Facts & Figures
Chief of State: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (1989)
President: Hassan Rouhani (2013)
Land area: 631,659 sq mi (1,635,999 sq km); total area: 636,293 sq mi (1,648,000 sq km)
Population (2014 est.): 80,840,713 (growth rate: 1.22%); birth rate: 18.23/1000; infant mortality rate: 39/1000; life expectancy: 70.89
Capital and largest city (2011 est.): Tehran, 7.304 million
Other large cities: Mashhad 2.713 million; Esfahan 1.781 million; Karaj 1.635 million; Tabriz 1.509 million; Shiraz 1.321 million (2011)
Monetary unit: Rial
National name: Jomhuri-ye Eslami-ye Iran
Languages: Persian (official) 53%, Azeri Turkic and Turkic dialects 18%, Kurdish 10%, Gilaki and Mazandarani 7%, Luri 6%, Balochi 2%, Arabic 2%, other 2%
Ethnicity/race: Persian 61%, Azeri 16%, Kurd 10%, Arab 2%, Lur 6%, Baloch 2%, Turkmen 2%, other
Religions: Muslim (official) 99.4% (Shia 90-95%, Sunni 5-10%), other (includes Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian) 0.3%, unspecified 0.4% (2011 est.)
National Holiday: Republic Day, April 1
Literacy rate: 85% (2008 est.)
Economic summary: GDP/PPP (2013 est.): $987.1 billion; per capita $12,800. Real growth rate: -1.5%. Inflation: 42.3%. Unemployment: 16%. Arable land: 10.05%. Agriculture: wheat, rice, other grains, sugar beets, fruits, nuts, cotton; dairy products, wool; caviar. Labor force: 27.72 million; note: shortage of skilled labor; agriculture 16.9%, industry 34.4%, services 48.7% (2012 est.). Industries: petroleum, petrochemicals, textiles, cement and other construction materials, food processing (particularly sugar refining and vegetable oil production), metal fabrication, armaments. Natural resources: petroleum, natural gas, coal, chromium, copper, iron ore, lead, manganese, zinc, sulfur. Exports: $61.22 billion (2013 est.): petroleum 80%, chemical and petrochemical products, fruits and nuts, carpets. Imports: $64.42 billion (2013 est.): industrial raw materials and intermediate goods, capital goods, foodstuffs and other consumer goods, technical services, military supplies. Major trading partners: Japan, China, Italy, South Korea, Turkey, Germany, UAE, India (2012).
Communications: Telephones: main lines in use: 28.76 million (2012); mobile cellular: 58.16 million (2012). Broadcast media: state-run broadcast media with no private, independent broadcasters; Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), the state-run TV broadcaster, operates 5 nationwide channels, a news channel, about 30 provincial channels, and several international channels; about 20 foreign Persian-language TV stations broadcasting on satellite TV are capable of being seen in Iran; satellite dishes are illegal and, while their use had been tolerated, authorities began confiscating satellite dishes following the unrest stemming from the 2009 presidential election; IRIB operates 8 nationwide radio networks, a number of provincial stations, and an external service; most major international broadcasters transmit to Iran (2009). Internet hosts: 197,804 (2012). Internet users: 8.214 million (2009).
Transportation: Railways: 8,442 km (2010). Roadways: total: 198,866 km; paved: 160,366 km (including 1,948 km of expressways); unpaved: 38,500 km (2010). Waterways: 850 km (on Karun River and Lake Urmia) (2012). Ports and harbors: Assaluyeh, Bushehr. Airports: 319 (2013).
International disputes: Iran protests Afghanistan's limiting flow of dammed Helmand River tributaries during drought; Iraq's lack of a maritime boundary with Iran prompts jurisdiction disputes beyond the mouth of the Shatt al Arab in the Persian Gulf; Iran and UAE dispute Tunb Islands and Abu Musa Island, which are occupied by Iran; Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia ratified Caspian seabed delimitation treaties based on equidistance, while Iran continues to insist on a one-fifth slice of the sea; Afghan and Iranian commissioners have discussed boundary monument densification and resurvey.
Iran, a Middle Eastern country south of the Caspian Sea and north of the Persian Gulf, is three times the size of Arizona. It shares borders with Iraq, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Armenia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
The Elburz Mountains in the north rise to 18,603 ft (5,670 m) at Mount Damavend. From northwest to southeast, the country is crossed by a desert 800 mi (1,287 km) long.
Iran has been an Islamic theocracy since the Pahlavi monarchy was overthrown on Feb. 11, 1979.
The region now called Iran was occupied by the Medes and the Persians in the 1500s B.C., until the Persian king Cyrus the Great overthrew the Medes and became ruler of the Achaemenid (Persian) Empire, which reached from the Indus to the Nile at its zenith in 525 B.C. Persia fell to Alexander in 331–330 B.C. and a succession of other rulers: the Seleucids (312–302 B.C.), the Greek-speaking Parthians (247 B.C.–A.D. 226), the Sasanians (224–c. 640), and the Arab Muslims (in 641). By the mid-800s Persia had become an international scientific and cultural center. In the 12th century it was invaded by the Mongols. The Safavid dynasty (1501–1722), under whom the dominant religion became Shiite Islam, followed, and was then replaced by the Qajar dynasty (1794–1925).
During the Qajar dynasty, the Russians and the British fought for economic control of the area, and during World War I, Iran's neutrality did not stop it from becoming a battlefield for Russian and British troops. A coup in 1921 brought Reza Kahn to power. In 1925, he became shah and changed his name to Reza Shah Pahlavi. He subsequently did much to modernize the country and abolished all foreign extraterritorial rights.
Iran Becomes a Theocracy with Islamic Revolution
The country's pro-Axis allegiance in World War II led to Anglo-Russian occupation of Iran in 1941 and deposition of the shah in favor of his son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Pahlavi's Westernization programs alienated the clergy, and his authoritarian rule led to massive demonstrations during the 1970s, to which the shah responded with the imposition of martial law in Sept. 1978. The shah and his family fled Iran on Jan. 16, 1979, and the exiled cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to establish an Islamic theocracy. Khomeini proceeded with his plans for revitalizing Islamic traditions. He urged women to return to wearing the veil; banned alcohol, Western music, and mixed bathing; shut down the media; closed universities; and eliminated political parties.
U.S. and Iran Sever Ties Amid Hostage Crisis
Revolutionary militants invaded the U.S. embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979, seized staff members as hostages, and precipitated an international crisis. Khomeini refused all appeals, even a unanimous vote by the UN Security Council demanding immediate release of the hostages. Iranian hostility toward Washington was reinforced by the Carter administration's economic boycott and deportation order against Iranian students in the U.S., the break in diplomatic relations, and ultimately an aborted U.S. raid in April 1980 aimed at rescuing the hostages.
As the first anniversary of the embassy seizure neared, Khomeini and his followers insisted on their original conditions: guarantee by the U.S. not to interfere in Iran's affairs, cancellation of U.S. damage claims against Iran, release of $8 billion in frozen Iranian assets, an apology, and the return of the assets held by the former imperial family. These conditions were largely met and the 52 American hostages were released on Jan. 20, 1981, ending 444 days in captivity.
The sporadic war with Iraq regained momentum in 1982, as Iran launched an offensive in March and regained much of the border area occupied by Iraq in late 1980. The stalemated war dragged on well into 1988. Although Iraq expressed its willingness to stop fighting, Iran stated that it would not end the war until Iraq agreed to pay for war damages and to punish the Iraqi government leaders involved in the conflict. On July 20, 1988, Khomeini, after a series of Iranian military reverses, agreed to cease-fire negotiations with Iraq. A cease-fire went into effect on Aug. 20, 1988. Khomeini died in June 1989 and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei succeeded him as the supreme leader.
Khatami Attempts to Liberalize Nation
By early 1991, the Islamic revolution appeared to have lost much of its militancy. Attempting to revive a stagnant economy, President Rafsanjani took measures to decentralize the command system and introduce free-market mechanisms.
Mohammed Khatami, a little-known moderate cleric, former newspaperman, and national librarian, won the presidential election with 70% of the vote on May 23, 1997, a stunning victory over the conservative ruling elite. Khatami supported greater social and political freedoms, but his steps toward liberalizing the strict clerical rule governing the country put him at odds with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
Signaling a seismic change in Iran's political environment, reform candidates won the overwhelming majority of seats in Feb. 2000 parliamentary elections, thereby wresting control from hard-liners, who had dominated the parliament since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The parliament's reformist transformation greatly buttressed the efforts of Khatami in constructing a nation of “lasting pluralism and Islamic democracy.” Khatami walked a jittery tightrope between student groups and other liberals pressuring him to introduce bolder freedoms and Iran's military and conservative clerical elite (including Khamenei), who expressed growing impatience with the president's liberalizing measures. In June 2001 presidential elections, Khatami won reelection with a stunning 77% of the vote.
In Jan. 2002, President Bush announced that Iran was part of an “axis of evil,” calling it one of the most active state sponsors of international terrorism.
Iran Taunts World With Nuclear Ambitions
By 2003, Iran was fanning much of the world's suspicions that it had illegal nuclear ambitions. In June 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) criticized Iran's concealment of much of its nuclear facilities and called on the country to permit more rigorous inspections of its nuclear sites. Under intense international pressure, Iran reluctantly agreed in December to suspend its uranium enrichment program and allow for thorough IAEA inspections.
On Dec. 26, the most destructive earthquake of 2003 devastated the historic city of Bam, killing an estimated 28,000 to 30,000 of its 80,000 residents.
In Feb. 2004, conservatives won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections, a setback for Iran's reformist movement. The hard-line Guardian Council had disqualified more than 2,500 reformist candidates, including more than 80 who were already members of the 290-seat parliament. The IAEA again censured the country in June 2004 for failing to fully cooperate with nuclear inspections. Neither U.S. threats nor Europe's coaxing managed to overcome Iran's alarming defiance.
Ahmadinejad Elected President
In June 2005, former Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hard-line conservative and a devout follower of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, won the presidential election with 62% of the vote. Ahmadinejad was highly popular among Iran's rural poor, who responded to his pledge to fight corruption among the country's elite. In Aug. 2005, he rejected an EU disarmament plan that was backed by the U.S. and had been in negotiation for two years. Ahmadinejad has been defiantly anti-Western and venomously anti-Israeli, announcing that Israel was a “disgraceful blot” that should be “wiped off the map.”
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was reelected as president of Iran on June 12, 2009, with over 62% of the vote. Disputes arose over the election's validity, with rival candidates claiming it was rigged. Protests and riots ensued in the streets of Tehran, resulting in at least 17 deaths and hundreds of arrests.
Iran Continues Progress on Nuclear Technology
In Jan. 2006, Iran removed UN seals on uranium enrichment equipment and resumed nuclear research. France, Britain, and Germany called off nuclear talks with Iran, and along with the U.S. States, threatened to refer Iran to the UN Security Council, a step avoided thus far. Russia and China, both of whom have strong economic ties to Iran, refused to endorse sanctions. In April, Iran announced it had successfully enriched uranium. In July, a Security Council resolution was finally passed, demanding that Iran halt its nuclear activities by the end of August or face possible sanctions.
In May 2007, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran is using about 1,300 centrifuges and producing fuel for nuclear reactors, evidence that the country has flouted another deadline to stop enriching uranium. The fuel would have to be further enriched to make it weapons grade, however. In September, Iran followed the IAEA's finding with the announcement that it had reached its goal of developing 3,000 active centrifuges.
A National Intelligence Estimate, released in Dec. 2007 and compiled by the 16 agencies of the U.S. intelligence community, reported "with high confidence" that Iran had frozen its nuclear weapons program in 2003. The report contradicted one written in 2005 that stated Iran was determined to continue developing such weapons. The report put the brakes on any plans by the Bush administration to preemptively attack Iran's weapons facilities and to impose another round of sanctions against Iran. The report suggests that Iran has bowed to international pressure to end its pursuit of an atomic bomb. President Bush remained skeptical, saying Iran remains a threat and can not be trusted to pursue enriching uranium for civilian use: "Look, Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous, and Iran will be dangerous, if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon," he said. "What’s to say they couldn’t start another covert nuclear weapons program?"
In May 2008, Parliament overwhelmingly elected former secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Larijani as speaker. Larijani, a rival to Ahmadinejad, though conservative and a proponent of the country's nuclear program, is considered a pragmatist who is open to talking to the West.
Iran continued to taunt the U.S. and Israel in July when it test fired nine long- and medium-range missiles, which could reach parts of Israel. A commander of the Revolutionary Guard said, "The aim of these war games is to show we are ready to defend the integrity of the Iranian nation." The U.S. and Israel both condemned the action. Just days later, Iran's chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, met with representatives from the U.S., France, Britain, Germany, Russia, and China to discuss the country's nuclear program. Iran, however, refused to accept a proposal that called on the country to freeze its nuclear program, in exchange for a pledge by the six nations not to seek further sanctions against Iran.
Iran launched a satellite into orbit in Jan. 2009. The launch was timed to coincide with Iran's celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Islamic revolution. The U.S. expressed "great concern" about the move, fearing it could lead to the development of longer-range ballistic missiles.
Presidential Election Thrusts Iran into Crisis
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won his reelection campaign on June 12, 2009, by a landslide victory, taking almost 63% of the vote, while main challenger, Mir Hussein Moussavi, received just under 34%. Accusations of ballot tampering and fraud led to wide-scale protests in Tehran. Moussavi's campaign promises, which included plans for improved human rights and a reversal of Ahmadinejad's hard-line policies, were supported by many of the younger and less conservative generations in Iran. Ahmadinejad's victory was announced just two hours after the polls closed, an amazingly short period of time since Iran's paper ballots must be hand counted. The protests, the largest since the 1979 revolution, continued after the election. Protesters relied on social networking sites and text messaging to communicate with others around the world about Moussavi, the election, and the demonstrations. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader, called the election "fair" and ruled out a recount or an annulment of the election. As many as 1,000 people were arrested during the protests and 20 were killed. There were widespread reports that prisoners were abused and some raped while in custody. In August, mass trial of 100 government critics began. The defendants, who were reportedly charged with inciting a "velvet coup," were denied access to lawyers and contact with family members.
The diplomatic situation between Iran and the West further deteriorated in September, when U.S. president Barack Obama revealed at the New York UN General Assembly meeting that American, British, and French spies have evidence that Iran has built a uranium-enrichment plant near Qum. Iranian officials acknowledged existence of the facility, but maintained it is for peaceful purposes. Then, Iran test fired medium-range missiles that are capable of hitting Israel and U.S. military bases in the Persian Gulf. At talks in Geneva in early October between Iran, the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany, Iran agreed to open the plant to UN inspectors and export the enriched uranium it has declared for processing into fuel. However, Ahmadinejad quickly reneged on his offer and faced the possibility of stricter UN sanctions.
In May, as the U.S. and other members of the Security Council were negotiating the language and terms of a fourth round sanctions against Iran for continuing to enrich uranium and refusing to open its facilities to weapons inspectors, Iran agreed to send 2,640 pounds of enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for uranium enriched to 20%—a deal strikingly similar to the one Iran reneged on in October 2009. Turkey and Brazil brokered the agreement. Both countries were criticized for interfering with the sanctions process and accused of attempting to increase their presence on the world stage.
Despite the deal, Iran said it would continue to enrich uranium, and a report by International Atomic Energy Agency indicated that Iran had in fact produced enough fuel that with additional processing could make two nuclear weapons. Iran has steadfastly insisted that the fuel is for peaceful purposes. The report helped to further justify sanctions, which were passed by the UN Security Council in June. The sanctions require that countries inspect ships and planes leaving or entering Iran if they suspect banned cargo is being transported, ban Iran from investing in other countries' nuclear programs, and limit financial transactions of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. The U.S. Congress and the EU followed with even tougher unilateral sanctions aimed at foreign companies that conduct business with the Revolutionary Guards or sell gas to Iran.
Leaked Cables Show Arab Countries Wary of Iran
In November, President Ahmadinejad acknowledged that Iran's nuclear program had been dealt a blow in 2007 when its facility at Natanz was attacked by a computer worm, called Stuxnet. The worm destroyed about 1,000 of the country's 6,0000 centrifuges. Israel and the U.S. are believed to be behind the attack in an attempt to slow Iran's progress toward obtaining nuclear weapons.
Diplomatic cables released in November 2010 by WikiLeaks, an organization that disseminates secret information—or at least information not readily available to the public—in the interest of transparency, revealed that many Arab leaders fear Iran's growing nuclear power and have privately persuaded the United States to intervene. In fact, a cable from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia Washington urged the U.S. to "cut off the head of the snake," referring to Iran. The cables also indicated for the first time that the U.S. believes Iran has acquired missiles from North Korea that could strike parts of Western Europe.
Experts Fear Iran Will Exploit Tumult in Middle East
Iran was not immune to the anti-government protests that swept through the Middle East in February and March 2011. Demonstrations broke out in February amid the unfolding revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. President Ahmadinejad initially billed the protests as a display of support for the popular uprisings against secular governments. This stood in stark contrast, however, to the sentiment among the protesters—members of the opposition that took to the streets in 2009 to express anger about what is widely considered a rigged election in Ahmadinejad's favor. When it became clear that Ahmadinejad was the target of the protesters, police began to brutally suppress the demonstrations with tear gas and clubs. Parliament called for the execution of opposition leaders Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi.
Despite the crackdown on protesters in Iran, Ahmadinejad condemned Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's violent attack on Libyan protesters that left hundreds dead. Some observers speculated that Iran would benefit by the tumult in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, neighboring countries that have expressed support for engagement with Israel.
"I think the Saudis are worried that they're encircled—Iraq, Syria, Lebanon; Yemen is unstable; Bahrain is very uncertain," Alireza Nader, of the RAND Corporation, said in an interview with the New York Times. "They worry that the region is ripe for Iranian exploitation. Iran has shown that it is very capable of taking advantage of regional instability."
Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme religious leader of Iran, engaged in a public power struggle in 2011 that suggested a split among Iran's conservative base—the political elite versus the traditional conservatives, led by Khamenei. It began in April when Ahmadinejad fired the chief of the intelligence ministry, only to have the move rescinded by Khamenei. Then, in September prior to attending the annual meeting of the UN, Ahmadinejad announced that two American hikers who had been imprisoned in Iran on espionage charges for more than two years would be released. Less than a day later, the judiciary said he lacked the authority to issue the order. The hikers, however, were released later in the month.
Advances in Nuclear Program Lead to Additional Sanctions
Iran's nuclear program once again prompted international concern in November 2011 when the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a report, based on about 1,000 documents and interviews with intelligence officials from ten countries, that "Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device." Specifically, the report said Iran was developing the technology to trigger a nuclear weapon. President Ahmadinejad denied the allegation, saying the evidence was fabricated by Iran's enemies.
The U.S., Britain, and Canada responded with tough economic sanctions targeted at the country's government and commercial banks. Canada and the U.S. also imposed sanctions aimed at Iran's oil, gas, and petrochemical industries. Britain's sanctions were the harshest, actually severing all ties with Iran's banks, including the government Central Bank. While the U.S. sanctions fell short of Britain's, the Treasury Department issued a statement calling Iran a "primary money laundering concern."
Iran criticized the sanctions and was particularly outraged with England. Parliament voted to downgrade the diplomatic ties with Britain. On Nov. 28, several dozen Iranian protesters rushed into the British embassy compound in Tehran, yelling, "Death to England!" They broke embassy windows, burned the British flag, and vandalized offices. The attack recalled the Nov. 1979 incursion into the U.S. embassy by revolutionary militants who held 52 American diplomats at hostages for 444 days. British Prime Minister David Cameron withdrew several diplomats from Iran following the incursion.
In June 2012, the European Union imposed an embargo on Iranian oil in an effort to persuade Iran to halt uranium enrichment and end its nuclear weapon efforts. In response, Iran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, which would seriously impede delivery of oil to areas outside the Persian Gulf and sharply increase prices. At the same time the U.S. said it would impose financial penalties on countries that buy Iranian oil. The EU followed those sanctions with another round in October that targeted the banking, shipping, and other industrial sectors. In its statement outlining the sanctions, the EU said it banned "all transactions between European and Iranian banks unless authorized in advance under strict conditions with exemptions for humanitarian needs." The sanctions have resulted in a weak currency, inflation, and a drop in manufacturing and oil production. The economic woes have caused discord among the populace that has seen rising prices and sharply diminished purchasing power.
Relationship with Israel Reaches Critical Point
Tension between Iran and Israel intensified in early 2012 as Iran continued to make progress on its nuclear weapons program. In January, Iran announced it was set to begin uranium enrichment at a second facility. Iran blamed Israel and the United States for the death of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a nuclear scientist. A bomber on a motorcycle killed Roshan in Tehran during the morning commute in January. It was the fourth attack on an Iranian nuclear specialist in two years. Then, in February, Israeli officials accused Iran of being involved in multiple terrorist attacks. On Feb. 13, Israeli Embassy personnel in the capitals of Georgia and India were the targets of bombers. The following day a residential neighborhood in Bangkok was the site of a series of explosions. Thai authorities arrested two men with Iranian passports in connection to the attacks.
In August 2012, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that while economic sanctions have hurt Iran, they have not slowed progress on the country's nuclear program. In fact, the report found that Iran's nuclear program had progressed even faster than anticipated. The report validated Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's suspicion that Iran's nuclear program has continued to move at full speed despite the sanctions and diplomatic isolation imposed on Iran by an international community. The agency's report also confirmed that 75% of the nuclear centrifuges needed for an underground site had been installed. Netanyahu indicated that Iran was getting close to crossing the "red line" and that Israel had to determine the appropriate time to act to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions. In late September, Netanyahu calmed fears that a preemptive attack was imminent in an address to the UN General Assembly. He said he believed Iran would not have the technology to enrich uranium until at least the spring of 2013 and therefore there was time for diplomacy to deter Iran's nuclear program.
As Iran's economy continued to crumble under the weight of increasingly stringent economic sanctions—the value of rial fell by more than 40% in one week in early October—Iran and the U.S. agreed in October to engage in bilateral talks about Iran's nuclear weapons program. However, no talks had occurred by mid-December.
Centrist Elected President of Iran; Reaches Out to West with a Charm Offensive
Hassan Rouhani, a moderate cleric and Iran's former negoiator on nuclear issues, won June 2013's presidential election in a landslide, taking 50.7% of the vote. Reformists threw their support behind Rouhani after their preferred candidate, Mohammad Reza Aref, dropped out of the race. Thousands of Iranians took to the streets to celebrate Rouhani's victory. While he had the backing of reformists, Rouhani has long been a member of the country's conservative establishment. He served in parliament for more than 20 years and is loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei. He campaigned on a promise to reach out to the west and improve relations with the U.S., and after his election he promised to "follow the path of moderation and justice, not extremism." However, Rouhani said Iran would continue to pursue its nuclear program. U.S. president Barack Obama similarly expressed hope that the two countries would engage in a dialogue that might lead to progress on the seemingly intractable nuclear issue.
In a remarkable turn of events in September, Rouhani followed through on his pledge to thaw relations with the west. In rapid succession, he announced that Iran would never "seek weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons"; released 11 prominent political prisoners; transferred oversight of the country's nuclear program from the conservative—and militarily agressive—national security council to the more moderate foreign ministry; exchanged letters with President Barack Obama; and wished Jews a joyous Rosh Hoshanah. All of these moves reportedly had the backing of Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's supreme religious leader, who wields ultimate power in the country. In an opinion article in the Washington Post on Sept. 20, Rouhani signaled his willingness to engage the international community to forge mutually beneficial relationships. Such diplomacy, he said, means "engaging with one's counterparts, on the basis of equal footing and mutual respect, to address shared concerns and achieve shared objectives." He offered to mediate between the Syrian government and the opposition and reiterated that the country intends to pursue nuclear power for peaceful purposes. "Mastering the atomic fuel cycle and generating nuclear power is as much about diversifying our energy resources as it is about who Iranians are as a nation, our demand for dignity and respect and our consequent place in the world."
Rouhani's charm offensive continued on his trip to the U.S., where he addressed the UN General Assembly on Sept. 24, 2013. His speech notably lacked the anti-Israel bluster of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and he was careful to refrain from making statements that would raise eyebrows at home or expectations by the West. He repeated his earlier claim that Iran would never seek nuclear weapons but would continue to pursue uranium enrichment for peaceful purposes. He also suggested that the U.S. and Iran could come to agreement on Iran's nuclear program within six months. In another remarkable turn, Rouhani called the Holocaust "reprehensible." The statement further illustrated how Rouhani is steering a markedly different course from Ahmadinejad, who denied the Holocaust on several occasions. Many observers were disappointed that President Obama and Rouhani didn't shake hands at the UN. Still, expectations for future talks and progress on the intractable nuclear issue remain high.
Iran Agrees to Scale Back Nuclear Program, but Deal Remains Elusive
Talks about Iran's nulcear program between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany resumed in October 2013 and again November after being on hold for six months. They were the most promising and specific to date. In a separate agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran said it would give the agency inspectors "managed access" to nuclear facilities in Bandar Abbas and Arak so they can gather data about activities. The agreement does not require that Iran hand over proprietary information about their technology. The plant at Bandar Abbas is a mine that produces yellowcake uranium, and Arak houses a heavy-water production plant. Iran, however, did not grant the IAEA access to the plant at Parchin, where inspectors think Iran tested triggers for nuclear devices.
On Nov. 24, 2013, at a third round of talks in Geneva, Iran reached a six-month deal with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany. Iran agreed to halt production of uranium beyond 5%, which means it could only produce uranium for peaceful purposes; dilute or convert to oxide its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20%; not install new centrifuges; give UN inspectors daily access to enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordo. In return, the crippling sanctions against Iran were eased, pumping between $6 billion and $7 billion back into Iran's economy. The sanctions will be reinstated if Iran does not comply. Negotiations for a long-term agreement will continue during the six-month period. Israel and Saudi Arabia both expressed outrage about the deal, fearing their power in the Middle East would be threatened or diminished by closer ties between the U.S. and Iran and by Iran's potential wealth from oil revenue and its nuclear know-how.
By the time the next round of talks opened in February 2014, Iran's economy was showing signs of rebounding, with inflation falling from 45% in 2013 to less than 30%—a result of the easing of sanctions. While representatives at the six-party talks disclosed little about the progress, they said they had agreed on a framework for moving forward—certainly reason for cautious optimism. A deal was supposed to be reached by the end of July 2014, but the deadline was extended to November. Once again, Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany failed to reach the November deadline. However, neither side was ready to throw in the towel, and they set a deadline of March 2015 to outline a framework and June 30, 2015, for a full accord. Negotiations picked up in February 2015, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry engaging in a series of dicussions with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. U.S. officials expressed optimism that a framework would be in place by the end of March and that a full agreement would be in place by the end of June.
In November 2014, Russia agreed to build two—and potentially eight—nuclear power reactors in Iran. As part of the deal, Iran will buy reactor fuel from Russia, reducing Iran's need to enrich its own uranium.
Iran Contributes to the Fight Against ISIS
Iran, which holds tremendous influence over the Shiite-led government of Iraq, has advised Iraq as the country battled ISIS, the radical militant group that has sought to implement an Islamic state in northern Iraq and Syria. Qassim Suleimani, head of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, traveled to Baghdad to help Maliki and military leaders plan a response to the ISIS advance. Iran has regularly sent military supplies to Iraq and launched airstrikes targeted at ISIS militants in western Iraq. In March 2015, Iranian-backed militias and Iranian troops led the fight in Tikrit, Iraq, against ISIS. Iranian military leaders also provided guidance to the fighters.
Historic Nuclear Deal Goes into Effect
Carlos Barria, Pool Photo via AP
The leaders of Iran and the six nations that negotiated the nuclear deal
In March 2015, as Iran appeared to be close to signing a 10-year accord that would scale back its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions, 47 U.S. Republican senators signed an open letter to Iranian officials saying the agreement could be reversed "with the stroke of a pen" by President Obama's successor. The letter, written by freshman senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, sparked outrage among Democrats, who said the move, which was without precedent, undermined Obama's foreign policy. Iranian officials dismissed the letter and continued the negotiations. "In our view, this letter has no legal value and is mostly a propaganda ploy," said Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
On Jan. 16, 2016, Iran's sanctions were lifted by the U.S. and European nations. The longstanding sanctions, both financial and oil, were lifted after inspections proved that Iran had dismantled the weapons as agreed upon in the nuclear deal. Around $100 billion of Iran's assets were also released after the inspections by international representatives.
The release of assets and sanctions came hours after a prisoner swap between the U.S. and Iran. Three Americans, a marine, a Washington Post reporter, and a pastor, were freed from Iran and sent to Germany to receive medical treatment at an American military base before returning to the United States. A fourth American prisoner, Nosratollah Khosravi, was freed in the exchanged, but decided to stay in Tehran. A fifth American was freed in a separate arrangement.
For their part, the U.S. released seven Iranians who had broken embargoes. The U.S. also removed 14 other Iranians from international wanted lists. With the landmark nuclear agreement with Iran now in effect, President Obama reached out to Iranians on Jan. 17, asking them to "pursue a new path" with the West. Meanwhile, the U.S. imposed minor new sanctions on Iran for performing banned missile tests.