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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Iran nuclear technical talks get underway in Istanbul

Technical experts from the EU, United States, Russia, China and Iran are meeting in Istanbul today (July 3rd), to see if they can narrow differences on a proposed confidence building measure that would halt Iran's 20% enrichment activities.

State Department nonproliferation advisor Bob Einhorn and the White House WMD czar Gary Samore are representing the United States at the Istanbul talks.

Irani's top envoy in Istanbul is Hamid Reza Asgari, a legal adviser to Iran's atomic energy organization and non-proliferation advisor to Iran's national security council (pictured above, right, in 2009).

While expectations for the Istanbul talks have been quite low, some analysts said they may be able to make more progress outside of the spotlight and somewhat rigid format of the seven nation P5+1/Iran political-level talks.

“Short and haphazard sittings among senior representatives left too many gaps, which were filled with posturing and political brinksmanship in the interregnum between the talks,” Ali  Vaez, an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, wrote at Al Monitor Monday. “In contrast, technical meetings can take place in a less charged atmosphere. As such, they could offer a suitable avenue for essential duologue between Iranian and American negotiators, without the fear of stirring up a political hornet's nest back home.”

“Make no mistake: the issue at the crux of Iran’s nuclear crisis is politics, not physics,” Vaez continued. “But while common ground between the two sides on political issues is extremely narrow, if not nonexistent, there is room for maneuver in the technical realm. For instance, both Iran and the P5+1 appear amenable to a compromise on curbing Tehran’s uranium enrichment activities at the 20 per cent level, which provides a shortcut to weapons-grade fissile material: Continue reading

US seen hardening its position in Iran nuclear talks

Iran came to talks in Moscow last week (June 18-19) prepared to discuss stopping enriching uranium to 20% but refused two other conditions that might have led to a partial agreement in the nuclear standoff, Barbara Slavin and I report on the front page:

Briefings by diplomats whose countries took part in the talks portrayed the meetings as a “dialogue of the deaf,” with the two sides trading widely divergent proposals. However, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator did express willingness to discuss one key step requested by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1): stopping enrichment of uranium to 20% U-235, the isotope that gives uranium its explosive power.

The western members of the P5+1 insisted, however, that Iran had to meet all three conditions contained in their proposal: stop 20% enrichment, ship out a stockpile of more than 100 kilograms of 20%-enriched uranium and close Fordo, a fortified enrichment facility built into a mountain near Qom.

That stance has led some P5+1 members to conclude that the United States hardened its position in Moscow compared to two earlier sessions in Baghdad and Istanbul, according to diplomatic briefings shared with Al-Monitor. […]

“Earlier, the US had implied that they were ready to address the three E3+3 demands … separately,” a briefing shared with Al-Monitor said, using the terminology Europeans employ for the P5+1. “However, this position had changed in Moscow,” where the US insisted “that the three demands should be treated inseparably, as a package.”

Indeed, after the P5+1 presented its proposal to Iran in Baghdad last month, Washington’s clear expectation was that Iran would not accept it as-is.

“There were two possible scenarios,” said Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, in an interview with Al-Monitor Tuesday. “Either the P5+1’s proposal was no more than an opening salvo,” and it would be willing to negotiate better terms with Iran based on it during the next round, “or with tougher sanctions looming in the horizon, it was simply a take-it-or-leave-it offer. And it turned out in Moscow that Washington was not prepared to offer more.”

 

Go read the whole piece.

I also report that Bob Einhorn, the State Department Iran sanctions czar and a veteran nonproliferation expert, will lead the U.S. team participating in P5+1/Iran technical talks in Istanbul next week (July 3rd).

Iran’s team is expected to be led by Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, Iran’s envoy to the IAEA, although that is not confirmed.