future of Iran belongs to the young people, the youth who will determine their own destiny.

Over 60 percent of the Iranian people were born after 1979. You are not bound by the chains of the past—the distracting hatred of America that will create no jobs or opportunity, the rigid and unaccountable government, the refusal to let the Iranian people realize their full potential for fear of undermining the authority of the state.

Instead, you—the young people of Iran—carry within you both the ancient greatness of Persian civilization and the power to forge a country that is responsive to your aspirations. Your talent, your hopes, and your choices will shape the future of Iran and help light the world. And though times may seem dark, I want you to know that I am with you.

On this day, a celebration that serves as a bridge from the past to the future, I would like to close with a quote from the poet Simin Behbahani, a woman who has been banned from travelling beyond Iran even though her words have moved the world: “Old, I may be, but, given the chance, I will learn. I will begin a second youth alongside my progeny. I will recite the Hadith of love of country with such fervor as to make each word bear life.”

Let this be a season of second youth for all Iranians, a time in which a new season bears new life once more.

Thank you, and Eid-eh Shoma Mobarak.
Remarks by President Barack Obama Marking Nowruz (March 20, 2012)
Source: The White House

Today, Michelle and I extend our best wishes to all those who are celebrating Nowruz around the world. In communities and homes from America to southwest Asia, families and friends are coming together to celebrate the hope that comes with renewal.

To the people of Iran, this holiday comes at a time of continued tension between our two countries, but as people gather with their families, do good deeds, and welcome a new season, we are also reminded of the common humanity that we share.

There is no reason for the United States and Iran to be divided from one another. Here in the United States, Iranian-Americans prosper and contribute greatly to our culture. This year, an Iranian production—“A Separation”—won America’s highest honor for a foreign film. Our navies have confronted the danger of piracy, with U.S. sailors even rescuing Iranian citizens who had been taken hostage. And from Facebook to Twitter, from cell phones to the Internet, our people use the same tools to talk to one another and to enrich our lives.

Yet, increasingly, the Iranian people are denied the basic freedom to access the information that they want. Instead, the Iranian government jams satellite signals to shut down television and radio broadcasts. It censors the Internet to control what the Iranian people can see and say. The regime monitors computers and cell phones for the sole purpose of protecting its own power. And in recent weeks Internet restrictions have become so severe that Iranians cannot communicate freely with their loved ones within Iran or beyond its borders. Technologies that should empower citizens are being used to repress them.

Because of the actions of the Iranian regime, an electronic curtain has fallen around Iran—a barrier that stops the free flow of information and ideas into the country and denies the rest of the world the benefit of interacting with the Iranian people, who have so much to offer.

I want the Iranian people to know that America seeks a dialogue to hear your views and understand your aspirations. That’s why we set up a Virtual Embassy, so you can see for yourselves what the United States is saying and doing. We’re using Farsi on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus. And even as we’ve imposed sanctions on the Iranian government, today my administration is issuing new guidelines to make it easier for American businesses to provide software and services into Iran that will make it easier for the Iranian people to use the Internet.

The United States will continue to draw attention to the electronic curtain that is cutting the Iranian people off from the world. And we hope that others will join us in advancing a basic freedom for the Iranian people: the freedom to connect with one another and with their fellow human beings.

Over the last year, we have learned once more that suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. The Iranian people are the heirs to a great and ancient civilization. Like people everywhere, they have the universal right to think and speak for themselves. The Iranian government has a responsibility to respect these rights, just as it has a responsibility to meet its obligations with regard to its nuclear program. Let me say again that if the Iranian government pursues a responsible path, it will be welcomed once more among the community of nations, and the Iranian people will have greater opportunities to prosper.

So in this season of new beginnings, the people of Iran should know that the United States of America seeks a future of deeper connections between our people—a time when the electronic curtain that divides us is lifted and your voices are heard; a season in which mistrust and fear are overcome by mutual understanding and our common hopes as human beings.

Thank you, and Eid-eh Shoma Mobarak.
Statement by President Barack Obama on Nowruz (March 18, 2013)
Source: The White House

Dorood. As you and your families come together to celebrate Nowruz, I want to extend my best wishes on this new spring and New Year. Around the world, and here in the United States, you are gathering at the Nowruz table to give thanks for loved ones, reflect on your blessings, and welcome all the possibilities of a new season.

As I have every year as President, I want to take this opportunity to speak directly to the people and leaders of Iran. Since taking office, I have offered the Iranian government an opportunity: if it meets its international obligations, then there could be a new relationship between our two countries, and Iran could begin to return to its rightful place among the community of nations.

I have had no illusions about the difficulty of overcoming decades of mistrust. It will take a serious and sustained effort to resolve the many differences between Iran and the United States. This includes the world’s serious and growing concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, which threatens peace and security in the region and beyond.

Iran’s leaders say that their nuclear program is for medical research and electricity. To date, however, they have been unable to convince the international community that their nuclear activities are solely for peaceful purposes. That’s why the world is united in its resolve to address this issue and why Iran is now so isolated. The people of Iran have paid a high and unnecessary price because of your leaders’ unwillingness to address this issue.

As I’ve said all along, the United States prefers to resolve this matter peacefully, diplomatically. Indeed, if, as Iran’s leaders say, their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, then there is a basis for a practical solution. It’s a solution that would give Iran access to peaceful nuclear energy while resolving once and for all the serious questions that the world has about the true nature of the Iranian nuclear program.

The United States, alongside the rest of the international community, is ready to reach such a solution. Now is the time for the Iranian government to take immediate and meaningful steps to reduce tensions and work toward an enduring, long-term settlement of the nuclear issue.

Finding a solution will be no easy task. But if we can, the Iranian people will begin to see the benefits of greater trade and ties with other nations, including the United States, whereas if the Iranian government continues down its current path, it will only further isolate Iran. This is the choice now before Iran’s leaders.

I hope they choose a better path, for the sake of the Iranian people and for the sake of the world, because there’s no good reason for Iranians to be denied the opportunities enjoyed by people in other countries, just as Iranians deserve the same freedoms and rights as people everywhere.

Iran’s isolation isn’t good for the world either. Just as your forbearers enriched the arts and sciences throughout history, all nations would benefit from the talents and creativity of the Iranian people, especially your young people. Every day that you are cut off from us is a day we’re not working together, building together, innovating together, and building a future of peace and prosperity that is at the heart of this holiday.

As you gather with family and friends this Nowruz, many of you will turn to the poet Hafez who wrote: “Plant the tree of friendship that bears the fruit of fulfillment; uproot the sapling of enmity that bears endless suffering.”

As a new spring begins, I remain hopeful that our two countries can move beyond tension, and I will continue to work toward a new day between our nations that bears the fruit of friendship and peace.

Thank you, and Eid-eh Shoma Mobarak.
Speech by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Imam Reza Shrine, Mashhad, Iran (March 21, 2013)
Source: The Center for Preserving and Publishing the Works of Grand Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei

In the Name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.

All praise is due to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds, and peace and greetings be upon our Master and Prophet and the love of our hearts, Ab-al-Qassem al-Mustafa Muhammad, upon his immaculate, pure, chosen, and infallible household, especially the one remaining with Allah on earth. Greetings be upon Seddiqah at-Tahirah Fatima, the daughter of the Messenger of Allah. Allah’s greetings be upon her, her father, her husband and her children.

I extend my greetings and congratulations to all the dear brothers and sisters who have attended this warm and enthusiastic meeting, and from the depth of my heart I am thankful to Allah the Exalted who gave me one more opportunity to be present at the holy shrine of Hazrat Abul-Hassan ar-Ridha, many greetings be upon him, on another Nowruz, and meet with you dear people of Mashhad and the esteemed pilgrims who have come here from different parts of the country.

I am thankful to Allah the Exalted who gave me this opportunity to speak about important current issues of the country. I ask Allah the Exalted to guide our hearts and tongues to accommodate and say whatever that satisfies Him. And this is a great blessing that every year on Nowruz I find the opportunity to see the joys and beauties that are inherent to Nowruz, and at the same time evaluate current issues and conditions of the country among you people, take a look at our past and future and have brief evaluation of our large-scale national conditions.

It is necessary for us to evaluate ourselves in the case of our personal matters. As the narration says, “Evaluate yourselves before you are evaluated.” We should evaluate our work and actions. Similarly, it is important and valuable to carry out an evaluation on a national level. We should evaluate ourselves. We should review everything that has happened to us and try to learn lessons for the future.

The dear brothers and sisters should pay attention to the fact that we people of Iran are not the only ones who try to study, track and evaluate our issues. There are other people who study our work, and they comment on our issues and actions. There are certain nations that are making use of our experiences. There are also certain other nations that are studying the conditions of the Iranian nation—they become happy whenever we make advances and achievements. If we achieve a victory, they feel victorious, and if we fail, they feel that they have failed as well.

There are other people in the world who carefully study everything that we do—these people become happy whenever we make mistakes and they feel disappointed whenever we succeed. They are the ill-wishers of the Iranian nation. They, too, are carefully studying whatever we do. The majority of them are the same people who used to have full control over every affair of our country for many years. The revolution came and put an end to their domination. For this reason, they are opposed to the revolution. They are opposed to revolutionary people. They are opposed to our revolutionary government. They are opposed to our revolutionary system. Therefore, we are being watched carefully by a large number of people in the world. They are constantly watching and evaluating our work.

Therefore, we should be realistic in our evaluation of our performance in the past and the plans we have for the future. Our evaluation should be accurate. Some people in our country only see the weaknesses whenever they look at the conditions of the country. They only see the high prices. They only see the decrease in production in certain sectors. They only see the enemies’ pressure. This outlook is flawed; I have a different outlook. When I look at the conditions of our country and our nation, I see a vast arena that is full of challenges, and the Iranian nation has been proud and victorious in this arena despite the will of the enemies.

There are certain weaknesses and problems. There have been certain bitter events among the things that have happened in our country. Certain materialistic powers did everything in their power to cripple the Iranian nation. And they announced this. The incompetent lady who was responsible for America’s foreign policy boldly announced that they wanted to impose certain sanctions on the Islamic Republic in order to cripple Iran. They announced this openly. Later on, I will explain what measures they adopted, what happened, and what the result of their actions was. On the one hand, there are the enemies who are making efforts in this vast arena of confrontation between the Iranian nation and its enemies and on the other hand, there are the great achievements which show the capacity, power, and intelligence of our great nation.

This vast arena is like the arena of competition between powerful athletes, which involves efforts and exhaustion, but a true champion achieves victory in such arenas and makes everybody praise him. In this great arena that lies in front of our eyes, the champion is the Iranian nation. Anybody who studies this arena carefully and appropriately will praise the Iranian nation, just as we hear perceptive people throughout the world praising our nation today. Among the enemies and ill-wishers of the Iranian nation, there are certain political and academic elites and certain experienced individuals who are watching the conditions and are praising the Iranian nation. This is an arena that lies in front of our eyes. Therefore, it is wrong to only focus on the weaknesses. It is necessary to see what results are produced by the efforts that are made throughout the country. From this perspective, we should praise Iran and faithful Iranians.

As I said, certain people become sad when the Iranian nation makes advances. Who are these people? I will speak about this issue later on. The enemies who do not want to see the Iranian nation making comprehensive progress are pursuing two main goals. One of their goals is to create as many obstacles in the way of our nation as they can in order to prevent the Iranian nation from achieving progress and development. They try to achieve this goal through sanctions, threats, keeping our managers busy with secondary issues and diverting the attention of the great Iranian nation and outstanding personalities of the country to issues that are not on the list of our priorities.

The second goal is to deny our advances in their propaganda campaigns. Today there is a massive propaganda network in the world with thousands of different types of media outlets whose goal is to prove that there are no advances in Iran, to deny the victories that the Iranian has achieved, to magnify the existing weaknesses and attract everybody’s attention to them, and to hide the strengths that exist in different parts of the country and are visible to just and impartial people.

In his official addresses, the American president speaks about Iran’s economic problems as if he is speaking about his victories. He proudly says that, for example, the value of Iran’s currency has declined and that there are such and such economic problems in our country. Of course, he has not mentioned the strengths that our nation enjoys, the positive and constructive efforts that are being made in our country and the great victories that our nation has achieved. And he will never mention such things. We have been faced with this challenge for thirty years and I will present a brief evaluation of the past thirty years later on in my speech. However, the challenges that the Iranian nation has been faced with and the enemies who are trying their best—in words and in action—to prevent Islamic Iran’s remarkable growth from becoming visible, are several times more than they used to be.

In this regard, the year 1391 [2012 in Gregorian calendar], which has come to an end, was one of the busiest years for our enemies. They said that they were determined to cripple the Iranian nation through sanctions. If the Islamic Republic stands firm, remains vibrant, and continues making progress, they will lose credibility in the world. For this reason, they do their best to stop us, and if things get out of hand, they at least try to present a different story in their propaganda campaigns. They are pursuing these two goals more seriously than in the past. They are trying to create obstacles in our way—through pressure, threats, sanctions and other such things—and they are also launching propaganda campaigns to discount our strengths and to magnify our weaknesses.

As I said, we have certain enemies. Who are these enemies? Where is the main den of designing machinations against the Iranian nation? It is not difficult to answer this question. It is thirty-four years that, whenever the word “enemy” is mentioned, the Iranian nation immediately thinks of the American government. It would be good if American officials paid attention to this point and tried to understand that over the past thirty-four years, the Iranian people have witnessed things and gone through stages that, whenever the word “enemy” is mentioned, they immediately think of America. This is a very important issue for a government that wants to have pride in the world. This is an issue that deserves careful attention. They should focus on this issue. America is the center of enmity and designing plots against the Iranian nation.

Of course, there are certain other enemies, but we do not consider them among the first row of our enemies. For example, there is the Zionist enemy, but the Zionist regime is too small to be considered among the first row of the Iranian nation’s enemies. Sometimes leaders of the Zionist regime threaten us. They threaten us with a military invasion, but I believe even they themselves know—and if they do not, they should know—that if they make a wrong move, the Islamic Republic will raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground. The evil English government is also hostile towards the Iranian nation. The English government is among the old enemies of the Iranian nation, but in this arena it plays a complementary role as the follower of America. The English government is not independent, so one cannot consider them a separate enemy. It is a follower of America.

There are certain other governments that are hostile towards Iran. I would like to take this opportunity to point out that officials of the French government have been openly hostile towards the Iranian nation over the past few years and this is not a clever move by French government officials. A wise human being, particularly a wise politician, should never have the motivation to turn a neutral country into an enemy. We have never had problems with France and the French government, neither in the past nor in the present era. However, since the time of Sarkozy, the French government has adopted a policy of opposing the Iranian nation and, unfortunately, the current French government is pursuing the same policy. In our opinion, this is a wrong move. It is ill-advised and unwise.

The Americans speak about “the global community” in their statements. What they call “the global community” is a few countries, whose main leader is America, followed by the Zionists, the English government, and certain other small governments. The global community is not at all determined to oppose Iran, Iranians and Islamic Iran.

Now that we are supposed to have an evaluation of the year 1391, I should mention that the Americans started their new plans from the beginning of the year 1391. They announced that they were our friends. Sometimes they sent letters, messages and other such things and told us they were our friends and other times they announced in the media that they were friends of the Iranian people, but despite these false claims, in practice they tried to be harsh towards Iran and the Iranian nation. They imposed harsh sanctions from the beginning of the year 1391-—sanctions on oil and sanctions on banking and monetary transactions between the Islamic Republic and other countries. They did many other things in this regard.

It is laughable that the Americans show hostility towards us and expect us not to realize that they are our enemies. They show malice and opposition, yet they expect the Iranian nation not to realize that they are hostile. This policy was initiated towards the end of [President] Bush’s last term and, unfortunately, American officials are pursuing the same policy today, the same policy of extending an iron fist covered with a velvet glove. A few years ago in my speech on the first day of Farvardin, I said here at Ali ibn Musa ar-Ridha’s (a.s.) shrine that you [Americans] should be careful, that your proclaimed affection and friendship should not mean that you are wearing a velvet glove over an iron fist, pretending that you are our friends while being hostile in your hearts.

The Americans sent special agents to prevent Iran from selling oil and transferring the money to the country. America chose certain outstanding and experienced agents to travel to different countries and even speak to heads of certain companies in order to encourage them to stop oil-related transactions with the Islamic Republic. These agents were tasked with punishing those who had financial relationships or oil-related transactions with the Islamic Republic. They started this work with full intensity from the beginning of the year 1391, particularly from Mordad. They expected that Iran would stop its growing scientific activities and give in to America’s bullying as a result of those well-planned moves, which were being pursued very seriously.

Of course, as I said a few months ago, the Americans expressed joy and said that I have confessed to the effect of the sanctions. Yes, the sanctions have not been inconsequential. If they are happy about this, let them be happy. After all, the sanctions have had an effect, which is because of an essential flaw that we are suffering from. The flaw that our economy is suffering from is that it is dependent on oil. We need to distance our economy from oil. Our governments should include this among their basic plans. Seventeen, eighteen years ago, I told the government of that time and its officials that they should act in a way that we could shut down our oil wells whenever we wanted to. The so-called “technocrats” smiled in disbelief, as if to say: “Is that even possible?” Yes, it is possible. It is necessary to follow up the issue, take action and make plans. When economic plans of a country are built on a particular base, the enemies of that country will target that base. Yes, the sanctions have had an effect, but not the effect that the enemies wanted. I will explain this issue later on. This is all I wanted to say about the issue of economy.

On the political front, throughout the year 1391 they tried to “isolate” Islamic Iran from the world. That is to say, they tried to shake the faith of other governments in their relations with Iran and in the Islamic Republic. They tried to prevent the Islamic Republic from promoting and implementing its policies in the region, in the world and in the country. They failed completely.

In the case of international issues, they tried to undermine the importance of the Non-Aligned Movement summit, which was being held in Tehran. They tried to discourage people from taking part in the summit or from having an active presence. What happened was the exact opposite of what they wanted. Two-thirds of the nations of the world are members of the Non-Aligned Movement. Heads of other countries took part in the Tehran summit. High-ranking government officials took part in the summit. Everybody felt that the Iranian nation was praiseworthy. They said this in their meetings with us and in the interviews they gave. They also said the same thing when they returned to their home countries. What happened was the exact opposite of what the enemies of the Iranian nation wanted. They failed to do what they wanted.

In the case of domestic policies, the purpose of their sanctions was to make the Iranian nation uncertain about their path, to distance the Iranian nation from the Islamic Republic, and to make the people disappointed. On the 22nd of Bahman, the people of Iran gave them a powerful punch in the mouth with their massive presence, with their enthusiasm and with the affection that they expressed for Islam, the Islamic Revolution and the Islamic Republic. In the area relating to security, they tried to undermine our national security and the details have been explained to the people by our government officials in their interviews and speeches. They failed in that area as well. On the political front, they once again witnessed the power and influence of the Islamic Republic in the region. In the case of the regional issues, they even admitted that no major problem will be solved in the region in the absence of Iran and its vote.

In the case of the Zionist regime’s invasion of Gaza, the powerful presence of the Islamic Republic behind the scenes caused them to admit that they had been defeated by Palestinian combatants. We did not announce this—it was they themselves who announced and insisted that if it had not been for the presence of the Islamic Republic and its show of power, Palestinian combatants could not have even put up a resistance against Israel, let alone bring Israel to its knees. In the eight-day war, the Palestinians managed to bring Israel to its knees, and this was the first time in the history of the fake and usurping Zionist regime.

As I said, their efforts were not completely inconsequential. Yes, their efforts were not inconsequential, but as we expected, there were great positive effects as well. The sanctions caused the massive domestic capacities of the Iranian nation to become activated. The sanctions motivated us to start doing great things. Our youth made certain achievements that would have been impossible in the absence of the sanctions. In the area of infrastructure, in terms of the achievements that were made last year, the year 1391 stands out among the previous years. A massive amount of work was done in the area of infrastructure, in the area of building roads, in the area of energy, in the area of discovering new oil reserves, in the area of discovering new sources of uranium, in the area of building and developing power plants and refineries, and in tens of other great industrial areas. All of these measures will help develop the economic infrastructure of the country in the future. If we had built this infrastructure earlier, the sanctions that were imposed by the enemies would have failed to produce the few negative effects that they did. We adopted these measures and we managed to move forward in the positive direction despite the enmities and the sanctions. Great achievements were made.

One example is the great scientific advances that we made in the year 1391. In the area of science and technology, certain things were done which were remarkable and a genuine source of joy for those who have faith in the future prospects of the country. That is to say, the year in which they were determined to be harsh towards the Iranian nation, our honorable youth and scientists launched the Nahid satellite into space. They launched the Pishgam explorer, which was carrying a living creature. They built an advanced fighter jet. The importance of these achievements is so much that it would not be excessive if a nation expressed joy, composed songs, and arranged festivals to celebrate each of these achievements.

When this living creature was sent into space and was returned safely, international scientists and observers were so surprised that they first denied it. Then, when they realized that they had no choice but to accept the truth, and after witnessing reality and the evidence, they were forced to acknowledge it.

In the area of health and biomedical engineering, great achievements were made, achievements which are related to the health of the people. We achieved the first rank in the region in the area of biotechnology. Outstanding technical achievements were made in this area, which led to the production of different kinds of pharmaceuticals. All these achievements were made in a year in which the enemies were determined to be harsh towards the Iranian nation in order to deprive it from a good life and from all the products of human talent.

In the same year, we achieved the first rank in the region in area of nanotechnology, which is a revolution in the area of technology and industry. In the same year, we were the first in the region in terms of production of knowledge in the area of several important scientific fields. In terms of production of knowledge, in terms of publishing scholarly articles, in terms of the rate of scientific progress, and in terms of our country’s contribution to global production of knowledge, we made progress in the year 1391. In terms of achievements in science and technology competitions, our students’ accomplishments were 31 percent more than the previous year. In the year 1391, the number of our university students increased so much that we had twenty-five times more students than the early years after the revolution. The number of students who are studying in our universities is twenty-five times more than the early years of the revolution. These are examples of the great achievements that the Iranian nation has made. In the areas relating to water, in the areas relating to the natural environment, in the area of stem cell research, in the area of alternative energy, in the area of medicinal herbs and in the area of nuclear energy, our country managed to accomplish great achievements. All of these achievements were made in a year in which the enemies of the Iranian nation had focused all their efforts on stopping our nation.

The events that happened in the year 1391 contain a big lesson for us. The lesson is that a vibrant nation will never be brought to its knees as a result of the enemies’ threats, pressure and harsh measures. It became clear to us and to all those who follow up the issues of Iran that what is important for a nation is relying on its own capacities, trusting Allah the Exalted, having faith in itself, and not relying on its enemies. This is what can help a nation move forward.

The year 1391 was like a war game for us. It was an occasion for practice. Much to the dismay of the enemies, we, the people of Iran, were not crippled and we also managed to show outstanding performance in this war game. Of course, we identified our weaknesses as well. After all, this is the purpose of war games. In a military exercise, military units identify both their weaknesses and their strengths, and they try to eliminate their weaknesses. We identified our weaknesses. Our economic weaknesses, which led to harsh conditions for certain groups of people, include dependence on oil, disregarding large-scale economic policies of the country, and adopting policies and decisions on a day-to-day basis. Government officials of the country—the incumbent officials and officials who will be elected through this year’s presidential elections—should pay attention to this point. Our country should have clear and well-planned large-scale economic policies, policies that will not change as a result of different events.

Another great lesson that we learned was that our country enjoys firm foundations. When the foundations of a country become firm, the effect of the enemies’ hostile actions is minimized. In this great country which enjoys firm foundations, if government officials accept their responsibility and adopt wise measures, if managers stay together and cooperate—which is my constant advice to our government officials and managers—if our managers act in a wise and intelligent way, then we can turn every threat into an opportunity, just as we did in the year 1391 and managed to move forward. What our government officials and dear people achieved in the year 1391 will hopefully reveal its effects in the life of the people in the future.

Of course, the economy of the country is an important issue and I have constantly stressed its importance over the past few years, but it is not the only issue. Our national security is important too. Public health is important too. Our scientific advances are important too and they are the base and foundation of our work in the country. If our country makes progress in science, all the other things will become easy. Independence and national dignity are important too. Avoidance of becoming a vassal state is important as well. Regional influence and power of a nation is the support of its independence and national security, and it is important. We have made progress in all these areas. We have made progress in the area of security, in the area of health, in the area of gaining international influence, and in the area of controlling different events that happen in the country and in the region.

Through its advances, our nation proved that refusing to live under the hegemony of America does not mean backwardness. This is an important point. Powerful people of the world and colonialists, at a time when there was direct colonialism, tried to prove to nations of the world that, if they wanted to have a good life and make progress, they had to live under their hegemony. And today America is doing the same thing. The Iranian nation proved that this is a lie. Our nation proved that being independent of America and other superpowers not only will not cause backwardness, but it will also bring about progress. You can compare the thirty years that the Islamic Republic has been in power with the thirty years that certain countries were living under the hegemony of America. They pinned their hopes on two, three billion dollars that they were receiving from America in the form of financial aid and they surrendered to America. Notice where they are and where we are. There were certain countries that attached themselves to America’s tail and followed it. Thirty years of experience lie in front of our eyes. Notice what has happened in the thirty years that the Islamic Republic has been in power. Notice where the Islamic Republic and the Iranian nation used to be and where they are now. And compare this with the conditions of those countries. Anybody who studies this issue will realize that being independent of superpowers is an opportunity for a nation, not a threat. And, thankfully, the Iranian nation has achieved this opportunity by relying on its power, its courage and its intelligence.

There are two essential issues that I should discuss in this meeting. These two issues are related to the future. One issue is that we should always move ahead of our enemies as far as planning is concerned. Our country should not adopt a passive stance in the face of the enemies’ activities. It is necessary to try to predict the enemy’s plans and move a few steps ahead of him. In certain cases, we acted like this and we witnessed the resulting success. One example is the issue of producing 20 percent enriched fuel for the research reactor in Tehran, which produces the important radiopharmaceuticals that our country needs. This small power plant required 20 percent enriched fuel.

At that time, we could not produce 20 percent enriched uranium and we had to import it from abroad. Our enemies started to think that they should seize the opportunity. They decided to use this national need to force the Islamic Republic to give in to their imposition and hegemony. They tried to use this need to impose their demands on us. Before the conditions became critical, our youth and scientists managed to produce 20 percent enriched fuel and they turned it into fuel rods that were needed at the power plant. Our opponents could not guess that we would be able to do what we did. However, our government officials identified this need in time and started working. Iranian capacities blossomed and revealed themselves and we managed to produce what we needed. While they expected that the Islamic Republic would beg them for 20 percent enriched fuel, the Islamic Republic announced that it had produced 20 percent enriched uranium inside the country and that it did not need the enemy’s.

If our scientists and youth had not done what they did, today we would have to go to those who are not our friends and ask them for either 20 percent enriched uranium or radiopharmaceuticals. We would have to beg them for what we needed and pay a lot of money. Our government officials identified this need in time and they did what they had to do. For this reason, we achieved a victory. This should be the general plan in the case of all our national issues and needs.

Administrations, industrialists, farmers, capitalists, entrepreneurs, researchers, and designers of scientific and industrial projects should all carry out this great responsibility, which is a rational and moral responsibility. That is to say, they should prepare themselves and move one step ahead of the enemy’s plans. Economic managers, university professors, scientific associations, science and technology parks—all of them should focus their efforts on proactive measures in scientific work. If they want to write scholarly articles, they should adopt this orientation. If they want to do research, they should adopt this orientation. If they want to engage in industrial, technical or scientific work, they should adopt this orientation. Managers of governmental organizations, managers of our universities, managers of scientific projects, and ordinary citizens should all adopt this orientation.

All of us have a responsibility to make efforts to keep our country impervious and resistant to the enemies. This is one of the requirements of the idea of “economy of resistance” which I put forward. In an economy of resistance, one fundamental pillar is resistance of the economy. The economy must be resistant. It must be able to withstand the enemies’ machinations. This is the first point that I wanted to discuss in this meeting.

The second point is that the Americans send messages to us through different channels, asking us to negotiate with them regarding the nuclear issue. They both send messages to us and discuss the proposal in their global propaganda. High- and middle-ranking officials of America repeatedly say that alongside the P5+1 talks regarding the nuclear issue, America and the Islamic Republic should hold one-on-one negotiations over the issue.

I am not optimistic about such negotiations. Why? Because our past experiences show that in the logic of the American gentlemen, negotiation does not mean sitting down together to try to reach a rational solution. This is not what they mean by negotiation. What they mean is that we should sit down together and talk so that Iran accepts their views. The goal has been announced in advance: Iran must accept their view. For this reason, we have always announced that this is not negotiation. This is imposition and Iran will not give in to imposition. I am not optimistic about these statements, but I am not opposed either. In this regard, there are a few things that I should clarify.

The first point is that the Americans constantly send messages, sometimes in writing, that they are not after regime change in Iran. This is what they are telling us. The answer is that we are not concerned about whether or not you have intentions of overthrowing the Islamic Republic although you constantly insist that you do not have such intentions. Even the day when you had intentions of overthrowing the Islamic Republic and you announced this openly, you could not do anything, and you will not be able to do anything in the future either.

The second point is that the Americans constantly send us messages, telling us that they are sincere in their offers of rational negotiation. They claim that they sincerely want to have rational negotiations with Iran. That is to say, they claim that they do not want imposition. In response, I would say, we have told you many times that we are not after nuclear weapons and you say that you do not believe us. Why would we believe your statements then? When you are not prepared to accept a rational and sincere statement, why would we accept your statements which have been disproved many times? Our interpretation is that offers of negotiation are an American tactic to mislead public opinion in the world and in our country. You should prove that this is not the case. Can you prove this? Go ahead and prove it if you can.

I would like to take this opportunity to say that one of their propaganda techniques is that they sometimes start rumors that certain people have negotiated with the Americans on behalf of the Leader. This is another propaganda tactic and a downright lie. So far, nobody has negotiated with them on behalf of the Leader. Over the years in a few cases, certain people in different administrations have negotiated with them over certain temporary issues and I was not opposed. However, this was done by different administrations, not the Leader. Of course, even those people had a responsibility to observe the Leader’s red lines, and today the same responsibility still exists and they should observe the red lines.

The third point is that on the basis of our experiences and careful analysis of the existing conditions, our interpretation is that the Americans do not want the nuclear negotiations to end. The Americans do not want the nuclear conflict to be resolved; otherwise, if they wanted these negotiations to reach a solution, the solution would be very close by and easy to reach. In the nuclear issue, Iran only wants the world to recognize its right to enrichment, which is Iran’s natural right. Government officials of the countries that are claiming to be after a solution should admit that the Iranian nation has a right to domestic nuclear enrichment for peaceful purposes. Is this too much to expect? This is what we have always demanded, and it is exactly what they do not want [us to have].

They say they are concerned that we might go after producing nuclear weapons. The ones who are saying this are no more than a few countries whose names I mentioned earlier, and they call themselves “the global community”. They say that the global community is concerned. No, the global community is not at all concerned. The majority of the countries in the world are on the Islamic Republic’s side and they support our demand because it is a legitimate demand.

If the Americans wanted to resolve the issue, this would be a very simple solution. They could recognize the Iranian nation’s right to enrichment and in order to address those concerns, they could enforce the regulations of the International Atomic Energy Agency. We were never opposed to the supervision and regulations of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Whenever we are close to a solution, the Americans cause a problem in order to prevent reaching a solution. My assumption and interpretation is that their goal is to keep the issue unresolved so that they can have a pretext for exerting pressure on us. And as they themselves said, the purpose of the pressure is to cripple the Iranian nation. Of course, much to the dismay of the enemy, the Iranian nation will not be crippled.

The fourth point regarding this issue is that if the Americans sincerely want to reach a solution, I will give them the solution. The solution is that the Americans should stop being hostile towards the Islamic Republic and the Iranian nation. Offers of negotiation are not a rational and reasonable solution. This is the right solution. They should stop being hostile if they want to put an end to the problems that exist between us—and they announce that they really want to resolve the problems that exist between Iran and America.

It is thirty-four years that different American administrations have designed various kinds of hostilities towards us based on a wrong understanding of Iran and the Iranians. Since the first year after the victory of the Islamic Revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, they have been hostile towards us. They have plotted to undermine our security. They have made hostile moves. They have acted against our territorial integrity. They have always supported our small and big enemies over the years. They have worked against our economy. They have used all the tools that were available to them against the Iranian nation. And thankfully, they have failed in all their efforts against us, and if they continue these enmities towards the Iranian nation, they will fail in the future as well. Therefore, I would like to give a piece of advice to American officials: if they are after a rational solution, the rational solution is that they should rectify their policies. They should rectify the way they act and they should stop being hostile towards the Iranian nation. This part of my speech is over.

I would like to briefly discuss another issue: the crucial issue of elections. In our country, elections are the manifestation of “political valor”. The responsibility that I mentioned lies on the shoulders of all Iranian people can be described as “economic valor”. Elections are the manifestation of political valor, the manifestation of the power of the Islamic Republic, the manifestation of the pride and credibility of the Islamic system. The credibility of the Islamic Republic depends on elections, the presence of the people at polling stations and their votes that elect managers of the country. Elections are the manifestation of our national willpower, the manifestation of Islamic democracy.

We proposed the idea of Islamic democracy as opposed to western liberal democracy, and the manifestation of Islamic democracy is the presence of the people in elections. Therefore, because of the importance that our elections enjoy, the enemies of the Iranian nation have always tried to take enthusiasm and excitement out of the elections. They have designed plots to prevent the people from going to the ballot boxes. They have plotted to discourage and disappoint the people. Over the years that we have held many elections, including parliamentary and presidential elections, our enemies have always tried to decrease voter turnout and make our elections less enthusiastic, and this is because of the significant role that elections play in the affairs of our country.

Now I would like to discuss a few points regarding the elections. Of course, the elections are more than two months away. Hopefully, there will be other opportunities to discuss the issues relating to the elections. For the time being, there are a few points that I would like to discuss.

The first point is that what is most important is massive presence of the people in the elections. Enthusiastic elections in the country and the presence of the people at the polling stations can neutralize the threats by the enemies. It can disappoint the enemy. It can ensure the security of the country. Our dear people in all parts of the country should know this. Their massive presence at the polling stations plays a role in the future of the country, in our national security, in our independence, in our national wealth, in our economy, and in all other important issues of the country. Therefore, the first point is that with Allah’s assistance, and with the determined efforts of the Iranian nation, there should be a massive voter turnout in the elections.

The second point is that all political orientations and currents that have faith in the Islamic Republic should take part in the elections. This is both a right and a responsibility that lies on the shoulders of everybody. Elections do not belong to a particular political orientation or a particular intellectual and political current. All those who believe in the Islamic Republic and in the independence of the country, all those who care about the future of the country, all those who care about our national interests should take part in the elections. Turning away from the elections is appropriate for those who are opposed to the Islamic Republic.

The third point is that it is the votes of the people that determine everything. What is important is your judgment and your vote. You should research, observe carefully, and consult those you trust so that you can identify and vote for the most qualified candidate. The Leader has only one vote. Just like the rest of our people, I have only one vote, and until the time I cast my vote into the ballot box, nobody will know what my vote is. The people at the polling station might decide to open the ballot box, identify my handwriting and find out who I have voted for. However, before I have cast my vote into the ballot box, nobody will know my vote. Nobody should say that the Leader supports such-and-such a candidate and not another. If such a claim is made, it is false.

Of course, unfortunately these days, different statements are commonly attributed to different people through the use of the new means of communication—short message services and other such things. A person might send thousands of text messages. I have reports that during the elections, several hundreds of millions of text messages might be sent and received every day. Take care not to be influenced by such things. Research, identify the most qualified candidate, and write the name on the ballot paper with the aim of fulfilling your obligation. Of course, every citizen or political activist may try to encourage others to vote for a particular candidate. Nothing is wrong with this. However, in this regard, nobody will hear anything from me. In the meantime, the people can speak to one another, give advice, try to change each other’s opinion, and help one another to identify the most qualified candidate. In any case, the criterion is the votes of the people.

The fourth point is that everybody should accept the rule of law, be it elections or anything else. The events of the year 1388 [2009 in Gregorian calendar]. which inflicted losses on the country, took place because certain people decided not to accept the law. They decided not to accept the votes of the people. For example, the people might vote against what I want, but I must accept their vote. Everybody must accept what the majority of the people vote for. Fortunately, the necessary legal mechanisms exist for eliminating problems, rectifying mistakes, and dispelling suspicions. It is necessary to use these legal channels. When what has happened goes against what we want, it is an irreversible mistake to call on the people to protest in the streets, and this was what happened in the year 1388. This was an experience for our nation, and our nation will always stand up against such events.

The last point is that everybody should know that the characteristics that are needed in the next president include the existing advantages [of previous presidents] minus the weaknesses. Everybody should pay attention to this point. Every incoming president should enjoy the advantages that his predecessors had, and should not suffer from the weaknesses that the previous presidents had. After all, every person has his own strengths and weaknesses. Presidents, too, have their own strengths and weakness. This is the case with all of us. All of us have our own weaknesses and strengths.

The strengths that the incumbent government and president enjoy should exist in the next president as well. The next president should develop these strengths and he should also distance himself from the weaknesses that exist, weaknesses that might be pointed out by you, me, or others. That is to say, the governments that come to power one after the other should help us move towards improvement and perfection, and gradually we should move towards choosing the best among us. The person who is elected should be committed to the revolution, to our values, to our national interests, to the Islamic Republic, to communal wisdom and to judicious action. This is how the country should be managed. Our country is a great country. Our nation is a great nation. There are many encouraging and discouraging issues. Problems exist on the path of any nation, including our nation. Those who prepare themselves to enter this arena should move forward with full power and confidence while relying on God.

Dear God, ordain what is in the interest of this country and this nation. Dear God, make the holy heart of the Imam of the Age, may our souls be sacrificed for his sake, satisfied with all of us. Dear God, make the immaculate soul of our magnanimous Imam (r.a.) and the pure souls of our martyrs satisfied and happy with us. Make what we said serve Your cause and accept it from us out of Your generosity.

Greetings be upon you and Allah’s mercy and blessings.

Iran’s Nuclear Program

1905: Constitutional Revolution begins amid struggle for independence from Russian and British control; the first parliament is formed in 1906 under the new constitution, which limits power of the Qajar monarchy.

Anglo-Russian Entente divides Persia into three spheres: British, Russian and neutral.

British geologists discover oil in the neutral sphere of Persia; Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company) is formed.

Cossack Brigade officer Reza Khan (1878–1944) overthrows the Qajar Dynasty and is crowned Shah of Persia.

Reza Shah asks foreign delegations to refer to the country as Iran, a name dating from ancient times, rather than Persia.

Concerned about Iran’s pro-German leanings in World War II, Britain and the Soviet Union occupy Iran and replace Reza Shah with his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1919–1980).

Mohammad Mossadegh (1882–1967) is elected prime minister; he nationalizes the British-controlled Iranian oil industry and curbs powers of shah.

Mossadegh is overthrown in a coup d’état backed by the Central Intelligence Agency and the British intelligence agency MI6.

Shah and President Dwight Eisenhower sign a civil nuclear cooperation agreement under the U.S. Atoms for Peace program; the Central Treaty Organization’s Institute of Nuclear Science moves headquarters from Baghdad to Tehran.

Tehran Nuclear Research Center (TNRC) is established at Tehran University.

Shah initiates the White Revolution, a modernization program for economic, social, and political reform; riots follow arrest of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902–1989) for anti-shah speech.

Khomeini begins fourteen years in exile in Najaf and Paris.

Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) begins operation at TNRC.

Iran signs the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) on the opening day for signatures; it is ratified by parliament in 1970.

Iran signs the Biological Weapons Convention; it is ratified by parliament in 1973.

Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) is established, and Esfahan Nuclear Technology Center is set up to develop nuclear technology; Iran signs a $1.2 billion deal with the France-based Eurodif consortium to enrich uranium on French soil and supply fuel to the TRR and future nuclear power facilities; Iran signs agreements with West German and French companies to build reactors in Bushehr and Bandar Abbas; Iran concludes NPT Safeguards Agreement, enabling the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to independently verify the accuracy of Iran’s declarations about its nuclear material and activities.

Shah states that Iran has “no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons but if small states began building them, Iran might have to reconsider its policy”; Secretary of State Henry Kissinger signs U.S.-Iran Nuclear Cooperation memorandum endorsing $6.4 billion deal for six to eight nuclear reactors.

At a New Year’s Eve state dinner in Tehran, President Jimmy Carter toasts shah as “island of stability in a turbulent corner of the world”; in January, seminary students in holy city of Qom demonstrate after an article in leading state newspaper Ettelaat ridicules Khomeini; police kill several protestors; ranking cleric declares shah’s regime “un-Islamic”; incident triggers year-long cycle of religious demonstrations; in September, police kill hundreds of demonstrators in Jaleh Square massacre in Tehran; in October, public sector strikes paralyze economy.

January 16, 1979:
Shah flees Iran; mass demonstrations demand resignation of government of Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar (1914–1991).

February 1, 1979:
Khomeini returns to Iran as leader of Iran’s revolution.

February 11, 1979:
Khomeini names Mehdi Bazargan (1907–1995) of Iran Freedom Movement as prime minister; Bakhtiar government collapses.

March 30, 1979:
Iranians abolish monarchy and approve Islamic republic in referendum.

November 4, 1979
Iranian protestors seize the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and hold fifty-two Americans as hostages for 444 days.

November 12, 1979:
U.S. Proclamation 4702 imposes an Iranian oil import ban.

November 14, 1979:
U.S. Executive Order 12170 freezes $12 billion in Iranian assets held in the United States.

  U.S. Executive Order 12205 prohibits U.S. commercial trade with Iran, with the exception of clothing donations, food, and medical supplies; U.S. Executive Order 12211 prohibits the import of Iranian goods or services and financial transactions with Iran; Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, with support from Western nations, launches an invasion of Iran, marking the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War.

U.S. and Iran sign the Algiers Accords, under which U.S. unfreezes Iranian assets, revokes previous executive orders, and commits not to intervene in Iran’s internal affairs, upon the release of U.S. hostages; AEOI announces discovery of four uranium deposits in Iran.

Iran establishes Hizbollah organization in Lebanon amid Israel’s invasion of Lebanon; group leads resistance to the ensuing eighteen-year Israeli occupation.

Iran asks IAEA to provide technical assistance with the production of uranium hexafluoride (UF6), a gas compound used for uranium enrichment.

Iraqi forces bomb the Bushehr site; China assists Iran in establishing a nuclear research center in Esfahan; State Department designates Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism; U.S. enforces sanctions on Iran including: restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance, a ban on defense exports and sales, limits on exports of dual-use items, and miscellaneous financial restrictions.

Revelations emerge in Iran-Contra Affair that the President Ronald Reagan administration secretly provided weapons to Iran in exchange for the release of Americans held hostage by pro-Iranian factions in Lebanon.

U.S. Executive Order 12613 prohibits the import of Iranian products and oil into the United States; Iran signs a $5.5 million deal with Argentina to supply a new TRR core.

Guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes shoots down Iran Air Flight 655 in the Strait of Hormuz, killing 290 passengers and crew; U.S. says that American forces mistakenly identified the civilian Airbus A300 as a hostile military aircraft, and provides restitution to the families of the victims; Iran accepts UN Resolution 598, calling for a cease-fire with Iraq, effectively ending the war; estimates of Iranians killed, including victims of Iraqi chemical weapon attacks, range from 180,000 to 300,000.

Khomeini dies; former President Ali Khamenei (1939–) becomes supreme leader; Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1934–) is elected president.

Iran signs a nuclear cooperation agreement with China.

Iran and Russia sign an agreement on the sale of heavy-water reactors to Iran; U.S. Iran-Iraq Arms Nonproliferation Act imposes sanctions on foreign entities that provide Iran technology that could be used in the development of WMDs.

Iran signs the Chemical Weapons Convention; it is ratified by parliament in 1997.

Iran signs $800 million deal with Russia to complete the Bushehr nuclear power plant; U.S. Executive Order 12957 prohibits transactions related to the development of Iran’s oil industry; U.S. Executive Order 12959 prohibits re-exportation of goods or technology to, and investments in, Iran.

U.S. Iran and Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA)—later known as Iran Sanctions Act (ISA)— imposes sanctions on foreign entities that invest in Iran’s energy sector.

Reformist cleric Mohammed Khatami (1943–) is elected president; U.S. Executive Order 13059 clarifies Executive Orders 12957 and 12959 confirming that virtually all trade and investment activities with Iran by U.S. persons, wherever located, are prohibited.

Khatami proposes a “dialogue among civilizations” in hopes of easing U.S.-Iranian tensions.

Iran and Saudi Arabia support a Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone in the Middle East.

Secretary of State Madeline Albright says Washington bears some responsibility for turbulent U.S.-Iranian relations, citing support for shah’s repressive regime, backing for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War, and role in the 1953 coup; U.S. lifts sanctions on non-oil products including carpets, pistachios, and caviar; U.S. Iran Nonproliferation Act sanctions foreign entities assisting Iran’s development of WMDs; reformists win a majority of seats in parliamentary elections.

Al-Qaeda attacks World Trade Center in New York and Pentagon in Washington, DC, killing 3,000; United States leads invasion of Afghanistan; President George W. Bush says aim is “to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime”; U.S. Executive Order 13224 blocks assets of entities or individuals supporting terrorism.

: Bush accuses Iran, Iraq, and North Korea of pursuing weapons of mass destruction and labels the regimes an “axis of evil”; Mujahedeen Khalq opposition group reveals that Iran is secretly building two nuclear sites: a uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, and a heavy-water nuclear plant in Arak.

February 2003:
Iran acknowledges Natanz and other facilities, and announces that it has extracted uranium from a newly discovered mine in Savand; Iran accepts modifications in NPT Subsidiary Arrangements, requiring Iran to notify IAEA of intentions to set up nuclear facilities; it is not ratified by parliament.

March 2003:
United States leads invasion of Iraq; Bush says aims are “to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people.”

May 2003:
Swiss Ambassador to Iran Tim Guldimann delivers an Iranian offer to the United States, said to be backed by Khamenei and Khatami, proposing negotiations on a broad range of issues including nuclear safeguards, economic cooperation, coordination in Iraq, support for an Arab plan for peace with Israel, and halting weapons supplies to Palestinian groups; Bush administration ignores the proposal.

September 2003:
Khatami says in a speech: “We don’t need atomic bombs, and based on our religious teaching, we will not pursue them. But at the same time, we want to be strong, and being strong means having knowledge and technology.”

October 2003:
Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi (1947–) is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for her efforts for democracy and human rights”; Iran begins negotiations over its nuclear program with Britain, France, and Germany (EU3); in the Sa’dabad Declaration, Khatami agrees to suspend all enrichment activities, allow snap inspections by the IAEA, and sign the Additional Protocol of the Safeguards Agreement.

November 2003:
Iran announces temporary suspension of its uranium enrichment program.

December 2003:
Iran signs the Additional Protocol; it is not ratified by parliament.

Iran acknowledges covert program to acquire nuclear technology; announces plan to build a heavy-water nuclear reactor; Iran reveals production of hexafluoride gas used to enrich uranium, ignoring the IAEA’s demand for suspension of all enrichment activities; Iran and EU3 sign Paris Agreement, under which EU3 and Iran will negotiate on guarantees that Iran’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes and on commitments on nuclear, technology, and economic cooperation.

February 2005:
Iranian Minister of Defense Ali Shamkhani says in an interview with Iranian newspaper Sharq that acquiring a nuclear weapon is not in Iran’s national interest; Iran and Russia sign an agreement for Russia to supply the Bushehr nuclear facility with fuel and Iran to return the fuel rods to ensure enriched uranium is not used for production of nuclear weapons.

June 2005:
U.S. Executive Order 13382 freezes assets of entities that support proliferators of WMDs; hardliner and former Tehran Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (1956–) is elected president.

August 2005:
Khamenei issues a religious ruling (fatwa) forbidding the “production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons”; at United Nations, Ahmadinejad calls denial of Iran’s nuclear rights “nuclear apartheid”; Bush threatens Iran with military force over its nuclear program, saying “all options are on the table.”

October 2005:
International controversy erupts over Ahmadinejad’s reported comment at a “World Without Zionism” conference in Tehran that Israel should be “wiped off the map.”

January 2006:
Iran announces that it has achieved the capacity to extract uranium from ore; Iran breaks IAEA seals at the Natanz facility.

February 2006:
IAEA refers Iran to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for noncompliance of the Safeguards Agreement after reporting inconclusive findings about Iran’s nuclear program.

April 2006:
IAEA report says that Iran produced 3.6 percent enriched uranium but found no sign that Iran enriched uranium for military purposes.

May 2006:
United States, Britain, and France draft a UN resolution that would force Iran to halt uranium enrichment activities, or face penalties and potential military action; China and Russia reject the resolution.

June 2006:
P5+1 negotiating group is formed, consisting of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (United States, Britain, France, Russia and China) and Germany; it offers Iran economic, political, and technological incentives if it addresses all IAEA concerns regarding its nuclear program.

July 2006:
UNSC Resolution 1696 demands that Iran halt uranium enrichment activities within a month.

August 2006:
Ahmadinejad inaugurates heavy-water nuclear plant in Arak; Iran rejects P5+1 proposals, citing condition that it suspend uranium enrichment.

September 2006:
U.S. Iran Freedom Support Act appropriates $10 million to aid groups opposed to the Iranian government.

December 2006:
UNSC Resolution 1737 is adopted after Iran fails to comply with Resolution 1696; It freezes assets of entities supporting Iran’s nuclear program, and bans export of nuclear-related materials and technology to Iran.

January 2007:
Iranian state media reports that nuclear scientist Ardeshir Hosseinpour died of asphyxiation due to a gas leak in his apartment.

March 2007:
UNSC Resolution 1747 expands the freeze on Iranian assets, bans arms sales to Iran, and asks global financial institutions not to enter commitments with the Iranian government.

April 2007:
Ahmadinejad announces that Iran has achieved the capacity to produce nuclear fuel on an industrial scale; Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani says Iran has injected gas into 3,000 centrifuges.

August 2007:
Iran and IAEA reach agreement for a work plan that specifies processes and a timeline to resolve outstanding issues regarding Iran’s Safeguards Agreement

November 2007:
IAEA report states that Iran has “provided sufficient access to individuals and responded in a timely manner to questions” regarding its nuclear program; IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei calls on Iran to suspend uranium enrichment activities and fully implement the Additional Protocol; Iran acknowledges that it acquired nuclear technology, including P-2 centrifuge blueprints, from A.Q. Khan network over the past two decades; U.S. National Intelligence Estimate states “We judge with high confidence that in Fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.”

February 2008:
IAEA report says Iran failed to disclose efforts to link uranium processing and explosives and to design missile warheads.

March 2008:
UNSC Resolution 1803 demands that Iran halt uranium enrichment and heavy water-related activities, and urges states to limit financial transactions with Iran and cut ties with two Iranian banks.

June 2008:
P5+1 announces a repackaged proposal based on the June 2006 offer.

July 2008:
Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William J. Burns participates in talks with Iranian negotiators in Geneva.

September 2008:
UNSC Resolution 1835 reaffirms four previous UNSC resolutions on Iran.

March 2009:
President Barack Obama, in a Nowruz message to Iran’s “people and leaders,” calls for an end to “old divisions”; Obama says: “The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations.”

June 2009:
Ahmadinejad is declared the winner in presidential election; reformist opponent Mir-Hossein Moussavi alleges election fraud; hundreds of thousands of “Green Movement” supporters hold demonstrations; months of disturbances result in an estimated seventy months deaths.

September 2009:
Iran acknowledges to the IAEA the existence of the Fordo uranium enrichment facility near Qom.

October 2009:
P5+1 announces the TRR fuel swap proposal, for low-enriched uranium to be shipped from Iran to Russia and then to France for further enrichment; fuel rods would be then sent to Iran for production of isotopes for medical use; Iran rejects fuel swap proposal.

November 2009:
IAEA condemns Iran for developing the secret uraniaum enrichment site near Qom; Iran announces plans to establish ten additional enrichment sites.

January 2010:
Iranian state media reports that a remote-controlled bomb explosion killed Masoud Ali-Mohammadi, a physics professor at Tehran University reportedly tied to Iran’s nuclear program.

February 2010:
Ahmadinejad announces that Iran has produced 20 percent enriched uranium.

May 2010: Iran signs Tehran Declaration agreement with Turkey and Brazil calling for a TRR fuel swap; United States, Russia, and France reject agreement; U.S. Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA) expands previous American punitive measures against foreign entities that invest in Iran’s oil industry, and sanctions human rights violators in Iran.

June 2010:
UNSC Resolution 1929 demands that Iran comply with previous UNSC resolutions, and expands financial, military, and travel sanctions on Iran; security researchers identify Stuxnet 0.5 computer virus attacking Iranian targets.

August 2010:
 Iran holds ceremony marking the completion of the Bushehr nuclear plant; in 2011, officials announce that the plant has been connected to Iran’s national energy grid; EU bans trade related to Iranian natural gas production.

November 2010:
Ahmadinejad announces that a cyber attack damaged centrifuges at an Iranian nuclear facility; experts believe that a Stuxnet attack struck Natanz; Iranian state media reports that separate bomb blasts in Tehran killed nuclear engineer Majid Shahriyari and injured nuclear scientist Fereydoun Abbasi-Dabani.

July 2011:
Ahmadinejad welcomes a “road map” proposed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that calls for eventual suspension of UN sanctions and limited enrichment activity in Iran; Iranian media report that gunmen assassinated nuclear scientist Dariush Rezaeinejad; Der Speigel reports that Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, is behind the killing.

November 2011:
Fars News Agency reports that a bomb explosion at an arms depot near Tehran killed seventeen members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, including Major General Hassan Moqqadam, a key figure in Iran’s ballistic missile program; U.S. Executive Order 13590 imposes sanctions on entities supporting the development of Iran’s energy industry.

January 2012:
  EU imposes an embargo on Iranian oil imports and freezes Iran’s central bank assets; Iranian media reports that an explosion in Tehran killed nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan.

February 2012:
Iran announces installation of Iranian-made nuclear fuel rods at TRR; NBC News, citing two anonymous senior U.S. officials, reports that Mossad is working with the Iranian opposition group Mujahedeen Khalq to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists; U.S. Executive Order 13599 imposes sanctions on Iran’s financial institutions and certain individuals, as well as on property and interests held by the Iranian government.

March 2012:
SWIFT international banking network bars electronic transactions by Iranian banks.

April 2012:
U.S. Executive Order 13606 blocks property and entry into the United States of Iranians involved in human rights abuses by means of information and communications technology.

May 2012:
U.S. Executive Order 13608 bans certain transactions with—and bars entry into the U.S. to—those who evade or violate U.S. sanctions on Iran or Syria; IAEA reports traces of 27 percent enriched uranium at the Fordo facility.

June 2012:
New York Times reports that the Bush administration developed a covert program, Operation Olympic Games, aimed at sabotaging Iran’s nuclear program through cyber attacks; the paper says the Obama administration continued the program.

July 2012:
U.S. Executive Order 13622 imposes new sanctions on Iranian energy and petrochemical sectors.

August 2012:
U.S. Iran Threat Reduction & Syria Human Rights Act (ITRSHRA) broadens sanctions on foreign entities doing business with Iran’s energy, financial, and transportation sectors.

September 2012:
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warns that Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium could put it within reach of a nuclear weapon by mid-2013; hints at military attack if Iran fails to heed “red line.”

October 2012
: U.S. Executive Order 13628 authorizes implementation of ITRSHRA, including sanctions on foreign subsidiaries of U.S. firms.

January 2013:
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak says “if worse comes to worst, there should be a readiness and an ability to launch a surgical operation that will delay [Iran’s nuclear weapons program] by a significant time frame.”

February 2013:
Vice President Joe Biden offers direct talks on Iran’s nuclear program; Khamenei rejects the offer saying sanctions on Iran are a “gun held to its head.”

March 2013:
Asked on Israeli television if the U.S. would attack Iran if diplomacy failed, Obama said “All options are on the table. The United States obviously has significant capabilities.”

April 2013:
Iran announces it has activated a uranium processing plant and two uranium mines to expand Iran’s capacity to produce nuclear material.

May 2013:
IAEA report finds that Iran has produced 324 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium;U.S. ends ban on sale of communications equipment and software to Iranians.

June 2013:
Cleric Hassan Rowhani (1948–), former secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and lead nuclear negotiator, is elected president; U.S. Executive Order 13645 imposes sanctions on Iran’s automobile industry and on transactions in Iranian currency.