US, looking to Madrid model, gives support to relaunched Arab Israel peace bid

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With new backing from Washington, the Arab League on Monday re-launched its Arab-Israel peace initiative, following day long meetings with Secretary of State John Kerry at Blair House.

Analysts said Washington’s embrace of the initiative could make way for a Madrid-like process of Arab-Israeli discussions to occur in parallel to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

“The Arab League delegation affirmed that agreement should be based on the two-state solution on the basis of the 4th of June 1967 line, with the possible of comparable and mutual agreed minor swap of the land,” Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al Thani said at a news conference with Kerry Monday night.

“On behalf of the President of the United States, I underscored the Arab League’s very important role… in bringing about a peace to the Middle East and specifically by reaffirming the Arab Peace Initiative here this afternoon with a view to ending the conflict,” Kerry said.

Israeli peace negotiator Tzipi Livni welcomed the initiative, which Al-Monitor reported  earlier this month was expected to be rolled out anew at the April 29 meeting.

“Even during a period of ups and downs in the Arab world, they must achieve normalization with Israel when we achieve peace with the Palestinians,” Livni said. “It’s true that there is still a long way to go, and we can’t accept all the clauses [in the Arab initiative] as holy writ, but sometimes you need to look up over the difficulties and just say good news is welcome.”

Kerry “has on his desk a proposal to replace the bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians with a multilateral platform,” Akiva Eldar reported for Al-Monitor last month (March 29).

Using the Arab peace initiative as a framework “will enable the renewal of the multilateral channels established following the 1991 Madrid peace conference on the issues of regional security, refugees, water and economic and environmental development,” Eldar wrote.

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Associates of Allakhverdov family puzzle over ‘Misha’ claims


A red-bearded, Armenian-Ukrainian immigrant described by some relatives as a mentor to the elder suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings has told the New York Review of Books that he was not Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s teacher, and has been fully cooperating with the FBI.

Mikhail “Misha” Allakhverdov, 39, born in Baku, Azerbaijan of an Armenian Christian father and Ukrainian mother, moved with his family to the United States about 15 years ago, associates said.

He converted to Islam in the United States, he told the New York Review of Book’s Christian Carlyl, in an interview Sunday from his elderly parents’ West Warwick, Rhode Island home.

“I’ve been cooperating entirely with the FBI,” Allakhverdov told Carlyl. “I gave them my computer and my phone and everything I wanted to show I haven’t done anything. And they said they are about to return them to me. And the agents who talked told me they are about to close my case.”

Mikhail, in the brief interview, did not deny knowing Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the slain elder suspect in the April 15th Boston bombings, but said he had not seen him for a few years.

“I wasn’t his teacher,” Allakhverdov told Caryl. “If I had been his teacher, I would have made sure he never did anything like this.”

The Allakhverdov family–father Yuri and mother Lidiya, sons Sergei and Mikhail–moved to the United States in the 1990s from Ukraine where they lived for a few years after fleeing anti-Armenian violence in Azerbaijan. Sergei, an historian, was seeking a publisher for an atlas of hand-drawn maps of the ancient world, he told an Armenian diaspora newspaper in 1999.

Mikhail Allakhverdov is listed with his brother Sergei as an officer of a Massachusetts nonprofit corporation called the Educational Organization for Improvements in Historical Studies, Inc. A telephone number listed for the company at a Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts address was no longer in service Monday.

Gennady Napadensky and Victoria Poupko, a Massachusetts couple from the former Soviet Union, who are listed as professional associates of Mikhail’s older brother Sergei, told Al-Monitor in a phone interview Monday that as far as they knew, Sergei was an atheist and the family was of Armenian Christian descent. Mikhail, they thought, converted to Islam after his immigration to the United States.

Gennady Napadensky told Al-Monitor he met Sergei about eight years  ago when he was looking for an historian and found him through a Russian bookstore in Brookline, Massachusetts.  They formed a company that produces digital interactive maps.

Victoria Poupko, Napadensky’s spouse and a former Northeastern University math professor who has worked as a human rights activist on behalf of persecuted ethnic minorities from the former Soviet Union, said she believes she met Mikhail Allakhverdov only once several years ago.

An activist on behalf of Chechen refugees, Poupko, of Russian Jewish descent, said she saw Mikhail in a car with a Chechen once, but she did not know who it was.

Azerbaijan brutally expelled ethnic Armenians like the Allakhverdov family after Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh voted in a referendum in 1988 to join Armenia. Subsequently, many Chechens fled to Azerbaijan in the 1990s during the Russian wars against Chechen unrest, Poupko said.

Sergei Allakhverdov-Amatuni (as the brother spells his names in some official listings) is also listed as a director of a Massachusetts non-profit, the Transitional Assembly for Peace and Democracy in Chechnya, Inc. Registered in 2003, the group lists as its president Salman Masayev (or Musayev), who has subsequently appeared in media reports as the deputy head of the Caucasus Muslims Organization, based in Baku, Azerbaijan. 

Nadezhda Banchik, a California-based human rights activist for persecuted former Soviet minorities who is a friend of Poupko’s, told Al-Monitor in a phone interview Monday that she does not know the Allekhverdovs, though she is listed with Sergei Allekhberdov-Amatuni as an officer in the Transnational Assembly. (She thought the group’s listed president Musayev might have been a Harvard student of Chechen descent who later returned to the region. Poupko later said she met Sergei through Musayev, who introduced him as a doctor-professor.)

Banchik noted, in a telephone interview, that the Boston Marathon bombings occurred a few days after the US publication of the Magnitsky list, and suggested that it was strange, if Russia had suspicions about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, that it did not arrest him when he was there for six months in 2012. Similarly, Russia has reportedly shared with the US in the past week alleged recordings of intercepted  phone calls from 2011, in which the suspects’ mother Zubeidat Tsarnaeva is alleged to have “vaguely” discussed jihad. But Zubeidat returned to Dagestan, in southern Russia, in 2012 from where she has given dozens of interviews in recent weeks. Russian authorities have apparently not found her of enough concern to detain her, Banchik noted.

The Russian-speaking diaspora in Boston, much of it Jewish, turned far less sympathetic to the plight of the Chechens after the Beslan school massacre and Moscow theater bombings, said Vladimir Napadensky, who is listed as an associate in the map company his father and Sergei created. He said he did not know Mikhail, and said of Sergei, only, “he makes maps.”

Sergei Allakhverdov described his family’s complicated ancestral geography in a 1999 interview with an Armenian American newspaper about his atlas of maps, for which he was seeking a publisher.

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Former CIA officer: ‘Absurd’ to link uncle of Boston suspects, Agency

20130427-162019.jpgRetired CIA officer Graham Fuller confirmed to Al-Monitor Saturday that his daughter was previously married to an uncle of the suspects in the Boston Marathon attacks, but called rumors of any links between the uncle and the Agency “absurd.”

Graham Fuller’s daughter, Samantha A. Fuller, was married to Ruslan Tsarnaev (now Tsarni) in the mid-1990s, and divorced in 1999, according to North Carolina public records. The elder Fuller had retired from the agency almost a decade before the brief marriage.

“Samantha was married to Ruslan Tsarnaev (Tsarni) for 3-4 years, and they lived in Bishkek for one year where Samantha was working for Price Waterhouse on privatization projects,” Fulller, a former CIA officer in Turkey and vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council, told Al-Monitor by email Saturday. “They also lived in our house in [Maryland] for a year or so and they were divorced in 1999, I believe.”

“I, of course, retired from CIA in 1987 and had moved on to working as a senior political scientist for RAND,” Fuller continued.

Fuller said his former son in law was interesting but homesick, and moved back to Central Asia after the divorce.

“Like all Chechens, Ruslan was very concerned about his native land, but I saw no particular involvement in politics, [although] he did try to contact other Chechens around,” Fuller continued. “He also felt homesick and eventually went back to Central Asia after the divorce. His English was shaky. (We always spoke Russian together).”

A story on the Internet implying “possible connections between Ruslan and the Agency through me are absurd,” Fuller said.

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Obama administration calls for full investigation into chemical weapons use in Syria


The Obama administration notified Congress Thursday that the U.S. intelligence community has newly assessed that Syria probably used chemical weapons, but cautioned that further tests are necessary and said it is pressing for the United Nations to conduct a comprehensive investigation.

“Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin,” the White House said in a letter to Congress Thursday.

The new assessment, announced by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in the United Arab Emirates Thursday, was finalized in the past twenty four hours and received with evident reluctance by the Obama administration, which has expressed strong misgivings about the prospect of deeper entanglement in a new Middle Eastern conflict.

But the administration decided to publicly release the findings, which were contained in an assessment requested by some members of Congress, as several allied governments and foreign officials, including in Israel, the UK and Qatar, have made similar claims, to press for a comprehensive probe.

The US intelligence assessment “is based in part on physiological samples,” the White House letter said. But it cautioned that “the chain of custody” of the physiological samples it tested “is not clear, so we cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions.” Blood samples and soil samples are the type of physiological material that would be tested for chemicals, a western diplomat said Thursday.

“Precisely because the President takes this issue so seriously, we have an obligation to fully investigate any and all evidence of chemical weapons use within Syria,” the White House letter said.

“Given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experience, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient,” the White House letter said, obliquely referring to past flawed US intelligence assessments that Iraq had WMD. Only “credible and corroborated” facts will guide US decision-making, it continued.

It’s important that any evidence be “air-tight,” a senior US official later echoed in a press call.

The White House said it was consulting closely with allies, particularly the UK and France, in considering possible next steps. Vice President Joe Biden was also meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Thursday. Hagel announced last week that the US was sending an additional 200 US troops there.

Earlier Thursday, a French official said the French government did not have conclusive evidence of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but had strong concerns, and was also pressing for a broader UN probe.

“France does not have proof of the use of chemical weapons at this stage, but France is actively investigating with its partners,” the French official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists. Continue reading

Obama AfPak advisor may help unwind the war from NATO

Douglas Lute, who has served for the past eight years as both the Bush and Obama White House Afpak ‘war czar,” looks set to get a plum assignment helping guide the wind-down of the US-led war in Afghanistan: US Ambassador to NATO.

Two US officials say Lute, a retired Army Ltn. General, is likely to be tapped for the Brussels job, succeeding Ivo Daalder, who previously announced he will step down this summer to head the Chicago Council on World Affairs.

(The Back Channel reported Tuesday that Lute may be up for Special Envoy to AfPak (SRAP), but we appear to have been off. Brussels-based reporter Teri Schulz first alerted us on Twitter that word is Lute may be headed there.)

One US official said Wednesday that Lute, asked about the NATO job, at some point wasn’t certain if his family could relocate abroad. But Lute’s spouse, Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Jane Holl Lute, announced earlier this month she is stepping down.

Lute didn’t respond to a query from the Back Channel. A NSC spokeswoman declined to comment: “No personnel announcements for you.”

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Yemeni’s testimony on US drones strikes chord in Washington


Last week, Farea al-Muslimi, a US educated Yemeni youth activist and writer, wrote about what it was like to have his village attacked by US drones, on his Twitter account @almuslimi and at Al-Monitor.

Today, after al-Muslimi’s powerful testimony before a Senate subcommittee Tuesday about the experience, the White House invited al-Muslimi to talk with them too, Wired’s Spencer Ackerman reports:

Before he leaves Washington D.C. on Friday, al-Muslimi will meet with White House officials to tell them what he told a Senate subcommittee yesterday: CIA and military drone strikes are strengthening al-Qaida’s Yemeni affiliate and making average Yemenis hate America.

“He will meet with a working-level expert on Yemen policy,” a White House official confirms, declining to provide the name of the official or the time of the meeting. […]

Still, it’s a dramatic change from the last time al-Muslimi, a Sana’a-based freelance writer on public policy, came to Washington. In September…al-Muslimi trudged from one drab policymaker’s office to another…while his interlocutors grew uncomfortable when he wanted to talk about the human costs of the drones.

At the Senate hearing Tuesday, al-Muslimi warmed up the room by saying he’d spent some of the happiest years of his life attending high school as an exchange student in California, and considered himself upon his return as a kind of US “ambassador” to Yemen. So our ambassador was upset and horrified, he said, when, sitting at a dinner with American diplomat friends in the capital Sanaa last week April 15th, he started getting calls and texts from people in his remote village of Wessab, a nine-hour drive away. A missile from a US drone had killed a man who village residents told him they had no idea would be a US target, and who could have been easily arrested without endangering the lives of innocent bystanders.

“Just six days ago, this so-called war came straight to my village,” al-Muslimi told the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil and Human Rights Tuesday.

“For almost all of the people in Wessab, I’m the only person with any connection to the United States,” al-Muslimi explained. “They called and texted me that night with questions that I could not answer: ‘Why was the United States terrifying them with these drones? Why was the United States trying to kill a person with a missile when everyone knows where he is and he could have been easily arrested?'”

America’s policy of remote, targeted killings is causing psychological terror and anger that is turning people in his village and country against the United Sates, our ambassador to Wessab warned.

The Obama White House did not send an official to testify on the panel, which was chaired by Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin. However, another witness who had been active in the Obama administration’s first term national security debates, former Deputy Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright, did attend, and went to shake al-Muslimi’s hand at the conclusion of the hearing, Ackerman reported.

And in the wake of his testimony, al-Muslimi is being sought by the US media for interviews, following stories on his testimony in the New York Times, Wired, etc. (Apparently deluged with the requests, al-Muslimi on Wednesday tweeted out the email address of a US media handler.) He’ll appear on NBC’s All In with Chris Hayes Wednesday night.

“The US needs to hear someone who looks like him and sounds like him and has his background say what he is saying,” Yemen expert Gregory D. Johnsen, author of The Last Refuge: Yemen al-Qaeda and America’s War in Arabia, told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

“But I am not terribly optimistic that it will make much difference,” Johnsen added. “I hope I’m wrong.”

Why is al-Muslimi’s reception in Washington this time so much more resonant than the gloomy trip he described to Ackerman last fall?

It’s hard to know. Certainly Kentucky Republican Rand Paul’s Senate filibuster put the issue of the White House’s secretive drone policy on a wider public radar. Perhaps at some level too, some here may be wearily mulling, in the aftermath of the bombing of the Boston Marathon (on the same day as the drone strike in al-Muslimi’s village), the perplexing identity of the suspects in the senseless terrorist attack–two brothers of Chechen descent who had been in the US for a decade. For whatever reason, at the moment anyhow, Washington seems newly ready to at least listen to what an articulate, ostensibly US-friendly person on the other geographical end of US drone strikes has to say, and to ponder whether they are the high-tech, low-hassle solution for counterterrorism without boots on the ground, or contributing to the radicalization of a new generation of terrorists we may yet face. Ambassador al-Muslimi seems to have nudged the debate, if only he could offer the White House a better alternative.

Appointment RUMINT


The White House is expected to notify Congress as soon as tonight that it is re-nominating Carlos Pascual to be Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources, sources tell the Back Channel.

Probably not coincidentally, Pascual is due to join National Security Advisor Tom Donilon at the launch Wednesday of a new Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy.

A former US ambassador to Mexico and Ukraine, Pascual has been in the acting job for over a year, and the young bureau is eager to get the assistant secretary in place. His nomination last year was put on hold, rumored to be by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), and it’s unclear as yet whether he or others plan to maintain it. Pascual recently married the daughter of Francisco Rojas, the head of Mexico’s CFE electricity company and PRI politician, officials said.

Near East: Two US officials say they now believe that Stuart Jones, the U.S. Ambassador to Jordan and former Deputy Ambassador to Iraq, may be leading the pack of candidates to succeed Beth Jones as Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs. Other possibilities mentioned are US Ambassador to Iraq Robert Stephen Beecroft, as well Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson, Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, and Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone.

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US charges Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Boston Marathon bombing


The United States on Monday charged Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, with perpetrating the bombings of the Boston Marathon last week.

Tsarnaev, recovering from gunshot wounds sustained in a police chase that killed his brother and accused accomplice, was formally charged and advised of his rights in his Boston Beth Israel-Deaconess hospital bed, by US Magistrate Judge Marianne Bowler. In the presence of three federal defense attorneys,  Tsarnaev nodded affirmatively when asked by the judge if he understood the charges and his rights, and said “no,” when asked if he could afford an attorney, according to a transcript of the hearing.

Tsarnaev, a naturalized American of Chechen descent who has been in the United States since he was 9 years old, was charged with the use of a weapon of mass destruction, and malicious destruction of property resulting in death, according to the 10-page federal complaint (.pdf). The charges, if proven, carry a penalty of life imprisonment or, if a jury decides, the death penalty. Additional charges could be added as the investigation proceeds.

The twin bombs, made of pressure cookers and dropped in backpacks near the finish line of the marathon April 15th, killed three people, including an 8 year old boy, and wounded over 200, some of whom were severely maimed.

Reports over the weekend pieced together from interviews with relatives and associates of the Tsarnaev family in North America and Dagestan, Russia, described Dzhokhar as a smart, seemingly well-adjusted and popular teenager, a former captain of his Cambridge high school wrestling team, who was until last week a college sophomore at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. However, his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, killed in a police shoot out early Friday, had a more troubling path and was described as growing increasingly alienated and extreme. Once a talented boxer, Tamerlin quit the sport, dropped out of community college in 2008, got arrested for assaulting a girlfriend in 2009, and was thrown out of his Cambridge mosque twice in the past year for outbursts denouncing the sermons as being “un-Islamic,” the Boston Globe reported.

In 2012, Tamerlin traveled to Dagestan, Russia for six months, as well as to Chechnya, to visit relatives, according to media interviews given by his father, Aznor Tsarnaev. Whether Tamerlin possibly made contact with jihadi radicals on that trip is a focus of US terrorism investigators now. Other accounts, including from a paternal uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, suggest Tamerlan’s radicalization began in Boston, starting years earlier.

Though accounts generally describe Tamerlan as the presumed ringleader of the plot and Dzholkhar as the loyal brother dragged into it, the federal complaint offers a chilling description of Dzholkhar’s behavior on videos the FBI obtained from the scene of the marathon bombings.

After the first explosion went off on Boston’s Boylston street last Monday afternoon, “virtually every head [in the crowd] turns to …that direction in apparent bewilderment and alarm,” the affidavit states.

But Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, “virtually alone among the individuals in front of the restaurant, appears calm,” the affidavit continues. “He walks away without his knapsack… Approximately 10 seconds later, an explosion occurs in the location where Bomber 2 [Dzhokhar] had placed his knapsack.”

Meantime, the FBI said Saturday that in early 2011 it interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev and members of the family at the request of a foreign government, subsequently identified as Russia. The Russian government said it had information that Tamerlan had become “a follower of radical Islam” and “had changed drastically since 2010” as he “prepared to leave the United States and… join unspecific underground groups” in Russia, according to the FBI press release.

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Arab League to meet with Kerry to revive Arab-Israel peace initiative


Members of the Arab League are expected to revive an Arab-Israeli peace initiative at a previously unreported meeting slated to take place later this month between the Arab League and Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington, diplomatic sources tell Al-Monitor.

The meeting will take place in Washington on April 29 between Kerry and foreign ministers from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, as well as a representative of the Palestinian Authority and the Arab League Secretary General, a member state diplomat told Al-Monitor.

The State Department, in response to a query, told Al-Monitor it had “nothing to announce” on the meeting, which diplomatic sources say was agreed to during President Obama’s recent trip to the region.

The Arab Peace Initiative, first proposed by Saudi  then Crown Prince, now King Abdullah in 2002 in Beirut, offered full normalization of relations between Israel and all 22 members of the Arab League after Israel and Palestine reach a just agreement on the creation of a Palestinian state.

President Barack Obama “raised the possibility of using” the Arab Peace Initiative “as a framework for a regional peace accord at meetings in Israel, the PA and Jordan last month, McClatchy News reported  April 5th.

Kerry “has on his desk a proposal to replace the bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians with a multilateral platform,” Akiva Eldar reported for Al-Monitor March 29. “Acceptance of the Arab initiative as the basis of a permanent arrangement between Israel and its neighbors will enable the renewal of the multilateral channels established following the 1991 Madrid peace conference on the issues of regional security, refugees, water and economic and environmental development.”

The Bush administration’s lack of recognition at the time of what the Saudi-backed Initiative signified “will go down in the annals of history as one of the biggest lost opportunities,” former Congressman Robert Wexler (D-florida), now president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, told an April 10th panel hosted by the Middle East Institute.

Attention to the initiative got overtaken at the time in Israel and Washington, however, by a devastating March 2002 Hamas terrorist attack in Israel known as the Passover Massacre.

But it “was no doubt an enormously important decision by Arab leaders [and it] went largely unnoticed and largely not acted upon by the United States, which allowed it to whither on the vine for ten years,” Wexler said.

“We have a peace plan … approved by all Arab countries,” Arab League Ambassador to the United States Dr. Mohammed Alhussaini Alsharif told Al-Monitor in an interview April 18. “The US realizes it missed an opportunity.” Continue reading

Leaked US cables show Iran hardliners sending feelers to United States


In 2007, an Iranian doctor who claimed to treat members of the Supreme Leader’s family met with a U.S. diplomat in Dubai and suggested the US government help fund the prospective presidential candidacy of a top aide to Supreme Leader Khamenei, according to a US diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks.

The US diplomat dismissed the proposal, which she described in the cable as bewildering, and in the end, Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran’s former foreign minister and the long-time foreign affairs advisor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, did not run in Iran’s contentious 2009 presidential race, though he is expected to run in Iran’s June polls this year.

But the cable offers an intriguing glimpse into how some in Iran’s stridently anti-US hardline political camps privately demonstrate more complex dealings with the United States than their public reputations would suggest.

The unidentified Iranian doctor, described as a “pro-Velayati conservative” who had spent 15 years in the United States and consulted the Supreme Leader’s family on various health ailments, met with the US diplomat in Dubai in March 2007. In the meeting, he extolled “the positive influence of former Foreign Minister Velayati, who he maintained wanted to build bridges with the West,” the US diplomat, Jillian Burns, then director of the US’s Iran Regional Presence Office in Dubai, reported in the March 2007 cable, which cautioned several times that such political assessments by Iranian interlocutors were highly subjective and should not be considered definitive.

“While he did not in any way seek a ‘channel’ between Velayati and the US, at one point he solicited [US government] USG financial backing for Velayati’s next campaign run, a subject [the US’s Iran regional presence office] IRPO did not pursue,” Burns continued.

“In what was otherwise a normal conversation with a new contact, at one point the doctor changed tacks and said the US should help pave the way for better relations by playing a role in deciding who wins the 2009 elections,” the cable continued.

“He said that it will take money to win the elections, and Velayati needs some,” Burns wrote. “He gave IRPO Director the business card of a company he said was a trading company he set up to raise funds for Velayati’s campaign. He suggested that the US allow this trading company to import goods normally blocked by sanctions to allow Velayati to start compiling funds. IRPO Director did not pursue the matter.”

Burns, currently the United States’ Senior Civilian Representative in Herat, Afghanistan, did not respond to email queries from Al-Monitor about the cable. US officials have generally declined to comment on information in the cables released by Wikileaks, and have warned that information in them could damage US sources and relationships.

Examination of the cable, dated March 27, 2007 and released by Wikileaks in 2011 to no apparent media attention ‘til now, comes as Iran’s June 14 presidential campaign is getting underway. Former Iran nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani, a member of Iran’s Expediency Council and the Supreme Leader’s liaison to the Supreme National Security Council, announced his candidacy March 11, casting himself as a moderate who can better manage Iran’s foreign affairs and economy, under strain due to mismanagement as well as tough economic sanctions meant to pressure Iran to accept a nuclear compromise.

Velayati, the foreign affairs advisor to Supreme Leader Khamenei and 1980s-era Iran foreign minister, is also expected to run in the June 14th polls. A trained pediatrician, Velayati did post-graduate medical studies at Johns Hopkins University before Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

Supporters of Velayati’s candidacy, including some from Iran’s diplomatic ranks, have also in recent months suggested to foreign contacts he would as president be a moderating influence, an establishment figure with impeccable hardliner credentials and the trust of the Supreme Leader who can help calm roiling tensions between the West and Iran over its nuclear program and other matters.

A former US official who has worked on Iran wondered if Iranian interlocutors think Americans would be so easily convinced that established Iranian hardliners would morph into moderates in office–(much less that the US would be so foolish as to try to influence Iran’s elections, given that false accusations of foreign meddling are routinely used to discredit Iranian dissidents.)

“How simple do they think we are, trotting out [these candidates] as ‘moderates,’” one former US diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Monday, comparing the recent pitches to the feelers the US received from Iran in the 1980s during Iran-Contra.

Iranian contacts, asked about the 2007 Dubai cable, said they could not definitively identify the Iranian doctor.

Another US diplomatic cable, written in 2009 by a US political officer at the US embassy in Beijing, relays a conversation with a Chinese foreign ministry-linked scholar, who described alleged Velayati communications with the US ahead of Iran’s 2009 polls.

“Li said he had learned that former Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati had discreetly contacted USG [US government] officials prior to the June 12 presidential election in Iran, agreeing to resume bilateral contacts after the election concluded, but that the turmoil and the lingering instability in Iran had prevented movement on that initiative,” the US political officer wrote.

(Photo: Ali Akbar Velayati, senior foreign affairs advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, at the Iranian Embassy in Damascus on August 9, 2010. Getty.)