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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
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Rouhani Picks a “Moderate” Nuclear Negotiating Team

Filed under: Iran, Nuclear Warfare

Rouhani Changes Nuclear Officials Ahead of Talks

Ever since Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani took office at the beginning of August, he has been making major changes in the institutions and officials dealing with Iran’s nuclear program and nuclear negotiations. These changes are part of Iran’s preparations for renewed nuclear talks with the West.

His first steps are the appointment of a moderate team drawn mainly from the Foreign Ministry. For external consumption, the aim is to give the West an appearance of seriousness and moderation in opening yet another round of talks. For internal consumption, the goal is to demonstrate that Rouhani is determined to resolve the nuclear issue so that sanctions will be lifted and the Iranian economy will improve – two issues that were central to his election campaign.

The main change Rouhani intends to implement – which has not yet fully materialized – is to transfer responsibility for the negotiations with the West from the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) to the Foreign Ministry and make Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif the head of the negotiating team. It is Zarif – who served as Iran’s UN ambassador and is thought to have had contacts with U.S. officials – who will conduct the negotiations opposite EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. The Iranian media reported that Zarif had already updated Ashton on the transfer of responsibility, though there is still no official announcement of it in Iran.1 It should be noted that the SNSC oversees, and is supposed to coordinate, the activities of the various government ministries including the Foreign Ministry. Some reports suggested that a nuclear think tank was established within the Foreign Ministry, but the ministry’s spokesman, Abbas Araqchi, was quick to deny this. He also said the question of who will lead the nuclear talks with the P5+1 group was still undecided.2

Friends and Old Hands

Rouhani has appointed the outgoing foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, as chief of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), a post in which Salehi served previously from July 2009 to January 2011.3 Salehi was also Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from 1997 to 2005, during which time Rouhani became head of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team (2003-2005) and Iran agreed to suspend uranium enrichment.

Salehi, for his part, has appointed some AEOI deputies from among his close associates. These include the new deputy for foreign affairs, Behruz Kamalvandi, who was head of the Foreign Ministry’s financial and administrative department while Salehi was foreign minister; Mehdi Babazadegan, deputy for management, development, and planning; and Pezhman Rahimian, adviser and head of public relations.4

In addition, Reza Najafi, former head of the Foreign Ministry’s disarmament department, was chosen to be the new ambassador to the IAEA. In September 2010, during Salehi’s tenure as head of the AEOI, he tried to replace Ali Asghar Soltaniyeh, Iran’s current ambassador to the IAEA, with Najafi, but then-foreign minister Manuchehr Motakki did not approve the appointment. Now, however, Najafi will be the ambassador to the IAEA at the same time as Salehi is head of the AEOI.5

A Just Solution

Along with these appointments, Iran is waging an extensive media campaign to present its positions and its desire for a “just” solution of the nuclear issue that would honor its “right to maintain a nuclear program for peaceful purposes.” Foreign Minister Zarif, who may take on the job of negotiator with the West, put it this way:

We have had numerous discussions inside the government with the President with regard to how we should pursue Iran’s nuclear rights and remove the oppressive sanctions….Our basis for work is insisting on Iran’s rights and removing the logical concerns of the international community….We believe that the resolution of the nuclear issue requires political determination, and the election of Dr. Rouhani…with his record in this dossier, indicates that the people of Iran demand the resolution of the nuclear issue at the appropriate time. We hope that this political determination for the resolution of the nuclear issue also exists on the other side. In that case, we do not have any concerns about reassuring the world of the peacefulness of our nuclear program for, based on the fatwa of the Supreme Leader and Iran’s strategic needs, nuclear weapons have no place in our national security.6

Ali Khorram, who also served as Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA and is an international-relations expert, said that if the Foreign Ministry receives full authority to conduct the nuclear talks it will be able to show flexibility or rigidity as needed. He added that the Iranian foreign minister will, given his authority, experience, and familiarity with the international diplomatic scene, be able to discuss the nuclear issue from many standpoints and – he implied – achieve progress toward solving the nuclear issue while making foreign policy a priority.7 This would contrast with the record of his predecessor, Saeed Jalili, now secretary of the SNSC, who approached the nuclear issue from a narrow perspective and failed to show flexibility in the talks when it was needed.8 Khorram added that the election of Rouhani could pose a golden opportunity for Iran’s foreign policy, since he also has the knowledge and experience of a former SNSC secretary and understands better than anyone that foreign policy issues should be handled by the Foreign Ministry.

More Time

In sum, the changes Rouhani is making in the nuclear-related institutions and in the nuclear negotiating team are aimed at preparing Iran for renewed talks with the West and at presenting a “moderate” team marked by a seriousness of purpose to resolve the nuclear issue. Iran will thereby gain time for more rounds of talks with the West, during which it will demand concessions and compensation for any willingness to compromise on the quantity of 20-percent-enriched uranium it possesses.

In trying to ease the sanctions and relieve Iran’s huge losses in oil revenues, which are hitting its economy hard, Rouhani will enjoy the cooperation of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who will continue to hold the keys to the country’s military nuclear program.

In any case, Iran has come a long way since Rouhani agreed (with Khamenei’s consent) to suspend uranium enrichment while he was nuclear negotiator, and today the Islamic Republic has all the capabilities necessary to build a nuclear bomb when it chooses to do so.

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8. During his election campaign, including in televised debates, Rouhani criticized the rigid approach to the nuclear talks with the West as causing grave damage to Iran.