Leaked US cables show Iran hardliners sending feelers to United States

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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.)

Avineri: Israel behavior in sharp break with past

The Israeli government’s rapid expansion of settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank in the wake of the UN vote on Palestine has alarmed Israel’s allies in the United States and Europe and represents a sharp break with Israeli foreign policy strategy in the past, argues Shlomo Avineri in Haaretz:

In responding to the UN vote on Palestinian statehood, the government’s decision to build in E-1 and in East Jerusalem is the exact opposite of the underlying principles of how Zionist and Israeli international policies have evolved over the years. When Israel wins broader and deeper international support, it can achieve its aims, and when it is isolated it fails to achieve them.

What the government is doing now is not successfully challenging the Palestinian leadership. Rather it is engaging in unnecessary quarreling with Israel’s supporters in the democratic world – the United States and the European countries. It is not enough to think you are right and to convince your supporters of that: In the cruel world of international politics, a small nation can achieve its aims only if it is able to forge alliances with the powers-that-be and to ensure their support – not out of love, but because they are convinced there is congruence between their countries’ interests, or their leaders’ considerations, and the aims of, in this case, Zionism and the State of Israel. […] Continue reading

Obama 2.0: Who’s leaving, staying, moving

With UN ambassador Susan Rice set to meet Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte on Tuesday, pieces seem to be falling in place for her nomination to become Secretary of State to proceed.

Administration officials offered The Back Chanel more tips on moves afoot in the Obama administration foreign policy team.

In the certain to go camp:

Assistant Secretary of State for Asia and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell is leaving, official told the Back Channel, to chair the board of the Center for New American Security (CNAS), the think tank he co-founded with Michele Flournoy, and do Asia consulting. (His spouse Lael Brainard, Under Secretary of Treasury for International Affairs, may leave the administration too, an official said. White House chief of staff Jack Lew is expected to succeed Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary.)

NSC Middle East senior advisor Steve Simon is due to leave shortly to become head of a think tank, officials told the Back Channel.

AfPak envoy Marc Grossman will leave, officials said. It is unclear who will succeed him.

In the likely to move camp:

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns may be nominated to succeed Rice as US ambassador to the UN, officials said.

Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides is being mulled for a White House job, possibly White House chief of staff, which can put his knowledge of budgets to work, as well as his relationship with Congress and Wall Street.

NSC economics senior advisor Michael Froman is likely to move, possibly to become US Trade Rep. Continue reading

Obama, Romney face off at foreign policy debate

The last debate of the 2012 US presidential campaign, on foreign policy, gets underway in a few minutes in Boca Raton, Florida, and Middle East issues–Iran, Libya, Syria, Israel–look set to predominate.

I’ll be joining the folks at NPR affiliate KCRW and friends for a live-blog of the debate, which you can follow here. What questions do you hope get asked? Continue reading

Romney to Israeli paper: Both Obama and I say nuclear Iran unacceptable


GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has given two interviews to Israeli newspapers ahead of his arrival in Jerusalem Saturday night.

“I would treat Israel like the friend and ally it is,” Romney told Israel Hayom, the newspaper owned by Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who has donated millions of dollars to Republican and Israeli causes. Adelson, who owns a home in Israel, may attend a $50,000 a plate fundraiser for Romney in Israel Monday.

“I cannot imagine going to the United Nations, as Obama did, and criticizing Israel in front of the world,” Romney continued. “You don’t criticize your allies in public to achieve the applause of your foes.”

So Romney learned first-hand in London Thursday, as his perceived criticism of preparations for the London Olympics got his three-nation foreign trip off to a quite rocky start.

British Prime Minister David Cameron and London mayor Boris Johnson–both conservatives–fiercely defended preparations for the London Olympic Games after Romney told NBC Wednesday he found some reports of some pre-Games snafus “disconcerting.”

“If Mitt Romney doesn’t like us, we shouldn’t care,” railed the headline from the conservative UK Telegraph Thursday. London mayor Boris Johnson later mocked Romney in front of a crowd of 60,000 in Hyde Park, asking: “Mitt Romney wants to know whether we’re ready! Are we ready?” .

Romney also gave an interview in London Thursday to Israel’s liberal Haaretz newspaper. (Being on foreign soil when the interview was conducted, he told the paper he was trying to refrain from politicizing foreign policy.)

Asked about his Iran policy, Romney said he, like President Obama, have both said that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable:The military option is the least attractive option but should not be ruled out, he said.

“President Obama has said that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. I feel a nuclear Iran is unacceptable,” Romney told Haaretz. “The term ‘unacceptable’ continues to have a meaning: It suggests that all options will be employed to prevent that outcome.”

“I am personally committed to take every step necessary to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability,” Romney said.

In Israel, Romney will hold a breakfast fundraiser Monday (July 30) at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel. He will also meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu–an old friend from their days at the Boston Consulting Group; Israeli President Shimon Peres, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who served as the Obama campaign’s chief of Jewish outreach in 2008.

But even with the personal ties and partisan sympathies Romney shares with Netanyahu, the powers of his White House incumbent challenger to make policy, sign bills, and grab headlines are hard to match.

On Friday, President Obama signed “a new U.S.-Israel security pact …a move that could steal some of the headlines there” as Romney arrives,” Yahoo’s Olivier Knox noted.  Indeed.

Israeli leaders and American Jewish groups applauded Obama’s action Friday.

“The Government and the people of Israel express profound gratitude to President Barack Obama on his signing of the U.S.-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act,” Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren said in a statement Friday. It “sends an unequivocal message of support to the people of Israel at a time of great uncertainty throughout the entire Middle East.”

The security pact bolsters the “crucial” US-Israel security alliance “by extending loan guarantees…authorizing American military stockpiles in Israel, and improving military and intelligence cooperation, particularly in missile defense,” the Orthodox Union’s Nathan Diament said in a press statement.

Meantime, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta plans to travel to Israel, as well as Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia next week, the Pentagon announced Thursday.

The bill signing, as well as the Pentagon chief’s Israel trip, come “as Mitt Romney nears a visit to Israel with no power to provide security aid, unlike the incumbent,” CBS’s Mark Knoller noted.

(Photo: U.S. Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks to the press following his meetings with British Prime Minister David Cameron and British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne outside 10 Downing Street in London, July 26, 2012.   REUTERS/Jason Reed.)

The Counterrevolution: Egypt court dissolves parliament

Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court issued two momentous rulings Thursday that analysts in Washington and Cairo describe as amounting to a soft coup.

The court ruled that one third of Egypt’s parliamentary seats should be voided, thus effectively calling for the dissolving of Egypt’s recently-elected legislature. It also ruled that  former Mubarak-regime prime minister Ahmed Shafiq be allowed to stand in Egyptian presidential run-off elections, scheduled to be held June 16-17th.

“That’s it for Egypt’s so-called transition,” Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University, wrote at Foreign Policy‘s Middle East channel blog:

“Today’s moves by the Constitutional Court on behalf of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) seem difficult to overcome and likely to push Egypt onto a dangerous new path,” Lynch wrote. “With Egypt looking ahead to no parliament, no constitution, and a deeply divisive new president, it’s fair to say the experiment in military-led transition has come to its disappointing end.”

“The revolutionary promise of Tahrir Square is clearly slipping away,” said Steve Cook, an Egypt expert at the Council of Foreign Relations, in a call with journalists Thursday.

“Determined counterrevolutionary groups in Egypt appear to have outmaneuvered a variety of new groups that thought in inspiring 18 days in 2011 they had finally done away with the regime that the Free Officers ushered in in 1950s,” Cook said. The court’s move suggests Egyptian players seeking greater democracy “have largely been outmaneuvered by the military and the system is one that goes back to the founding of [the Egyptian military] regime back in 1950s.”

“This is clearly going to go on for a long time,” Isobel Coleman, an Egypt expert who directs the women and foreign policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Thursday. “We are seeing a big push by counterrevolutionary forces.”

Coleman noted a series of decisions in advance of the court’s ruling Thursday suggesting it had been in the works for some time. In particular, she noted the SCAF’s reinstatement of an emergency law Wednesday. A similar law had been in place for thirty years of Mubarak’s rule, but expired May 31st.

But this week, the expired Mubarak-era emergency law “was replicated with a new law, that citizens and human rights groups can be arrested and tried in military courts,” Coleman said, in apparent “anticipation of what they were girding for: some big demonstrations and protests coming up.”

“These counterrevolutionary forces are not moving over,” Coleman said. “The big question becomes what will the major players do.” Continue reading

Welcome, introductions

Welcome to the Back Channel,  a reported blog on Washington foreign policy and the Middle East. Al Monitor is a new site dedicated to bringing more in-depth coverage and perspectives from the Middle East through original reporting as well as translations from media partners in the region, including in Turkey, Israel, Beirut and throughout the Arab world.

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