Khamenei aide Velayati takes helm of Iran think tank

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Little noticed in the flurry of high profile diplomacy that produced a breakthrough nuclear accord in Geneva last month, Ali Akbar Velayati, the longtime top foreign policy advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and former Iranian foreign minister, has been appointed the head of the Center for Strategic Research, the Iranian think tank formerly helmed by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Velayati was tapped to succeed Rouhani as head of the Center for Strategic Research, a subsidiary of Iran’s Expediency Council, in November, IRNA reported.

Velayati, who did post-graduate medical studies at Johns Hopkins University, served as Iranian foreign minister from 1981-1997 and as Khamenei’s top foreign policy advisor since then. He has appointed Dr. Abbas Maleki, a former Iranian diplomat and scholar, as his deputy of international studies at CSR, Iranian sources told Al-Monitor Sunday.

Maleki, who served as Iran’s deputy foreign minister under Velayati from 1980-1997 and as a professor and dean at Sharif University, has in recent years been based in Boston as a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2011-2012) before his return to Iran in 2012.

Iranian sources also said that Dr. Mostafa T. Zahrani, a former Iranian diplomat at the Iran mission to the United Nations in New York when Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif served as Iran’s UN envoy, has been appointed director general of the Iranian Foreign Ministry-linked think tank, the Institute of Political and International Studies (IPIS), succeeding Mostafa Dolatyar. Al-Monitor could not reach officials at IPIS Monday to confirm.

Velayati, notably, has twice in recent days vigorously endorsed direct one-on-one nuclear talks with the United States and other members of the P5+1.

“Talks can be held separately (with every members of the P5+1),” Velayati told reporters in Tehran Sunday, Khabar Online reported.

“We aren’t on the right path if we don’t have one-on-one talks with the six countries,” Velayati previously told Iranian television last week December 27th. “We have to talks with the countries separately. … It would be wrong if we bring the countries into unity against us, since there are rifts among them over various international issues.”

The United States and Iran have held at least five rounds of secret talks in Oman, Geneva and New York since Rouhani’s inauguration in August to advance a nuclear accord, Al-Monitor first reported last month.

Meantime, in Israel, Dore Gold, the head of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, has joined the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a senior advisor, an official at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs confirmed to Al-Monitor Monday.

Gold, a former Israeli advisor at the Madrid and Wye River peace talks, previously served as a foreign policy advisor to Netanyahu (1996-1997) and then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (2002-2004), and as Israeli ambassador to the UN (1997-1999). Born in Connecticut, Gold has headed the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs since 2000, and has written several books, including The Rise of Nuclear Iran.

(Photo: In this June 3, 2013 photo, Iranian presidential candidate Ali Akbar Velayati, a former Foreign Minister, attends a press conference in Tehran. The 11th presidential election after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution will be held on June 14.)

Iran FM Salehi: Iran nuclear bomb would decrease Iran’s security

New York_ Iran’s foreign minister said Monday that Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon would threaten Iran’s security and be destabilizing for the region.

Ali Akbar Salehi, the MIT-educated PhD engineer who previously served as Iran’s longtime envoy to the UN atomic watchdog agency, said that Iran acquiring one or two nuclear bombs would dramatically increase the threats Iran faces, and not be a deterrent to nuclear powers with far larger nuclear stockpiles.

“Had Iran chosen to [go] nuclear in the sense of weaponization, it would not be a deterrent for Iran,” Salehi, speaking in English, told foreign policy experts at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York Monday. “It would attract more threats from the other side.”

“Because suppose we wanted to go nuclear and manufacture one or two bombs,” Salehi continued. “Who on the other side of Iran …can we ever be in equal footing with in this regard? Any country that challenges us with nuclear weapons …who would we use against?”

(In an interview with Al-Monitor in August, Salehi said he envisioned a ‘win-win’ way out of the international dispute over Iran’s nuclear program.)

Salehi, with his many years in the United States and Vienna, cut a stylistically more erudite, polished figure than Iran’s outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who returned home to criticism over the dramatic plunge in the value of the Iranian currency the rial by almost 40% this week. But on core positions his message was not fundamentally different from that offered by the controversy-courting Ahmadinejad, who has spoken for the past few years about Iran’s willingness to strike a reasonable compromise on its nuclear program, but alienated many in the West by his questioning of the Holocaust and antagonistic comments about Israel, which Ahmadinejad refers to as “the Zionist” entity.

By contrast, Salehi referred to “Israel” by name in his remarks. But he referred to it to criticize Israel for its recent threats of military action against Iran’s nuclear program, and the double standards by which he says it does so while possessing some 200 nuclear weapons and not being a party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which Iran is a signatory.

On Syria, Salehi said that Iran has been meeting with the Syrian opposition for over a year, and supports UN and regional initiatives to try to broker mediation talks between the Syrian government and the opposition.

“We have been in contact with the Syrian opposition for over a year,” Salehi said. “We have declared and announced that we are ready to host the opposition and government in Iran, to sit down with each other and find a solution.”

(Salehi did not specify which Syrian opposition groups Iran has met with. But Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, in an interview with Al-Monitor Saturday, said that Iran had been holding talks with members of the Syrian National Council and the Muslim Brotherhood.)

Salehi said that he has held meetings in New York in recent days with new United Nations/Arab League Syria envoy Lahhdar Brahimi and the Arab League chief, as well as with the UN’s longtime Lebanon envoy Terje Rød-Larsen.

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Q/A with David Albright: Iran should come clean about past research

Two telexes–part of a trove of 1,600 obtained by American nuclear expert David Albright– would seem to suggest that Iran’s current foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi was aware of Iran’s efforts to acquire whole body counters to detect nuclear radiation back in the early 1990s. That is among the findings published in a new series of reports by Albright and his colleague Paul Brannan, of the Institute for Science and International Studies (ISIS).

Albright, in an interview Wednesday, told me that he and Salehi actually have met each other and indeed argued at some “track 2” events among nuclear experts held in New York in the 1990s.

Salehi insisted Iran “had no secret centrifuge programs,” Albright told me. “I responded that ‘based on procurements, you do.'”

“I always found Salehi pretty duplicitous,” he added. “But what surprised me in the current work we did, is he was apparently more involved than I realized.”

Salehi, a fluent English speaker who earned a PhD from MIT in 1977, served for eight years in Vienna as Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), from 1997-2005. (Born in Karbala, Iraq, Salehi is also a fluent Arabic speaker–one of the reasons he was tapped in 2010 to become Iran’s foreign minister, at a time when Arab leaders’ hostility to Iran was unusually publicly exposed, including in classified U.S. diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks.). Some Iran experts believe Salehi may be well positioned to run for Iran’s presidency when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s second term expires in 2013.

Back in 1991–the year of the two Salehi-linked telexes Albright uncovered–Salehi was chancellor at Iran’s Sharif University. Albright’s report suggests that the university was, in the late 1980s/early 1990s, part of a network of academic facilities linked to Iran’s Physics Research Center (PHRC), that were used as cover to acquire dual-use materiel for secret parts of Iran’s nuclear program. American intelligence and ISIS believe that Iran halted its secret military research program in 2003.

But Albright believes it’s essential that Iran own up to past alleged weaponization research in order to come in from the cold.

“If Iran comes clean on weaponization, other things can be solved much more easily,” he told me. Continue reading