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

Share

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.”

Continue reading

France seeks to toughen UN statement on Syria ceasefire


France has proposed revisions to a draft UN Security Council press statement on Syria, as UN/Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi seeks the body’s support for a cease-fire for the Eid Al Adha holiday on October 26.

In particular, France is seeking revisions to the text that would single out the Syrian regime for greater responsibility for the violence that has killed an estimated 30,000 people, over the armed opposition to Bashar al-Assad, according to a copy of the proposed revised draft provided to Al-Monitor Tuesday.

“The Council must stress that the responsabilty [sic] lies first on the Syrian authorities to stop the killings,” the memo from France’s UN diplomats to other UN Security Council members proposing their revisions states. “This has been a consistent principle of the UNSC since the start of the crisis. We thus retained the formulation of the [Secretary General’s] SG statement “in particular on the Government of the Syrian Arab republic as the stronger party.'”

Former UN Syria envoy Kofi Annan last week faulted great power divisions and western insistence on seeking a UN “Chapter 7″ resolution for the breakdown of a fragile accord he hammered out in Geneva in June. Russia, which vields a veto in the body, has opposed a Chapter 7 resolution on Syria, complaining such a measure was used to authorize NATO-led military intervention against Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi.

Meantime, some Syria scholars previously on the fence about deeper US entanglement in the conflict have shifted their positions, as spillover from the Syria conflict increasingly threatens to destabilize in particular Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.

“The US government should tell Assad that he must launch serious negotiations for a transition government,” Syria scholar Joshua Landis wrote at his blog Monday. “If he does not, Western governments should supply opposition militias with ground to air missiles in sufficient numbers to bring down the Syrian air-force.”

The French mark-up of the draft UN Security Council press statement on the Syria ceasefire, identified as version 3, below.

Security Council Draft Press Statement on Ceasefire in Syria

The members of the Security Council welcomed the important and timely initiative of the Joint Special Representative of the United Nations and the League of Arab States, Lakhdar Brahimi, for a ceasefire and a cessation of violence in all its forms during the period of Eid Al Adha, and echoed the joint appeal of the Secretaries-General of the United Nations and the League of Arab States to all regional and international actors to support it. Continue reading

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.

US Syria hand Fred Hof to resign

Veteran US diplomat Fred Hof, the US Special Advisor on Transition in Syria, is resigning his post, Al Arabiya Washington bureau chief Hisham Melham reports.

Hof’s last day at State is Friday, a former senior American official told Al-Monitor Tuesday.

Hof has “worked tirelessly to unify Syrian opposition,” Melhem wrote on Twitter Tuesday, calling the diplomat a “real Mensch,” and his departure a tremendous loss to the Syrian people.

Hof joined the Obama administration in 2009 as an advisor on Syria and Lebanon aiding the small team of US Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell, who resigned last year.

More recently Hof had been traveling in the region almost constantly, working in close coordination with US Syria envoy Robert Ford on a post-Assad Syria ‘day after’ transition plan.

Hof initially told Mitchell he would commit to two years in the job, but extended his work as the Syria conflict deepened, a source familiar with his decision to leave told Al-Monitor, adding Hof’s spouse was eager for him to return to civilian life.

News of the resignation comes as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met in New York Tuesday with Lakhdar Brahimi, the new joint UN/Arab League Syria envoy. Brahimi reportedly gave Clinton a bleak assessment of the conflict.

“I do not have a full plan for the moment, but I have a few ideas,” Brahimi said Tuesday, Reuters reported.

“The situation in Syria is extremely bad and getting worse,” the Algerian diplomat continued. “There is a stalemate … but I think we will find an opening in the not too distant future.”

Syria’s Moallem to lead delegation to UN in New York

Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Moallem.Syria’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem will lead the country’s delegation traveling to New York next week for events surrounding the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly.

Moallem is expected to arrive in New York around September 24, diplomatic sources told Al-Monitor.

His visit comes as the international community remains divided over how to contain the civil war that has engulfed the country over the past 18 months, killing over 20,000 people and spurring a refugee exodus to Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. Western countries remain reluctant to intervene in the conflict, and the prospect looms of a protracted civil war, that could potentially destabilize Syria’s neighbors.

On Wednesday, Iranian Foreign Mnister Ali Akbar Salehi arrived in Damascus for talks with Moallem and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad about how to resolve the conflict.

Salehi’s Damascus trip followed consultations in Cairo the past two days on the Syrian crisis, involving Turkey, Egypt, Iran and the new UN/Arab League Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

Salehi will also travel to New York next week as part of the Iranian delegation attending the UNGA activities.

UN’s Ban to attend Iran summit, over US, Israeli requests

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon will attend a conference in Tehran next week, over the objections of Israel and the United States, his spokesman said Wednesday.

“In Tehran, Ban will raise Iran’s nuclear program, terrorism, human rights and the crisis in Syria,” Ban’s spokesman Martin Nesirky told journalists at the UN Wednesday.

Ban will visit Iran for three days, August 29-31, to participate in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit, Nesirky said. He will also hold discussions with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Some 30 leaders are expected to attend the 16th NAM summit, including Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.The non-aligned movement is a Cold War legacy, comprised of some 120 countries that were ostensibly independent of the US or Soviet blocs.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had publicly lobbied Ban to reject the invitation, in an effort to signal Iran’s growing isolation over its nuclear program. The State Department more recently also encouraged Ban to skip the meeting, though its protests seemed a bit pro forma. (US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, now traveling in India, also had urged Ban not to go, InnerCityPress reported.)

Ban “was fully aware of the sensitivities, and fully aware of the responsibilities” in choosing to attend the meeting, Nesirky said Wednesday, the New York Times reported.

Whatever diplomatic victory Iran may claim from Ban’s RSVP, his discussions with Iranian leaders are likely to be tense.  P5+1 negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program have made little progress, and the UN International Atomic Energy Agency is due to issue a new report on Iran’s nuclear program at the end of the month.

A firm date has not yet been finalized for an anticipated phone call between chief international nuclear negotiator, EU High Rep Catherine Ashton and Iran’s Saeed Jalili, to discuss how to proceed, a European Union spokesperson told Al Monitor Wednesday.

Continue reading

Obama defines his Syria red line

President Barack Obama said Monday that his “red line” for direct military intervention in the widening Syria conflict would be the use of chemical or biological weapons.

“The red line for us is if we start seeing a bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” Obama, speaking in a surprise appearance at the White House press conference Monday, said. “That would change my calculus.”

Obama said the United States is increasing humanitarian aid to help Syria’s exploding refugee population, as well as political and financial support to the Syrian opposition, in consultation with other countries. But he had not “at this point” ordered U.S. military engagement in the conflict.

“We are monitoring the situation very carefully, and have put together a range of contiengency plans and communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in  the region that is a red line for us,” Obama said.

He spoke as a US delegation is headed to Turkey for consultations on the widening crisis, amid growing US concerns about spill over from the Syrian conflict potentially destabilizing other countries in the region, including Lebanon and Iraq..

As Al Monitor  previously reported, acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Beth Jones is headed to Turkey this week to confer on Syria.

Jones will be part of an inter-agency team that includes senior officials from the Pentagon and intelligence community who will meet Wednesday with their Turkish counterparts, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists Monday. Continue reading

Key advisor to Supreme Leader may seek Iran presidency

Ali Akbar Velayati, the longtime foreign policy advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is likely to run for Iran’s presidency next year, and if elected would take a more pragmatic stance to ease soaring tensions with the West that have isolated Iran and hurt its economy, a former Iranian diplomat told Al Monitor.

The former diplomat and academic, who plans to advise Velayati, a longtime family friend, if he does run, asked not to be named in a piece. He spoke to Al Monitor in an interview Friday, as Iranians were trying to analyze press reports showing the United States increasing its muscular rhetoric in an effort to stave off any possible Israeli unilateral strike against Iran. Iran does not fear an Israeli attack, the former diplomat said, but does feel the impact of economic sanctions and takes the prospect of possible future US military action more seriously.

The former diplomat expressed optimism that Iran would reach a negotiated solution with the West over its nuclear program by June of next year, when Iranian presidential elections are due to be held. He also said the Iranian foreign ministry may take a larger role in handling Iran’s negotiations with the P5+1 over its nuclear program in the future.

The larger message the former diplomat conveyed is that Khamenei, at 73, does not want the end of his legacy in Iranian history books to be having brought economic hardship to the Iranian people. The sanctions are hurting Iran and Iranians, including in the fall of the Iran’s currency, the rial, to 20,000 to the dollar last week. Iran also recognizes that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad will eventually be toppled in Syria, the former diplomat said, but said whatever future leadership comes to power in Syria will maintain ties with Tehran. (Among economic reasons he cited, Iranian pilgrims bring Syria $2 billion in annual revenues, and Syria needs Iranian oil and gas, he said.)

Iran’s leadership “believes Obama will win” reelection, the former diplomat said. Iran’s leadership “are rational, and calculate how to deal with the US,” he said. Key factions of Iran’s elite are looking for more effective stewardship of Iran’s international relations.

Velayati, who studied pediatric medicine at John Hopkins University in the 1970s, served as Iran’s foreign minister from 1981-1997, under then President Khamenei and Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. From Iran’s conservative “right-wing,” Velayati’s prospective 2013 presidential candidacy has the support of Rafsanjani and some reformists, and would be acceptable to the Supreme Leader, who does not back a candidate per se, the former diplomat said.

At a news conference late last month, Velayati said Iran would pursue negotiations with the P5+1 until they reach “positive and constructive” results, Iranian news media reported. “The Islamic Republic of Iran should be allowed to use peaceful nuclear energy and such a right should be recognized by negotiators of the P5+1,” Velayati said July 27th, Press TV reported. Continue reading

Kofi Annan quits: “I can’t want peace more than protagonists”

UN envoy Kofi Annan has quit his hapless Syria mediation efforts, with a parting memo in the Financial Times blaming a divided international community and Syrian parties’ unwillingness to compromise for the deepening conflict:

There are clear common interests among the regional and international powers in a managed political transition. A conflagration threatens an explosion in the region that could affect the rest of the world. […]

For Russia, China and Iran this means they must take concerted efforts to persuade Syria’s leadership to change course and embrace a political transition, realising the current government has lost all legitimacy. […]

For the US, UK, France, Turkey Saudi Arabia and Qatar this means pressing the opposition to embrace a fully inclusive political process – that will include communities and institutions currently associated with the government. This also means recognising that the future of Syria rises and falls on more than the fate of just one man.

“Thank you Kofi Annan for your dedication, service and determined efforts to promote a peaceful resolution of the crisis in Syria,” US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said on Twitter.

 (Photo Joint Special Envoy for Syria, Kofi Annan looks out of a window from his office before a meeting with Major-General Robert Mood of Norway at the United Nations in Geneva July 20, 2012. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse.)

Syria’s top UK envoy defects: “No longer willing to represent this regime”


Syria’s top diplomat in the United Kingdom has defected and left his post at the Syrian embassy in London, the British foreign office said Monday. The defection of Syria’s UK Chargé d’Affaires, Khaled al-Ayoubi, is the fourth by a Syrian diplomat this month, and comes as talks are underway on a transition from Bashar al-Assad’s rule.

“Mr. al-Ayoubi has told us that he is no longer willing to represent a regime that has committed such violent and oppressive acts against its own people, and is therefore unable to continue in his position,” a British foreign office spokesman said in a statement Monday.

His departure is “another blow to the Assad regime,”  that “illustrates the revulsion and despair the regime’s actions are provoking amongst Syrians from all walks of life,” the spokesman said.

The UK-based diplomat’s defection follows those of three other Syrian ambassadors this month, including Syria’s ambassador to Iraq Nawaf al-Fares and Syria’s ambassadors to the UAE and Cyprus, a married couple, last week.

Various Syrian opposition representatives have been involved in transition planning talks  taking place in Cairo, under the auspices of the Arab League.

The United States is meantime expanding its assistance to the Syrian opposition, including non-lethal support to the armed Syrian resistance.

Among the new measures, the U.S. Treasury Department last week authorized the Syrian Support Group to provide financial and logistical assistance to the Free Syrian Army, Al Monitor reported last week. The authorization, contained in a letter from Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and signed July 23, came as the Free Syrian Army military command issued a “Proclamation of Principles” pledging support for multi-ethnic pluralism and democracy.

US officials have stressed the need for Syria’s opposition to demonstrate such ethnic inclusivity, in order to encourage more defections and to avoid a sectarian bloodbath.  “The future will include all Syrians of all backgrounds,” US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said in a statement posted to the embassy’s website July 27.

The United States is also urging Syrian rebels and opposition groups to avoid seeking an Iraq-style disbanding of Syria’s army, the Washington Post reported.

However, Syria’s rebels don’t support one figure reportedly eyed as a potential Syrian unity figure who could hold the army together, Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlas, a close family friend of Assad who defected this month.

Tlas’s “road map is slowly taking shape,” Sabah’s Erdal Safak reported in a piece translated and published by Al Monitor Monday. “Never mind that a part of the opposition says, ‘There is no place for Baath officials or generals in the new era.’  Syria’s friends, definitely the US, see the Syrian army as the sole guarantor of integrity and stability of the country.”

(Members of a Syrian refugee family, who fled the violence in Syria, are seen at a garden in Port Said Square in Algiers July 30, 2012. More than 12,000 Syrians fleeing the violence in their home country have sought refuge in Algeria, a source close to the Interior Ministry said on Sunday. REUTERS/Louafi Larbi.)