Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Iranian Foreign Policy Going Nuclear?

Uncertainty over whether caretaker foreign minister, a nuclear expert, will continue in post.
By Ebrahim Gilani
  • Iran’s caretaker Ali Akbar Salehi. (Photo: Raoof Mohseni, Mehr News Agency)
    Iran’s caretaker Ali Akbar Salehi. (Photo: Raoof Mohseni, Mehr News Agency)

When Iran goes into talks on its uranium enrichment programme this week, one major change will be that both foreign policy matters and the “nuclear dossier” will be in the hands of one man, Ali Akbar Salehi.

Officials from Iran and the “P5+1” group, consisting of the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia and Germany, will meet in Istanbul on January 20-21 for another attempt to resolve the dispute over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

Salehi is filling in for Manouchehr Mottaki, who was sacked by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while on an official visit to Senegal in December.

Mottaki’s removal was seen as a sign that the president was determined to run foreign affairs himself, even though this area of policy, as well as the nuclear issue, has always been controlled at arm’s length by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Salehi’s future role is something of an enigma. His caretaker role will last three months, and Ahmadinejad will show his hand more clearly if he puts his name forward to parliament to confirm him in the post of foreign minister, or if he does not so, in which case it is also possible he may prolong Salehi’s acting role for another three months.

Salehi’s appointment has given rise to some speculation about Tehran’s future approach to nuclear talks. When he was first named as interim minister, many western analysts argued that Iranian foreign policy was veering towards a total focus on nuclear matters because of Salehi’s long career in the atomic industry. There has, however, been little evidence of that happening so far.

Salehi, 61, comes with an impressive set of credentials as a nuclear industry technocrat.

In the 1970s, he obtained two degrees at the American University in Beirut, and went on to get a PhD in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Unlike many Iranian diplomats, he speaks English and Arabic fluently.

After years working in academia in the Islamic Republic, Salefi was appointed as Iran’s representative at the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, in 1997, in which post he gained respect in the West as a moderate.

It was, however, the warm relationship that Salehi developed with both Iranian and international media that led to his eventual removal in 2005. As the nuclear dispute was hotting up, the foreign ministry began to lobby for complete control over diplomatic work on the issue.

After a spell as deputy secretary-general of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, he returned to Iran to take up the post of head of the national Atomic Energy Agency in July 2009.

Many reporters who interviewed Salehi when he was at the IAEA described him as honest and frank, a devout Muslim but no fanatic.

He won a lot of respect last year when he spoke up on behalf of former nuclear talks delegate Hossein Mousavian, whom the intelligence ministry accused of having been a spy. The ministry’s allegations repeated older charges for which Mousavian was briefly imprisoned – he now lives in the United States. Salehi’s defence of a man vilified by the Ahmadinejad camp was a remarkable act by any standards.

Ahmadinejad’s view of his acting foreign minister may also be coloured by Salehi’s role as signatory to the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, and in orchestrating the suspension of Iran’s uranium and enrichment programme.

These actions, carried out while the reformist Mohammad Khatami was Iranian president, caused much anger in conservative circles at the time, and parliament refused to ratify the protocol. After Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005, he repeatedly condemned the signing of the protocol as an act of infamy.

Nor is it clear how Salehi, an urbane and academic figure from the Khatami era, will fit in with a government that enjoys little popularity either among the educated elite of Iran or among foreign statesmen.

In recent years, Ahmadinejad has tended to surround himself with little-known figures with a background in defence, security and intelligence, or with close personal relationships with him. Choosing Salehi – especially if he is confirmed in post – may indicate that Ahmadinejad is making a pragmatic decision designed to haul Iran out of the impasse that its current nuclear diplomacy finds itself in.

Having a nuclear specialist like Salehi as Iran’s top diplomat does not necessarily mean a breakthrough in the talks is any closer. In an interview with Al Jazeera TV last winter, Salehi said Iran was capable of making weapons-grade uranium and warned US president Barack Obama against any ill-considered action.

And as the Istanbul talks approached, Salehi took a robust stand in defence of Iran’s position, warning the West that time was running out. This mirrored remarks by other officials like Mohsen Koohkan, a member of parliament’s governing board, who said that “if the West continues with ineffectual negotiations, parliament will probably block the further progress of these negotiations and take the view that the reasons for continuing them are over”.

At talks in Geneva last autumn, Russia, France and the US offered to take partially enriched Iranian uranium and supply ready-to-use nuclear fuel for use in research reactors in exchange, the aim being to reduce the risk that highly enriched uranium could be used to make weapons. The Iranian delegation approved this on a preliminary basis but officials in Tehran later announced that the country would produce its own fuel for research reactors.

According to Salehi, there may come a time when “an exchange of fuel would become pointless.”

Ebrahim Gilani is the pseudonym of an Iranian journalist and foreign policy analyst based in London.

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