Best Analysis

The Saudi-Iranian “Cold War” and the battle over Yemen’s strategic worth

Hussein KaloutHussein Kalout, Research Associate with the Iran Project at the Belfer Center, writes that the ongoing conflict in Yemen is best understood as a continuation of the Saudi-Iran regional "Cold War" that has gripped the Middle Eastern region in recent years. He argues that Saudi and Gulf support for Yemeni President Hadi was originally based on the idea that an autocratic system in Yemen would hamper the spread of Iranian influence, but that after Hadi proved unable to mollify opposition groups and was pushed out by the Houthi movement, was forced to intervene to try and prevent the "loss" of Yemen to Iran. He points out that the potential for an agreement between Iran and the P5+1 on the Iranian nuclear program has also pushed Saudi intervention, due to concerns about Iran's ability to further its regional designs after sanctions are lifted. He concludes that Yemen is significantly much more important for Saudi strategy than it is for Iran, but that the Saudi goal of placing President Hadi back in power is unrealistic, and Iranian and Saudi animus will likely continue for some time.

Ignore June 30: Time is on the Side of a Better Iran Deal

James SebeniusJames Sebenius, Director of the Harvard Negotiation Project at the Harvard Law School, writes that the U.S. administration should remember that time is on the side of the P5+1, not Iran, in the nuclear negotiations. He argues that the interim agreement, which both sides are currently adhering to, severely limited the size of the Iranian nuclear program, removing any utility to play for time on the Iranian side of the talks. The same agreement, however, allowed the US and its allies to keep the majority of sanctions on Iran, costing the Iranian economy significantly, especially with the sharp decline in oil prices. Furthermore, Iran is spending money in assisting allies and proxies in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, further depleting its treasury and causing further decline in its domestic economy. He concludes that as a result, the US can afford to keep negotiating well past the June 30 deadline, and still be in a stronger position in the talks, as long as the P5+1 holds together on sanctions.

The Hollow Core of the Iran Deal

William TobeyWilliam Tobey, Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center, writes for the Iran Task Force that the emerging agreement with Iran over its nuclear program will be fatally weakened if it does not address issues of the past military dimensions of the Iranian program. He notes that while the IAEA has reported that Iran undertook a covert military program potentially related to nuclear weapons development and that the United States initially emphasized understanding all aspects of the PMD issue, Secretary of State John Kerry has appeared to back down from this demand, raising the specter that it will not be addressed in the final agreement. He argues that this is a mistake, as the US intelligence community does not have perfect confidence in knowing every aspect of the Iranian nuclear program, failing to understand every aspect of the Iranian program will hinder verification efforts, and the Iranian willingness to come clean on PMD issues is an important indicator of their willingness to comply with a final agreement.

Evaluating Key Components of a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action With Iran

Jim WalshJim Walsh, Research Associate at MIT's Security Studies Program, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on methods of assessing the emerging nuclear accord with Iran. He argued that on balance, the agreement is likely to be a boon for both nonproliferation and for U.S. national security. He cautioned against using a standard of perfection for an agreement, noting that almost every nuclear arms control agreement was criticized and despite this have been overwhelmingly successful. He also suggested limits that would be necessary to make the agreement a success, that the IAEA will be able to determine if Iran is willing to hand over the necessary information on its program in order for an agreement to go forward, and that the agreement is unlikely to trigger proliferation across the region and may in fact help prompt further discussion of a nuclear free zone in the Middle East. 

Is the Iran Nuclear Deal Good Enough?

Albert CarnasaleAlbert Carnesale, Chancellor Emeritus of the University of California, Los Angeles and Chairman of the International Council of the Belfer Center, writes in The National Interest that the crucial question that must be considered in debating the emerging nuclear accord with Iran is not "is it a good deal?" but "is it a good deal compared to the alternatives?" He argues that referencing some undefined "better deal" is not helpful for debate, and notes the key features of the emerging agreement that would push back Iran's breakout time by a year in exchange for sanctions relief. He suggests that there is debate over whether or not more sanctions would produce an agreement or cause the talks to fail, and suggests that the U.S. should compare the deal to the other two main alternatives, an unconstrained nuclear program or a war with Iran. He notes that the deal can be successful by spelling out monitoring and constraints on the program, and will create verification measures significantly stronger than those currently in place under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, although it would come with the cost of legitimizing Iran's nuclear program and providing funds that may potentially be used for terrorist activities in the region. He concludes that the deal as it appears based on information released now appears to be a good one, in that it will overall enhance the security of the United States and its allies.

Public Statement on U.S. Policy Toward the Iran Nuclear Negotiations

Graham AllisonGraham Allison, Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Robert Blackwill, Member of the Board of the Belfer Center and Henry Kissinger Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, General James Cartwright, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center, Paula Dobriansky, Senior Fellow with the Belfer Center's Future of Diplomacy Project, Ollie Heinonen, Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center, David Petraeus, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center, Dennis Ross, International Council Member of the Belfer Center, and Gary Samore, Director of Research at the Belfer Center, are all signatories of the Public Statement on U.S. Policy towards the Iran Nuclear Negotiations published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The statement urges the Administration to continue negotiating until it has completed an agreement that strengthens monitoring and verification of the Iranian program, clears issues of possible military dimensions to the Iranian program, restricts research and development in order to delay Iran's ability to deploy advanced centrifuges, only provides sanctions relief in exchange for verifiable actions undertaken by Iran, and contains measures to penalize Iran if it violates the terms of the agreement. It also urges action in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and in the broader region to contain Iranian influence and reassure allies of American commitment to stability.

Sanctions Against Iran: A Guide to Targets, Terms, and Timetables

Sanctions Against Iran: A Guide to Targets, Terms, and Timetables

The patchwork of sanctions imposed against Iran is perhaps the most comprehensive sanctions effort ever marshaled by the international community. Organized by different countries with different priorities using different tools, sanctions played a key role in convincing Iran to accept initial restraints on its nuclear program and negotiate over its future.

Yet the complex nature of international sanctions—which isolated Iran and severely damaged its economy—today poses a serious challenge in nuclear negotiations. As diplomats strive to reach a comprehensive agreement by June 30, the extent and pace of unwinding sanctions has emerged as a core disagreement between Iran and the West.

To assist Members of Congress and observers in analyzing these issues and judging a potential comprehensive agreement, the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School prepared this brief to outline the key facets of sanctions against Iran. Written as an addendum to our April policy brief, ‘Decoding the Iran Nuclear Deal,’ this report is driven by the policy debate’s leading questions:

  • If negotiations with Iran succeed in concluding a final agreement, which sanctions will be relieved, and when?
  • Is the West limited in its ability to offer sanctions relief?
  • How are international sanctions divided between nuclear-related measures and those that target other Iranian actions, like support of terrorism?
  • What role have United Nations and European Union sanctions played?
  • Will Iranian compliance with the agreement’s terms be required before sanctions are waived?
  • If Iran violates the terms of an agreement, can sanctions be re-imposed?

In an effort to answer these and other questions, this report begins by considering the history of sanctions against Iran and assesses which ones have caused the most impact. Next, it reviews the process of sanctions relief and sanctions “snap-back.” Finally, the report provides a detailed summary of American sanctions and includes recommendations for additional reading.

Lessons Learned from Past WMD Negotiations

Graham AllisonGraham Allison, Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on lessons from prior weapons of mass destruction negotiations for the current talks with Iran over its nuclear program. Drawing on arms control agreements during the Cold War and the post-Cold War era, he argued that negotiated agreements on nuclear weapons are a crucial part of American national security although they are complementary to, and not an alternative to, other military, diplomatic, covert, and economic means of geopolitical competition, that no arms agreement is perfect from the perspective of both sides as they are by nature negotiated settlements, claims that the United States can't or should make agreements with "evil" regimes or those that cannot be trusted are false, the United States can make agreements with regimes that it is trying to contain or subvert in other ways, and which are in turn engaging in other actions that are threatening American citizens and soldiers, arms control agreements overall have reduced the number of nuclear weapons and helped reduce the likelihood of war, and that there is no "good" or "bad" agreement on its own, but only when assessed against alternative options.

Lessons Learned from Past Negotiations to Prevent Nuclear Proliferation

William TobeyWilliam Tobey, Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on lessons from prior arms control and disarmament agreements for the current negotiations with Iran. Using examples from Iraq, North and Libya, he identified five key patterns for arms control negotiators to be cognizant of, including the fact that decisions to disarm are usually incomplete and taken incrementally, deceptive actions by the proliferator can appear as progress, strong verification and intelligence measures can deter cheating while lax verification can encourage it, verification is built on checking declarations for inconsistencies, and inspections are only as effective as political support.  From these lessons, he identified three key lessons, including a complete declaration of nuclear activities is crucial, unwillingness to provide this declaration is evidence of Iran's willingness to comply with a full agreement, and successful agreements require vigilance over time, and cannot be considered solved after an agreement is signed.

How to Make Sure Iran's One Year Nuclear Breakout Time Does not Shrink

Olli HeinonenSimon HendersonOlli Heinonen, Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and Simon Henderson, Baker Fellow at the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy, write for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that the final agreement with Iran over its nuclear program needs to take into account the efficiency of Iranian centrifuges when calculating breakout time, and not just the number of centrifuges allowed to enrich. They note that the exact efficiency in Separative Work Units (SWUs) of the Iranian IR-1 centrifuge is not exactly known, and therefore it is very possible that American estimates of Iran's enrichment capacity dangerously underestimates how much Iran is able to enrich, meaning that estimates putting its breakout time at one year are are inaccurate. They argue that it is necessary to understand exactly how efficient the Iranian centrifuges are in order to understand how many Iran needs to maintain a breakout time of about one year, and that this figure cannot only be calculated from the number of centrifuges Iran possess.

Can a U.S. Deal Force Iran to Fess Up to the Military Dimensions of Its Nuke Program?

William TobeyWilliam Tobey, Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, writes in Foreign Policy that it is crucial that the United States and the P5+1 press Iran on the Past Military Dimensions (PMD) of its nuclear program before any final agreement is completed. He argues that while the U.S. originally stated that PMD issues would be resolved before a final agreement, recent remarks by Secretary of State John Kerry have seemed to indicate that the U.S. is walking back its insistence on clarifying the the PMD of Iran's program. This is a mistake, he writes, because American, IAEA, and other national intelligence agencies do not know the entirety of Iran's past work, because understanding the PMD of the Iranian program is necessary for monitoring and verification in any deal, and because compliance with resolving the PMD issue serves as a litmus test for Iranian compliance with a broader agreement. He concludes that a failure to resolve the PMD question will fatally weaken any nuclear accord with Iran.

Is the Iran Nuclear Deal Good for the U.S.?

Gary SamoreGary Samore, Director of Research at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, writes in Time that the emerging nuclear agreement with Iran, while not perfect, buys needed time for the United States and its allies to continue to manage the potential threat of a nuclear Iran. He notes that the agreement will severely restrict any Iranian attempt to build a nuclear weapon through enriching plutonium, as it mandates modification of the Arak Nuclear facility and bans the construction of a nuclear reprocessing facility, which would be necessary for extracting plutonium from used fuel rods. However, the agreement does leave Iran with a much more robust uranium enrichment program, with restrictions for ten years which are steadily eased between fifteen and twenty-five years after the agreement is signed. He suggests that while it may be possible to get a better deal with tougher negotiating tactics, the United States will not be able to keep international consensus pressuring Iran if it rejects the deal after Iran appears to agree to it. He concludes that while this does not solve the problem of the Iranian nuclear program, it gives the United States time to check Iranian regional designs, encourage political change in Iran, and seek other ways to change the regime's calculus about nuclear weapons.

Iran's Radioactive Financial Industry

Aaron ArnoldAaron Arnold, Associate of the Project on Managing the Atom at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, writes that while Iran may receive sanctions relief as part of a final nuclear deal, it needs to take actions to strengthen its financial laws and regulations in order for it to truly be integrated into the global economy. He argues that Iranian financial laws, specifically those relating to money-laundering, terrorism financing, and proliferation financing, remain weak and do not meet the standard of the international financial community. These legal weaknesses have caused Iran to remain designated by the U.S. Treasury as a "jurisdiction of primary money-laundering concern," making it much harder for the Iranian financial sector to operate using American currency or the American financial system, which, despite recent developments such as the launch of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, maintains the dominant role in global finance. He concludes that without these reforms to Iran's banking sector, its benefits from the ending of sanctions will be much smaller than desired by Iranian policymakers.

Hezbollah's Friends in Yemen are Trying to Lure the Saudis into a Ground War

Daniel SobelmanDaniel Sobelman, research fellow with the International Security Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, writes in Foreign Policy that the Houthi rebels in Yemen are following a similar operational strategy to the one pursued by Hezbollah during its 2006 war with Israel. He argues that the Houthis share operational links with Hezbollah. These links between the organizations can be best discerned by analyzing the rhetoric of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, who has stated that Hezbollah's fight against Israel in 2006 provides a model for organizations and groups operating against militarily superior forces. In this model, the actions of the Houthis to attack Saudi border towns and garrisons are part of a broader strategy of forcing Saudi Arabia to deescalate its air campaign or force it to engage with ground forces, an outcome that would favor the Houthis. He concludes that while it is impossible to know what the exact effects of the Houthi retaliatory measures against Saudi targets, it is clear that more than air power will needed to end the Houthi threat to Saudi Arabia.

Belfer Iran Brief – Dispute continues over inspection and interviews, Israeli military assesses that Iran may be “threat in decline,” and other news

Iranian military leaders denied that international inspectors would have access to military sites, an Israeli military source assessed that the threat of Iran may be “in decline,” and more in this week’s Belfer Iran Brief, covering May 25-June 10, 2015.

Inspections in Iran: What Would Inspectors Need? What Are the Lessons Learned from Iraq?

William TobeyWilliam Tobey, senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, participated in a panel hosted by the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control. The panel concluded that a final deal with Iran will require a full declaration of nuclear related activities undertaken by Iran in order to determine the inspection measures necessary to monitor the Iranian program. It also stated that an agreement should provide a mechanism for reporting violations and managing disputes, and authorizing challenge inspections of sites in Iran. The panel also suggested that verification will need to be augmented by national intelligence capacities, be conducted by expert personnel with the latest equipment, and monitor the importation of dual-use technology items. The panel concluded that over time the rigor of inspections will probably decline, and so it is important to remain vigilant and prevent “inspections fatigue."

What we get Wrong About Iran

Linda MasonLinda Mason, leader in residence at the Harvard Kennedy School's Center for Public Leadership, writes for CNN that most Iranians are much more friendly to the United States and the west than is usually understood. She describes speaking with ordinary Iranians in Tehran, and hearing their favorable impressions of the United States due to its strong economy, civil rights and civil liberties, and culture. She suggests that while we cannot ignore Iranian actions such as supporting insurgent groups in the Middle East, we should also be aware of the steady growth of pro-American and pro-Western sentiment among younger Iranians which could be accelerated by further engagement with Iran. She concludes that while caution is understandable in approaching the American relationship with Iran, it is worth taking a bet on empowering the younger Iranian population with the increased diplomatic engagement that a nuclear agreement would bring.

How to Manage Saudi Anger at the Iran Nuclear Deal

Gene GerzhoyGene Gerzhoy, Research Fellow with the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, writes in the Washington Post that history demonstrates that the United States has many options for both pursuing diplomacy with adversaries while preventing nervous allies from seeking nuclear deterrents of their own, a dilemma the U.S. faces now in its relations with Saudi Arabia over the nuclear negotiations with Iran. He argues that in the 1960s the United States was able to use coercive diplomacy to pressure West Germany to not pursue nuclear weapons by threatening to withdraw American troops helping defend West Germany from the Soviet Union. He suggests that the U.S. could use a combination of coercive pressure and security reassurances to prevent Saudi Arabia from acquiring nuclear capabilities after the signing of a nuclear deal with Iran.

How to Know if Iran Breaks its Word: Financial Monitoring

Aaron ArnoldNikos PassasAaron Arnold, Associate with the Project on Managing the Atom at the Belfer Center, and Nikos Passas, Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University, argue in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that an important, and generally overlooked, aspect of any deal with Iran is the role of banks and financial institutions in monitoring proliferation related transactions and keeping Iran from cheating on the agreement. They point out that banks are necessary for the monitoring and verification of a nuclear agreement because they provide the information used by sanctions enforcers to track illicit proliferation financing. At this point, several holes exist in detecting proliferation financing, including the lack of a clear template for banks and regulatory agencies to be searching for, and the lack of binding regulations for all forms of financial institutions, such as money remitters. They suggest that the Iranian nuclear deal offers a chance for these systematic holes to be plugged by centralizing analysis of data for proliferation financing and seeking reforms in the Iranian financial system.

A Nuclear Nightmare, Averted

Graham AllisonGraham Allison, Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, writes in The Atlantic that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty offers an important example of the possibility of success in arms control agreements. He notes that while in the early 1960s policymakers feared that at least fifteen to twenty countries would have nuclear arsenals as early as the 1970s, today, greatly due to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, only nine nations have nuclear arsenals, and many states that could have pursued nuclear weapons have terminated their programs. He concludes that while all arms control negotiations, including the talks with Iran over the Iranian nuclear program, need to be assessed based on their own merits, the Non-Proliferation Treaty offers a seminal example of a successful arms control agreement that should provide encouragement when pursuing future disarmament commitments through diplomacy and negotiation.

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