Iran taps diplomat to field US non-official contacts

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In a sign of Iranian interest in streamlining back channel contacts and reducing mixed messages ahead of anticipated, resumed nuclear negotiations next month, Iran was said to appoint a central point of contact for approaches from outside-government Americans, two Iran nuclear experts told Al-Monitor this week.

Mostafa Dolatyar, a career Iranian diplomat who heads the Iranian foreign ministry think tank, the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS), was tapped by Iran’s leadership to coordinate contacts with American outside-government policy experts, including those with former senior US officials involved unofficially in relaying ideas for shaping a possible nuclear compromise, the analysts told Al-Monitor in interviews this week. The IPIS channel is for coordinating non-official US contacts, which in the absence of formal diplomatic ties, have formed an important, if not unproblematic, part of Iran’s diplomatic scouting and Washington’s and Tehran’s imperfect efforts to understand and influence each others’ policy positions.

The appointment is the result of a desire “on the Iranian side for a more structured approach to dealing with America,” Mark Fitzpatrick, an Iran nuclear expert at the Institute for International and Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, told Al-Monitor in an interview Monday, adding that he now doubts that there are agreed plans for direct US-Iran talks after the elections.

“I was told … that Iran had appointed one person to be the channel for all approaches from the Americans,” specifically for former officials and non-governmental experts, Fitzpatrick continued. “And Iran wants to structure that so that Iran is speaking from one voice.“

For contacts with the U.S., Dolatyar will report to Saeed Jalili, the secretary general of Iran’s national security council who serves as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Fitzpatrick said.

A second, European Iran nuclear expert described Dolatyar as having been tapped by the Iranian leadership to be the liaison for NGOs.

A spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations in New York told Al-Monitor Tuesday  that the mission was unaware of the appointment, and noted that Iran’s foreign ministry has a department responsible for US and European affairs. A senior official at the mission who currently handles contacts with US NGOs and think tanks is, however, expected to move to work at IPIS shortly.

Al-Monitor was unable to reach Dolatyar by phone at his Tehran think tank Tuesday.

The semi-official arrangement, if accurate, would appear to revive one that existed in the past. The Iranian think tank, IPIS, previously served a similar role as a liaison between Iran’s foreign ministry and US policy experts and think tank analysts in the 1990s. But the channel apparently collapsed early in the controversial presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—specifically, after Ahmadinejad used the think tank to host a Holocaust denial conference in 2006. (The director of the think tank at the time was replaced in 2009, and Ahmadinejad himself, in his eighth and final year as Iran’s president, is under such fire at home that some Iran political analysts have wondered if he will manage to finish out his term in office before Iran presidential elections in June.)

“IPIS is part of [the] Foreign Ministry organization,” Abbas Maleki, a former Iranian diplomat who served as founding director general of IPIS from 1980 to 1989, told Al-Monitor by email Wednesday. The head of IPIS has a rank “between deputy foreign minister and head of department. … IPIS is not an independent think tank, it is like Policy Planning in State Department.”

The move may also signal Iran’s effort to avoid confusion and distortions of policy positions that have occurred in friendly, informal channels in the past, that have influenced thinking in western capitals, sometimes incorrectly, about what terms Iran might be prepared to offer, and willing to accept, in a nuclear fuel swap deal. Unclear is if Iran is seeking to better control such outside channels now to avoid interference with direct contacts.

Dolatyar, who served as Iran’s envoy to the UN General Assembly in New York from 2002-2006, and earned his PhD in international relations in England in 1998, according to his IPIS biography, has been involved in talks in the past with American nuclear experts who have gone on to key positions in the US administration.

In 2008, Dolatyar, then director general of the Iran Foreign Ministry West Europe bureau, was among a group of Iranian diplomats who participated in talks with US think tank nuclear experts held in Europe, a participant in the talks, convened by the Pugwash nuclear disarmament conference, told Al-Monitor Tuesday. Among the American experts who attended the ”Track 1 ½” talks, held in Vienna and the Hague, was Gary Samore, who was subsequently appointed by President Obama in 2009 to be the top White House nonproliferation advisor. In that role, Samore has been a key member of the US negotiating team participating in six nation “P5+1” talks on Iran’s nuclear program. Samore also co-led, together with State Department arms control envoy Robert Einhorn, the US delegation to experts levels talks between the US, Iran, France, Germany, Russia, China and the EU held in Istanbul July 3rd.

Dolatyar, speaking at a nonproliferation conference in Moscow last month, referred to his involvement in negotiations with the Europeans on the Iran nuclear issue in New York in 2003. And he singled out the United States for being the “spoiler” in reaching a compromise in recent P5+1/Iran nuclear talks.

Russian’s chief Iran nuclear negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, addressing the same conference, alluded to more going on behind the scenes by way of contacts with the Iranians that meets the eye, including emails and phone calls that have followed a nuclear experts meeting in Istanbul in July. But he warned that delay in the diplomatic process can lead to back-sliding, and he urged that momentum be stepped up.

“As for Iran and the Iranian issue, the current state of affairs is actually not quite as bad as it might appear to those who are judging the situation only by newspaper headlines or by the number of meetings,” Ryabkov told the gathering in Moscow, which was also attended by Samore’s aide Laura Holgate, a White House senior director on non proliferation, and acting Under Secretary of State for Arms Control Rose Gottemoeller.

“The nature of the negotiating process is such that if we allow too long a pause, the participants end up returning to the discussion of issues which we thought we had already agreed on,” Ryabkov warned. “We don’t want that to happen, so we want to continue the negotiating process on all levels.”

Meantime, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, traveling with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Sarajevo Tuesday, said her deputy Helga Schmid was in contact with Iran’s deputy nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri over the weekend about plans for expected, resumed P5+1 talks next month.

“At the weekend there was contact between my deputy and Dr Jalili’s deputy and I will attempt to contact Dr Jalili in the near future,” Ashton said at a news conference with Clinton in Sarajevo Tuesday. “I will continue to do everything I possibly can to move these negotiations forward.”

There is as yet “no precision on when the contact will take place at this point,” a spokeswoman for Ashton subsequently told Al-Monitor.

Separately, a State Department spokeswoman, in an email to Al-Monitor Tuesday, denied a report that appeared in French paper Le Monde last week (October 24) saying that State Department arms control envoy Robert Einhorn has had back channel contacts with Ali Akbar Velayati, a foreign policy advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. “A meeting between Amb. Einhorn and Velayati did not happen,” State Department press officer Ariel Vaagen told Al-Monitor by email Tuesday.

Velayati has also denied reports of alleged meetings with Americans.