TIME Iran

Why Iran Believes the Militant Group ISIS Is an American Plot

A fighter of the ISIL holds a flag and a weapon on a street in Mosul
A fighter of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) holds an ISIS flag and a weapon on a street in the city of Mosul, Iraq, on June 23, 2014 Reuters

Conspiracy theories are nothing new in the Middle East, but the latest to come from Tehran is a self-protecting mechanism that could ultimately backfire

Iran’s English-language daily newspaper, the Tehran Times, recently ran a front-page story describing the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria’s (ISIS) June offensive in Iraq as part of a U.S.-backed plot to destabilize the region and protect Israel. The story was an English translation of a scoop by the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), which cited a purported interview with National Security Agency (NSA) leaker Edward Snowden.

According to the article, Snowden had described a joint U.S., British and Israeli effort to “create a terrorist organization capable of centralizing all extremist actions across the world.” The plan, according to IRNA, was code-named Beehive — or in other translations, Hornet’s Nest — and it was devised to protect Israel from security threats by diverting attention to the newly manufactured regional enemy: ISIS.

The IRNA story appears to build on, or may have even started, an Internet rumor that has assumed truthlike proportions through multiple reposts and links. No mention of a “hornet’s nest” plot can be found in Snowden’s leaked trove of U.S. intelligence documents, and even though Snowden has not publicly refuted the claim, it is safe to assume that the quoted interview never took place. (IRNA has been known to report stories from the satirical Onion newspaper as fact.) Yet Iranian government officials and independent analysts in Iran alike cited IRNA’s report as definitive proof of ISIS’s American and Israeli origins.

Back when former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in power, it was not unusual to see IRNA echoing specious wild theories dreamed up by the leadership, but since the more moderate Hassan Rouhani assumed the presidency in August 2013, the security establishment’s nuttier fantasies of deranged plots against Iran have been largely reined in. That is, until ISIS spilled out of Syria and started setting up camp next door in Iraq, where Iran has tight ties with the Shi‘ite-dominated government in Baghdad.

Even before the Snowden scoop made the rounds of Iran’s media, military commanders, citing their own sources of intelligence, struck a similar theme. On June 18, Fars News Agency quoted Major General Hassan Firoozabadi, Chief of Staff of Iran’s armed forces, saying that ISIS “is an Israel[i] and America[n] movement for the creation of a secure border for the Zionists against the forces of resistance in the region.” That Iran’s media, along with its leaders, is focusing on ISIS’s supposed external backers — as opposed to its origins in local terrorist groups, al-Qaeda and popular discontent in both Syria and Iraq — demonstrates a concerted effort to streamline the national narrative in order to project power and preserve stability. As an example of another Western plot against Iran, ISIS can be managed — so goes Iran’s thinking. But as a new, potentially more destabilizing threat on Iran’s borders, ISIS poses challenges that the leadership is still struggling to understand and respond to. The only problem is that dismissing ISIS as a Zionist conspiracy could end up undermining Iran far more than any supposed American plot.

In its previous incarnation as an Iraqi al-Qaeda affiliate, ISIS has been responsible for thousands of Shi‘ite deaths in terrorist attacks since its formation in 2003. The group’s current success in Iraq — by some estimates it now controls a third of Iraq’s territory, including the city of Mosul — has as much to do with its considerable funding and military prowess as it does the weaknesses of the Iraqi state, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, an Iranian-backed Shi‘ite who has alienated Iraq’s large Sunni minority. Now that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has declared himself the emir of a caliphate spanning the Syrian-Iraqi border, he continues to advocate violence against members of the Shi‘ite sect, whom he calls apostates, and has threatened to destroy Shi‘ite holy sites in an attempt to ignite an Islamic sectarian civil war. That would likely cause the Iranian-backed government in Baghdad to collapse, forcing Iran to send in troops and sparking a region-wide conflagration.

Yet Iranian government officials refuse to accept that there is a sectarian root to ISIS’s agenda, or that ISIS was able to advance in part because of Sunni discontent. When American leaders suggested that al-Maliki’s Shi‘ite chauvinism may have played a role in rallying Sunni support for the ISIS advance into Iraq, and suggested he step down, Iranians saw it as a direct threat to their influence. “When ISIS started advancing into Iraq, the first thing the Americans said was that Maliki should be changed,” says Hossein Shariatmadari, editor in chief of the government-owned conservative daily Kayhan. “Maliki was democratically elected, so what does he have to do with it? Nothing. The Americans wanted to cut the ties between Iran and Iraq.”

Instead Iran has declared the group a region-wide terrorist threat that funded and peopled by outsiders, including the U.S., Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies. So far Iran says it has not gotten directly involved in Iraq, though it is prepared to do so if necessary. (Official statements aside, there is significant evidence of Iranian support in the form of military weaponry, assistance and training, if not troops on the ground.) But if Iran does take a hand in the battle against ISIS, it will do so in the name of fighting terrorism — and not for the cause of supporting its Shi‘ite ally in government.

That’s a canny move that could explain, in part, the government line, says a Western diplomat in Tehran. To go in with an overtly sectarian agenda would invite a regional backlash that could harm Iranian interests and threaten the state. “It is in the best interest of Iran to present this group as terrorists, because that way no one can accuse Iran of backing Shi‘ites against a Sunni movement,” says the diplomat.

But if Iran continues to back Maliki against the will of a disgruntled, powerful and armed Sunni minority in Iraq, it could still invoke a backlash all the same. Which might explain why the government line also plays up the American and Mossad angle a familiar trope. If it all collapses, Iran can still blame the West for the debacle, says the diplomat. “If Iran can convince its people that there is a plot against the country that must be countered, while at the same time providing a narrative of counterterror to the world, they are protecting their interests and hedging their bets at the same time.”

Why IRNA had to concoct something so obviously fictional as a fake Snowden interview to bolster the narrative is still unclear. Even Shariatmadari, editor of Kayhan, is mystified. “I thought this interview was strange too, because all this happened after Snowden had access to those documents,” he tells TIME. Nonetheless, he ran the story on his front page as well.

— With reporting by Kay Armin Serjoie / Tehran

TIME Iran

A Side Effect of Iranian Sanctions: Tehran’s Bad Air

An overview of Tehran, July 7.
An overview of Tehran on July 7, 2014 Kiana Hayeri for TIME

Air pollution has decreased significantly since sanctions were temporarily lifted in January. As Iran and the U.S. attempt to hammer out a comprehensive nuclear deal before the July 20 deadline, the capital city’s newly cleaner air hangs in the balance 

When the U.S., the U.N. and Europe implemented, in 2010, one of the harshest sanctions regimes ever seen globally to curb Iran’s suspected development of a nuclear-weapons program, it was widely expected that the country would soon fall to its knees. Instead, Iran absorbed the blow, and though weakened, has managed to keep its economy afloat.

The sanctions all but stopped international financial transactions, limited military purchases, reduced the import and export of petroleum products and significantly curtailed trade — but you wouldn’t know it by walking the bustling streets of Iran’s capital of Tehran. According to economist Saeed Laylaz, Iran imported $3 billion worth of European luxury cars last year, triple the number before sanctions. Grocery stores are packed with all kinds of American products: from Coca-Cola to Snickers candy bars to Duracell batteries, while electronics shops even in small towns proudly display the full range of Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Apple products — even the iPhone 5S. The sanctions didn’t hurt Iran, say Iranians; they merely amplified an economic crisis wrought by government mismanagement in the preceding years.

About the only place where the impact of sanctions is visible is in the skies above Tehran. Iran may have the fourth largest proven petroleum reserve in the world, but it refines little of its own product, depending instead on imports of fuel from Europe. Sanctions cut those commodities off, sharply reducing supplies of gasoline. In order to keep Iran’s 26.3 million cars, trucks and motorcycles on the road, government officials were forced to convert petrochemical factories into ad hoc refineries, an expensive and inefficient process that produces a low-grade fuel choked with pollutants.

The results were devastating. Already home to some of the world’s most polluted cities, Iran saw a dramatic increase in the air pollution that contribute most directly to ill health, according to a worldwide World Health Organization assessment released in 2013. It is impossible to definitively link the impact of sanctions to the rising rates of childhood asthma cases and lung disease documented by Iran’s Health Ministry over the past four years — the concurrent increase in car ownership may also play a role. But when some sanctions, including those on the import of gasoline, were lifted in January under an interim agreement that proffered relief in exchange for substantial negotiations over the scope of Iran’s nuclear program, the impact was visible.

In June 2013, the pollution in Tehran was so bad that the mountains surrounding the capital could not even be made out from the 13th floor of a hotel popular with journalists in the city center. A year later, however, the last vestiges of winter snow could be spotted high on the mountains to the north of the city. “Sanctions significantly contributed to pollution, and particularly the kinds of pollution that are damaging to health,” says Rocky Ansari, an economist and sanctions expert at Cyrus Omron International, a firm that advises international companies on investing in Iran. Even before the sanctions were lifted, he says, the government was working on improving refining capacity in the country, but the international decision to clear the way for increased imports of refined fuel was a huge boost. “Now that hardly any petrol from petrochemical factories is being used, the pollution has reduced, and already people can breathe better air.”

That may be the case, but many Iranians are still holding their breath. The interim agreement ends on July 20, and a comprehensive deal that limits Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons in exchange for a permanent lifting of sanctions is still in doubt. Iran says its nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes, but a long history of subterfuge when it comes to international inspections has raised doubts about the country’s true intentions. The U.S. wants to see a sharp reduction in Iran’s ability to enrich nuclear fuel to weapons grade; Iran says it will not submit to overly onerous limits on its nuclear energy program.

The temporary agreement can be extended by up to six months, a point raised by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on the sideline of talks in Vienna on July 13. “If we can reach a deal by July 20, bravo, if it’s serious,” he told reporters, according to Reuters. “If we can’t, there are two possibilities. One, we either extend … or we will have to say that unfortunately there is no prospect for a deal.” Should the talks fail, as with several previous attempts to strike a deal, the U.S. is likely to lead the call for even tougher sanctions, risking more conflict in a region already in turmoil — and further darkening the skies above Tehran.

— With reporting by Kay Armin Serjoie / Tehran

TIME Iran

Iranian Sanctions Have Cost U.S. Economy Up to $175 Billion, Study Says

From left: Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif meets with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during talks between the foreign ministers of the six powers negotiating with Tehran on its nuclear program, in Vienna, on July 13, 2014.
From left: Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif meets with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during talks between the foreign ministers of the six powers negotiating with Tehran on its nuclear program, in Vienna, on July 13, 2014. Jim Bourg—AFP/Getty Images

National Iranian-American Council (NIAC) report finds tens of billions of potential export revenue lost

U.S. sanctions against Iran don’t just hurt the Islamic Republic, they also have an impact on the U.S. economy—to the tune of as much as $175.3 billion since 1995, according to a new study.

Western powers have been sanctioning Iran since the mid-1990s over its sponsorship of terrorism and, lately, its pursuit of nuclear power and possibly weapons. The restrictions on trade and exports have had a “crippling” effect on the Iranian economy, according to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

But according to the National Iranian-American Council (NIAC) report, the impact has also been felt on those handing out the sanctions — particularly the U.S. The report found the U.S. had lost between $134.7 and 175 billion in potential export revenue since 1995, after examining decades of bilateral trade patterns between Iran and its 25 largest trading partners, plus Mexico, due to its high level of trade with the U.S.

The report also finds an average of between 51,000 and 66,000 lost job opportunities in the U.S. every year since 1995. Texas and California are likely the biggest losers in terms of lost employment, the study found. Among European nations, Germany was the biggest potential loser, with between $23.1 and $73 billion in missed economic opportunities.

The study comes as Western powers are working to reach a deal with Iran that could reduce sanctions in exchange for a scaling back of its nuclear program. Its authors said the Obama administration should consider the true cost of sanctions during talks in Vienna.

“The arguments in favor of sanctions, or against a deal that entails sanctions relief, are debatable. But any debate over whether to exchange sanctions relief for limitations to Iran’s nuclear program would be incomplete at best and misleading at worst if it does not address the cost of this policy,” the report reads.

The report’s authors said they didn’t wish to cast opinions on U.S. foreign policy, or evaluate whether the sanctions were “worth the cost or not.”

“[The study] only seeks to ensure that the cost of sanctions is recognized as America approaches the moment when it must decide whether to exchange the sanctions for nuclear concessions or continue the economic warfare,” the report reads.

TIME Nuclear Talks

Kerry, Top Iranian Diplomat to Hold In-Depth Talks Over Nuclear Negotiations

From left: Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif meets with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during talks between the foreign ministers of the six powers negotiating with Tehran on its nuclear program, in Vienna, on July 13, 2014.
From left: Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif meets with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during talks between the foreign ministers of the six powers negotiating with Tehran on its nuclear program, in Vienna, on July 13, 2014. Jim Bourg—AFP/Getty Images

Secretary of State John Kerry will hold in-depth discussions Monday with Iran's top diplomat in a bid to advance faltering nuclear negotiations.

(VIENNA) — Secretary of State John Kerry will hold in-depth discussions Monday with Iran’s top diplomat in a bid to advance faltering nuclear negotiations, with a deadline just days away for a comprehensive agreement.

The scheduled talks come a day after Kerry and the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany failed to reach a breakthrough on uranium enrichment and other issues standing in the way of a deal that would curb Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the end of nuclear-related sanctions on Tehran.

The top officials took turns meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, and each gave an assessment describing significant gaps between the two sides. Russia and China sent lower-level officials to Austria’s capital for this week’s gathering.

Six months ago, the six world powers and Tehran gave themselves until July 20 to conclude what is supposed to be a multi-decade agreement that sets clear limits on Iranian activity and locks in place an international monitoring regime designed to ensure that the Islamic republic cannot develop nuclear weapons.

But the interim agreement also provides the option of an additional six-month window for hammering out a full accord, though officials have suggested a shorter extension may be agreed upon.

Kerry’s second day of talks will continue his efforts to gauge “Iran’s willingness to make the critical choices it needs to make,” according to a senior State Department official.

The official didn’t say how long Kerry’s discussions with Zarif would run, but indicated a “potentially lengthy conversation” lay ahead. The official wasn’t authorized to be quoted by name and demanded anonymity.

On Sunday, British Foreign Minister William Hague said no breakthrough had been reached. But Kerry said he was not giving up.

“We’re working, we’re working, we just got here,” said Kerry, chiding reporters asking about progress as the day’s meetings wound down.

Zarif said no problems had been resolved “but I think we have made some important headway.”

Iran says it needs to expand enrichment to make reactor fuel and insists it does not want atomic arms. But the U.S. and others fear Tehran could steer the activity toward manufacturing the core of nuclear missiles. Washington is leading the charge for deep Iranian enrichment cuts.

Germany’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier and France’s Laurent Fabius left Sunday, a few hours after they arrived. But Hague joined Kerry in staying on for another day.

The show of Western unity notwithstanding, Kerry’s presence was most important. With the most significant disputes between Washington and Tehran, his visit gave him a chance to discuss them directly with Zarif.

Both face difficult internal pressures.

Iranian hardliners oppose almost any concession by moderate President Hassan Rouhani’s government. In the U.S., Republicans and Democrats have threatened to scuttle any emerging agreement because it would allow Iran to maintain some enrichment capacity.

Outside the negotiations, regional rivals of Iran, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, are extremely skeptical of any arrangement they feel would allow the Islamic republic to escape international pressure while moving closer to the nuclear club.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi suggested any extension would be relatively short, saying “there is not much willingness” by either side to go a full six months. He, too, spoke Sunday of “huge and deep differences.”

TIME Iran

Kerry Warns ‘Significant Gaps’ Remain on Nuclear Deal With Iran

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry waits for the start of a meeting with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Vienna
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Vienna, July 13, 2014. Heinz-Peter Bader—Reuters

Secretary of State arrives in Vienna for talks as a senior U.S. administration official says Iran won't budge from "unworkable and inadequate" position on enrichment

Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Vienna Sunday to participate in nuclear negotiations with Iran, and attempt to salvage a deal that officials say is not close at hand.

“We have some very significant gaps still, so we need to see if we can make some progress, and I really look forward to a very substantive and important set of meetings and dialogues,” said Kerry, who will meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Sunday, as well as officials from France, Germany and the U.K, according to a U.S. State Department official.

“It is vital to make certain that Iran is not going to develop a nuclear weapon, that their program is peaceful,” Kerry said.

An interim agreement last November between Iran and a group of powers known as the P5+1 (the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, China and Russia) halted the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for eased sanctions. The deadline to reach a final agreement is July 20, a goal that Obama officials sounded hopeful about reaching earlier this year.

But the tone in Washington has recently turned more pessimistic, and many experts now expect a six-month extension of the deal as the two sides struggle to strike a longer-term bargain.

Iran is pushing for a much greater enrichment capability than the U.S. is interested in granting, a senior U.S. administration official said on Saturday. “On some key issues, Iran has not moved from their, from our perspective, unworkable and inadequate positions that would not in fact assure us that their program is exclusively peaceful,” said the official, who noted that Sunday’s meetings are not about discussing the extension.

“All you had to do is listen this week to the public comments coming from some in Iran’s leadership to see that we are still very far apart on some issues, and obviously, on enrichment capacity,” the official continued. “The numbers we’ve seen them putting out publicly go far beyond their current program, and we’ve been clear that in order to get an agreement, that their current program would have to be significantly reduced.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday that his country “doesn’t see any benefit in Iran developing a nuclear weapon” and will continue to demonstrate its commitment to not developing a nuclear weapons program.

-With reporting by Michael Crowley

TIME Foreign Policy

Officials Say Iran Is Hamas’ ‘Enabler’ in Fight Against Israel

PALESTINIAN-ISRAEL-GAZA-CONFLICT
A picture taken from the southern Israeli Gaza border shows a militant rocket being launched from the Gaza strip into Israel, on July 11, 2014. Menahem Kahana—AFP/Getty Images

Tehran's fingerprints are all over Hamas's rocket arsenal, officials say

In a reminder of the Middle East’s intertwined nature, the latest violence between Israel and Hamas has U.S. and Israeli officials lamenting the role of a key actor hundreds of miles east of Gaza: Iran.

“Who is the enabler for Hamas? Where do they get those rockets?” asked House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce Friday morning. “It’s Iran.”

American and Israeli officials have long accused Iran of helping Hamas build up its massive arsenal of rockets, including some with a particularly long range, which it is now firing into Israeli cities and towns.

“Iran continues to do everything it can to push rockets into Gaza,” says Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer. “Iran obviously is a supporter of Hamas. And Islamic Jihad is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Iran” (Islamic Jihad is militant group smaller than Hamas that also operates within Gaza.)

The current wave of violence was triggered after the murder of several teenagers, three Israelis and then one Palestinian, apparently by extremists on both sides. More broadly, it is the product of the historical conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. But it also represents the latest chapter in an intermittently violent cold war between Israel and Iran, which has long funded and supplied arms to Palestinian militants who attack Israel.

At issue now is Iran’s shipments of rockets into Gaza, shipments that are thought to have gone on for years. The rockets are transported by ship from Iran to Sudan, driven into Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, and then smuggled into Gaza through secret underground tunnels that run from Egypt into Gaza. Israel has blockaded Gaza’s borders ever since Hamas—which openly calls for Israel’s destruction—assumed power there in 2007.

Hamas can probably thank Iran for some of the most dangerous rockets it fired into Israel this week. They appear to be M-302s, whose range of 100 miles is longer than most in Hamas’s arsenal—which typically travel about ten miles—and can threaten northern Israeli cities. In March, Israel interdicted a ship carrying forty M-302 rockets it said were destined for Gaza; a United Nations report concluded last month that the rockets originated in the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. Israeli officials don’t believe that shipment was the only one of its kind.

The good news from Israel’s perspective is that smuggling arms to Hamas has become harder since last summer’s military coup in Egypt deposed a pro-Hamas Muslim Brotherhood regime in Cairo. The new regime of Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who strongly opposes Hamas, has mostly sealed the tunnels into Gaza (Both Hamas and Iran have denied such shipments.)

Hamas isn’t solely reliant on outsiders for its weapons. “A lot of the rockets are coming now from being domestically manufactured,” said Dermer on a conference call with reporters Friday. “That was not the case 18 months ago. Eighteen months ago, most of the rockets were coming from outside.”

However, even those homemade rockets bear Iranian fingerprints, say Israeli officials. Tehran has assisted Hamas and Islamic Jihad in developing their own manufacturing capabilities inside Gaza. “Iran is the principle source of know-how” for such efforts, an Israeli military intelligence official said in June.

There is no sign that Israel intends to retaliate against Iran. But some analysts believe that Israel uses confrontations like this one to send a message to Tehran, which also arms the anti-Israel group Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and whose nuclear program some Israeli leaders declare an existential threat. When Israel last clashed with Hamas in November of 2012, for instance, one columnist for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz wrote that Israel’s response “seems to be aimed at the Palestinian arena, but in reality it is geared toward Iranian hostility against Israel.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may see the current crisis as an opportunity to deal a crippling blow to Hamas, which one former Obama administration official with Middle East expertise describes as “desperate” now that Egypt has sealed many of its underground smuggling routes. Hamas’s relationship with Iran has also wobbled over the Syrian civil war, as the the Sunni Palestinian group and Tehran’s Shi’ite clerical regime have supported different sides in that sectarian conflict (although the two have recently struck a friendlier tone.)

Iran’s stake in the Israel-Hamas fight means that Tehran has a hand in three live conflicts at the moment. In addition to its strong support of Syrian ruler Bashar Assad, Iran has provided military aid to Iraq’s Shi’ite ruler, Nouri al-Maliki, who is fending off an invasion from Sunni radical group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and its Iraqi Sunni allies.

Meanwhile, Iran’s support for groups that oppose and attack Israel will remain a thorny issue in U.S.-Iranian relations as Washington tries to strike a nuclear deal with Tehran. Many of the economic sanctions currently imposed on Iran are based on the country’s support for terrorism and weapons proliferation.

Iran’s supply of rockets to Hamas “does raise the issue of how Iran is a proliferator,” said Chairman Royce, who spoke at a breakfast with reporters in Washington. He said any talks with Iran should include the question of “how do you stop this penchant for proliferation?”

TIME Iraq

Iraqi Kurdish Leader Urges Independence Referendum

The President of Iraqi Kurdistan Massoud Barzani visits Kirkuk
The President of Iraqi Kurdistan Massoud Barzani (L) visits Kirkuk June 26, 2014. Barzani called on regional lawmakers Thursday to lay the groundwork for a referendum on independence. Reuters

(BAGHDAD) — With large parts of Iraq in militant hands, a top Kurdish leader called on regional lawmakers Thursday to lay the groundwork for a referendum on independence, a vote that would likely spell the end of a unified Iraq.

The recent blitz by Sunni militants across much of northern and western Iraq has given the country’s 5 million Kurds — who have long agitated for independence — their best chance ever to seize disputed territory and move closer to a decades-old dream of their own state.

But the Kurds still face considerable opposition from many in the international community, including the United States, which has no desire to see a fragmented Iraq.

A Western-established no-fly zone in 1991 helped the Kurds set up their enclave, which has emerged over the years as a beacon of stability and prosperity, while much of the rest of the country has been mired in violence and political turmoil. The three-province territory was formally recognized as an autonomous region within Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

Speaking to the regional legislature Thursday, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Massoud Barzani, told lawmakers to set up an electoral commission to “hurry up” and prepare for “a referendum on self-determination.”

“We will be in a better position and we will have better (political) weapons in our hands. But how we will do this?” he said. “What kind of steps will there be? For this, you have to study the issue and take steps in this direction. It is time to decide our self-determination and not wait for other people to decide for us.”

Barzani spoke behind closed doors, but The Associated Press obtained a video of his address.

Kurdish leaders have threatened for years to hold an independence referendum, but those moves were often more about wresting concessions from the central government in Baghdad than a real push for statehood. The recent Sunni offensive has effectively cleaved the country in three, bringing the prospect of full independence within reach.

Kurdish fighters already have seized control of disputed territory — including the city of Kirkuk, a major oil hub. The Kurds say they only want to protect the areas from the Sunni militants. Many of the zones have considerable Kurdish communities that the Kurds have demanded be incorporated into their territory, making them unlikely to give them up.

With its own oil resources, the Kurdish region has long had a contentious relationship with Baghdad, with disputes over a range of issues including how to share the revenue. In May, the Kurdish government sold oil independent of the central government for the first time, shipping about 1.05 million barrels to Turkey. In retaliation, Baghdad stopped giving the Kurds the share of the central budget they are entitled to receive.

The border of the Kurdish self-rule region is another point of contention. The Kurds say they have tried for years to get Baghdad to agree on where to draw the frontier, but the central government has dragged its feet. They point to a constitutional amendment requiring that Kirkuk’s fate be decided by referendum, but it has never been implemented.

While the Sunni militants’ offensive may have turned the situation in the Kurds’ favor, there is still significant opposition to changing the status quo.

Kurdish independence is opposed by the U.S., as well as by Iraq’s regional neighbors, Turkey and Iran — both of whom have large Kurdish minority populations.

“Iraq is divided. We have got a new reality,” Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff to Barzani, told reporters Thursday. He was in Washington to update senior Obama administration officials on Kurdish aspirations for “self-determination.”

In a statement late Thursday, the White House said Vice President Joe Biden “dropped by” a meeting with Hussein and that “both sides agreed on the importance of forming a new government in Iraq that will pull together all communities in Iraq.” A separate White House statement said Biden spoke by phone with Turkey’s prime minister and that they agreed on “the importance of supporting lasting security and stability in Iraq.”

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday that “a united Iraq is a stronger Iraq.” She said the country’s leaders should focus on the insurgency instead of drawing new borders, “and we should not give an opening to a horrific terrorist group by being divided at this critical moment.”

The prospect of Kurdish independence is just one of the ripple effects caused by the stunning rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the extremist group that has carved out a large chunk of territory spanning the Syria-Iraq border. It has declared an Islamic state in the area.

The jihadi group’s growing strength has caused jitters across the region, particularly in neighboring Jordan, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

A U.S. defense official said Thursday that Saudi troops are massing along its border with Iraq in response to the extremist group’s advance toward the kingdom’s frontier. Countries in the region are nervous about their security and are moving to protect their borders, said the official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.

U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. is not close to launching a military assault against the insurgents, but “may get to that point” if they become a threat to the American homeland.

Dempsey said he does not believe the U.S., at this point, needs to send in an “industrial strength” force with a mountain of supplies to bolster Iraqi troops, adding that the most urgent need is a political solution centered on a more inclusive Iraqi government.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said about 200 U.S. military advisers are in Iraq assessing the situation and they have opened a second joint operating center in the north in Irbil. The U.S. has more than 750 troops in Iraq, mainly providing security for the embassy and the airport.

In northern Iraq, the Sunni militants released 32 Turkish truck drivers who were captured when the extremists overran the city of Mosul last month. The truckers traveled to the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region before flying to southern Turkey.

Militants seized the truckers June 9 in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Three days later, they took another 49 people from the Turkish consulate in Mosul. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said efforts were underway to secure the release of the Turks still in captivity.

The militants’ assault in Iraq has eased in recent days since encountering stiffer resistance in Shiite majority areas.

The rapid pace of the initial advance left 46 Indian nurses stranded at a hospital in the militant-held northern city of Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown. The nurses are safe but are being forced to move to an area controlled by the militants, according to Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin.

He also said 40 Indian construction workers abducted two weeks ago near Mosul were still being held, but were unharmed.

Across the border in Syria, meanwhile, the al-Qaeda splinter group seized several towns and villages as well as the country’s largest oil field Thursday as rival factions gave up the fight, Syrian activists said.

They said the jihadi group is in almost full control of a corridor stretching from the Syrian border town of Boukamal to the government-controlled provincial capital of Deir el-Zour to the northwest. Those gains in territory straddling the border between the two conflict-ridden countries effectively expand and consolidate areas held by the group — which has shortened its name to the Islamic State.

The majority of significant Syrian rebel brigades that have been fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad have rejected the group’s unilateral declaration of an Islamic state. The rebel groups, including the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, have battled the Sunni extremists since the beginning of the year. Nearly 7,000 people, mostly fighters, have died in the clashes.

However, the Nusra Front appears to be losing in Syria as fighters allied with powerful tribes in eastern Syria defect to al-Baghdadi’s group.

TIME Morning Must Reads

Morning Must Reads: July 3

Capitol
The early morning sun rises behind the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson—Getty Images

In the news: Clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces; ISIS; Obama's Syria strategy; Obama's religion problem; U.S. jobs report; Hurricane Arthur

  • “The abduction and suspected revenge killing of an Arab youth sparked intense clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces in East Jerusalem on Wednesday, raising the specter of wider violence two days after three kidnapped Israeli teenagers were found dead in the occupied West Bank.” [WashPost]
    • “…Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies on Israel’s political right appear to have extracted what they wanted from the crisis. And that has been disastrous for Palestinian civilians, who are suffering what, by every indication, appears to be collective punishment by the Israeli government for the actions of a few rogue militants.” [Vox]
  • How ISIS Came to Control Large Portions of Syria and Iraq [NYT]
  • “There’s a battle raging inside the Obama administration about whether the United States ought to push away from its goal of toppling Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and into a de facto alliance with the Damascus regime to fight ISIS and other Sunni extremists in the region.” [Daily Beast]
  • Secretive agency leads most intense anti-corruption effort in modern Chinese history [WashPost]
  • “Relations between the CIA and Congress are more fraught than at any point in the past decade. The source of the tension is the Senate intelligence committee’s classified report on the CIA’s controversial post-9/11 interrogation program—and the agency’s response to it. The bad blood could get worse in coming weeks, when portions of the report and CIA response are expected to be declassified.” [WSJ]
  • With Change Proving Difficult, Barack Obama Returns to Hope [TIME]
    • “That Obama has grown frustrated by Congress is nothing new, but the fact that he is wearing it on his sleeve is.”
  • “The unemployment rate, at 6.1%, is at its lowest since September 2008, the month of the Lehman collapse. However, the labor force participation rate is still at 62.8%—also the lowest ever.” [Reuters]
  • “This week, in the Hobby Lobby case, the Supreme Court ruled that a religious employer could not be required to provide employees with certain types of contraception. That decision is beginning to reverberate: A group of faith leaders is urging the Obama administration to include a religious exemption in a forthcoming LGBT anti-discrimination action.” [Atlantic]
  • “Thousands of Facebook users received an unsettling message two years ago: They were being locked out of the social network because Facebook believed they were robots or using fake names. To get back in, the users had to prove they were real. In fact, Facebook knew most of the users were legitimate.” [WSJ]
  • “Tropical Storm Arthur became a hurricane early Thursday morning and continues to accumulate strength as it approaches the North Carolina coast.” [TIME]
TIME Iran

Iran’s YouTube Message to Obama: Don’t Bully Us

Tehran takes a hard line as a July 20 nuclear deadline nears

+ READ ARTICLE

Iran’s foreign minister posted a defiant YouTube message on Wednesday, just as high-stakes talks over Iran’s nuclear program are resuming amid dim hopes for a breakthrough by a mid-July deadline.

“Iranians are allergic to pressure,” Mohammad Javad Zarif says in the English-language video. “Let’s try mutual respect.”

Zarif’s digital salvo came the day before the formal resumption of talks between Iran, the U.S., and five other major powers—and less than three weeks before the July 20 expiration of November’s interim nuclear agreement, which froze the progress of Iran’s nuclear program in return for relaxed international sanctions.

Experts call the video a clear message to the West and an effort to gain a public relations advantage as the final round of nuclear talks get underway. “Given that the video is in English, Zarif is clearly speaking to a foreign rather than a domestic audience,” says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “His message to Washington is that a failure to reach an agreement today will only result in a more advanced Iranian nuclear program tomorrow. His message to the world is that a failure to reach an agreement will be America’s fault.”

In talks that began last fall, the Obama administration hopes to reach a long-term agreement trading sanctions relief for limits on Iran’s ability to build a nuclear bomb. Such a deal might be Barack Obama’s last chance for an enduring foreign policy triumph in a star-crossed second term.

Zarif’s defiant tone, however, reinforces pessimism about the prospects for such a comprehensive deal, at least this summer.

“This probably isn’t going to get done by July 20,” says George Perkovich, also of the Carnegie Endowment, who recently returned from meetings in Tehran with people informed about the negotiations.

November’s interim deal allowed for a six-month extension, until January 2015, and many experts predict that outcome. Earlier this year Obama officials seemed to raise expectations for a more comprehensive deal, one that could last for a decade or more, but have recently struck a much more pessimistic tone. Even so, most close observers expect that the talks will continue rather than collapse entirely.

“I don’t think either side can afford to take the blame for walking away from the table if the other side is prepared to continue,” said Gary Samore, who formerly handled the Iran nuclear issue for the Obama White House, said in recent public remarks.

In latest example of Iran’s canny digital diplomacy, Zarif’s new video presents a soothing tone, opening with a shot of the diplomat strolling past a trickling fountain. A piano gently plays. But Zarif’s tone is stern. Speaking in fluent English, Iran’s western-educated negotiator denounces U.S.-led efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program over the past decade, including “the murder of our nuclear scientists, the sabotage of our facilities” and “military threats” from Washington.

Zarif may have been responding, in part, to a Wednesday Washington Post op-ed by Secretary of State John Kerry, warning Tehran not to “squander a historic opportunity to end Iran’s economic and diplomatic isolation,” and to accept limits that would allow for a peaceful nuclear program.

Obama officials in Vienna are pressing Iran to dismantle several thousand of its roughly 10,000 centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium into a more fissile form, and to accept other limits on its nuclear facilities and research programs. Their goal is to extend the “break out” time required for Iran to produce enough weapons-grade uranium to make one nuclear bomb, to as long as one year, thereby giving the international community time to detect and respond to the move. In return, Iran would get relief from harsh economic sanctions against its banking, energy and other key sectors.

Congressional Republicans and some Democrats are skeptical of such a deal, and argue for cranking up economic sanctions until Tehran, in effect, cries uncle and dismantles its nuclear program entirely.

Zarif insists that won’t happen. “To those who continue to believe that sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table, I can only say that pressure has only been tried for the past eight years…. It didn’t bring the Iranian people to kneel in submission and it will not now, nor in the future,” he says in his message.

Zarif’s tone reflects a bargaining gulf that remains over everything from the number of centrifuges Iran will retain to the operation of a heavy water plutonium reactor at Arak, whose fuel can easily be fashioned into bombs. The U.S. also wants more transparency about any military dimension to Iran’s nuclear program. Iran maintains that the world has no right to dictate its use of nuclear technology for what it says are peaceful energy and medical purposes.

Complicating matters are renewed concerns that Iran could might try to build a bomb in secret after striking a deal that covers its known nuclear sites. A new report from Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs warns against the potential false comfort of a “nuclear Maginot line.”

Meeting with the Iranians in Vienna are the U.S., Great Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia—a group known as the P5+1, because, along with the U.S., it includes the five permanent members of the United Nations security council, plus Germany.

Casting a long shadow, meanwhile, is Israel, which sent a delegation to Washington on Sunday to repeat their government’s view that Iran should surrender its nuclear infrastructure entirely. In an interview after his arrival here, Israeli intelligence minister Yuval Steinitz cited the success of the deal that forced Syrian president Bashar Assad to give up his declared chemical arsenal, which has now been removed from the country. Only “total dismantlement” can ensure that Iran doesn’t test the international community’s will in the future.

Zarif wants the world to believe that Iran has no such intention. “We still have time to put an end to the myth that Iran is seeking to build a bomb,” he says. “My government remains committed to ending this unnecessary crisis by July 20. I hope my counterparts are, too.”

Even if both sides are genuinely committed to a deal, however, that doesn’t mean they can agree on one.

TIME Iran

WATCH: Iran Shoots Modern Family Scenes Almost Frame for Frame

Minus the frames with the gay couple

+ READ ARTICLE

Fans of the ABC series Modern Family may never have laid eyes on the Iranian TV series Haft Sang — but they’ve seen it, nonetheless.

Haft Sang is a near-perfect recreation of Modern Family, shot frame for frame with the same stage directions, props and sight gags. But one thing is missing from the show in the conservative Islamic Republic: there’s not a glimpse of any gay characters like Mitch and Cam from Modern Family.

See a comparison clip above being shared on social media. No, you’re not seeing double. You’re just seeing what happens when copyright laws go flying out of the window.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser