Rouhani proposes nuclear transparency, easing US-Iran tensions

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Iran’s President-elect Hassan Rouhani ushered in the post-Ahmadinejad era Monday with a sometimes extraordinary 90-minute press conference in which he stressed he would take a pragmatic and moderate approach to improve Iranian relations with the world and reduce tensions with the United States over Iran's nuclear program.

“The Iranian people…will be happy to build trust and repair relations with the United States,” if the US pledges to never interfere in Iran’s domestic affairs and to respect Iran’s rights, including for domestic enrichment, Rouhani told the packed press conference in Tehran.

“We don't want further tension” with the United States, Rouhani, 64, said. “Both nations need to think more about the future and try to sit down and find solutions to past issues and rectify things.”

“My government will defend the rights of the Iranian nation,” the multilingual cleric, who earned his PhD in Glasgow, said. “We want to see less tension, and if we see goodwill” from the United States, then “confidence -building measures can be made.”

Asked how Iran could get out from crippling economic sanctions, Rouhani said his government would offer greater transparency of Iran’s nuclear program and take steps to restore international trust to get sanctions rolled back. “Our nuclear program is transparent but we’re ready to take steps to make it more transparent,” he said.

Rouhani said, however, that the time has passed for Iran to agree to suspend lower level enrichment, which it did in 2004-2005 when he was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. “That era is behind us,” Rouhani said of the deal he negotiated a decade ago with three European powers to suspend Iran's 3.5% enrichment. “There are so many other ways to build international trust.”

Rouhani proposed that a deal he discussed in 2005 with then French President Jacques Chirac, which he said was rejected by the UK and the US, could be the model going forward.

Hossein Mousavian, who served as a member of the Rouhani negotiating team, said the Chirac idea that Rouhani referenced involved the highest level of transparency of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for Iran having its rights under the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) recognized.

“We agreed with Chirac that: first, the EU-3 would respect the legitimate rights of Iran for peaceful nuclear technology under the NPT, including enrichment,” Mousavian told Al-Monitor Monday. “Second, Iran would accept the [International Atomic Energy Agency] IAEA's definition for objective guarantees that the Iranian nuclear program would remain peaceful and would not divert toward weaponization in the future.”

“It means that Iran would respect the maximum level of transparency that internationally exists,” Mousavian, a contributing writer to Al-Monitor, further explained. “In return, the P5+1 would not discriminate against Iran as a member of the NPT. It would respect Iran's rights under the NPT like other members.”

Mousavian, asked how Washington should try to realize the potential to advance a nuclear deal under the more moderate Rouhani presidency, recommended that US President Barack Obama write Rouhani, offer him congratulations, and reiterate US interest in direct talks.

“Confirm the willingness and intentions of the US for relations based on mutual respect and mutual interest, to depart from 30 years of hostility and tension,” Mousavian suggested. Reiterate Washington's “readiness for direct talks with no preconditions.”

“I think now is the time,” Mousavian said, adding that he too had been taken by surprise by Rouhani's victory.

A top advisor to President Obama said Sunday the White House sees Rouhani's election as a “potentially hopeful sign.”

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Leaked US cables show Iran hardliners sending feelers to United States


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.)

US, Iran nuclear teams to Istanbul for technical talks

Nuclear experts from Iran and six world powers head to Istanbul next week to discuss a revised international proposal that Iranian officials welcomed as a “turning point” at a meeting in Kazakhstan last month.

The U.S. team to the Istanbul talks, to be held March 18, includes two veteran State Department arms control negotiators, Robert Einhorn and Jim Timbie, as well as Jofi Joseph, an Iran director in the White House WMD shop, US officials told the Back Channel Thursday. Einhorn and Timbie previously attended technical talks with Iran held in Istanbul last July, along with then White House WMD czar Gary Samore, who left the administration in January for Harvard.

Iran’s delegation to the technical talks in Istanbul next week is expected, as last July, to be led by Hamid-Reza Asgari, a longtime member of Iran's nuclear negotiating team, who multiple Iranian sources tell Al-Monitor is an Iranian intelligence officer who has been involved in Iran's international arms control discussions for over a decade. Iran's team to Istanbul last July also included Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

(A revealing detail on their dynamic comes from a late 2009 US cable, released by Wikileaks, and written by then US envoy to the IAEA Glyn Davies. It describes Soltanieh as having moved to shake US Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Poneman's hand at a 2009 Vienna meeting, “necessitating Iranian Legal Advisor Asgari to pull him [Soltanieh] away from” the U.S. delegation, Davies wrote.)

American and Iranian officials had fairly extensive discussions at the last technical meeting in Istanbul last July, a senior US official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists at P5+1 talks with Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan last month.

“There’s a little heightened hope that Iran will respond in a meaningful way when they meet,” Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department arms control official now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, told the Back Channel Thursday. “If Iran comes back engaging in the details…if they are talking the same language…it would be very much progress.”

President Obama, speaking on Wednesday ahead of his first presidential trip to Israel next week, said that the United States currently assesses it would be at least a year before Iran could manufacture a nuclear weapon if it decided to do so, and the United States and international partners had been intensifying efforts to reach a diplomatic resolution in that window because it would prove more durable.

“Right now, we think it would take over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon, but obviously we don’t want to cut it too close,” Obama told Israel’s Channel 2 Wednesday, the Associated Press reported.
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