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"Iran is not likely to abide by Israeli red lines that impair its broader goals in Syria. And to uphold the credibility of its deterrence doctrine, Tehran will feel compelled to retaliate against an Israeli attack." (05/10/2018)

—  Payam Mohseni, Director of the Belfer Center's Iran Project & Hassan Ahmadian Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Iran Project in Foreign Policy: "What Iran Really Wants in Syria"

"In this endeavor [to alleviate sectarianism in the Muslim world] the role of Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf will be crucial as he has a track record of promoting better relations between Shi’as and Sunnis and is an authoritative moderating figure who can reign in hardline elements in Iraq who might be opposed to a détente." (03/27/2018)

—  Payam Mohseni, Director of the Belfer Center's Iran Project & Seyed Ammar Nakhjavani, Associate at the Belfer Center's Iran Project

Recent News

Diplomacy and nuclear issue

  • Atomic Energy Organization of Iran head Ali Akbar Salehi: “We have the capacity and we are ready to resume our nuclear activities to a much higher level if the talks fail with Europeans to save” the JCPOA.
    • “Our talks with the Europeans are not based on trust …I am not optimistic about the result.” (Reuters, 5/15) (Reuters, 5/15)
    • Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei’s top adviser Ali Akbar Velayati said he doubted talks with Europe would be successful. (Reuters, 5/16)

Sanctions and Iran’s economy

  • Oil prices rose, with crude trading close to $80-a-barrel, in anticipation of renewed U.S. sanctions on Iran. (WSJ, 5/18)
  • France’s Total said it would not be able to continue with its South Pars gas field project in Iran without waiver protecting it from U.S. sanctions. Several other large European companies also announced they were planning on winding down Iran-related operations. (FT, 5/16) (Bloomberg, 5/16) (WSJ, 5/16)
    • Denmark’s A.P. Moller-Maersk, the world’s largest shipping group, said it was “certain” it would shut down operations in Iran.
      • Switzerland’s MSC, another large shipping group, said it would stop taking new booking for Iran. (Reuters, 5/17) (Reuters, 5/17)
    • Germany’s Siemens said it could not do any new business in Iran. (CNN, 5/14)
      • Germany’s Allianz, an insurance group, said it was preparing to wind down business in Iran. (Reuters, 5/15)
      • Germany’s DZ Bank said it would suspend financial transactions with Iran in July. (Reuters, 5/18)
    • Italy’s Danieli, a steel manufacturer, halted work on finding financial coverage for orders it won in Iran worth $1.8 billion. (Reuters, 5/17)
  • National Iranian South Oil Co. signed agreement with U.K.’s Pergas Resources International Ltd. to develop Iran’s Karanj oil field.
    • Project entailed investment of $1 billion to produce 200,000 barrels of crude oil per day during the next decade. (AP, 5/17) (Bloomberg, 5/16)
  • Eurasian Economic Union signed provisional agreement on free trade zone formation with Iran. (TASS, 5/11) (AP, 5/11)
  • French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said France was seeking waivers and longer transition periods from U.S. for French companies. (Reuters, 5/11)
    • “Do we want to be vassals who obey decisions taken by the United States while clinging to the hem of their trousers? Or do we want to say we have our economic interests, we consider we will continue to do trade with Iran?” (AP, 5/11)
  • German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Germany wanted to help its companies continue doing business in Iran, but it could be difficult to shield them from any fallout. (Reuters, 5/12)

Iranian domestic politics

  • Iranian court sentenced eight men to death over attacks last year that killed 18 people at Iran’s parliament and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s mausoleum.
    • Attacks were ISIS’ first deadly operations in Iran. (Reuters, 5/13)
  • Iran’s Assembly of Experts released statement saying Iranian President Hassan Rouhani should apologize for “not adhering to the red lines” set by Khamenei during JCPOA negotiations. (Jerusalem Post, 5/13)
  • Protest in southwestern Iran left at least one person dead and six others injured. (RFERL, 5/17) (AP, 5/17)
    • U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responded on Twitter: “We support the #Iranian people who are demonstrating against an oppressive government. 3 deaths & internet interruption show the regime’s true nature.” (Twitter, 5/18)
  • Iranian Telecommunication Minister Mohammad Javad Azeri Jahromi said Iran would start blocking virtual private network (VPN) services.
    • This was due to security concerns caused by U.S. support of VPNs. (AP, 5/16)
  • Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) Commander Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari warned Iranians against relying on foreign powers.
    • “today’s problem is not U.S. sanctions, it’s that some officials look towards outside rather than looking at domestic potentials.” (Reuters, 5/13)

Geopolitics and Iran

  • Iraq held national elections. Abadi, who had U.S. support and Iran-aligned candidates, lagged behind Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr ran on nationalist message that rejected both American and Iranian influence.
    • Before the election, Iran said it would not allow Sadr’s bloc to govern.
    • Sadr will need to choose at least one of runners-up as partner to form biggest bloc, which will nominate the prime minister. (WSJ, 5/14) (NYT, 5/14) (Reuters, 5/15)
  • United Nations (U.N.) opened investigation into Turkey for allegedly selling electronic equipment to Iran that was included in list of items banned for export to Iran.
    • U.N. contacted Israel after it was discovered that equipment sold by Turkey to Iran was manufactured by Israeli company. (Ynet, 5/17)
  • Asymmetrica report said Hezbollah was engaging in large-scale money-laundering in tri-border region linking Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. (WSJ, 5/15)
  • Iran, Russia, and Turkey sponsored ninth round of Syria peace talks in Astana. (RFERL, 5/14)


  • Nasrallah said rocket barrage from Syria into Israeli-held Golan Heights last week opened up “a new phase” in the conflict.
    • He also said Israel had been informed through international body that retaliation inside Israel would take place if it crossed “a red line” in Syria. (AP, 5/14)
  • Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon met with U.S. Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin to discuss coordination on Iran sanctions. (Times of Israel, 5/14)
  • U.S. Ambassador to U.N. Nikki Haley criticized Iran during U.N. meeting on clashes on Gaza border.
    • “In recent days, Hamas terrorists, backed by Iran, have incited attacks against Israeli security forces and infrastructure.” (The Hill, 5/15)

US-Iran relations

  • At European Union (E.U.) summit in Sofia, leaders said they would take steps to blunt the effects of U.S. sanctions on Iran. European Commission (E.C.) launched process of activating law that bans E.U. companies from complying with U.S. sanctions on Iran and does not recognize any court rulings that enforce U.S. penalties. Commission will revise so-called blocking statute that was drawn up in 1996. E.C. said it also encouraged E.U. states to explore “possibility of one-off bank transfers” to Central Bank of Iran (CBI).
  • E.U. High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and foreign ministers of United Kingdom (U.K.), France, and Germany to try to salvage JCPOA.
    • Zarif travelled to Beijing, Moscow, and Brussels. Zarif said Europe had to give Iran guarantees that it would continue receiving economic benefits.
      • In Beijing, Zarif said: “We hope that with this visit to China and other countries we will be able to construct a clear future design for the comprehensive agreement.” (Reuters, 5/15) (RFERL, 5/13)
    • U.K. Foreign Minister Boris Johnson: “We have to be realistic about the electrified rail, the live wire of American extraterritoriality and how (it) can serve as a deterrent to business.” (Reuters, 5/15)
    • French President Emmanuel Macron said Europe would try to protect its companies doing business with Iran, but companies would make their own choices. (Reuters, 5/17)
      • Macron also said: “We’re not going to choose one camp over another. We’re not going to be the allies of Iran against the United States of America.” (AP, 5/17)
    • German Chancellor Angela Merkel signaled it would not be feasible to offer wide-ranging compensation to European companies affected by U.S. sanctions.
      • “we can see whether we can give small and medium-sized companies certain relief. That is being examined.” (AP, 5/17)
      • Merkel also said Trump’s JCPOA withdrawal led to break in transatlantic relations. (Washington Post, 5/15)
  • U.S. Department of Treasury said CBI Governor Valiollah Seif “covertly funnel[ed] millions of dollars” to Hezbollah from IRGC through Iraq’s al-Bilad Islamic Bank.
    • Treasury designated him and others as “specially designated global terrorists.”
    • Another CBI official, Ali Tarzali, al-Bilad Islamic Bank, and its chairman, Aras Habib, were also added to U.S. global terror list.
  • Treasury also imposed sanctions on Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, Deputy Secretary General Naim Qassem, and other Hezbollah leaders.
    • Measures were imposed jointly with U.S. partners in the Terrorist Financing and Targeting Center, which includes Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and United Arab Emirates. (Reuters, 5/16) (Treasury.gov, 5/16) (AP, 5/16)
    • One day later, Treasury imposed sanctions on Hezbollah financier, Mohammad Ibrahim Bazzi, and Hezbollah’s representative to Iran, Abdallah Safi Al-Din.
  • President Trump ordered U.S. Department of Commerce to assist ZTE Corp, a Chinese telecommunications group, which Commerce nearly put out of business last month, following a personal request from Chinese President Xi Jinping.
    • Commerce barred ZTE from purchasing components in U.S. for seven years after it was caught violating $1.2 billion settlement in which ZTE admitted illegally selling equipment that included sensitive U.S. parts to Iran and North Korea.
    • ZTE had previously announced it had halted operations. (FT, 5/13)
  • U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said U.S. was prepared to impose sanctions on European companies if their governments did not stop dealing with Iran. (WSJ, 5/13)
    • Bolton also said regime change in Iran was not Trump administration’s policy. (Reuters, 5/13)
  • Rouhani said Iran would remain committed to JCPOA if its interests were protected.
    • “If the remaining five countries continue to abide by the agreement, Iran will remain in the deal despite the will of America.” (Reuters, 5/13)
    • Rouhani later said Trump had expected Tehran would leave JCPOA but it would not follow his plan. (Reuters, 5/16)
  • Turkish banker, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, was sentenced to 32 months in prison after being convicted of taking part in billion-dollar conspiracy to violate U.S. sanctions on Iran.
  • Pompeo will outline Trump administration’s plan on Iran on May 21 in his first major foreign policy address since taking office. (Fox News, 5/13) (AFP, 5/18)


      The mission of the Iran Project is threefold:

      • To produce advanced, policy-relevant knowledge on salient issues of Iranian affairs
      • To serve as a hub in a network that synergizes scholarly collaborations and intellectual discussions among Iran experts and analysts across the world
      • To become a diplomatic bridge to advance dialogue between students and scholars in Iran and the United States, particularly for the Harvard University community, as well as to support the efforts of Iranian students and those involved in Iranian studies at Harvard University across disciplines


      The Iran Project is dedicated to promoting the study of contemporary Iranian politics, particularly on issues that pertain to important challenges of international security, such as the Iranian nuclear program, US-Iran relations, and Iran’s role in the Middle East.

      From its nuclear program and sponsorship of hostile state and non-state actors to its soft-power influence in the region, Iran has outsized abilities to shape events beyond its borders in a dramatic fashion. The Iran Project seeks to bring greater knowledge and analytic clarity to policy discussions on Iran as an important power in the Middle East region.

      Dr. Payam Mohseni, the Director of the Iran Project, frequently travels to Iran to conduct research and is fluent in Persian. His work focuses on the internal policymaking process of the Iranian state, the dynamics of factional politics in post-revolutionary Iran, the political economy of development, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. Mohseni also teaches Iranian and Middle East politics at Harvard’s Department of Government.

      Research Focus Areas

      • The Iranian nuclear program, implementation challenges for the JCPOA, and its implications for regional order
      • Iranian domestic and foreign politics, elite factional dynamics, Iran’s role in the Middle East, sectarian conflict in the region, and Iranian soft power and ideology
      • The Iranian economy, Iran’s business environment, its economic policymaking process, sanctions, and the country’s energy sector

      Working Group

      The Iran Working Group serves as a channel for internal discussions on fundamental issues of Iranian and regional affairs, including Iranian foreign policy, domestic politics, sectarianism and the Iran-Saudi rivalry, as well as the nuclear challenge. The project, which since its inception in summer 2013 has grown dramatically in size and scope, is co-chaired by Professor and Belfer Center Director Graham Allison and Belfer Center Iran Project Director and Fellow for Iran Studies Payam Mohseni. Working Group participants come from the Belfer Center, Harvard University, Brandeis University and MIT, and the group draws upon local expertise that spans Iranian state and society, negotiation strategy, nuclear physics and policy, economics, and Iranian politics.

      Members of the Iran Working Group meet regularly to dissect the latest developments from the implementation of the nuclear deal, the economic impacts of international sanctions, and relevant regional trends. The Working Group regularly hosts private, off-the-record discussions on these topics with distinguished scholars and practitioners in the field from across the globe.

      November 20, 2014 – Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif, Baroness Ashton, amd Secretary Kerry before beginning second round of three-way nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria.

      November 20, 2014 – Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif, Baroness Ashton, amd Secretary Kerry before beginning second round of three-way nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria.

      Islam and Sectarian De-escalation

      From the rise of ISIS and militant extremism in the context of an eroding Arab state system to the intensification of the Iran-Saudi cold war in the wake of the nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers, the dire consequences of Shi’a-Sunni sectarianism and conflict—which can tear apart the societies of the Islamic world—have never been greater in modern history.

      Now more than ever, dialogue both within the Islamic tradition and between different religious groups is critical for the future peace, stability, and prosperity of the Middle East, the broader Islamic world, and transnational Muslim communities across the globe, including in Europe and North America. In conjunction with serious attempts to place different Muslim faith traditions in conversation, it is equally pressing that the U.S. policy making world and scholarly community is objectively informed and knowledgeable of the relevant issues and perspectives at hand in order to make a positive impact on policy and enable the grounds for peaceful conflict resolution.

      Featured Event

      The Iran Project is proud to host the The First Annual Symposium on Islam, Dialogue, and Sectarian De-Escalation at the Harvard Kennedy School. The Symposium has gathered a diversity of voices from leading scholars, religious authorities, civic community leaders, and policymakers alike to push forward analytical understanding and dialogue on the pressing topic of sectarianism in the Muslim world.

      For more information on the Symposium (April 14-15), please visit: https://www.belfercenter.org/IslamSymposium.

      Iran Project Symposium Sectarian De-Escalation

      IDSD 2


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