Buzz grows around veteran Iran insider, amid rumors of US back channels

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A veteran advisor to Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is playing an increasingly public role in Iranian foreign policy and politics, after years of operating more behind the scenes in the opaque world of the leader’s inner circle, some Iran watchers say.

Ali Akbar Velayati, who served as Iran’s foreign minister from 1981-1997 and studied pediatric medicine at Johns Hopkins University in the 1970s, has long served in the shadows as a foreign policy advisor to Khamenei and regime mandarin. But in recent months, Iran analysts note, Velayati has decidedly raised his public profile, headlining an Islamic awakening conference in Tehran in July, giving media interviews, offering conciliatory messages about Iran’s interest in pursuing negotiations with world powers towards a diplomatic resolution of the Iran nuclear dispute, while asserting a hawkish stance warning against Western military intervention in Syria.

This month, Iran announced it has opened negotiations with Argentina over the 1994 bombing of the Buenos Aires Jewish community center, in which several senior Iranian officials, including Velayati, were implicated.

Most recently, Velayati, 68, has become the subject of persistent rumors of US-Iran back channels, which have been denied by both capitals–and by Velayati himself.

“As far as I know, Velayati is already and quietly involved on some foreign policy issues,” former Iranian nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian told Al-Monitor by email Saturday. “They all would be very careful and cautious to do things with little risk before [Iran presidential] June elections.”

Velayati’s higher profile on the public scene comes amid signs that Iran’s leadership may be seeking ways to ease Iran’s confrontation with the West over its nuclear program that has led to draconian sanctions straining Iran’s economy. Khamenei has also recently sought to quiet brazen infighting among domestic political factions that has intensified in the tumultuous last years of the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Amid Ahmadinejad’s sometimes erratic foreign policy pronouncements, Supreme Leader Khamenei has for years employed Velayati and fellow former foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi to chair foreign policy advisory committees and send back channel messages to foreign leaders and policy experts. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has also been quite active in conducting both official and Track II meetings with current and former foreign officials.

“If you asked me a few months ago, whether Velayati would be a viable Iranian presidential candidate next year, I would have thought it not very likely,” Yasmin Alem, an independent Iran analyst who studies Iranian domestic politics, told Al-Monitor in an interview Friday. “His name has been out there since the 1980s. He is not charismatic, and it would seem difficult to get people to vote for him.”

But developments in recent months have caused her to reconsider. The timing of Iran opening negotiations with Argentina “is suspicious,” Alem said. “Either they want to push him to be a candidate, or it might have something to do with nuclear negotiations, if the Supreme Leader has decided to make him an envoy directly communicating with the Americans.”

For all the denials, there’s a persistence to the Iran media speculation about a rumored Velayati role in a US back channel that has added an unlikely mystique to the image of the rather uncharismatic regime insider, analysts said. The buzz around Velayati is also tied to speculation that Tehran may need an envoy with better negotiating skills, experience with the West, and diplomatic mien to be able to get Iran out of its current predicament.

Velayati is knowledgeable about “Iran’s nuclear program over the years, … and he is still the person who is commenting on US-Iran relations with much more authority than anyone else,” Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor in an interview Thursday (November 1).

When Ahmadinejad, on a visit to New York in September, stirred media headlines suggesting possible openness to US-Iran talks, it was Velayati “who refuted that back home, saying there’s been no change in Iran policy to the US,” Vaez noted.

Al-Monitor reported in August that Velayati may be a presidential candidate next year, and that his prospective candidacy was tied in part to the Iranian leadership’s desire to reduce soaring tensions with the West and Iran’s deepening international diplomatic and economic isolation. Iran’s leadership “are rational, and calculate how to deal with the US,” a former senior Iranian diplomat supportive of Velayati’s candidacy told Al-Monitor in August. Key factions of Iran’s elite are looking for more effective stewardship of Iran’s international relations and stable management of domestic affairs, the former diplomat said.

“The Iranians have now realized that in the ‘P5+1′”–the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program—“the ‘Plus 1’ stands for the United States–not Germany,” Vaez said. “They realize that without talking directly to the United States, they can’t resolve this.”

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Turkey’s Erdogan meets Iran’s Ahmadinejad on Syria

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan held a surprise meeting with Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the sidelines of a regional economic conference in Baku, Azerbaijan Tuesday, to discuss Syria.

The Turkish leader proposed that Turkey, Egypt and Iran might hold three-way talks on resolving the Syria conflict, that has sharply strained relations between Ankara and Tehran. While Iran has backed its ally the Assad regime, Turkey has supported the opposition, while hosting an influx of over 100,000 Syrian refugees and fighting escalating border clashes this month after Syrian mortar killed five Turkish civilians.

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Protests erupt in Iran amid panic over rial drop


Protests erupted in central Tehran Wednesday after police closed black market currency exchange shops amid panic over the steep plunge in the value of the Iranian currency.

The protests in Tehran’s central Bazaar district, some calling for the resignation of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, come as the value of the rial to the dollar has plummeted by over 40% in the past week, as Iranians rushed to buy hard currency.

According to purported video of the protests posted to YouTube, some of the protesters shouted chants calling on Tehran’s “dignified” merchants to “support us, support us.” Other chants called on the Iranian regime to “leave Syria, think of us“–a reference to Iran’s efforts to prop up its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The value of the rial continued to fall after Ahmadinejad gave a speech Tuesday in which he blamed international sanctions and a handful of Iranian speculators for the rial’s drop, and urged Iranians to stop selling their rials to buy foreign currency.

But external factors alone do not account for the rial’s latest dive, some economists said.

Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, an economist at Virginia Tech, attributed the precipitous fall of the rial over the past week to the government’s decision to put more funds into a central exchange for approved importers and exporters. “Because they moved it suddenly,” he told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on Tuesday, there was a shortfall in the free market.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking to reporters Wednesday, also said internal Iranian government decisions–“having nothing to do with the sanctions”–had played a role in the rial’s dive. “Of course the sanctions have had an impact as well,” she said, adding, “but those could be remedied in short order if the Iranian Government were willing to work” with the international community to resolve concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.

While ostensibly fueled by economic anxiety, rumors swirled that the rial protests Wednesday may also have been spurred in part by rival political factions hostile to Ahmadinejad, some Iran analysts said.

“I think we must be careful before jumping into any kind of conclusion about this particular protest,” Nazila Fathi, a journalist previously based in Iran for the New York Times and currently a fellow at the Harvard Belfer Center for International Security, told Al-Monitor by email.

“It might be part of the attack against Ahmadinejad to bring him down before his term is over,” Fathi said, noting the hostile tone of speeches this week by Ahmadinejad and one of his chief political rivals, Iran parliament speaker Ali Larijani.

Iranian media reports said over 100 people were arrested in the protests Wednesday. Meantime, journalists with the BBC and RFE/RL Persian services reported that their satellite broadcasts into Iran had been jammed Wednesday, to impede Iranians seeing news of the protests.

Iran watchers said the economy-fueled unrest was unlikely to be a one-off affair, given Iran’s economic predicament is likely to only get worse in the months ahead because of its dispute with the international community over its nuclear program.

“Iran’s economic outlook is more limited than at anytime in 50 years,” Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, said at the Woodrow Wilson forum Wednesday.

“There are tremendous opportunity costs” to Iran for refusing to budge on its nuclear program and other policies, she said. “These are revenues and markets that will never be recaptured” and Iran’s ambitions for economic development and trade will be “clipped in the long term in a way that is degrading for the country.”

While Iran can weather sanctions, “the average citizen is very distressed,” and “in the short term, Iranian industry is suffering,” Bijan Khajehpour, another specialist on the Iranian economy, told the Wilson Center forum.

“The Iranian regime is going to face immense pressures in the months ahead,” agreed Alireza Nader, a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corporation, in an email to Al-Monitor. “President Ahmadinejad, in particular, is in big trouble.”

“This is not just about the currency crisis,” Nader added, predicting greater instability in the country. “This is about everything that’s wrong with Iran today.”

–With Barbara Slavin  (@barbaraslavin1), Al-Monitor’s Washington correspondent, and Eskander Sadeghi-Boroujerdi (@eborujerdi), of Al-Monitor’s Iran Pulse news blog.

Iran FM Salehi: Iran nuclear bomb would decrease Iran’s security

New York_ Iran’s foreign minister said Monday that Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon would threaten Iran’s security and be destabilizing for the region.

Ali Akbar Salehi, the MIT-educated PhD engineer who previously served as Iran’s longtime envoy to the UN atomic watchdog agency, said that Iran acquiring one or two nuclear bombs would dramatically increase the threats Iran faces, and not be a deterrent to nuclear powers with far larger nuclear stockpiles.

“Had Iran chosen to [go] nuclear in the sense of weaponization, it would not be a deterrent for Iran,” Salehi, speaking in English, told foreign policy experts at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York Monday. “It would attract more threats from the other side.”

“Because suppose we wanted to go nuclear and manufacture one or two bombs,” Salehi continued. “Who on the other side of Iran …can we ever be in equal footing with in this regard? Any country that challenges us with nuclear weapons …who would we use against?”

(In an interview with Al-Monitor in August, Salehi said he envisioned a ‘win-win’ way out of the international dispute over Iran’s nuclear program.)

Salehi, with his many years in the United States and Vienna, cut a stylistically more erudite, polished figure than Iran’s outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who returned home to criticism over the dramatic plunge in the value of the Iranian currency the rial by almost 40% this week. But on core positions his message was not fundamentally different from that offered by the controversy-courting Ahmadinejad, who has spoken for the past few years about Iran’s willingness to strike a reasonable compromise on its nuclear program, but alienated many in the West by his questioning of the Holocaust and antagonistic comments about Israel, which Ahmadinejad refers to as “the Zionist” entity.

By contrast, Salehi referred to “Israel” by name in his remarks. But he referred to it to criticize Israel for its recent threats of military action against Iran’s nuclear program, and the double standards by which he says it does so while possessing some 200 nuclear weapons and not being a party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which Iran is a signatory.

On Syria, Salehi said that Iran has been meeting with the Syrian opposition for over a year, and supports UN and regional initiatives to try to broker mediation talks between the Syrian government and the opposition.

“We have been in contact with the Syrian opposition for over a year,” Salehi said. “We have declared and announced that we are ready to host the opposition and government in Iran, to sit down with each other and find a solution.”

(Salehi did not specify which Syrian opposition groups Iran has met with. But Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, in an interview with Al-Monitor Saturday, said that Iran had been holding talks with members of the Syrian National Council and the Muslim Brotherhood.)

Salehi said that he has held meetings in New York in recent days with new United Nations/Arab League Syria envoy Lahhdar Brahimi and the Arab League chief, as well as with the UN’s longtime Lebanon envoy Terje Rød-Larsen.

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Iran news agency apologizes for ‘Onion’ poll spoof goof

Iran’s Fars News Agency has apologized to readers for running a spoof poll taken from the satirical American newspaper, “The Onion.” The satire item–run briefly as a straight news item on Fars Friday–cited a fake Gallup ‘poll’ claiming white American rural voters favor Iran’s lame-duck president Ahmadinejad over Obama.

“Unfortunately an incorrect item was released on our website on Friday which included a fake opinion poll on popularity rate of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and US President Barack Obama,” Fars News Agency’s editor in chief said in an apology note published on Fars’ English language-website Sunday. “The news item was extracted from the Satirical Magazine, The Onion, by mistake and it was taken down from our outlook in less two hours.”

“We offer our formal apologies for that mistake,” the editor’s apology continued, before noting that it’s not the only media outlet to have been “duped” by the Onion.

“On April 25, 2011, The New York Times admitted they made the mistake of treating a fake creation from The Onion as something legitimate,” it said.

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Sunday funnies: ‘OK, who leaked our nuclear bomb design to Netanyahu?’

Brilliant, by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Rob Rogers:

Cartoonist Rogers writes on his blog: “Benjamin Netanyahu stood in front of the United Nations last week and drew a red line on a cartoon bomb as he made a point about Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Apparently, Israeli’s top secret intelligence comes from a Warner Brothers cartoon.”

(And for a smart take on decoding the numbers referenced in Bibi’s UN presentation, see this.)

(h/t Ron Kampeas, who tweets @kampeas)

Israel embassy pokes fun at Iran news goof


When Iran’s Fars News Agency published a spoof article from the satirical US newspaper the Onion, claiming Ahmadinejad beat out Obama in a new Gallup poll of American rural voters, Israel’s mission in New York couldn’t resist making a bit of fun at the IRGC-linked news agency’s expense.

But the Israeli diplomats’ social media crew went way over the head of whatever poor, ink-stained Fars scribe unwittingly took as real the spoof poll (and apparently ripped it off wholesale). The diplomatic mission took to Twitter to notify Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself of the error:

No word yet on the results of the attempted Twitter diplomacy/editorial correction between the two arch enemy nations.

According to his latest stats, Iran’s Supreme Leader’s English language Twitter account @Khamenei_IR has acquired 6,101 followers, and has issued 3,069 tweets. But the Supreme Leader still, as earlier, follows nobody on Twitter.

Meantime, Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has departed New York for Iran, following what is likely to be his last US trip as Iran’s president, and apparently to contend with more political troubles at home. Among them, the news that his press aide Ali Akbar Javanfakr was jailed in Iran this week during his absence.

A Tale of Two UN Speeches: Netanyahu Tougher than Ahmadinejad

Barbara Slavin reports:

For the first time in eight years of appearing before the UN General Assembly, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave a less controversial and hard-line speech than the leader of Israel.

Where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu concentrated his remarks Thursday on Iran’s nuclear program and the threat he said it posed to Israel and the world, Ahmadinejad made only one reference to Israel in his speech a day earlier, noting “the continued threat by the uncivilized Zionists to resort to military action against our great nation.”

Ahmadinejad did not deny the Holocaust, accuse the US of attacking itself on 9-11 or repeat his usual citation of Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s prediction that Israel would be “wiped from the pages of history.”

Nor did the Iranian president mention that one nuclear weapon could destroy Israel – as former President Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani once said – or even say that Iran would retaliate against an Israeli strike.

In fact, Ahmadinejad, who in the past has boasted about Iran’s entry into the nuclear club, did not mention the nuclear issue at all — or the draconian sanctions imposed on Iran because of its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment.  The closest he came to the subject was a broader complaint against the world’s “domineering powers” and his demand that the United Nations come under “new management.” Those themes were the same as he has stressed in previous years.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a neo-conservative Washington think tank, wrote that Ahmadinejad, in what is likely to be his last appearance at the UN as Iranian president, showed his “soft side.” Continue reading

Ahmadinejad: Iran nuclear issue ‘very tiresome subject’

New York__Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad confessed Monday that he is tired of discussing the Iran nuclear issue.

The nuclear issue “is a very tiresome subject,” Ahmadinejad told journalists at a media breakfast at a midtown Manhattan hotel Monday morning. “Everyone knows Iran is not seeking” a nuclear weapon.

The whole issue begins “to resemble a comedy show,” Ahmadinejad continued. “Those accusing us have warehouses full” of nuclear weapons.

Ahmadinejad, on his eighth and perhaps final visit to New York as Iran’s president, looked subdued and somewhat weary at two appearances with journalists and think tank scholars in New York Monday.

In an effort to perhaps lighten the glum mood, the Iranian president shared a joke he said was making the rounds of Iranian school children–at the apparent expense of the six-nation group trying to negotiate a resolution to international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. “In Iran, the children come up with a joke for the P5+1,” he said. “‘How is it possible not to be able to add 5+1 for so many years?'”

Asked by a former American diplomat about the prospect of opening US-Iranian talks on the nuclear issue to bypass the somewhat cumbersome P5+1 format, Ahmadinejad, however, did not answer directly if he would support such an initiative.

“We all know the nuclear issue is a political issue,” Ahmadinejad said at the midday meeting with American think tank scholars and nuclear experts. “Not legal or technical. The problem is between the U.S. and Iran.” Continue reading

The return of Prince Bandar; Iran, Israel athletes may compete at Olympics

(Photo: Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan (R) welcomes ex-UK PM Tony Blair in Jeddah September 3, 2007.  REUTERS/Saudi Press Agency/Handout.)