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How America Jump-Started Iran’s Nuclear Program

How America Jump-Started Iran’s Nuclear Program

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For several decades, the U.S. has sought to deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons. But ironically, the reason Iran has the technology to build these weapons in the first place is because the U.S. gave it to Iran between 1957 and 1979. This nuclear assistance was part of a Cold War strategy known as “Atoms for Peace.”

The strategy’s name comes from Dwight Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech, given before the United Nations General Assembly in 1953. In it, he suggested that promoting the non-military use of nuclear technology could discourage countries from using it to create nuclear weapons, or “Atoms for War.”

The speech came only eight years after the invention of the atomic bomb, at a time when the U.S. was anxious to keep these new and frightening weapons from proliferating around the world. Strange as it sounds, President Eisenhower viewed his “Atoms for Peace” strategy partly as a form of arms control.

“He thought that sharing nuclear technology for peaceful purposes would reduce the incentives of countries to want to make nuclear bombs,” says Matthew Fuhrmann, a political science professor at Texas A&M University and author of Atomic Assistance: How “Atoms for Peace” Programs Cause Nuclear Insecurity. For example, countries can use nuclear technology to generate electricity through nuclear power plants or produce radioisotopes for medical purposes.

AUDIO: Eisenhower on Atomic Energy On December 8, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower addresses the General Assembly of the United Nations on the peaceful use of atomic energy.

“The alternative, of course, was to just try and set up an international embargo that would restrict the transfer of any nuclear technology to any state that didn’t already possess it,” Fuhrmann says. However, Eisenhower feared an embargo would “make other countries want the technology more,” possibly increasing “their resolve to eventually get it and maybe use it for more sinister purposes.”

There was also another dimension to “Atoms for Peace.” Nuclear technology was something valuable and new, and it conferred a certain status on countries that had it. The U.S. viewed providing other countries with the technology as a means of gaining influence over those states and achieving political goals. To that end, the U.S. provided nuclear assistance to countries it wanted to influence, such as Israel, India, Pakistan, and Iran.

At the time, the U.S. was closely allied with Iran’s Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. So closely, in fact, that when Iran toppled the Shah’s monarchy and democratically elected a prime minister, the CIA staged a 1953 coup d’état that put the Shah back in power. Part of the reason the U.S. valued Iran as an ally was because of its strategic location bordering the Soviet Union. During the early part of the Cold War, the U.S. set up a base in Iran to monitor Soviet activity.

In this context, the United States’ nuclear cooperation with Iran “was, in part, a means to shore up the relationship between those countries,” Fuhrmann says. The cooperation lasted until 1979, when the the Iranian Revolution ousted the Shah and the U.S. lost the country as an ally.

All of the nuclear technology the U.S. provided Iran during those years was supposed to be for peaceful nuclear development. But the “Atoms for Peace” strategy ended up having some unintended consequences.

“A lot of that infrastructure could also be used to produce plutonium or weapons-grade, highly-enriched uranium, which are the two critical materials you need to make nuclear bombs,” Fuhrmann says. In effect, the U.S. laid the foundations for the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Iran first became seriously interested in creating nuclear weapons during the 1980s Iran-Iraq War. It tried unsuccessfully to develop them in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Still, Iranian nuclear development remains an international concern, especially now that Trump has withdrawn the U.S. from the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

In the weeks leading up to Trump’s decision, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to convince him to exit the deal by arguing that Iran was still pursuing nuclear weapons. Other policy experts and world leaders have rejected this claim, and Fuhrmann says he’s seen no evidence that “Iran has violated the deal, or that Iran has done anything since 2003 … to build nuclear bombs.”

However, now that the U.S. has withdrawn from the nuclear deal, Fuhrmann worries “Iran is going to have incentives to do those things, whereas under the deal, those incentives were greatly reduced.”

U.S. Relations With Iran

U.S. and British intelligence agencies help elements in the Iranian military overthrow Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadeq. This follows Mossadeq’s nationalization of the Britain-owned Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which led London to impose an oil embargo on Iran. The coup brings back to power the Western-friendly monarchy, headed by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Deeply unpopular among much of the population, the shah relies on U.S. support to remain in power until his overthrow in 1979.

Under U.S. and UK pressure, the shah signs the Consortium Agreement of 1954, which gives U.S., British, and French oil companies 40 percent ownership of the nationalized oil industry for twenty-five years.

The United States and Iran sign the Cooperation Concerning Civil Uses of Atoms agreement as part of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” initiative, under which developing countries receive nuclear education and technology from the United States. It lays the foundation for the country’s nuclear program, and the United States later provides Iran with a reactor and weapons-grade enriched uranium fuel. Their collaboration continues until the start of Iran’s 1979 revolution.

Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela establish the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to rival the mostly Western companies dominating global oil supplies and to reestablish control over their domestic oil reserves. By the 1970s, OPEC profits skyrocket and the group gains considerable leverage over Western economies. Iran’s increased market clout makes it an even more crucial U.S. ally.

President Richard Nixon travels to Iran to ask the shah for help protecting U.S. security interests in the Middle East, including by opposing a Soviet-allied Iraq. In return, Nixon promises that Iran can buy any nonnuclear weapons system it wants. Oil prices skyrocket amid the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and the subsequent Arab oil embargo against the United States, allowing the shah to purchase a larger supply of high-tech weaponry than anticipated, which unsettles U.S. officials.

The shah flees amid widespread civil unrest and eventually travels to the United States for cancer treatment. Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a Shiite cleric who opposed the shah’s Westernization of Iran, returns to the country after fourteen years in exile. Khomeini takes power as the supreme leader in December, turning Iran from a pro-West monarchy to a vehemently anti-West Islamic theocracy. Khomeini says Iran will try to “export” its revolution to its neighbors. In 1985, the militant group Hezbollah emerges in Lebanon and pledges allegiance to Khomeini.

A group of radical Iranian college students takes fifty-two Americans hostage at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, demanding that the United States extradite the shah. Washington severs ties with Tehran, sanctions Iranian oil imports, and freezes Iranian assets. After 444 days, the hostages are released under the Algiers Accords [PDF], which were signed just minutes after the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan, whose 1980 presidential campaign emphasized President Jimmy Carter’s failure to free the hostages. As part of the accords, the United States promises not to intervene in Iranian politics.

Iraq invades its neighbor and growing rival Iran amid fears of a Shiite revolt against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The United States supports secular Iraq with economic aid, training, and dual-use technology until the war ends in 1988, even after the CIA finds evidence that Iraqi forces used chemical weapons against Iranians. An estimated one million Iranians and 250,000–500,000 Iraqis die in the conflict.

Two trucks loaded with explosives drive into barracks housing American and French service members of the Multinational Force in Lebanon, then detonate. The attack kills 241 U.S. military personnel—the highest single-day death toll for the U.S. Armed Forces since the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War. A group named Islamic Jihad, widely believed to be a front for Hezbollah, claims responsibility for the attack. The bombing hastens the withdrawal of U.S. marines from Lebanon, and leads the State Department to designate Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1984.

Despite an arms embargo, senior Reagan administration officials begin secretly selling weapons to Iran to secure the release of seven Americans held hostage by Hezbollah in Lebanon. The officials use the money from the illegal deal to fund the right-wing Contras rebel groups in Nicaragua after Congress prohibits further funding of the insurgency. Reagan takes responsibility for the scandal in a 1987 televised address, and the affair ends in some officials’ convictions. Hezbollah kills two of the hostages and releases the others over several years.

After an Iranian mine nearly sinks an American frigate in the Strait of Hormuz, the U.S. Navy launches a retaliatory campaign called Operation Praying Mantis. American forces destroy two Iranian oil platforms and sink a frigate. In July, the U.S. Navy shoots down an Iranian passenger jet after mistaking it for a fighter jet, killing all 290 people on board.

The United States leads a coalition of thirty-five countries to expel Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait, ousting the Iraqis in a matter of months. The war leads to intrusive UN inspections to prevent Iraq from restarting its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs. Comprehensive sanctions and widespread corruption under the Oil-for-Food Program, created in the wake of the war, devastate the Iraqi public for nearly a decade, but fail to dislodge Saddam. Iran declares its neutrality in the conflict, but U.S. officials suspect it seeks to replace Iraq as the dominant power in the region.

The United States ramps up sanctions against Iran under the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations. In 1992, Congress passes the Iran-Iraq Arms Nonproliferation Act, which sanctions materials that could be used to develop advanced weaponry. The White House expands sanctions with a complete oil and trade embargo in 1995. The 1996 Iran and Libya Sanctions Act imposes an embargo against non-American companies investing more than $20 million per year in Iran’s oil and gas sectors.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright meets with Iran’s deputy foreign minister at the Six-Plus-Two talks during the 1998 UN General Assembly. It is the highest-level U.S.-Iran contact since 1979. In April 2000, Albright acknowledges the United States’ role in overthrowing Mossadeq and calls previous policy toward Iran “regrettably shortsighted,” although the United States does not explicitly apologize for the intervention. Some sanctions against Iran are lifted.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush’s administration establishes a back channel with Iran to help coordinate the defeat of the Taliban, a shared enemy that had provided safe haven to members of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. In the aftermath of the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the United States and Iran collaborate on the Bonn Agreement [PDF] regarding state-building and the repatriation of Afghan refugees.

During his 2002 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush describes Iran as part of an “axis of evil,” along with Iraq and North Korea. He says Iran “aggressively pursues [weapons of mass destruction] and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people’s hope for freedom.” In response, the Iranian government stops secret meetings with U.S. diplomats that are focused on capturing al-Qaeda operatives and combating the Taliban.

U.S. forces invade Iraq, aiming to end the threat posed by what Washington says are Saddam Hussein’s revived WMD programs. Iran backs local Shiite militias in Iraq, some of which participate in attacks on U.S. forces. Saddam’s dictatorship is toppled and he is executed in December. A 2019 U.S. Army study on the Iraq War concludes that “an emboldened and expansionist Iran appears to be the only victor” in the conflict.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sends President George W. Bush an eighteen-page letter—the first letter from an Iranian leader to a U.S. one since 1979. Ahmadinejad seeks to ease U.S.-Iran nuclear tensions, but Iran takes no steps to slow its uranium enrichment program, which it says is for civilian energy production. Separately, the U.S. Congress approves the Iran Freedom Support Act in September to fund Iranian civil society and promote democracy.

During a speech at the opening session of the UN General Assembly, Ahmadinejad calls the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program “closed” and says his government will disregard Security Council resolutions calling on the country to halt uranium enrichment. At a press conference afterward, he calls the Israeli government an “illegal Zionist regime.” A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate [PDF] released in November finds that Iran ended its nuclear arms program in 2003 but continued to enrich uranium.

President Barack Obama calls newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in September to discuss Iran’s nuclear program, the most direct contact since 1979. Two months later, Iran and the P5+1—the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany—sign an initial nuclear agreement [PDF], providing Iran with some sanctions relief. Obama praises the deal for cutting off Iran’s “most likely paths to a bomb,” while Rouhani hails it as a “political victory” for Iran.

Iran, the P5+1, and the European Union reach an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program that is named the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In return for sanctions relief, Iran agrees to undertake a series of steps, including dismantling and redesigning its nuclear reactor in Arak, allowing more intrusive verification mechanisms, and limiting uranium enrichment for at least fifteen years. The deal is meant to increase Iran’s “breakout time” for developing enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon from a few weeks to at least one year. Many Republican and some Democratic lawmakers oppose the deal, arguing that lifting sanctions will bolster the Iranian government and allow it to destabilize the region.

President Donald Trump announces that the United States will withdraw from the JCPOA and mount a sanctions campaign to place “maximum pressure” on Iran. Many arms control experts and European allies condemn the move, while many Republican lawmakers, Israel, and Saudi Arabia applaud it. Iran responds by boosting uranium enrichment in defiance of the agreement’s terms. The withdrawal marks the beginning of rhetorical and military escalation with Iran under the Trump administration.

Trump designates the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—a branch of the Iranian army—a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). It is the first time the United States designates part of another country’s government as an FTO. A week earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweets that he personally requested the move. Rouhani says the action will only increase the IRGC’s popularity at home and abroad.

History of Assassinations of Iran's Top Nuclear Scientists

WASHINGTON - The assassination of Iran’s nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh by unknown assailants last week is the latest in a string of targeted killings of figures behind Tehran's atomic program.

Since 2007, six of the country’s top nuclear scientists and researchers have been killed and one has been wounded under mysterious circumstances. In nearly all cases, the Iranian government blamed Israel and/or the United States. Israeli officials have neither confirmed nor denied the allegations. U.S. officials have denied playing any role in the killings.

Here are the top Iranian nuclear scientists who Iran publicly acknowledged were killed, have died, or were wounded in recent years.

Ardeshir Hosseinpour, Age 45

Died January 15, 2007

Hosseinpour was a nuclear physics scientist and a lecturer at Shiraz University and the Malek Ashtar University of Technology in Isfahan. An expert in the field of electromagnetism, he was one of the founders of the “Nuclear Technology Center of Isfahan,” the genesis of Natanz nuclear facility where he continued his research until his mysterious death on January 15, 2007.

Iranian state-run Central News Unit reported that Hosseinpour and several of his coworkers lost their lives from gas poisoning during their nuclear work in Isfahan. However, American private intelligence company and research group Stratfor in a February 2007 report claimed he was killed by Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad.

Masoud Ali Mohammadi, 50

Killed January 12, 2010

Mohammadi was a nuclear scientist and a PhD graduate student of physics from the Sharif University in Tehran. He had over 50 published papers and articles in academic journals and was reportedly named one of the key scientists in the advancements related to particle accelerator machines and atom smashers.

On January 12, 2010, Mohammadi died in front of his house in Tehran when a booby-trapped motorcycle parked next to his vehicle exploded.

The Iranian government initially accused Israel and the U.S. for his assassination. Then-foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast called it a “cohort operation by Zionist regime of Israel, the U.S. and their allies in Iran.”

The U.S. Department of State, however, rejected the U.S. involvement. Israel remained silent.

Majid Shahriari, 45

Killed November 29, 2010

Shahriari was an Iranian high-ranking physics scientist and a nuclear engineer with expertise in nuclear chain reactions. He graduated from top Amir Kabir (Polytechnics) University of Tehran and was a professor at Shahid Beheshti Tehran University. Shahriari was reportedly named a key figure in the advancement of technologies related to the nuclear enrichment in Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization.

He was assassinated on November 29, 2010 by a magnetic bomb attached to his car by a team of assassins on a motorcycle while he was driving on Artesh highway in Tehran.

Some Iranian authorities accused Israel of his killing. Then-interior minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar claimed cooperation between the CIA and the Mossad in the killing.

Israel did not comment on this. Philip J. Crowley, then-U.S. State Department spokesman, did not address the Iranian accusations in detail. “All I can say is we decry acts of terrorism wherever they occur and beyond that, we do not have any information on what happened,” he said.

Fereydoun Abbasi Davani, 62

Wounded November 29, 2010

Abbasi is currently a member of Iran’s parliament or Majlis. He is a high-ranking physicist with expertise in laser technologies and isotope separation methods and has regularly been linked to Iran’s alleged weaponization program.

With a PhD in nuclear physics from Shahid Beheshti University, Abbadi has taught for years at the same institution as a professor of nuclear physics. He has also chaired the physics department at Tehran’s Imam Hossein University, an IRGC-affiliated military school. He has reportedly been a member of the IRGC since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and was appointed as head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) from 2010 to 2013.

The U.N. Security Council on March 2007 passed Resolution 1747, blacklisting Abbasi as “a person involved in Iran’s nuclear or ballistic missile activities.”

On November 29, 2010, a man on a motorbike in Tehran reportedly attached a magnetic explosive device to Abbasi’s car as he was driving to work. He was seriously wounded and narrowly survived the assassination attempt by jumping out of the vehicle right before the bomb detonated.

Iranian authorities, including then-nuclear top negotiator Saeid Jalili, accused Israel and Western countries of the failed attempt.

Daryoush Rezaei Nejad (Nezhad), 35

Killed July 23, 2011

Rezaei Nejad was a PhD candidate in electrical engineering at Tehran's Khajeh Nasir University of Technology and an expert on high-voltage switches with focus on triggering nuclear warheads.

He was reportedly working at Malek Ashtar national research facility with ties to the Iranian Defense Ministry and IRGC.

On July 23, 2011, he was shot five times and killed near his house on Bani Hashem street in Tehran by a team of motorcycle-riding gunmen after he had picked up his daughter from kindergarten. Both his wife and daughter were wounded in the attack.

Many high-ranking Iranian officials, including the parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, accused the U.S. and Israel of the attack. “The American-Zionist terrorist act against one of the country's scientists is yet another sign of the Americans’ degree of animosity,” Larijani said on July 24, 2011.

Germany's Der Spiegel in August 2011 said the Mossad was behind the operation.

Israeli officials did not react to the accusations. Then-U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland denied any U.S. involvement.

Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, 32

Killed January 11, 2012

Ahmadi Roshan was a graduate of Polymer engineering at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran. Documents released by Iranian officials show that he was a key figure at the Natanz nuclear facility, in charge of outsourcing projects and ordering materials and supplies.

He was killed on January 11, 2012, by a team of motorcycle-riding assailants who planted a bomb on his car in Tehran’s Ketabi Street. The blast also wounded his driver, Reza Qashqaei, who later died from severe injuries.

On June 17, 2012, then-Iranian intelligence minister Heydar Moslehi announced the “arrest” of a team of 20 people in connection with Ahmadi Roshan’s assassination. He blamed the attack on the CIA, the Mossad and the British intelligence agency, MI6.

Who are the participants?

The JCPOA, which went into effect in January 2016, imposes restrictions on Iran’s civilian nuclear enrichment program. At the heart of negotiations with Iran were the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and Germany—collectively known as the P5+1. The European Union also took part.

Some Middle Eastern powers, such as Saudi Arabia, said they should have been consulted or included in the talks because they would be most affected by a nuclear-armed Iran. Israel explicitly opposed the agreement, calling it too lenient.


The United States sanctions against Iran were imposed in November 1979 after radical students seized the American Embassy in Tehran and took hostages. The sanctions were imposed by Executive Order 12170, which included freezing about $8,1 billion in Iranian assets, including bank deposits, gold and other properties, and a trade embargo. The sanctions were lifted in January 1981 as part of the Algiers Accords, which was a negotiated settlement of the hostages’ release. [14]

While the Iran–Iraq War, which began in September 1980, was in progress, in 1984, United States sanctions prohibited weapon sales and all U.S. assistance to Iran.

In 1995, in response to the Iranian nuclear program and Iranian support of terrorist organisations, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestine Islamic Jihad, President Bill Clinton issued several executive orders with respect to Iran. Executive Order 12957 of 15 March 1995, banned U.S. investment in Iran's energy sector, and Executive Order 12959 of 6 May 1995, banned U.S. trade with and investment in Iran.

The Iran and Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) was signed on 5 August 1996 (H.R. 3107, P.L. 104–172). [15] (ILSA was renamed in 2006 the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) when the sanctions against Libya were terminated. [15] ) On 31 July 2013, members of the United States House of Representatives voted 400 to 20 in favor of toughened sanctions. [16]

On 8 May 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. [17] [18] Following the U.S. withdrawal, the EU enacted an updated blocking statute on 7 August 2018 to nullify US sanctions on countries trading with Iran. [19]

The fourth set of sanctions by the United States came into effect in November 2018 the White House said that the purpose of the sanctions was not regime change, but to make Iran to change its regional policies, stop its support for regional militant groups and end its ballistic missile programme. [20] In September 2019, a U.S. official stated that the United States will sanction whoever deals with Iran or purchases its oil. [21] Also in September 2019, in response to a suspected Iranian attack on key Saudi Arabian oil facilities, Trump said that he directed the Treasury Department to "substantially increase" sanctions on Iran. The new sanctions targeted the Iranian national bank. [ citation needed ] A Senior Trump Administration official said the new sanctions targeted the financial assets of the Supreme leader's inner circle. [22] However, according to the New York Times, Tehran has disclaimed playing any part in the attacks that affected the Saudi oil facilities. [23]

On August 25, the United Nations blocked the effort of the US to re-impose snapback sanctions on Iran, with the Security Council saying it could not proceed with the move. The President of the UN Security Council, Indonesia's ambassador Dian Triansyah Djani, stated he is "not in a position to take further action" on US's request, citing a lack of consensus in the Security Council on the US strategy as the main reason. [24]

On 20 September 2020, the US asserted that UN sanctions against Iran were back in place, a claim that was rejected by Iran and the other remaining parties to the JCPOA. [25] [26] The next day, the United States imposed sanctions on Iranian defence officials, nuclear scientists, the Atomic Energy Agency of Iran and anyone who engaged in conventional arms deals with Iran. [27] On 8 October 2020, the US imposed further sanctions on Iran's financial sector, targeting 18 Iranian banks. [28]

The UN Security Council passed a number of resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran, following the report by the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors regarding Iran's non-compliance with its safeguards agreement and the Board's finding that Iran's nuclear activities raised questions within the competency of the Security Council. Sanctions were first imposed when Iran rejected the Security Council's demand that Iran suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities. Sanctions will be lifted when Iran meets those demands and fulfills the requirements of the IAEA Board of Governors. Most UN sanctions were lifted on 16 January 2016, following the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

    – passed on 31 July 2006. Demanded that Iran suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities and threatened sanctions. [29] – passed on 23 December 2006 in response to the proliferation risks presented by the Iranian nuclear program and, in this context, by Iran's continuing failure to meet the requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors and to comply with the provisions of Security Council resolution 1696 (2006). [30] Made mandatory for Iran to suspend enrichment-related and reprocessing activities and cooperate with the IAEA, imposed sanctions banning the supply of nuclear-related materials and technology, and froze the assets of key individuals and companies related to the program. – passed on 24 March 2007. Imposed an arms embargo and expanded the freeze on Iranian assets. – passed on 3 March 2008. Extended the asset freezes and called upon states to monitor the activities of Iranian banks, inspect Iranian ships and aircraft, and to monitor the movement of individuals involved with the program through their territory. – Passed in 2008. – passed on 9 June 2010. Banned Iran from participating in any activities related to ballistic missiles, tightened the arms embargo, travel bans on individuals involved with the program, froze the funds and assets of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, and recommended that states inspect Iranian cargo, prohibit the servicing of Iranian vessels involved in prohibited activities, prevent the provision of financial services used for sensitive nuclear activities, closely watch Iranian individuals and entities when dealing with them, prohibit the opening of Iranian banks on their territory and prevent Iranian banks from entering into a relationship with their banks if it might contribute to the nuclear program, and prevent financial institutions operating in their territory from opening offices and accounts in Iran. – passed on 9 June 2011. This resolution extended the mandate of the panel of experts that supports the Iran Sanctions Committee for one year. – passed on 7 June 2012. Renewed the mandate of the Iran Sanctions Committee's Panel of Experts for 13 months. – passed on 20 July 2015. Sets out a schedule for suspending and eventually lifting UN sanctions, with provisions to reimpose UN sanctions in case of non-performance by Iran, in accordance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The UN sanctions against Iran do not include oil exports from Iran. [31] As of 2019, an estimated one third of all oil traded at sea passes through the Strait of Hormuz. In August 2018, EU High Representative Mogherini, speaking at a briefing with New Zealand's Foreign Minister Winston Peters, challenged U.S. sanctions on Iran, stating that the EU are encouraging small and medium size enterprises in particular to increase business with and in Iran as part of something that is for the EU a "Security Priority". [32] [33]

In September 2019, the US government announced, unilaterally, that it would begin to sanction certain Chinese entities that imported oil from Iran. [34]

On 14 August 2020, the United Nations Security Council rejected a resolution proposed by the United States to extend the global arms embargo on Iran, which was set to expire on 18 October 2020. The Dominican Republic joined the United States in voting for the resolution, short of the minimum nine "yes" votes required for adoption. Eleven members of the Security Council, including France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, abstained while Russia and China voted against the resolution. [35]

Speaking about the US desire to restore UN sanctions against Iran and extend an embargo to arms sales to the country in 2020, US Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft said: "History is replete of tragedies of appeasing regimes such as this one, that for decades have kept its own people under its thumb. The Trump administration has no fear in standing in limited company on this matter, in light of the unmistakable truth guiding our actions. I only regret that other members of this [Security Council] have lost their way, and now find themselves standing in the company of terrorists." [36] She also wrote a September 20, 2021, letter to the President of the UN Security Council, pressing her point on sanctions. [37] [38] [39] Speaking at the US State Department in September 2020, she said: "As we have in the past, we will stand alone to protect peace and security at all times. We don’t need a cheering section to validate our moral compass." [38]

Under the terms agreed in the Iran nuclear deal framework, the UN arms embargo expired on 18 October 2020, following which Iran was permitted to purchase foreign weapons and military equipment. [40] A U.S. attempt to extend UN sanctions against Iran under a JCPoA "snapback" provision was opposed by 13 Security Council members, who argued that the U.S. left the agreement with Iran in 2018. [41]

The European Union has imposed restrictions on cooperation with Iran in foreign trade, financial services, energy sectors and technologies, and banned the provision of insurance and reinsurance by insurers in member states to Iran and Iranian-owned companies. [43] On 23 January 2012, the EU agreed to an oil embargo on Iran, effective from July, and to freeze the assets of Iran's central bank. [44] The next month, Iran symbolically pre-empted the embargo by ceasing sales to Britain and France (both countries had already almost eliminated their reliance on Iranian oil, and Europe as a whole had nearly halved its Iranian imports), though some Iranian politicians called for an immediate sales halt to all EU states, so as to hurt countries like Greece, Spain and Italy who were yet to find alternative sources. [45] [46]

On 17 March 2012, all Iranian banks identified as institutions in breach of EU sanctions were disconnected from the SWIFT, the world's hub of electronic financial transactions. [47] On 10 November 2018 Gottfried Leibbrandt, chief executive of SWIFT said in Belgium that some banks in Iran would be disconnected from this financial messaging service. [48]

One side effect of the sanctions is that the global shipping insurers based in London are unable to provide cover for items as far afield as Japanese shipments of Iranian liquefied petroleum gas to South Korea. [49]

  • Beijing has tried to accommodate US concerns about Iran. It has not developed trade and investment positions there as rapidly as it might have, and has shifted some Iran-related transactional flows into Renminbi to help the Obama administration avoid sanctioning Chinese banks (similarly, India now pays for some Iranian oil imports in rupees). [50][51]
  • Australia has imposed financial sanctions and travel bans on individuals and entities involved in Iran's nuclear and missile programs or assist Iran in violating sanctions, and an arms embargo. [52]
  • Canada imposed a ban on dealing in the property of designated Iranian nationals, a complete arms embargo, oil-refining equipment, items that could contribute to the Iranian nuclear program, the establishment of an Iranian financial institution, branch, subsidiary, or office in Canada or a Canadian one in Iran, investment in the Iranian oil and gas sector, relationships with Iranian banks, purchasing debt from the Iranian government, or providing a ship or services to Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, but allows the Foreign Minister to issue a permit to carry out a specified prohibited activity or transaction. [53]
  • India enacted a ban on the export of all items, materials, equipment, goods, and technology that could contribute to Iran's nuclear program. [54] In 2012, the country said it was against expanding its sanctions. [55] India imports 12 percent of its oil from Iran and cannot do without it, [56] and the country planned to send a "huge delegation" to Iran in mid-March 2012 to further bilateral economic ties. [57][58] In July 2012, India has not approved the necessary insurance for Iranian ships hit by U.S. sanctions, effectively barring them from entering Indian waters. [59] banned business with or unauthorized travel to Iran under a law banning ties with enemy states. [60] Israel has also enacted legislation that penalizes any companies that violate international sanctions. [61] Following reports of covert Israeli-Iranian trade and after the US sanctioned an Israeli company for ties with Iran, Israel imposed a series of administrative and regulatory measures to prevent Israeli companies from trading with Iran, and announced the establishment of a national directorate to implement the sanctions. [62]
  • Japan imposed a ban on transactions with some Iranian banks, investments with the Iranian energy sector, and asset freezes against individuals and entities involved with Iran's nuclear program. [63] In January 2012, the second-biggest customer for Iranian oil announced it would take "concrete steps" to reduce its 10% oil dependency on Iran. [64]
  • South Korea imposed sanctions on 126 Iranian individuals and companies. [65] Japan and South Korea together account for 26% of Iran's oil exports. [66] banned the sale of arms and dual-use items to Iran, and of products that could be used in the Iranian oil and gas sector, financing this sector, and restrictions on financial services. [67]
  • The United States has imposed an arms ban and an almost total economic embargo on Iran, which includes sanctions on companies doing business with Iran, a ban on all Iranian-origin imports, sanctions on Iranian financial institutions, and an almost total ban on selling aircraft or repair parts to Iranian aviation companies. A license from the Treasury Department is required to do business with Iran. In June 2011, the United States imposed sanctions against Iran Air and Tidewater Middle East Co. (which runs seven Iranian ports), stating that Iran Air had provided material support to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is already subject to UN sanctions, that Tidewater Middle East is owned by the IRGC, and that both have been involved in activities including illegal weapons transportation. [68] The U.S. has also begun to designate a number of senior Iranian officials under the Iranian Human Rights Abuses Sanctions Regulations. On 14 December 2011, the U.S. Department of Treasury designated Hassan Firouzabadi and Abdollah Araqi under this sanctions program. [69] In February 2012 the US froze all property of the Central Bank of Iran and other Iranian financial institutions, as well as that of the Iranian government, within the United States. [70] The American view is that sanctions should target Iran's energy sector that provides about 80% of government revenues, and try to isolate Iran from the international financial system. [71] On 6 February 2013 the United States government blacklisted major Iranian electronics producers, Internet policing agencies, and the state broadcasting authority, in an effort to lessen restrictions of access to information for the general public. The sanctions were imposed to target the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, which is responsible for broadcast policy in Iran and oversees the production of Iranian television and radio channels. Also targeted were the "Iranian Cyber Police" and the "Communications Regulatory Authority" which the Treasury Department describes as authorities created three years ago to filter Web sites and monitor Internet behavior while blocking Web sites deemed objectionable by the Iranian government. Currently, under American sanctions laws, any United States property held by blacklisted companies and individuals is impounded, and such companies are prohibited from engaging in any transactions with American citizens. [72] In January 2015, the U.S. Senate Banking Committee advanced "a bill that would toughen sanctions on Iran if international negotiators fail to reach an agreement on Tehran's nuclear program by the end of June." [73] On 5 November 2018, the United States government reinstated all sanctions against Iran. These sanctions had been previously lifted in accordance to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. [74] On 24 June 2019 the Trump Administration announced further sanctions on Iran in response to a downing of a U.S. drone. [75]
  • On 16 April 2019, a day after United States designated Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organizations, the social media platform Instagram blocked the accounts of the IRGC, the Quds Force, its commander Qasem Soleimani, and three other IRGC commanders. [76]

In 2012, the U.S. Department of State stated:

In response to Iran’s continued illicit nuclear activities, the United States and other countries have imposed unprecedented sanctions to censure Iran and prevent its further progress in prohibited nuclear activities, as well as to persuade Tehran to address the international community’s concerns about its nuclear program. Acting both through the United Nations Security Council and regional or national authorities, the United States, the member states of the European Union, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Canada, Australia, Norway, Switzerland, and others have put in place a strong, inter-locking matrix of sanctions measures relating to Iran's nuclear, missile, energy, shipping, transportation, and financial sectors. These measures are designed: (1) to block the transfer of weapons, components, technology, and dual-use items to Iran’s prohibited nuclear and missile programs (2) to target select sectors of the Iranian economy relevant to its proliferation activities and (3) to induce Iran to engage constructively, through discussions with the United States, China, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Russia in the "E3+3 process," to fulfill its nonproliferation obligations. These nations have made clear that Iran’s full compliance with its international nuclear obligations would open the door to its receiving treatment as a normal non-nuclear-weapon state under The Nonproliferation Treaty and sanctions being lifted. [77]

The website of the U.K. government states:

On 16 October 2012, the EU adopted a further set of restrictive measures against Iran as announced in Council Decision 2012/635/CFSP. These measures are targeted at Iran’s nuclear and ballistic programmes and the revenues made from these programmes by the Iranian government.

In response to the deteriorating human rights situation in Iran, the EU has also adopted Council Regulation (EU) No 359/2011 of 12 April 2011. This regulation has been amended by Council Regulation (EU) No 264/2012, which includes the Annex III list of equipment that might be used for internal repression and related services (e.g. financial, technical, brokering) and internet monitoring and telecommunications equipment and related services. [78]

The BBC, in answering "Why are there sanctions?" wrote in 2015:

Since Iran's nuclear programme became public in 2002, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been unable to confirm Tehran's assertions that its nuclear activities are exclusively for peaceful purposes and that it has not sought to develop nuclear weapons. The United Nations Security Council has adopted six resolutions since 2006 requiring Iran to stop enriching uranium - which can be used for civilian purposes, but also to build nuclear bombs - and co-operate with the IAEA. Four resolutions have included progressively expansive sanctions to persuade Tehran to comply. The US and EU have imposed additional sanctions on Iranian oil exports and banks since 2012. [79]

In November 2011 the IAEA reported "serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear programme" and indications that "some activities may still be ongoing." [80]

According to the Supreme leader of Iran, the real objective of sanctions is "to prevent Iran from reaching a prominent civilizational status" (as in history). [81] The United States said the sanctions were not made to topple the Iranian government, but convince it to change several of its policies. [82]

The European Union's General Court overturned EU sanctions against two of Iran's biggest banks (Bank Saderat & Bank Mellat) the two banks had filed suit with the European court to challenge those sanctions. [83]

The sanctions bring difficulties to Iran's $483 billion, oil-dominated economy. [44] Data published by the Iranian Central Bank show a declining trend in the share of Iranian exports from oil-products (2006/2007: 84.9%, 2007/2008: 86.5%, 2008/2009: 85.5%, 2009/2010: 79.8%, 2010/2011 (first three quarters): 78.9%). [85] The sanctions have had a substantial adverse effect on the Iranian nuclear program by making it harder to acquire specialized materials and equipment needed for the program. The social and economic effects of sanctions have also been severe, [86] [87] with even those who doubt their efficacy, such as John Bolton, describing the EU sanctions, in particular, as "tough, even brutal." [88] Iranian foreign minister Ali Akhbar Salehi conceded that the sanctions are having an impact. [89] China has become Iran's largest remaining trading partner. [63]

Sanctions have reduced Iran's access to products needed for the oil and energy sectors, have prompted many oil companies to withdraw from Iran, and have also caused a decline in oil production due to reduced access to technologies needed to improve their efficiency. [ citation needed ] According to Undersecretary of State William Burns, Iran may be annually losing as much as $60 billion in energy investment. [90] Many international companies have also been reluctant to do business with Iran for fear of losing access to larger Western markets. [Naseem, M(2017) International Energy Law].As well as restricting export markets, the sanctions have reduced Iran's oil income by increasing the costs of repatriating revenues in complicated ways that sidestep the sanctions Iranian analysts estimate the budget deficit for the 2011/2012 fiscal year, which in Iran ends in late March, at between $30bn to $50bn. [91] The effects of U.S. sanctions include expensive basic goods for Iranian citizens, and an aging and increasingly unsafe civil aircraft fleet. According to the Arms Control Association, the international arms embargo against Iran is slowly reducing Iran's military capabilities, largely due to its dependence on Russian and Chinese military assistance. The only substitute is to find compensatory measures requiring more time and money, and which are less effective. [92] [93] According to at least one analyst (Fareed Zakaria), the market for imports in Iran is dominated by state enterprises and state-friendly enterprises, because the way to get around the sanctions is smuggling, and smuggling requires strong connections with the government. This has weakened Iranian civil society and strengthened the state. [ citation needed ]

The value of the Iranian rial has plunged since autumn 2011, it is reported to have devalued up to 80%, falling 10% immediately after the imposition of the EU oil embargo [94] since early October 2012, [95] causing widespread panic among the Iranian public. [91] In January 2012, the country raised the interest rate on bank deposits by up to 6 percentage points in order to curtail the rial's depreciation. The rate increase was a setback for Ahmadinejad, who had been using below-inflation rates to provide cheap loans to the poor, though naturally Iranian bankers were delighted by the increase. [91] Not long after, and just a few days after Iran's economic minister declared that "there was no economic justification" for devaluing the currency because Iran's foreign exchange reserves were "not only good, but the extra oil revenues are unprecedented," [91] the country announced its intention to devalue by about 8.5 percent against the U.S. dollar, set a new exchange rate and vowed to reduce the black market's influence (presumably booming because of the lack of confidence in the rial). [96] The Iranian Central Bank desperately tried to keep the value of the rial afloat in the midst of the late 2012 decline by pumping petrodollars into the system to allow the rial to compete against the US dollar. [97] Efforts to control inflation rates were set forth by the government through a three-tiered-multiple-exchange-rate [98] this effect has failed to prevent the rise in cost of basic goods, simultaneously adding to the public's reliance on the Iranian black-market exchange rate network. [97] Government officials attempted to stifle the black-market by offering rates 2% below the alleged black-market rates, but demand seems to be outweighing their efforts. [99] [100]

Sanctions tightened further when major supertanker companies said they would stop loading Iranian cargo. Prior attempts to reduce Iran's oil income failed because many vessels are often managed by companies outside the United States and the EU however, EU actions in January extended the ban to ship insurance. This insurance ban will affect 95 percent of the tanker fleet because their insurance falls under rules governed by European law. "It's the insurance that's completed the ban on trading with Iran," commented one veteran shipbroker. [101] This completion of the trading ban left Iran struggling to find a buyer for nearly a quarter of its annual oil exports. [45]

Another effect of the sanctions, in the form of Iran's retaliatory threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, has led to Iraqi plans to open export routes for its crude via Syria, though Iraq's deputy prime minister for energy affairs doubted Iran would ever attempt a closure. [101]

After Iranian banks blacklisted by the EU were disconnected from the SWIFT banking network, then Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz stated that Iran would now find it more difficult to export oil and import products. According to Steinitz, Iran would be forced to accept only cash or gold, which is impossible when dealing with billions of dollars. Steinitz told the Israeli cabinet that Iran's economy might collapse as a result. [102] [103]

The effects of the sanctions are usually denied in the Iranian press. [104] [105] Iran has also taken measures to circumvent sanctions, notably by using front countries or companies and by using barter trade. [106] At other times the Iranian government has advocated a "resistance economy" in response to sanctions, such as using more oil internally as export markets dry up and import substitution industrialization of Iran. [107] [108]

In October 2012, Iran began struggling to halt a decline in oil exports which could plummet further due to Western sanctions, and the International Energy Agency estimated that Iranian exports fell to a record of 860,000 bpd in September 2012 from 2.2 million bpd at the end of 2011. The results of this fall led to a drop in revenues and clashes on the streets of Tehran when the local currency, the rial, collapsed. The output in September 2012 was Iran's lowest since 1988. [109]

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast has said that the sanctions were not just aimed at Iran's nuclear program and would continue even if the nuclear dispute was resolved. [110]

In 2018, as a response to US visa restrictions for those who have visited Iran after 2011, Iran ceased affixing visas in passports and stamping passports on entry of foreigners from most countries. [111] [112] [113]

"Resistance economy" Edit

In the face of increased economic pressure from the United States and Europe and a marked decrease of oil exports, Iran has sought to manage the impact of international sanctions and limit capital outflows by seeking to build a "resistance economy," [114] [115] replacing imports with domestic goods and banning luxury imports such as computers and mobile phones. [116] This is predicted to lead to an increase in smuggling, as "people will find a way to smuggle in what the Iranian consumer wants." [117] To sustain oil imports, Iran has also provided domestic insurance for tankers shipping Iranian oil. [118] Iran had hoped to sell more to Chinese and Indian refiners, though such attempts seem unlikely to succeed, particularly since China—the single-largest buyer of Iranian crude—has been curtailing its oil imports from Iran down to half their former level. [45]

On 20 October 2018 Association of German Banks stated that exports from Germany to Iran dropped 4% to 1.8 billion Euros since January. [119]

Political effects Edit

94 Iranian Parliamentarians signed a formal request to have Ahmadinejad appear before the Majles (parliament) to answer questions about the currency crisis. The Supreme Leader terminated the parliament's request in order to unify the government in the face of international pressure. [120] Nonetheless, Ahmadinejad has been called to questioning by parliament on a number of occasions, to justify his position on issues concerning domestic politics. His ideologies seem to have alienated a large portion of the parliament, and stand in contrast to the standpoint of the Supreme Leader. [ dubious – discuss ] [121] [122]

A report by Dr. Kenneth Katzman, for the Congressional Research Service, listed the following factors as major examples of economic mismanagement on the part of the Iranian government:

  • The EU oil embargo and the restrictions on transactions with Iran's Central Bank have dramatically reduced Iran's oil sales – a fact acknowledged by Oil Minister Rostam Qasemi to the Majles on 7 January 2013. He indicated sales had fallen 40% from the average of 2.5 million barrels per day (mbd) in 2011 (see chart above on Iran oil buyers). This is close to the estimates of energy analysts, which put Iran's sales at the end of 2012 in a range of 1 mbd to 1.5 mbd. Reducing Iran's sales further might depend on whether U.S. officials are able to persuade China, in particular, to further cut buys from Iran—and to sustain those cuts.
  • Iran has been storing some unsold oil on tankers in the Persian Gulf, and it is building new storage tanks onshore. Iran has stored excess oil (21 million barrels, according to Citigroup Global Markets) to try to keep production levels up—shutting down wells risks harming them and it is costly and time-consuming to resume production at a well that has been shut. However, since July 2012, Iran reportedly has been forced to shut down some wells, and overall oil production has fallen to about 2.6 million barrels per day from the level of nearly 4.0 mbd at the end of 2011.
  • The oil sales losses Iran is experiencing are likely to produce over $50 billion in hard currency revenue losses in a one-year period at current oil prices. The IMF estimated Iran's hard currency reserves to be $106 billion as of the end of 2011, and some economists say that figure may have fallen to about $80 billion as of November 2012. Analysts at one outside group, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, believe Iran's hard currency reserves might be exhausted entirely by July 2014 at current rates of depletion. Compounding the loss of oil sales by volume is that many of its oil transactions reportedly are now conducted on a barter basis—or in exchange for gold, which is hard currency but harder to use than cash is. In addition, the 6 February 2013, the imposition of sanctions on Iran's ability to repatriate hard currency could cause the depletion rate to increase.
  • On 15 October 2012, Iran said that to try to stretch its hard currency reserve, it would not supply hard currency for purchases of luxury goods such as cars or cellphones (the last 2 of the government's 10 categories of imports, ranked by their importance). The government is still supplying hard currency for essential and other key imports. Importers for essential goods can obtain dollars at the official rate of 12,260 to the dollar, and importers of other key categories of goods can obtain dollars at a new rate of 28,500 to the dollar. The government has also threatened to arrest the unofficial currency traders who sell dollars at less than the rate of about 28,500 to the dollar. The few unofficial traders that remain active are said to be trading at approximately that rate so as not to risk arrest.
  • Some Iranians and outside economists worry that hyperinflation might result. The Iranian Central Bank estimated on 9 January 2013 that the inflation rate is about 27%—the highest rate ever acknowledged by the Bank—but many economists believe the actual rate is between 50% and 70%. [citation needed] This has caused Iranian merchants to withhold goods or shut down entirely because they are unable to set accurate prices. Almost all Iranian factories depend on imports and the currency collapse has made it difficult for Iranian manufacturing to operate.
  • Beyond the issue of the cost of imported goods, the Treasury Department's designations of affiliates and ships belong to Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) reportedly are harming Iran's ability to ship goods at all, and have further raised the prices of goods to Iranian import-export dealers. Some ships have been impounded by various countries for nonpayment of debts due on them.
  • Suggesting Iran's operating budget is already struggling some reports say the government has fallen behind in its payments to military personnel and other government workers. Others say the government has begun "means testing" in order to reduce social spending payments to some of the less needy families. In late 2012, it also postponed phase two of an effort to wean the population off subsidies, in exchange for cash payments of about $40 per month to 60 million Iranians. Phase one of that program began in December 2010 after several years of debate and delay, and was praised for rationalizing gasoline prices. [clarification needed] Gasoline prices now run on a tiered system in which a small increment is available at the subsidized price of about $1.60 per gallon, but amounts above that threshold are available only at a price of about $2.60 per gallon, close to the world price. Before the subsidy phase-out, gasoline was sold for about 40 cents per gallon.
  • Press reports indicate that sanctions have caused Iran's production of automobiles to fall by about 40% from 2011 levels. Iran produces cars for the domestic market, such as the Khodro, based on licenses from European automakers such as Renault and Peugeot. The currency collapse has largely overtaken the findings of an IMF forecast, released in October 2012, which Iran would return to economic growth in 2013, after a small decline in 2012. An Economist Intelligence Unit assessment published in late 2012 indicates Iran's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) likely contracted about 3% in 2012 and will contract an additional 1.2% in 2013. ("Oil Sanctions on Iran: Cracking Under Pressure.")
  • Mitigating some of the effects are that some private funds are going into the Tehran Stock Exchange and hard assets, such as property. However, this trend generally benefits the urban elite. [123]

Effect on oil price Edit

According to the U.S., Iran could reduce the world price of crude petroleum by 10%, saving the United States annually $76 billion (at the proximate 2008 world oil price of $100/bbl). Opening Iran's market place to foreign investment could also be a boon to competitive U.S. multinational firms operating in a variety of manufacturing and service sectors. [124]

In 2012, the U.S. Energy Department warned that imposing oil embargoes on Iran would increase world oil prices by widening the gap between supply and demand. [125]

On the other side, according to a 2012 study by former U.S. officials writing for the Bipartisan Policy Center, oil prices "could double" if Iran is permitted to obtain a nuclear weapon. [126] U.S. gross domestic product could fall by about 0.6% in the first year—costing the economy some $90 billion—and by up to 2.5% (or $360 billion) by the third year. This is enough, at 2012 growth rates, to send the U.S. into recession. [127]

In September 2018, Iranian oil minister Bijan Zanganeh warned U.S. President Donald Trump to stop interfering in the Middle East if he wants the oil prices to stop increasing. Zanganeh said, "If he (Trump) wants the price of oil not to go up and the market not to get destabilized, he should stop unwarranted and disruptive interference in the Middle East and not be an obstacle to the production and export of Iran’s oil." [128]

Impact on regional economies Edit

Iran relies on regional economies for conducting private as well as state-sponsored business. In 2018, after the U.S. re-imposed secondary sanctions, the trade relations with neighboring countries, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, which had increased significantly prior to 2016, took a significant hit. [129] In November 2019, when financial sanctions were further tightened by the Trump administration and the Rial devaluation continued, a subsequent increase in energy prices caused widespread protests and violent confrontations in Tehran and other major cities. The economies of border regions with urban areas, such as Zahedan, felt the most drastic impact as traders had to pay more for imports, e.g. electronic appliances, while at the same time, the export value for manufactured goods, such as Persian rugs, decreased. [130] Iraq's economy was also seriously affected by the continued financial sanctions since Iran is a major exporter of wheat to Iraq, and food prices increased in Iraq after 2016. [131]

In early May 2020, with the parliamentary election of a new Iraqi prime minister, the U.S. extended Iraq's sanction waiver for the import of refined Iranian fuels and electricity from 30 days to 4 months in order to increase the political and economic stability in the region. [132]

Humanitarian impact Edit

Pharmaceuticals and medical equipment do not fall under international sanctions, but Iran is facing shortages of drugs for the treatment of 30 illnesses—including cancer, heart and breathing problems, thalassemia and multiple sclerosis (MS)—because it is not allowed to use international payment systems. [133] A teenage boy died from haemophilia because of a shortage of medicine caused by the sanctions. [134] Deliveries of some agricultural products to Iran have also been affected for the same reasons. [135]

Drug imports to Iran from the U.S. and Europe decreased by approximately 30 percent in 2012, according to a report by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. [136] In 2013, The Guardian reported that some 85,000 cancer patients required forms of chemotherapy and radiotherapy that had become scarce. Western governments had built waivers into the sanctions regime to ensure that essential medicines could get through, but those waivers conflicted with blanket restrictions on banking, as well as bans on "dual-use" chemicals that might have a military as well as a medical application. An estimated 40,000 haemophiliacs could not get blood-clotting medicines, and operations on haemophiliacs were been virtually suspended because of the risks created by the shortages. An estimated 23,000 Iranians with HIV/AIDS had severely restricted access to the drugs they need. The society representing the 8,000 Iranians suffering from thalassemia, an inherited blood disorder, said its members were beginning to die because of a lack of an essential drug, deferoxamine, used to control the iron content in the blood. Further, Iran could no longer buy medical equipment such as autoclaves, essential for the production of many drugs, because some of the biggest Western pharmaceutical companies refused to do business with the country. [137]

Journalists reported on the development of a black market for medicine. [138] Though vital drugs were not affected directly by the sanctions, the amount of hard currency available to the ministry of health was severely limited. Marzieh Vahid-Dastjerdi, Iran's first female government minister since the Iranian Revolution, was dismissed in December 2012 for speaking out against the lack of support from the government in times of economic hardship. [139] Furthermore, Iranian patients were at risk of amplified side effects and reduced effectiveness because Iran was forced to import medicines, and chemical building blocks for other medicines, from India and China, as opposed to obtaining higher-quality products from Western manufacturers. Because of patent protections, substitutions for advanced medicines were often unattainable, particularly when it came to diseases such as cancer and multiple sclerosis. [140]

China, the UK, the Group of 77 and experts are pressing the US to ease sanctions on Iran to help it fight the growing coronavirus outbreak. [141] [142] “There is no doubt that Iran’s capacity to respond to the novel coronavirus has been hampered by the Trump administration’s economic sanctions, and the death toll is likely much higher than it would have been as a result,” Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) Co-Director Mark Weisbrot said. “There can also be no question that the sanctions have affected Iran’s ability to contain the outbreak, leading in turn to more infections, and possibly to the virus’ spread beyond Iran's borders.” [143]

On 6 April 2020, Human Rights Watch released a report urging the United States to ease sanctions on Iran "to ensure Iran access to essential humanitarian resources during the [coronavirus] pandemic." [144] The impact of sanctions on Iran made the COVID-19 management a difficult issue in Iran. [145]

In October 2020, Bloomberg reported that US sanctions had halted a flu vaccine shipment of 2 million doses. Iran's Red Crescent Society indicated how the drastic financial sanctions rendered the community Shahr Bank insolvent, which halted the crucial shipment. [146]

Civil movement against sanctions Edit

The "Civil Movement" was initiated by two prominent Iranian economists—Dr. Mousa Ghaninejad, of Tehran's Petroleum University of Technology, and Dr. Mohammad Mehdi Behkish, of Tehran's Allameh Tabatabaei University—on 14 July 2013. They described the sanctions as an "unfair" and "illogical" tool, arguing that a freer economy would lead to less political enmity and encourage amicable relationships between countries. They also noted that sanctions against one country punish not only the people of that country, but also the people of its trade partners. [147]

The movement was supported by a large group of intellectuals, academics, civil society activists, human rights activists and artists. [147] [148] [149] In September 2013, the International Chamber of Commerce-Iran posted an open letter by 157 Iranian economists, lawyers and journalists criticizing the humanitarian consequences of sanctions and calling on their colleagues across the world to pressure their governments to take steps to resolve the underlying conflict. [150]

Frozen assets Edit

After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the United States ended its economic and diplomatic ties with Iran, banned Iranian oil imports and froze approximately 11 billion 1980-US dollars of its assets. [151]

In the years of 2008 to 2013, billions of dollars of Iranian assets abroad were seized or frozen, including a building in New York City, [152] and bank accounts in Great Britain, Luxembourg, [153] Japan [154] and Canada. [155] [156]

In 2012, Iran reported that the assets of Guard-linked companies in several countries were frozen but in some cases the assets were returned. [157]

The chairman of the Majlis Planning and Budget Committee says $100 billion of Iran's money was frozen in foreign banks because of the sanctions imposed on the country. [158] In 2013, only $30 billion to $50 billion of its foreign exchange reserves (i.e. roughly 50% of total) was accessible because of sanctions. [159]

When the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between Iran and the P5+1 was implemented in early 2016, sanctions relief affected the economy of Iran in four principal ways: [160]

  1. Release of Iran's frozen funds abroad, estimated at $29 billion, representing approximately one third of Iran's foreign held reserves. [161]
  2. The removal of sanctions against exports of Iranian oil. .
  3. Allow Iran to trade with the rest of the world and use the global banking system such as SWIFT.

According to the Central Bank of Iran, Iran would use funds unfrozen by its nuclear deal mainly to finance domestic investments, keeping the money abroad until it was needed. [162]

According to the Washington Institute in 2015: "The pre-deal asset freeze did not have as great an impact on the Iranian government as some statements from Washington suggested. And going forward, the post-deal relaxation of restrictions will not have as great an impact as some critics of the deal suggest." [163]

On 16 January 2016, the International Atomic Energy Agency said that Iran had adequately restricted its nuclear program, resulting in the United Nations lifting some of the sanctions. [164] [165] [166]

In February 2019, France, Germany and the United Kingdom announced that they have created a payment channel named INSTEX to bypass the newly reimposed sanctions by the United States, following the unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA by the Trump administration. [167] The Trump Administration warned that countries engaging in financial transactions with Iran could face secondary U.S sanctions. [168]

In late January 2020, the Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement (SHTA) with Iran was implemented, assuring export guarantees through Swiss financial institutions for shipments of food and medical products to the Islamic republic. Geneva-based bank BCP and a large Swiss drugmaker were participating in the initial pilot shipment of essential medicines worth 2.3 million euros ($2.55 million). [169]

Iran’s Nuclear Program: How Close Is Tehran to Developing Nuclear Weapons?

Sune Engel Rasmussen

Laurence Norman

After months of deadlock, Iran, the U.S. and the remaining five parties to the 2015 nuclear deal in April agreed to resume negotiations in Vienna to restore the accord. While U.S. and Iranian officials won’t hold direct discussions for now, bringing them to the same gathering for two rounds of meetings so far in the Austrian capital is a major first step toward salvaging the deal.

Iran’s main objective at the talks will be to obtain relief from sanctions imposed by the Trump administration after it withdrew from the deal in 2018. U.S. officials will focus on bringing Iran back into compliance with its commitments in the deal.

Iran has in recent months stopped adhering to several key provisions in the 2015 deal, reducing the time it would need to produce a nuclear weapon. These steps away from the deal, a response to U.S. sanctions, have put at risk the survival of an agreement that helped remove sanctions on Iran and open it to business with the West.

Iran took its most serious step away from the accord on April 16, saying it had begun enriching uranium at 60% purity for the first time. The move was a response to an attack days before on its main nuclear facility in Natanz. Iran accuses Israel of being behind the attack, which caused a power blackout that destroyed a number of centrifuges used for uranium enrichment. As is its policy, Israel hasn’t directly commented on the allegations.

The Iranian Nuclear Threat: Why it Matters

On July 1, 2019, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced that Iran had exceeded its agreed-to limit on the volume of its stockpile of enriched uranium, putting heightened concerns about an Iranian nuclear weapons program back in the headlines. Days later, Iran proclaimed it had enriched uranium to about 4.5% purity, again breaching prior agreed to levels. Since then, Iran has announced numerous other accelerations of its nuclear program that specifically exceed the provisions of the Iran nuclear deal and shorten the time it would take to build a nuclear weapon.


For decades, the United States and the international community have mobilized to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, believing that nuclear weapons in the hands of the Iranian regime would directly threaten Israel, destabilize the region, and present a security risk to the US, Europe and other allies.

A nuclear-armed Iran poses a direct threat to America's closest allies in the Middle East. Israel is most at risk as Iran's leaders have repeatedly declared that Israel should "be wiped from the map." America's Arab allies, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and others are deeply alarmed at Iran's aggressive regional policy and would feel increasingly threatened by a nuclear-armed Iran. Indeed, Iran's military posture has led to increases in arms purchases by its neighbors, and a nuclear-armed Iran would likely spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that would further destabilize this volatile and vital region. The US and the international community have a vested interest in maintaining calm in the Middle East. Even as the United States has recently become a net oil exporter, its economy remains heavily dependent on the stability of international oil markets, which still require the continued steady export of oil from the Middle East.

A nuclear-armed Iran would likely further embolden Iran's aggressive foreign policy, including its deep ongoing involvement in Syria, its attacks against Israel via proxies including Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorist groups, and its sponsorship of rebel insurgents in Yemen. Having nuclear weapons would embolden this aggression and would likely result in greater confrontations with the international community. Iran already has a conventional weapons capability to hit U.S. and allied troops stationed in the Middle East and parts of Europe. If Tehran were allowed to develop nuclear weapons, the threat it poses would increase dramatically.

Iran is generally considered the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism, through its financial and operational support for groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and others. Iran could even potentially share its nuclear technology and know-how with extremist groups hostile to the United States, Israel and the West.


Iran's nuclear program is clearly intended to develop a nuclear weapons capability. For 18 years, it was kept secret, even though international assistance would have been available to a civilian program. In 2002, Iran's covert program was exposed. Since then, the IAEA has repeatedly said that it cannot consider Iran's nuclear program as entirely civilian. On November 8, 2011 the IAEA released a report stating there is "credible" evidence that "Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device." Numerous reports since then have underscored Iran’s continuing refusal to address the IAEA’s evidence, which showed “strong indicators of possible nuclear weapon development.”

In 2009, Western intelligence agencies discovered, and Iran admitted to, another secret facility, at Fordow, that is designed for approximately 3,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium. President Barack Obama commented that the "configuration" of the Fordow facility is "not consistent with a peaceful nuclear program." Three thousand centrifuges are sufficient for producing quantities of highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, but not for fuel for nuclear power plants.

In January 2018, Israel’s Mossad intelligence service seized over 50,000 pages of documents and 160 compact discs of data from a Tehran warehouse that housed Iran’s clandestine nuclear archive. The New York Times determined that the documents “confirmed what inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, in report after report, had suspected: Despite Iranian insistence that its program was for peaceful purposes, the country had worked in the past to systematically assemble everything it needed to produce atomic weapons.”

Despite claims that Iran’s supreme leader once issued a fatwa against the use of nuclear weapons, there are strong reasons to believe that this fatwa may be apocryphal or non-binding. Meanwhile, Iranian clerical, civilian, and military leaders have repeatedly expressed their intention to wipe Israel off of the map.


For many years, the major world powers - the United States, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom (known as the "P5+1") - followed a two-track policy: encouraging Iran to engage in diplomatic negotiations, while imposing increasingly comprehensive sanctions against Iran’s energy and financial sectors. The United Nations Security Council also enacted sanctions against Iran for its nuclear proliferation activity. Both the United States and Israel promoted the imposition of sanctions as well as the search for a diplomatic resolution, while warning that there would be a time limit for these policies, and that “all options” – including military action - would have to remain on the table.

On July 14, 2015, the P5+1 announced the finalization of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement with Iran over its nuclear program. The agreement, which emerged after 20 months of negotiations, enacted measures that would significantly scale back Iran’s nuclear program for a period of 10 to 15 years in exchange for the lifting of sanctions against Iran. That same month, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously approved a resolution which endorsed the Iran deal and created a basis for the lifting of UN sanctions against Iran. There were many supporters of the JCPOA who saw it as the best option for pausing and reversing Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Critics saw the agreement as flawed, with a “sunset” for restrictions on Iran’s nuclear weapons program and no effective restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program or other aggressive policies and behaviors. (For the specifics on the JCPOA and ADL’s position see here)

On May 8, 2018, President Donald Trump announced that the US would withdraw from the agreement, saying that instead “we will be working with our allies to find a real, comprehensive, and lasting solution to the Iranian nuclear threat.” The US subsequently imposed increasingly strict sanctions against Iranian officials and militant groups associated with its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs and other activities.

As of July 1, 2019, Iran announced (and the IAEA certified) that it had exceeded the JCPOA’s limit on the volume of Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium, thereby violating the agreement. This step could considerably decrease the breakout time that it would take for Iran to build a nuclear weapon. On July 7 Iran also declared it was enriching uranium beyond 3.67% (later announced to be 4.5%), another aggressive action that shortens Iran’s breakout period and is a violation of the JCPOA. Since then, Iran has continued to announce further infringements against the JCPOA’s main nuclear provisions, including plans to operate more advanced centrifuges and restarting prohibited enrichment activity inside its fortified underground facility at Fordow.

Following the January 2020 US assassination of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, Iran announced it will no longer comply with the limits set on uranium enrichment set by the 2015 deal, effectively meaning they could install new centrifuges and move closer to obtaining weapons-grade fuel. In response, the Britain, France and Germany triggered the dispute-settlement mechanism part of the agreement, which could result in the UN Security Council re-imposing some of the sanctions that had been lifted as part of the deal.


Since the 1978-79 revolution which overthrew the monarchy, Iran has been run by a Shia Islamist regime which has violently suppressed internal dissent. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's powerful Supreme Leader, is the ultimate authority in the Islamic Republic, and it is he who makes the major policy decisions.

There have been periods when it appeared that the Iranian leadership was opting for some relative moderation and reform. This occurred with the election of Mohamed Khatami, considered the "reformist candidate" to the presidency in 1997. While the Khatami government (through 2005) was marked by some moderation in Iran's public stance towards the West, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, tightly controlled most of the state apparatus. Indeed, Iran's nuclear weapons program also intensified during this period. In June 2013, Hassan Rouhani, a cleric with views considered by some to be more moderate than those of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was elected to serve as the country’s next president. In the election campaign, Rouhani pledged to improve Iran’s economy and pursue an improved relationship with the international community. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was President from 2005-2013, was notorious for his extremist language, including calling for Israel to be “wiped from the earth,” and his promotion of Holocaust denial. Iran’s egregious human rights abuses, sponsorship of terrorism, and regional aggression have all persisted at high levels under Rouhani’s administration.

Terrorism and Extremism

Iran's regime is a source of extremism and destabilization in the region and around the globe. As noted above, Iran is generally considered to be the leading state sponsor of terrorism, providing financial support and training for organizations such as Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and many Shiite insurgents in Iraq. Iran is responsible for the bombings of the Israeli Embassy (1992) and the Jewish community center (1994) in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which together killed over 100 people and wounded hundreds more.

Iran’s leaders have repeatedly called for Israel's demise and have propagated vile anti-Semitic tropes including denial of the Holocaust.

The Iranian government is also engaged in aggressive foreign policy, backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his government’s brutal campaign against rebel forces and Syrian citizens. Iran has supplied the Assad regime with financial and military support, and its proxy Hezbollah and other associated militia has been a core component in the Syrian fighting force. Iran also sponsors rebel insurgents in Yemen.

Human Rights Violations

The Iranian regime denies basic freedoms to Iran's citizens, including freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press. The rights of women, workers, LGBTQ people, juveniles, religious and ethnic minorities, and political opposition are brutally suppressed.

Biden’s Iran Deal Will Weaken U.S. National Security

Reviving a fatally flawed, outdated deal that strengthens the world’s top terrorist regime should not be President Biden’s objective. Strengthening U.S. national security and standing with our allies should be.

For weeks, the Biden administration and the Iranian regime have been sequestered at a posh hotel in Vienna, negotiating the terms of their mutual return to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA). After four rounds of negotiations, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani was quoted proclaiming that “almost all the main sanctions have been removed.” If that’s true, then it would be epic negotiating malpractice and, worse, an indefensible surrender of U.S. national security by President Joe Biden’s lead negotiator Rob Malley to the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. Here’s why.

Maximum Pressure Produced Historic Leverage

The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign has brought the regime in Tehran to the weakest point since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. More than twenty countries that were once regular oil customers of Iran have zeroed-out their imports. More than one hundred corporations have exited the Iranian market, taking with them billions of dollars in investment.

The regime has become an international pariah. The European Union sanctioned Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security. The United Kingdom, Germany, France, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Albania, and Serbia either recalled ambassadors, convicted or expelled Iranian “diplomats,” denied landing rights to Mahan Air, or eliminated visa-free travel.

Iran’s Rouhani estimated that U.S. sanctions cost the Islamic Republic $200 billion. That’s $200 billion less to fund its terrorism abroad and atrocities at home. As the Hudson Institute’s Robert Greenway detailed, through the imposition of more than 1,600 designations the Trump sanctions

not only disrupted Iran’s surrogates and proxies they also achieved unprecedented economic leverage, resulting in a 23 percent overall drop in Iran’s GDP, three consecutive years of negative GDP growth (the largest decline since 1983), an 84 percent drop in oil exports in two years (to the lowest levels in Iran’s history), a 58 percent drop in oil production in two years (the lowest levels its history), a record exchange rate for the rial (which climbed from 4,000 toman to 25,000 toman in two years), a current account balance at -40 percent (the lowest in its history), and less than $4 billion in accessible foreign exchange reserves—a drop from over $112 billion in 2017 (the lowest in history). The overall result is a $250 billion loss in overall economic impact.

Iran’s leader Ayatollah Khamenei has a weak hand. The Biden team should not strengthen it by surrendering its enormous negotiating advantage.

Why 2021 is Not 2015

First, the Middle East has changed. The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA was a big boost to renewed regional ties. The trust rebuilt between the United States and its regional friends, stemming from their shared recognition of Iran as the main destabilizing force in the region, led to the historic Abraham Accords between the Jewish state of Israel and its Muslim neighbors—the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. Re-entering a deal that friends of the United States found damaging to their interests would discard that trust and play into Iran’s hands.

Second, the regime cheated on the original deal. Israel’s daring liberation of Iran’s atomic archive in 2018, Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi’s duplicity about a second set of Arak pipes, and the revelation of a secret nuclear weapons program headed by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, before he was relieved of his position, provide ample evidence. There’s no reason to assume the terrorists have changed their stripes.

Third, like Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the Islamic Republic’s chief terrorist Qassem Soleimani has been removed from the battlefield. That makes Iran’s power projection around the Middle East much less potent because, in terms of his influence, Soleimani cannot be replaced.

Fourth, the Obama team’s hopes that the 2015 nuclear deal would moderate the regime and lead to additional deals that address the full scope of its malign behavior, including terrorism, missile development, hostage-taking, and human rights abuses, never materialized. In fact, Iran’s malign activities continued unabated during the JCPOA negotiations and after the agreement went into effect. To fall for the same fairytale in pursuit of a “longer and stronger agreement,” as President Biden said, would be foolish.

Fifth, in 2015, the Iranian people hoped to benefit from the pallets of cash shipped to Iran by the Obama administration. They never did. Instead, they saw billions going straight to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the mullahs, and the regime’s terrorist proxies. Iranians won’t get fooled in 2021.

Sixth, the regime has lost any semblance of domestic legitimacy. The Iranian people have steadily become emboldened in their rejection of the forty-two-year Islamic revolutionary experiment. Their countrywide protests in November 2019, and the ensuing massacre of at least 1,500 people on the order of Ayatollah Khamenei, have caused an irreparable rift between the government and the governed. The current social media “No to the Islamic Republic” campaign is a further indication of the growing popular discontent.

Lifting Non-Nuclear Sanctions Would Break Obama’s Pledge

While it was selling the original 2015 version of the nuclear deal, the Obama administration committed to “keeping in place other unilateral sanctions that relate to non-nuclear issues, such as support for terrorism and human rights abuses,” as well as sanctions on missile technologies and conventional weapons.

A graphic from the Obama White House archive

The 2021 version being negotiated by Malley reportedly includes the lifting of not just the Trump-era nuclear sanctions, but even those imposed on the Iranian regime for its terrorism and long-range missile development. Terror sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran, the National Iranian Oil Company, and the National Iranian Tanker Company—which have funneled billions of dollars to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, its Quds Force, and Hezbollah, the regime’s chief proxy—are also reportedly on the table. Providing billions in sanctions relief to terrorists responsible for the murder of hundreds of Americans, plus thousands of U.S. allies and Iranians, breaks President Barack Obama’s pledge and weakens U.S. national security.

Sanctions Relief Will Endanger Israel and America’s Allies

Israel is America’s closest ally in the Middle East. It’s under attack from Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and assorted other Palestinian terrorist groups—all supplied by their masters in Tehran with increasingly sophisticated rockets and drones. Hamas leader and U.S.-designated terrorist Ismail Haniya stated, “Iran has never hesitated to support the resistance and assist it financially, militarily, and technologically.” PIJ official Ramez Al-Halabi echoed Haniya in a May 7 interview, “The mujahideen in Gaza and Lebanon use Iranian weapons to strike the Zionists.”

According to recent reports, the Iranian regime provides $30 million per month to Hamas, and has historically supplied up to $100 million annually to Palestinian terrorist groups. The State Department’s comprehensive report on Iran’s belligerence estimates that “since 2012, Iran has spent over $16 billion propping up the Assad regime and supporting its other partners and proxies in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.”

Given billions in sanctions relief, stemming from the Biden administration’s generous concessions in Vienna, it’s safe to assume that much of that bounty will end up arming Iran’s proxies and endangering U.S. allies across the Middle East. Biden and his team often emphasize the importance of strong alliances. Weakening America’s allies weakens its alliances, and that weakens U.S. national security.

Map courtesy of the U.S. Department of State

Sanctions Relief will Lead to More U.S. Hostages

The Islamic Republic of Iran was born of the original sin of taking fifty-two Americans hostage in 1979. During every decade since its founding, Iran’s regime has continued to transgress the International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages. Using Americans and other dual nationals as pawns to achieve Tehran’s political objectives has proven profitable. Hassan Abbasi, a senior IRGC strategist, admitted as much in January 2020: “Look how the IRGC generates income for its budget. We grab a spy, [Washington Post reporter] Jason Rezaian. America begs to get him back, but we say no, you have to pay for him. Then the government receives $1.7 billion in exchange for that spy. By catching a single spy, the IRGC earns the money that the government is supposed to allocate for it.”

True to form, reports from Vienna have referenced a possible exchange of American hostages (there are at least four currently held by the regime in Iran) for Iranian prisoners and the release of $7 billion in frozen funds. Another possibility involves the British government paying a £400 million ransom for British-Iranian citizens. As former U.S. hostage in Iran Xiyue Wang wrote, “For the safety and well-being of American citizens, and for the security and stability of the Middle East, the Biden administration should not authorize the release of any frozen Iranian assets to the Islamic Republic.”

The signals out of Vienna are not encouraging. U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley has been hard at work dismantling the Trump administration’s historic leverage “so that Iran enjoys the benefits that it was supposed to enjoy under the deal.” No. That kind of a deal is a bad deal.

As the recent letter sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, signed by seventy Republicans and seventy Democrats across the political spectrum, outlined: “We must seek an agreement or set of agreements with Iran that are comprehensive in nature to address the full range of threats that Iran poses to the region,” including the regime’s nuclear program, ballistic missile program, and funding of terrorism. Iran must also release all hostages and political prisoners before any sanctions are lifted.

Why the Past Haunts Talks With Iran

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Nuclear talks in Vienna aimed at bringing the United States and Iran back into compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, are said to be making progress, which is good news. But there have been predictable roadblocks. Israel, which is not a party to the talks, appeared to sabotage Iran’s centrifuges just as talks were gaining steam. Republicans in Congress are pushing a bill called the Maximum Pressure Act that would strip President Biden’s ability to lift sanctions on Iran without a vote from Congress, making it impossible for the United States to live up to its end of any bargain.

Neither are likely to stymie the short-term prospects of a return to the deal. The G.O.P. doesn’t have enough votes. But they are sobering reminders of the long-term reality. The Biden administration can strike a deal that buys time and stabilizes the situation — and it should. But unless Israel and members of Congress get more assurances that Iran’s nuclear program will be peaceful, the deal will always be at risk of unraveling under the pressure of Israeli attacks or new sanctions imposed by another American president.

That’s why it is in Iran’s long-term interests to bring more skeptics on board. One way Iran could do that is to clear up lingering questions about its past nuclear work. Iran has always insisted that its nuclear program is peaceful and civilian in nature. Iran’s Bushehr reactor, the first nuclear power plant of its kind in the Middle East, began producing electricity in 2011 after years of struggle and Russian assistance. (The United Arab Emirates has also opened a nuclear power plant and Saudi Arabia says it plans to build 16 of them.)

Iranian diplomats say that longstanding American opposition to the completion of Bushehr — and nearly any technological advancement or investment in Iran over the past four decades — forced their civilian program to operate in shadows. Under the Iran nuclear deal struck in 2015, Iran took steps to assure the world that it would not develop weapons, including pouring cement into the core of a heavy-water reactor.

But Iran has never come clean about the weapons-related nuclear work it undertook before 2003, the year the C.I.A. estimates its nuclear weapons program was largely halted. In recent years, international inspectors have found traces of processed uranium at two sites that Iran never declared as nuclear facilities, adding to the list of unanswered questions that the International Atomic Energy Agency has to answer before being able to state with confidence that Iran isn’t still harboring a secret weapons program. The agency’s list of unanswered questions grew longer after Israeli spies stole a raft of documents from Iran revealing advanced development at undeclared sites. The stolen papers appear to document past activities, not current work. But the only way to know for sure is for Iran to let inspectors do their jobs.

If Iran’s current nuclear program is truly aimed at civilian nuclear power, as its leaders claim, then Iran should answer the agency’s questions with candor. The nuclear deal gives international inspectors access to every inch of Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle. But it doesn’t give unfettered access to military areas that weren’t declared as nuclear sites.

The International Atomic Energy Agency knows what it looks like when a country renounces nuclear weapons. South Africa, which built at least six nuclear bombs despite heavy international sanctions, dismantled them quietly as international threats receded and leaders sought to shed their status as international pariahs. South Africa was given a clean bill of health only after inspectors verified that the program was in fact dismantled. Until Iran goes through a similar process, its civilian reactor will always operate under a cloud of deep suspicion. Its scientists will live with the threat of assassination and its economy will remain at risk from sanctions.

The United States also needs to acknowledge history and the ways in which its own policies have contributed to the current crisis. Iran’s nuclear program dates back to the 1960s, when the United States supplied Iran with a nuclear research reactor. At the time, Iran was ruled by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, a pro-American monarch who saw himself as a great modernizer. The shah enthusiastically embraced the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which rests on a bargain: Countries that want peaceful nuclear power plants will be given access to technology, in exchange for robust inspections to ensure they are not producing weapons. Countries that already possessed nuclear weapons, for their part, agreed to pursue disarmament and eventually eliminate their nuclear arsenals, lest they hold an indefinite monopoly on the world’s most powerful weapon. The treaty undoubtedly slowed the spread of nuclear weapons. No signatory has ever managed to build a bomb under international inspections. But there is little to stop a country from building nuclear weapons after announcing a withdrawal from the treaty and kicking inspectors out, as North Korea appears to have done.

In 1974, Iran unveiled an ambitious program to build 20 civilian nuclear reactors to prepare for the day when the country’s oil reserves ran out, a plan U.S. officials commended at the time. In 1975, the shah struck a deal with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to train the first cadre of Iranian nuclear scientists. Americans were supportive, but leery about letting Iran enrich uranium, a process that could be used to create fuel for a nuclear weapon. According to a new biography, “The Last Shah: America, Iran, and the Fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty,” a letter to President Gerald Ford begging for enrichment technology went unanswered.

The shah lent the French government more than a billion dollars to build a commercial enrichment facility in France to supply nuclear fuel to power plants in Iran, France, Italy, Belgium and Spain. But that consortium, known as Eurodif, never gave Iran the nuclear fuel. In 1979, religious revolutionaries overthrew the shah. At first, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared nuclear power to be “un-Islamic” and withdrew from the project. Later, clerics had a change of heart and sought the fuel, but Eurodif refused to provide it. Eventually, Iran built its own uranium enrichment facility in secret.

Reports suggest that Iran’s nuclear program was revived in 1984, after an invasion by Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader who had a nuclear weapons program of his own. The bloody eight-year war with Iraq killed at least 300,000 Iranians, including many who died horrible deaths from chemical weapons. But the international community sided with Saddam Hussein — an outrage Iranians never forgot. It was during this war that the fledgling Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps gained a loyal following for its role in repelling the invasion. Iranian scientists like Mohsen Fakhrizadeh — who was assassinated last year — dedicated themselves to developing Iran’s indigenous defenses.

After the Iran-Iraq war ended, a moderate president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was elected on promises to boost the economy by repairing relations with the West. In 1995, Iran struck a deal with Conoco, a U.S. oil company, to develop one of its largest oil fields. But the Clinton administration killed the deal by banning nearly all American trade and investment in Iran, and threatening sanctions against foreign companies that invested there.

Iran’s nuclear program inched forward anyway. In 2002, Iran’s clandestine enrichment facility became international news. The international blowback, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq the following year, shook the Iranian regime. In 2003, Iran agreed to freeze its enrichment work and halted most weapons-related development. An Iranian official also prepared a sweeping proposal for U.S.-Iranian talks over a wide range of issues, including the nuclear program, Iran’s posture toward American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and support for Palestinian terrorist groups. But the Bush administration scoffed at the idea of direct talks and signaled Iran might be next on its regime-change list. Two years later, Iranians elected a hard-liner, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as president who pressed ahead with Iran’s uranium enrichment program. By the end of Mr. Bush’s second term in office, Iran was on its way to mastering enrichment.

Analysts disagree about why Iran has been willing to spend so heavily on a nuclear program that it claims is peaceful. Some view it as a matter of national pride. The more the Americans insisted that Iran should not have nuclear technology — or even nuclear knowledge — the more the nuclear program became a symbol of self-reliance and resistance to Western imperialism. Others see the program as Iran’s only bargaining chip in the effort to remove sanctions, some of which have been in place for decades. Still others believe that the Iranian regime needs a nuclear weapon — or at least the option of building one — to survive domestic unrest and intense geopolitical rivalries. The grisly death of the Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi, who was overthrown with American help after he gave up his weapons program, serves as an unfortunate cautionary tale.

In 2015, the United States and Iran achieved a diplomatic breakthrough after the Obama administration conceded that Iran could enrich uranium on its own soil if it agreed to robust inspections and other measures to make sure its activities remained peaceful. The deal was flawed, but bought time to test the limits of diplomacy. But in 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement, and slapped Iran with the most expansive sanctions to date, which have made it hard for ordinary Iranians to purchase medicine and food. As expansive as those sanctions are, they haven’t stopped Iran from marching forward on its nuclear program. That suggests that external forces can slow Iran’s program but not stop it. The only sure way to halt Iran’s nuclear progress is to convince Iranians that they have more to gain from taking the path of South Africa than the path of North Korea.

Sanctions and Saber Rattling

The United States has imposed unilateral economic sanctions on Iran for nearly three decades (Arms Control Today), but international efforts to cripple Iran’s nuclear program have coalesced more recently. In September 2005, the IAEA Board of Governors expressed an "absence of confidence (PDF) that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes." Five months later, the board voted to refer Iran to the UN Security Council, and in December 2006, the UN Security Council adopted the first of a series of resolutions imposing sanctions to punish Iran for continued uranium enrichment. Resolution 1737 initiated a block on the sale or transfer of sensitive nuclear technology. Subsequent resolutions--the most recent in September 2008, which reaffirmed past mandates--added financial and travel sanctions on Iranian individuals and companies. In June 2008, the European Union imposed its own set of sanctions, freezing the assets of nearly forty individuals and entities doing business with Bank Melli, Iran’s largest bank. Western officials have accused Bank Melli of supporting Iran’s nuclear and missile programs.

Now some members of Congress are backing a bill that would authorize the White House to penalize foreign companies for selling refined petroleum to Iran. Some analysts support this approach, but former U.S. Ambassador to the UN John R. Bolton suggests only the threat of force (WSJ) can prevent an Iran nuclear bomb. CFR’s Micah Zenko says Israel may be prepared to act (LAT) in that regard if the United States doesn’t.

Despite increasing calls for a military solution, international diplomacy continues apace. In mid-2008, the European Union resubmitted a 2006 offer of incentives for Iran to give up its enrichment activities. In October 2009, talks between Iran, the United States, and other world powers ended in failure as Iran’s leadership rejected a plan to send its uranium to the West (NYT), hours after Iranian negotiators agreed to the deal.

Iran continues to send mixed signals (PDF) regarding cooperation with the IAEA, though considerable evidence suggests Iran’s defiance. In November 2009, the Iranian government approved ten new uranium enrichment plants (WashPost). In February 2010, escalation mounted when Iran announced plans to heighten the enrichment levels (CSMonitor) of existing uranium stockpiles and Ahmadinejad declared (NationalPost), on the Islamic Republic’s thirty-first anniversary, Iran to be a "nuclear state." These developments and Iran’s continued intransigence led the IAEA’s new director general, Yukiya Amano, to publicly announce IAEA fears that Iran was working on nuclear weaponization. A February 2010 report read, "Iran has not provided the necessary cooperation to permit the agency to confirm that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities."

Russia and China traditionally have resisted calls for a fourth round of UN sanctions, but in March 2010 President Medvedev signaled that Russia was warming (Reuters) to the possibility of sanctions. China, however, continues to resist stronger sanctions, and its foreign minister announced in early March (Reuters) that sanctions will not solve the Iran nuclear issue.