This is the latest article in IranWire’s series Decoding Iranian Politics. The series examines the building rift between Iran’s various political factions, goes behind the scenes of the country’s fiercest political scandals and assesses what impact the complex web of government institutions has on Iranian politics today, as well as taking stock of some of the most defining moments in recent history.
On May 21, less than two weeks after President Donald Trump announced that the United States was withdrawing from the nuclear agreement with Iran, American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo outlined a list of 12 conditions Iran must comply with to avoid being hit with the “strongest sanctions in history.” Pompeo did not stop with this ultimatum, adding: “the Iranian regime should know this is just the beginning.”
Analysts now have one important question to answer: Is it feasible for the Iranian government to comply with these conditions?
There is no single answer to this question. Taking into account the reality of Iranian politics, these 12 conditions can be classified into three groups in terms of their feasibility: Feasible conditions, conditions that are difficult to meet and conditions that seem impossible to achieve.
Out of the conditions set by the US Secretary of State, the first has already been met in its essentials, and it would not be very difficult for Iran to meet conditions 3, 5, 10 and 12 as well.
Condition 1: Iran must declare to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) a full account of the prior military dimensions of its nuclear program and permanently and verifiably abandon such work in perpetuity.
In December 2015, the IAEA Board of Governors officially closed the case on “Past and Present Outstanding Issues regarding Iran’s Nuclear Program” [PDF]. In his report to the board, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano announced: “The Agency assesses that a range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device were conducted in Iran prior to the end of 2003 as a coordinated effort, and some activities took place after 2003.” Some activities, he said, continued until 2009 but the IAEA had “no credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device after 2009. Nor has the Agency found any credible indications of the diversion of nuclear material in connection with the possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program.”
If Pompeo’s demand means that Iran must officially “confess” that it was pursuing nuclear weapons, then it is most likely that this condition will not be met. But if the goal is transparency about Iran’s past activities, that can be achieved through IAEA reports and documents. In other words, Washington can put its worries to rest by communicating with the IAEA on a broader level.
Condition 3: Iran must provide the IAEA with unqualified access to all sites throughout the entire country.
The 2015 nuclear agreement, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), established very rigorous mechanisms for the supervision and inspection of Iran’s nuclear sites, and even sites where secret nuclear activities are suspected. The JCPOA also commits Iran to obey annexes that perpetuate the IAEA’s strict supervision of Iran’s nuclear activities.
According to the JCPOA, IAEA inspectors have the right to unlimited inspection of all declared nuclear sites. And if the inspectors suspect any site of being used for suspicious activities, they can ask to inspect those sites as well. Iran cannot refuse to allow the inspection to take place, although in this case, the time for the inspection must be agreed upon by both sides. To be exact, Iran can allow immediate inspection or start a process to address the request that can take no longer than 24 days. Otherwise, sanctions against Iran would be automatically reinstated.
It is conceivable that some of the IAEA inspection mechanisms are not enough for Trump’s administration. For instance, Washington might believe that if Iran does not allow an immediate inspection of a suspected site, it might use the 24 days' grace period provided by the JCPOA to remove traces of any unauthorized nuclear activity.
But Iran can address these worries within the framework of the JCPOA. And this is enough to convince Iran to allow IAEA inspectors to carry out an immediate inspection of an undeclared site if there is suspicion about the activities taking place there.
Condition 5: Iran must release all US citizens as well as citizens of US partners and allies.
In the last decades, Iran has repeatedly arrested western nationals on security-related charges. In most cases, they have been released after spending a few months or years in jail. The Islamic Republic’s goal has usually been to extract economic or political concessions from the prisoners’ governments, to show off their power to the Iranian public or to undermine individuals or groups that advocate for normalizing relations with the West.
For instance, since the beginning of Hassan Rouhani’s presidency, Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Corps have arrested several dual nationals with the support of the Iranian judiciary. And the media affiliated with the Guards and the judiciary have blamed Rouhani’s government for these detainees’ alleged activities, accusing the administration of indifference to western “infiltration.”
But it is safe to assume that if the Islamic Republic is convinced it will pay heavily for keeping western nationals in prison, it will release them in the not-too-distant future. Of course, the judiciary will show more resistance to releasing dual nationals because Iranian law only recognizes them as Iranian citizens. Nevertheless, if keeping these prisoners seriously threatens the interests of the regime, judicial authorities will find the necessary justifications for their release, too.
Condition 10: Iran must end support for the Taliban and other terrorists in Afghanistan and the region and cease harboring senior al-Qaeda leaders.
In general, many Islamic Republic officials consider the Taliban to be a security threat. In fact, in 1998, Iran was on the cusp of invading Afghanistan and going to war with the Taliban but, afraid of an open-ended military engagement, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei decided not to go through with it. Instead, Iran increased its assistance to anti-Taliban forces and even indirectly helped the American-led coalition in its 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.
On the other hand, some Afghan officials have said that certain Islamic Republic military-security institutions — apparently the expeditionary Quds Force — have established relations with the Taliban. Some security experts believe that these alleged relations have two goals. The first is to use the Taliban to counter ISIS, which Iran considers a direct threat. The second is to use the Taliban against the American military presence in Afghanistan. The Islamic Republic is against the American military presence, especially US bases near the Iranian border, and views these bases a threat to its national security.
But with the general decline of ISIS in the region, Tehran probably has fewer reasons to maintain relations with the Taliban as a means of countering ISIS. As for using the Taliban to fight US military presence in Afghanistan, such an aim does not appear to have many supporters in Tehran, especially not in Rouhani’s administration, which does not want to intensify tensions with the United States. When it comes to al-Qaeda, it seems that some of these groups’ members have been harbored in Iran in the past, but it is very unlikely that it is still the case.
Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the Islamic Republic has always denied that it supports the Taliban and al-Qaeda. So if certain Iranian security institutions do indeed have relations with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, cutting these ties would not damage Iran’s reputation. And if the Islamic Republic finds the consequences of such relations costly, it will not have much difficulty in cutting them.
Condition 12: Iran must end its threatening behavior against its neighbors, many of whom are US allies, including its threats to destroy Israel and firing of missiles at Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and threats to international shipping and destructive cyber attacks.
Most of Iran's threats against Israel and Saudi Arabia are verbal threats by Iranian officials. Ayatollah Khamenei and his appointees consider most of Iranian officials’ verbal attacks against Israel and Saudi Arabia to be part of the Islamic Republic’s “revolutionary nature,” but putting an end to these threats would not seriously damage the regime’s interests. If Iranian officials regarded such statements as being detrimental to the vital interests of the regime, they would stop threatening them with destruction. However, it does not mean that they would stop criticizing Israel and the US Arab allies.
Of course, a more important part of Iranian threats has an operational aspect, including cyber attacks against allies of the United States. Since it would appear that Iran has both carried out cyber attacks and been the victim of them, it is likely that the Islamic Republic would agree to enter into negotiations for a cyber ceasefire. For instance, if Europeans act as intermediaries for a deal that would stop both Iran and the US allies in the region from carrying out cyber attacks against each other’s infrastructures, Iran would not be against it.
Another set of threats Pompeo’s 12th condition addresses includes the delivery of Iranian missiles to the Houthi rebels in Yemen for attacks on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, or providing missile to anti-Israeli groups. Relations between Iran and such groups will be examined later with regard to related conditions — condition 6 concerning Iran’s support for the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and condition 8 about support for the Houthis.
Very Difficult Conditions to Meet
Three conditions set forth by the US Secretary of State would be very difficult for the Islamic Republic to meet. Nevertheless, negotiations over them with the aim of changing Iran’s behavior is in the realm of possibility.
Condition 7: Iran must respect the sovereignty of the Iraqi government and permit the disarming, demobilization and reintegration of Shia militias.
Iraqi Shia militias are closely allied with the current Iraqi government and as long as this government stays in power, Baghdad will support them. Even if American pressures on Iran succeed, the Iraqi government would not easily give up its support for the Shia militia that played a deciding role in Baghdad’s victories against ISIS.
If an Iraqi government friendly to Iran stays in power, and the pressure from the US continues, it is possible that the militias would gradually be absorbed into the Iraqi army and security forces. This would lessen American concerns but it is unlikely that the militias would disarm completely.
But if, in the future, a government unfriendly toward Iran takes over in Baghdad, then Iran-backed Shia militias would find it more difficult to continue their activities. In this case, with the agreement of the Iraqi government, the Americans will succeed in limiting the activities of Shia militias or even in disarming them.
Condition 8: Iran must end its military support for the Houthi rebels and work toward a peaceful, political settlement in Yemen.
Tehran has publicly announced willingness to enter into negotiations on Yemen — one of the few issues with which Tehran has agreed to negotiate with the West.
Even after Pompeo announced his 12-point ultimatum, the Iranian government emphasized its readiness to talk to the EU about Yemen.
It would appear as if Iran has eventually realized that, with its diminished financial resources, it cannot continue an open-ended involvement in the Yemen crisis. It would welcome a face-saving solution to end the war in Yemen.
Condition 9: Iran must withdraw all its forces under its command throughout the entirety of Syria.
Under present conditions, the withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria is not unthinkable. After the defeat of ISIS and other jihadi forces, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad is no longer in danger of collapse. Besides, Russia, Iran’s main ally in Syria, has announced that all foreign forces, including those of Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah, must withdraw from Syria.
And now that US pressure on the Islamic Republic has significantly increased, Iran has no intention of damaging its strategic coalition with Russia.
There is no doubt that the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps and its allies within the regime will oppose the withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria. but it is unlikely that senior Islamic Republic decision-makers would insist on remaining in Syria if they see no existential danger to the Syrian regime.
Four of the US conditions will be impossible for the Islamic Republic — as it exists now — to accept. As long as Ayatollah Khamenei is at the helm, it is very difficult to imagine that Iran would concede to these four conditions.
Condition 2: Iran must stop enrichment and never pursue plutonium reprocessing, including closing its heavy water reactor.
The JCPOA severely restricted Iranian enrichment activities and has placed enrichment under close supervision. But neither the JCPOA nor UN Security Council’s Resolution 2231 obligate Iran to completely and indefinitely stop its enrichment activities or plutonium processing.
Stopping Iran from enrichment or production of heavy water would also go against the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which recognizes the right of member states to benefit from “peaceful nuclear technology,” including enrichment.
Also, within the framework of the JCPOA and under the watchful eyes of IAEA inspectors, Iran has changed its heavy water reactor in a way that means it cannot be used for military purposes. The limitations on the activities of the reactor will remain in effect for 15 years and even after that, the IAEA will continue its supervision if the JCPOA and its addendums are still in effect.
Pressure on Iran to stop enrichment or to give up plutonium processing in perpetuity is the same as the complete repeal of the JCPOA as an agreement supported by the permanent members of the UN Security Council, including the United States.
As long as the JCPOA exists, such a demand by Washington would not have the support of European powers. Of course, the situation will be different if Iran itself engages in activities that would be seen as violating the JCPOA. In such a case, the Islamic Republic would lay the groundwork for the international community to impose much more severe limitations on Iran’s nuclear activities, including uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing.
Condition 4: Iran must end its proliferation of ballistic missiles and halt further launching or development of nuclear-capable missile systems.
A paragraph in the Security Council Resolution 2231 calls on Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology, until the date eight years after the JCPOA Adoption Day.” Iran says that its missiles are incapable of delivering nuclear warheads and a decree passed by Iran’s Supreme National Security Council limits the range of missiles manufactured in Iran to 2,000 kilometers. But the US is worried that, in the future, Iran will be capable of equipping its ballistic missiles with unconventional warheads to attack Israel or Saudi Arabia.
On the other hand, as a result of international sanctions, Iran has been deprived of the ability to acquire defensive armaments, so that the Iranian air force is one of the weakest in the region and Iran is even unable to replace its aging fighter planes. The result is that, from Iran’s perspective, its missile force has become its only “classic” defense against its regional adversaries, who are among the biggest importers of armaments in the world.
In such circumstances, the increased pressure by Washington on Tehran is unlikely to persuade Iranian leaders to halt their missile program. What is more, increased pressure might even convince Iranian officials that they must maintain their missile program to counter foreign threats.
Under these conditions, perhaps the most western governments can do is negotiate with the Islamic Republic to limit its missile program in exchange for concessions regarding its defense. For example, European powers could persuade Iran to reduce the range of its missiles in exchange for advanced anti-aircraft missile systems. But it is unrealistic to expect Iran to completely stop its ballistic missile program.
Condition 6: Iran must end support to Middle East terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Condition 11: Iran must end the Quds Force's support for its terrorist and militant partners around the world.
In practice, these two conditions are the same. Logically speaking, if the Iranian government stops supporting the groups Pompeo referred to, all government organizations, including the Quds Force, would stop doing so as well.
In any case, it is very difficult to imagine that the Islamic Republic will end its support for anti-Israeli armed groups. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Tehran has paid a heavy price for supporting these groups and both Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leaders — Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei —have always considered this support an unalterable red line.
Of course, after the Syrian crisis came to a head, relations between Iran and the two Palestinian groups Hamas and the Islamic Jihad deteriorated because these Sunni groups did not support Iran’s position in the civil war. Tensions between Iran and these two groups have now subsided and relations are back to normal but it is not inconceivable that they could deteriorate again, especially because Hamas also has the support of some Arab countries that are regional adversaries of Iran. In other words, there is no guarantee that Hamas will always remain loyal to Iran.
As far as the Lebanese Hezbollah is concerned, it is inconceivable that the Islamic Republic, as long as it exists, would end its support for this Shia group. Hezbollah has always acted in perfect harmony with the office of Ayatollah Khamenei and has never shown any hesitation in cooperating with Iran’s policies in the region. Perhaps the most that one can expect from Iran in this regard is negotiations to maintain the political power of Hezbollah while controlling its military activities by compelling it to coordinate with the Lebanese army.
Two Necessary Preconditions
In addition, there are two preconditions that must be met before American economic pressures on Iran will lead to any results for the 12-point ultimatum.
First, Iran cannot believe it is in danger of a military invasion. Many Islamic Republic decision-makers are convinced that ballistic missile disarmament, stopping the support for their armed allies in the region or scrapping the nuclear program would make a military invasion of Iran easier and, consequently, would lead to a more aggressive policy from the US and its allies in the region.
In this regard, when it comes to disarmament, these officials are strongly influenced by the experience of Saddam Hussein. They believe that when the US became convinced that Baghdad no longer had any effective means of defending itself, it invaded the country under the pretext of the existence of weapons of mass destruction and toppled Saddam Hussein’s government. It turned out that Iraq had had no program to produce such weapons for years.
As a result, if Tehran believes that it is in danger of an invasion by the United States or its allies, it would not want to be left empty-handed and will take any risk to defend itself militarily.
The second precondition for changing the Iranian government’s behavior is that Tehran must be convinced that, in exchange for a serious revision of its policies, it will benefit from significant economic rewards provided in the framework of the JCPOA.
From the very beginning of the nuclear negotiations, Ayatollah Khamenei had reiterated that even if the negotiations with the West succeeded, Washington would not live up to its commitments. And now, under Trump, the unilateral withdrawal of the US from the JCPOA has strengthened the position of the Supreme Leader and his allies, who have said that negotiations with the West are useless. Many Islamic Republic officials are of the opinion that even if all American conditions are met, US sanctions will continue.
In conclusion, if under such conditions it is not clear what exact economic benefits Tehran would enjoy if it revises its policies, the leaders of the Islamic Republic would consider such a revision useless, regardless of its dimensions.
More on the aftermath of Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear treaty with Iran:
Guards Sell Missile Program to the Iranian Public, June 22, 2018
Iran and its Fleeting Dream of New Airplanes, June 13, 2018
President Rouhani's Plane on the US Sanctions List, June 1, 2018
The Nuclear Deal: Will Khamenei Get What he Wants?, May 29, 2018
Khamenei’s Eight Conditions for Talks with Europe, May 25, 2018
Revolutionary Guards Respond to Pompeo’s “Empty Bluff”, May 23, 2018
The 12 Demands of Pompeo's New Iran Strategy, May 21, 2018
When Will US Sanctions Hit Iranian Oil Sales?, May 18, 2018
The JCPOA: A Missed Opportunity, May 17, 2018
Khamenei’s “Heroic Flexibility 2.0”, May 9, 2018