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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