Mr. Salehi's In-Tray
by GARETH SMYTH
23 Dec 2010 18:02
[ analysis ] An assistant to Ali Akbar Salehi asked me if I had telephoned to congratulate him on becoming Iran's new (interim) foreign minister. In truth, the thought hadn't entered my head.
Mr. Salehi's in-tray is overflowing. And his speech at an inauguration ceremony in Tehran sounded a humble note.
"We trust in God," he said. "We should not regret any change. We are not that happy about this change, at least if I speak for myself. However, if there is an order, we consider ourselves the soldiers of this revolution."
Mr. Salehi, 61, faces formidable challenges in his new post, crucially in improving relations with Saudi Arabia and in asserting Iran's "right" to a nuclear program without further alienating Russia and China. An agreement with the UN Security Council powers (plus Germany) over nuclear fuel, naturally consistent with Iran's "rights," would be a bonus, albeit one that would require support from the broader leadership including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Fortunately, Mr. Salehi has suitable skills and talents. Fluent in English and Arabic, his time gaining a PhD from MIT gives him knowledge of the American mindset and an edge over U.S. diplomats confused by the speculations of "Iran experts."
Plus, as deputy general-secretary of the Organization of the Islamic Conference from 2007-09, working with the Turkish general-secretary Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Mr. Salehi has an appreciation of the Islamic world.
Some western commentators have suggested his appointment marks the "nuclearization" of Iran's foreign policy -- as if the western powers were centered on its saffron exports. Certainly, Mr. Salehi is well on top of the nuclear issue, politically as well as technically: he proved adept both as Iran's representative from 1999 to 2004 at the International Atomic Energy Authority and since last year as head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, effectively its top nuclear official.
Mr. Salehi led for the Iranian side during discussions with Brazil and Turkey earlier in the year over a proposed nuclear fuel swap designed to reduce international tensions, according to Brazil's foreign minister, Celso Amorim. Mr. Salehi had "the final word" in meetings, said Mr. Amorim, ahead of Saeed Jalili, Iran's top security official, and Manouchehr Mottaki, whom Mr. Salehi has now replaced as foreign minister.
For some time, Mr. Mottaki had been criticized in the media in Tehran as lackluster, and Mr. Salehi will better present Iran's case in public. In an interview with me in September 2004, he countered the idea that a "secret" Iranian nuclear facility at Natanz had been exposed in 2002 by the Mojahedin-e Khalgh, the cult-like opposition group.
"Through the force of the media, they made the public believe that our activity in Natanz was a secret activity," Mr. Salehi said. "How can it be secret if it has a few hundred acres, and a sign saying 'Atomic Energy Organization' and the buses that go from Tehran to Natanz stop at a station called 'Atomic station'?
"Yes, we didn't tell it to the IAEA, but we didn't have to. Under the safeguards agreement, we have to tell the IAEA only 180 days before we enter the nuclear material into the facility. It is not yet completed and we have not imputed any nuclear material."
Priorities are Turkey and Saudi Arabia
In his inaugural remarks, Mr. Salehi stressed the importance of relations with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, as well as Russia and China.
"Iran's first priority in diplomacy should be neighbors and the Islamic world," he said. "In this regard, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have a special position. Iran and Saudi Arabia, as two effective countries in the Islamic world, can resolve many problems together."
Progress has been made with the Saudis over Lebanon since 2008 clashes in Beirut between Hezbollah and Sunni groups. This could be upset if the UN Special Tribunal on the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, a Saudi citizen, indicts members of Hezbollah, Iran's ally.
Mr. Salehi will need to build on the diplomacy of the visit of Saad Hariri, Lebanon's prime minister, to Tehran in November, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's October trip to Lebanon. There were also talks in October in Riyadh between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Saudi King Abdullah took in the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL).
Such a rapprochement would follow July's quartet meeting in Beirut between the King of Saudi Arabia, the Emir of Qatar and presidents of Lebanon and Syria, hailed in Tehran by the conservative daily Kayhan as Saudi acceptance of "a reality in the region called resistance." Another reading would be that the regional interests including Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the Lebanese factions themselves, realize a flare-up is in none of their interests -- which would explain Saad Hariri's remarks, reported this week in the Beirut press, that he would end the financing of the tribunal if it indicts Hezbollah members.
One deeper problem for Iran in dealing with the Saudis is the regional growth of militant Salafi Islam, financed and encouraged by Saudi clerics. This was highlighted by the December 15 bombing in Chabahar, southeast Iran, that killed around 40 people in a Shia religious ceremony and was claimed by the Sunni militant group Jundallah.
Iran has in recent months extended security co-operation with Pakistan, beefing up border forces and agreeing special ID cards for those who regularly cross the border. Trade between the two neighbors is also likely to increase after several agreements.
But for all his diplomatic skills, Mr. Salehi faces a tough task in dealing with the Saud family's resentment over the replacement of Saddam Hussein's regime by a new Shia-led government friendly to Iran, which has been compounded by Iran's atomic program. The Saud family's flamboyant lifestyles sit uneasily with high unemployment and internal Shia unrest, and its insecurity has been compounded by president Ahmadinejad's popular pronouncements over Israel, especially at times of Israel's attacks on Lebanon and Gaza.
The distribution by WikiLeaks of cables from U.S. diplomats painting a ferocious Saudi view of Iran has also stirred the pot. Several U.S. analysts see tension between the Sunni-led Arab states and Iran as an opportunity, even, as one put it, a "silver lining."
With the Shias a minority in the Islamic world, Iran's leaders know that escalated sectarian tension is not in their interests. Hence in the face of Mr. Ahmadinejad's heady rhetoric, Ayatollah Khamenei three years ago opened a channel to King Abdullah, the ruler of Saudi Arabia, though his advisor, Ali Akbar Velayati. Whether this channel is also used, Mr. Salehi will tell the Saudis that a calmer relationship is in both sides' interests.
With Turkey, the short-term outlook for Mr. Salehi is better. The ruling Justice and Development party, led by Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, dislikes the evangelical Salafism sponsored by the Saudis.
Speaking in Istanbul on December 16, Mr. Erdogan said the battle of Karbala in 680CE -- source of the original division between Sunnism and Shi'ism and a battle in which the third Shia Imam Hossein was killed -- should be seen as a symbol of unity.
His words, largely ignored by the western media, were remarkable and deeply optimistic for the region.
"Hossein's sacrifice is [a] unification rather than a farewell, it is a beginning rather than an end, brotherhood rather than separation," he said. "It is solidarity and integration...Nobody is superior to anyone in these lands, not the Sunni to the Shiites, not the Turkish to the Kurdish, the Laz to the Circassian, or the Persian to the Arabs...We are all the same in this land, together, brothers."
Turkey remains close to the United States and an applicant member of the European Union, but its Islamist government has skillfully balanced this with support for Palestinian human and political rights, and with an improved relationship with Iran.
The United States and the 'golden key'
Mr. Salehi's less pressing challenge is the United States. Barack Obama, elected on a pledge to "engage" Iran has instead increased sanctions and built up the U.S. military presence. His administration presides over arms sales to the Arab states in the Persian Gulf estimated at $60bn-$120bn, putting their military spending at ten times greater than Iran's, according to Anthony Cordesman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies.
Ever since Mr. Obama took office -- or indeed, from his support for Israel's Gaza offensive just before his inauguration -- officials in Tehran have been trying to assess his aims. Gestures like putting Jundallah on the State Department terrorism list will have done nothing to convince Iran that the United States wants a compromise over the nuclear issue -- although Mr. Salehi's presence may give the Americans a better opportunity for a back-door initiative if it chooses.
Iran's new foreign minister is well aware that the primary issue between Iran and the U.S. is political and not technical. As he said in the 2004 interview:
"The U.S. knows Iran is a responsible country, they know out intentions very well. The issue of detente is in the hands of the political elites of the two countries.
"Instead of using their energies to find ways and means of approaching each other, they are both exhausting their energy in weakening each other. For the U.S., it's time to understand that the golden key to the region is Iran and without Iran the Middle East issue cannot be resolved in its entirety."
Russia and China
Mr. Salehi's key challenge will be to smooth relations with both Russia and China. President Medvedev's decision last September not to supply the S-300 missile-defense system -- purportedly to comply with the June 9 UN Security Council's fourth round of sanctions against Iran -- was a blow to Iran.
But Russia, despite its improved relations with Washington after Obama's cancellation in October 2009 of the eastern European missile defense shield, remains an important near-neighbor, a crucial part of the six-member Shanghai Co-operation Organization, which Iran hopes to join, and a partner in Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactor.
China is an increasingly important trade partner and a major investor in Iran's energy sector, and Iran remains China's third largest supplier of crude (behind Saudi Arabia and Angola). But concerns have been repeatedly expressed in the Iranian media over dependence, politically and economically, on Beijing.
Improved relations with Russia and China will depend in part on how well Iran conducts its diplomacy over the nuclear issue. A further wave of UN sanctions is unlikely in the near term, but Beijing will need evidence of Iran's willingness to compromise, perhaps shown in scheduled meetings with the P5+1, if it is to resist further U.S. pressure.
Finally, Mr Salehi will be wary of factional politics in Tehran. Unlike his predecessor, Mr. Mottaki, who openly backed Ali Larijani in the 2009 presidential election, Mr. Salehi has no particular political affiliation and may be able to command the respect and support of the leader, the president and even many of Mr. Ahmadinejad's critics.
This would be no bad thing for Iran's foreign policy, given the challenges the country faces.
Gareth Smyth has reported from the Middle East since 1992. Between 2003 and 2007 he was the Financial Times bureau chief in Tehran, and was nominated by the newspaper in 2005-06 as foreign correspondent of the year in the British press awards.
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