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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Colin Kahl, Brent Scowcroft, Andrew Parasiliti, Seyed Mousavian on how to close a deal with Iran

Al Monitor‘s front page today is teeming with several high-powered original pieces and interviews with policymakers on Iran, Syria, and Egypt:

To close the deal and advance the negotiations, the P5+1 could recognize Iran’s right to enrichment in the context of Iran being a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and freeze all pending sanctions on Iran. Additionally, the P5+1 might request a good-faith strategic pause in enrichment while Iran resolves outstanding questions about its nuclear program, which would lead to the removal of those related UN sanctions. …  Third, the P5+1 could offer a roadmap for lifting US and EU sanctions in return for Iranian cooperation on its nuclear program. …

Kahl: It would be helpful to give Iran a better sense of what they would need to do to get a delay of oil sanctions. And what’s the road map for eventual resolution of the nuclear issue. It is appropriate to focus on interim steps to build confidence and make important progress on issues like 20 percent enrichment, but it would also be good to make sure these steps are nested within a broader, more explicit framework that outlines the ultimate path ahead for an agreement that addresses remaining international concerns …

We have probably reached a point where we should put more of our cards on the table, both through ongoing P5+1 talks and through a bilateral U.S.-Iran conversation. The problem is, thus far, the Iranians have not been willing to meet with the US bilaterally.

Slavin: Former Iran nuclear negotiator’s memoir recounts 2011 outreach to US envoy

In her report on the new memoir of former Iran nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian, my colleague Barbara Slavin reports this scooplet: Iran, in February 2011, invited US Af-Pak envoy Marc Grossman to Iran to discuss a variety of issues.

Alas, as Slavin reports, it turned out to be yet another US-Iran diplomatic encounter not to be:

At the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Tuesday (June 5), Mousavian said he believes that Obama was sincere in efforts to restart diplomacy in 2009 and that Ahmadinejad has also evolved over time. According to Mousavian, Ahmadinejad wants talks with the US on a variety of issues. In February 2011, Mousavian said, Iran asked Marc Grossman, the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, to pay an official visit to Iran to discuss Afghanistan.

“They were going to open another door,” Mousavian said of the offer, but “the US declined.”

Asked about this, a senior US official told Al-Monitor that an offer emerged from Iranians taking part in so-called Track II discussions with former US officials, including former US ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner.

Grossman responded “through the same channel that he could not go but would be delighted to see an Iranian representative to talk about Afghanistan in Kabul,” the senior official said. Iran did not follow up, added the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was describing confidential diplomatic communications.

It has been the pattern of US-Iran relations that when one side is ready to move, the other is not and vice versa. On both sides, domestic politics frequently inhibit progress, with hard-liners quick to pounce on perceived naïveté or “excessive” concessions.

Mousavian says the key is to improve US-Iran relations, however hard that is to envision at this time. …

It’s worth noting Tehran’s invite to Grossman came just a couple weeks after international-Iran nuclear talks broke down in Istanbul in January 2011 (and didn’t resume again until some 15 months later).

Read her piece.

 

IAEA announces new Iran talks, former Iran nuclear negotiator proposes “zero 20% stockpile” plan

The top UN nuclear inspector Yukiya Amano will hold new talks with Iranian officials in Vienna later this week, he announced Monday. The purpose of the meeting will be to try to finalize a work plan partially agreed to at a meeting in Tehran last month, he said.

“I invite Iran to sign and implement the Structured Approach document as soon as possible and to provide early access to the Parchin site,” Amano told the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of governors Monday, after announcing plans for a meeting with Iranian officials June 8.

The IAEA-Iran meeting comes ten days ahead of new P5+1/Iran talks scheduled to be held in Moscow June 18-19th.

Western diplomats are hoping to secure a deal at the Moscow meeting under which Iran would stop its 20% uranium enrichment and send out its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium. The actions would be part of a proposed first-step confidence building gesture that international negotiators hope could put time on the clock for negotiations to resolve broader concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

But former Iranian nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian, speaking in Washington Monday, cast doubt that Iran would be willing to curb its 20% enrichment activities without getting upfront recognition of its right to enrich to 3.5% for energy purposes.

“For Iran, it’s very important to see the end state,” Mousavian  told the Arms Control Association in Washington Monday. “The Western powers have a piecemeal approach. Iran wants to see the endgame.”

For the upcoming P5+1/Iran talks in “Moscow, an agreement on zero stockpile of 20 % enriched uranium would be the best achievement,” Mousavian proposed.

Under such a plan, he explained, the P5+1 and Iran would set up a joint committee to determine how much 20% enriched uranium Iran needs for medical purposes, and the rest of its 20% stockpile would be exported or converted to 3.5%.

He also proposed that the IAEA define the maximum amount of transparency it would like from Iran. “If Iran accepts, to sign the additional protocol and give the IAEA access beyond that demanded in the additional protocol, then the [western powers] should be ready” to defer new European and American sanctions set to go into effect next month targeting transactions with Iran’s Central Bank and oil exports.

(Photo: Hossein Mousavian, then head of the Iranian delegation to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), listens to a journalist’s question prior to a closed-door meeting of the IAEA 35-nation Board of Governors in Vienna June 16, 2004. REUTERS/Herwig Prammer.)