Who Is Saeed Jalili?

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Four days after entering Iran’s presidential race, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili met with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Istanbul on Wednesday.

‘We had a useful discussion. It was not a negotiating round,” Ashton said after the dinner meeting, which was held at Iran’s consulate in Istanbul. “We talked about the proposals we had put forward and we will now reflect on how to go on to the next stage of the process. We will be in touch shortly.”

The negotiators’ meeting comes as six world powers have more or less put Iran nuclear diplomacy on hold while Iran’s presidential campaign, scheduled for June 14th, plays out.

Jalili’s entrance into Iran’s presidential race highlights some of the complications western negotiators confront in securing a nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic.

While Iran’s nuclear file–as lead US negotiator Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told a Senate panel Wednesday– is controlled by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, not the Iranian president, the deep fissures that have roiled the Iranian regime under the polarizing Ahmadinejad presidency have greatly complicated international negotiators’ task by making internal Iran consensus that much harder for Tehran to achieve.

Jalili, 47, a trusted Khamenei aide who has served since 2007 as the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) — the Iranian equivalent of National Security Advisor–has managed to largely bypass the bitter feuds that have polarized Iran’s ruling factions, analysts and associates observe. As a candidate who may be able to unite key conservative factions, a Jalili presidency potentially offers the prospect of a more consolidated Iranian leadership, which might be able to muster internal Iranian consensus if the Leader decides to make a deal, some analysts suggest.

But Jalili’s elliptical negotiating style and somewhat retro worldview, while no doubt reflecting the milieu and instructions given from the Supreme Leader, also magnify the extreme difficulty of negotiating with an Iranian regime that is so isolated from and mistrustful of the outside world.

“I think he is the anointed one,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran analyst at the Brookings Institution Saban Center, told Al-Monitor. The regime “may test run it, see how he [does], if anybody else appears to take off.”

While Jalili has developed the reputation in some Iranian circles of being a not very effective international negotiator, Maloney said, “what is interesting is that Jalili managed the Ahmadinejad-Supreme Leader divide astutely. He has not been forced to side with one or the other.”

Current and former Iranian associates describe Jalili as a pious and intelligent man, who has earned the trust of the Supreme Leader, but shown a disinclination to deeply engage with the modern world.

Born in 1965 in the Iranian holy city of Mashhad, where Supreme Leader Khamenei is also from, Jalili is an Iran-Iraq war vet who joined Iran’s foreign ministry around 1990. (Earning his PhD from Iran’s Imam Sadeqh University, Jalili wrote his doctoral dissertation on the prophet Mohammad’s diplomacy.) He worked in the 1990s as an official in Iran’s foreign ministry, and then in 2001 joined the Supreme Leader’s office. In 2005, he became an advisor to new Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Since 2007 he has served as the Iranian equivalent of National Security Advisor and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator.

“Before he became secretary of the SNSC, he worked in the office of the Supreme Leader for some time, in the inner circle, in the international affairs department,” an Iranian analyst and associate, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. “He is liked [there] as somebody who is down to earth, who has a simple life, very honest. He is the prototypical revolutionary whom they like within the clerical system; they [and the Supreme Leader] trust him in a way.”

But part of Jalili’s appeal for Khamenei and the clerical circles is a kind of self-selecting isolationism and retro way of looking at the world, that seems somewhat stuck in the 1980s, when Iran fought an eight year war with Iraq, the Iranian analyst observed.

Though Jalili served for over a decade in Iran’s foreign ministry, he never served abroad, and allegedly turned down an offer to serve in Latin America, the associate said. And while Jalili worked for a time in the Foreign Ministry’s Americas’ bureau, he is not believed to be able to speak much English, the lingua franca of international diplomacy which is spoken by many Iranian diplomats, though his associate said he believes Jalili can read and understand it.

“That’s the real problem,” the Iranian analyst said. Figures like Jalili who have ascended to the top of Iranian conservative political circles in recent years “are not stupid. They are intelligent. But they have not been socialized in the way that global politics works.”

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Netanyahu lashes out at US: No “moral right to place red light” on Israel


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unleashed a stunning tirade against the United States and European allies Tuesday, lambasting “world” leaders for not publicly setting “red lines” or “deadlines” on  Iran, while urging Israeli restraint on military action.

“The world tells Israel: ‘Wait, there’s still time,’” Netanyahu said at a press conference Tuesday, the New York Times reported. “‘And I say, ‘Wait for what? Wait until when?’”

“Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel,” he continued.

“Netanyahu is going berserk,” a former Israeli official told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “By asking for red lines publicly, dialoguing with Obama through the media,” and by doing it on the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The Israeli leader’s latest broadside against the United States appeared to be set off by comments made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sunday, that the United States is “not setting deadlines” on Iran diplomacy.

“We are not setting deadlines,” Clinton said in an interview with Bloomberg News Sunday. “We have always said every option was on the table, but we believe …the diplomatic effort …but also pressure …[are] by far, the best approach to take at this time.”

The comment appeared to infuriate Netanyahu, who spoke in English as he lambasted international calls for Israeli restraint at a press conference with visiting Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov Tuesday. His tirade also followed the urging of restraint and vows of international resolve by a parade of European foreign ministers to Israel in recent weeks.

“Now if Iran knows that there is no red line, if Iran knows that there is no deadline, what will it do?” Netanyahu said.

But former Israeli Defense Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dan Halutz, speaking Tuesday in Washington, said that it would be a mistake to publicly spell out “red lines” on Iran–as Israeli political leaders are imploring the White House to do.

“Red lines are red the moment one is drawing them,” Halutz said at the Brookings Institution Saban Center for Middle East Studies Tuesday. “But at the time to take a decision, the color is not red. The situation is changing all the time. We live in a very dynamic world….You cannot stick to the decision to act accordingly later.” Continue reading

Iran envoy blames Israel for Bulgaria bus bombing


Iran’s UN envoy denied on Wednesday that Iran had any role in the July 18th Bulgaria bus bombing that killed five Israeli tourists, and charged Israel with plotting the attack. His comments came as Obama’s top counterterrorism advisor was in Israel to discuss the bombing probe, and as the chairman of the House intelligence panel said he believed Hezbollah carried out the attack under the direction of Iran.

“I believe there were certainly elements of Hezbollah [involved] and I believe it was under the direction of their masters in Iran,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Michigan) told The Hill newspaper Wednesday.

“I think the president needs to call Iran on the carpet very publicly and tell them what we know,” Rogers added. “This is his time to stand up and do something bold.”

Iran’s UN envoy Mohammed Khazaee said Iran condemned the Bulgaria bus bombing but then suggested it was part of an Israeli plot to blame Iran.

“The representative of the Zionist criminal regime leveled baseless allegations against my country on the issue of recent terrorist attack in Bulgaria and Iran’s peaceful nature of nuclear activities,” Amb. Mohammad Khazaee said at a UN meeting on the Middle East Wednesday, according to a statement sent to Al Monitor by the Iranian mission to the UN.

“Such terrorist operation could only be planned and carried out by the same regime whose short history is full of state terrorism operations and assassinations aimed at implicating others for narrow political gains.”

Israel’s deputy UN ambassador Haim Waxman said the comments are “appalling, but not surprising” coming “from the same government that says the 9/11 attack was a conspiracy theory,” UN correspondent Colum Lynch reported.

A spokeswoman for US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said the office had no immediate comment. “Our position on the Bulgaria attack has been well documented so far I think,” Erin Pelton, a spokeswoman for Rice, said by email.

Obama’s top counterterrorism advisor John Brennan met with Israeli officials in Jerusalem Wednesday to discuss the Bulgaria bus bombing probe. Earlier in the week he  traveled to Bulgaria for briefings on the investigation. While he deferred to Bulgarian authorities to announce any findings to date, he did add that “there are clear indications that Hezbollah and Iran have been involved in terrorist plotting against innocents in many parts of the world,” he said at a news conference with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov July 24, the New York Times reported.

Analysts said Iran’s use of terrorism had become more aggressive over the past year. Continue reading

Some US Iran hands blindsided by report US may move to delist MEK

A report in the Wall Street Journal Tuesday that the State Department may move to remove a controversial Iranian militant group known as the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MeK) from a list of terrorist organizations has startled several people who work on Iran in and out of the U.S. government.

American officials said the issue almost never came up at a late April all-hands Iran conference that included the entire State Department Iran team of almost 40 people working in Washington and as Iran watchers abroad.

The timing of the report– some 10 days ahead of high-stakes nuclear talks with Iran due to be held in Baghdad May 23—also baffled some Iran watchers, leading one to wonder if “someone got to Clinton” –with an agenda to try to scuttle the talks.

But other Washington Iran hands and legal experts said the decision on whether to remove the MeK from the U.S. list of designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) does not appear to be imminent and noted there are still several moving parts.

“If this story is accurate – and I have no way to know if it is – then it should not have a significant impact on the upcoming talks in Baghdad simply because of the timing,” said Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran expert now with the Saban Center on the Middle East at the Brookings Institution.

U.S. lawyers this month told a court that a decision on whether to delist the MeK will be made within 60 days after their former paramilitary base in Iraq, Camp Ashraf, has been vacated.

“Since there are still 1200 residents of the camp, it would appear that no decision will be made in the foreseeable future,” Maloney noted. “It has taken years to reduce the population from 3000 to 1200, and given the complex security and legal issues at stake for the individual residents, I can only presume it will take months or more to completely vacate the camp.” Continue reading