Jeff Feltman, the UN Under Secretary for Political Affairs who until May served as a top US diplomat, on Wednesday became the most senior current or former American official known to meet with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in decades.
Feltman, the former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, met with Iran’s Supreme Leader as part of the entourage accompanying UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon for meetings in Tehran. Ban traveled to Iran against the wishes of the US and Israel to attend the non-aligned movement summit.
American officials downplayed the rare meeting between even an ex-US official and Iran’s vehemently anti-American Supreme Leader, pointing out that Feltman doesn’t work for the US government anymore.
Feltman “is doin’ his new job,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told Al-Monitor Wednesday when asked about the meeting.
Asked if Ban or Feltman conveyed any message from the United States to Iran’s leadership, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told Al-Monitor: “Nope.”
“Not sure that it means much in reality,” former senior Obama White House Iran strategist Dennis Ross told Al-Monitor by email Wednesday.
Feltman “is a UN official and he works for Ban,” Ross, now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, continued. “The Iranians may be seeking to play up any imagery hoping it may support their desire to show how they are not isolated and make some of their neighbors wonder about what is going on.”
But former American diplomat Jim Dobbins told Al-Monitor that Feltman likely would have given the US government at least a courtesy ‘heads up’ about his trip, even if he would not take guidance from them. The meeting “is interesting,” Dobbins, now at the Rand Corporation, said.
And another former senior US official who asked not to be named acknowledged she was “shocked” to learn of the meeting, mostly because the Obama administration had publicly pressed Ban to forgo the trip. Feltman, who served as ambassador to Lebanon during the 2006 war, is thought to be fairly hardline on Iran.
The tone of the UN chief’s meeting with Iranian leaders Wednesday was reportedly fairly testy and combative, reports said, though the Supreme Leader’s website acknowledged Ban requesting that Iran take “concrete” steps to cooperate with the IAEA and P5+1 negotiating over its nuclear program.
“Ban told Khamenei and, separately, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to take ‘concrete’ steps to fix the worsening international showdown over their atomic activities, according to his spokesman,” Agence France Press reported.
Khamenei, “according to his official website, shot back by saying the ‘defective’ United Nations was in thrall to the United States, and accusing the UN nuclear watchdog of ‘sabotaging’ Iran’s nuclear progress,” the AFP report said.
“Khamenei’s official website,” however, “noted the ‘concern’ expressed by Ban over the nuclear issue and the UN chief’s call for Iran ‘to show more cooperation with the IAEA and P5+1 group,'” the AFP report continued.
Khamenei’s website notably tweeted and published the photos of the attendees in the room at the meeting. Among them, above, the Supreme Leader’s foreign policy advisor Ali Akbar Velayati (second from right); Iran’s UN envoy Mohammad Khazaee (third from right), and Iran’s recently promoted deputy foreign minister for Asian affairs Abbas Araghchi (fourth from right), who previously served as Iran’s ambassador to Japan and taught at its international relations school.
“I think Feltman met Iran’s Leader as part of [the] UN delegation,” a former Iranian diplomat told Al-Monitor Wednesday. “But if the US wants to have rapprochement, it would be a good opportunity. For me, this is good if Feltman [tells the] realities [he] sees in Tehran to President Obama, Clinton, and Congress when he comes back.”
Though after reports of what sounded like a “vintage” Khamenei diatribe Wednesday, one “can only imagine the messages going from Feltman in Tehran” to the State Department tonight, one former US official who asked not to be identified told Al-Monitor.
Separately, political directors from the P5+1 — the U.S., UK, France, Germany, China and Russia–held a conference call with European Union High Rep Catherine Ashton Tuesday to hash out a joint position ahead of a planned call between Ashton and Iran’s Saeed Jalili next week, Al-Monitor reported Wednesday.
Feltman, a career diplomat, served as the most senior State Department official on the Middle East from 2009 until he resigned from the Foreign Service late last spring to take the #3 job at the United Nations.
(Photos: Fars News Agency; second photo at right, via @Khamenei.Ir)