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.)