Former top US diplomat Jeff Feltman meets with Iran’s Supreme Leader

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Jeff Feltman, the UN Under Secretary for Political Affairs who until May served as a top US diplomat, on Wednesday became the most senior current or former American official known to meet with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in decades.

Feltman, the former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, met with Iran’s Supreme Leader as part of the entourage accompanying UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon for meetings in Tehran. Ban traveled to Iran against the wishes of the US and Israel to attend the non-aligned movement summit.

American officials downplayed the rare meeting between even an ex-US official and Iran’s vehemently anti-American Supreme Leader, pointing out that Feltman doesn’t work for the US government anymore.

Feltman “is doin’ his new job,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told Al-Monitor Wednesday when asked about the meeting.

Asked if Ban or Feltman conveyed any message from the United States to Iran’s leadership, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told Al-Monitor: “Nope.”

“Not sure that it means much in reality,” former senior Obama White House Iran strategist Dennis Ross told Al-Monitor by email Wednesday.

Feltman “is a UN official and he works for Ban,” Ross, now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, continued. “The Iranians may be seeking to play up any imagery hoping it may support their desire to show how they are not isolated and make some of their neighbors wonder about what is going on.”

But former American diplomat Jim Dobbins told Al-Monitor that Feltman likely would have given the US government at least a courtesy ‘heads up’ about his trip, even if he would not take guidance from them. The meeting “is interesting,” Dobbins, now at the Rand Corporation, said.

And another former senior US official who asked not to be named acknowledged she was “shocked” to learn of the meeting, mostly because the Obama administration had publicly pressed Ban to forgo the trip. Feltman, who served as ambassador to Lebanon during the 2006 war, is thought to be fairly hardline on Iran.

The tone of the UN chief’s meeting with Iranian leaders Wednesday was reportedly fairly testy and combative, reports said, though the Supreme Leader’s website acknowledged Ban requesting that Iran take “concrete” steps to cooperate with the IAEA and P5+1 negotiating over its nuclear program. Continue reading

UN’s Ban to attend Iran summit, over US, Israeli requests

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon will attend a conference in Tehran next week, over the objections of Israel and the United States, his spokesman said Wednesday.

“In Tehran, Ban will raise Iran’s nuclear program, terrorism, human rights and the crisis in Syria,” Ban’s spokesman Martin Nesirky told journalists at the UN Wednesday.

Ban will visit Iran for three days, August 29-31, to participate in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit, Nesirky said. He will also hold discussions with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Some 30 leaders are expected to attend the 16th NAM summit, including Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.The non-aligned movement is a Cold War legacy, comprised of some 120 countries that were ostensibly independent of the US or Soviet blocs.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had publicly lobbied Ban to reject the invitation, in an effort to signal Iran’s growing isolation over its nuclear program. The State Department more recently also encouraged Ban to skip the meeting, though its protests seemed a bit pro forma. (US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, now traveling in India, also had urged Ban not to go, InnerCityPress reported.)

Ban “was fully aware of the sensitivities, and fully aware of the responsibilities” in choosing to attend the meeting, Nesirky said Wednesday, the New York Times reported.

Whatever diplomatic victory Iran may claim from Ban’s RSVP, his discussions with Iranian leaders are likely to be tense.  P5+1 negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program have made little progress, and the UN International Atomic Energy Agency is due to issue a new report on Iran’s nuclear program at the end of the month.

A firm date has not yet been finalized for an anticipated phone call between chief international nuclear negotiator, EU High Rep Catherine Ashton and Iran’s Saeed Jalili, to discuss how to proceed, a European Union spokesperson told Al Monitor Wednesday.

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Key advisor to Supreme Leader may seek Iran presidency

Ali Akbar Velayati, the longtime foreign policy advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is likely to run for Iran’s presidency next year, and if elected would take a more pragmatic stance to ease soaring tensions with the West that have isolated Iran and hurt its economy, a former Iranian diplomat told Al Monitor.

The former diplomat and academic, who plans to advise Velayati, a longtime family friend, if he does run, asked not to be named in a piece. He spoke to Al Monitor in an interview Friday, as Iranians were trying to analyze press reports showing the United States increasing its muscular rhetoric in an effort to stave off any possible Israeli unilateral strike against Iran. Iran does not fear an Israeli attack, the former diplomat said, but does feel the impact of economic sanctions and takes the prospect of possible future US military action more seriously.

The former diplomat expressed optimism that Iran would reach a negotiated solution with the West over its nuclear program by June of next year, when Iranian presidential elections are due to be held. He also said the Iranian foreign ministry may take a larger role in handling Iran’s negotiations with the P5+1 over its nuclear program in the future.

The larger message the former diplomat conveyed is that Khamenei, at 73, does not want the end of his legacy in Iranian history books to be having brought economic hardship to the Iranian people. The sanctions are hurting Iran and Iranians, including in the fall of the Iran’s currency, the rial, to 20,000 to the dollar last week. Iran also recognizes that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad will eventually be toppled in Syria, the former diplomat said, but said whatever future leadership comes to power in Syria will maintain ties with Tehran. (Among economic reasons he cited, Iranian pilgrims bring Syria $2 billion in annual revenues, and Syria needs Iranian oil and gas, he said.)

Iran’s leadership “believes Obama will win” reelection, the former diplomat said. Iran’s leadership “are rational, and calculate how to deal with the US,” he said. Key factions of Iran’s elite are looking for more effective stewardship of Iran’s international relations.

Velayati, who studied pediatric medicine at John Hopkins University in the 1970s, served as Iran’s foreign minister from 1981-1997, under then President Khamenei and Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. From Iran’s conservative “right-wing,” Velayati’s prospective 2013 presidential candidacy has the support of Rafsanjani and some reformists, and would be acceptable to the Supreme Leader, who does not back a candidate per se, the former diplomat said.

At a news conference late last month, Velayati said Iran would pursue negotiations with the P5+1 until they reach “positive and constructive” results, Iranian news media reported. “The Islamic Republic of Iran should be allowed to use peaceful nuclear energy and such a right should be recognized by negotiators of the P5+1,” Velayati said July 27th, Press TV reported. Continue reading

Line of the day

Intrigued by this line, from the New York Times book review Sunday of David Sanger’s recent book on Obama’s national security policy, Confront and Conceal:

On Iran, Obama initially tried a three-pronged approach of engagement, sanctions and covert action. Engagement died, according to Sanger, when American intelligence, intercepting Ayatollah Khamenei’s message traffic, realized he had no intention of giving up his option of building nuclear weaponry.

This would partly explain, and be consistent with, US intelligence officials’ assessment that they do not believe the Supreme Leader has made a decision yet about whether to make a nuclear weapon, but is keeping the option open.

US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified to Congress in January: Continue reading

Ex-Iran nuclear negotiator alleges Iran refused 2004 US offer to join talks

Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, translated part of a long interview with Iran’s former lead nuclear negotiator Hasan Rouhani that appears in the (Iranian) Center for Strategic Research, posted May 7.

In it, Rouhani describes a 2004 meeting he had with then International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director Mohammed El Baradei, who had reportedly come to Tehran straight from Washington where he had been meeting with the Bush White House.

The central point of the interview excerpt Clawson translated below is fascinating: Rouhani says that in 2004, El Baradei conveyed to him that the United States would be interested in joining talks with Iran, but that the Iranian regime, according to Rouhani, decided against it. From Clawson’s translation: Continue reading