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Dispatch | The Man to Watch in Iran?


01 Dec 2011 18:01Comments
Iranian-FM-Ali-Akbar-Salehi.jpgAli Akbar Salehi: Iran's foreign minister...and future president?

[ profile ] After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the Islamic Republic's new leaders confronted the dilemma of what to do with the remnants of the Pahlavi monarchy. One such remnant was the partially constructed nuclear power plant located in the southeastern city of Bushehr along the Persian Gulf. Construction of the plant by a group of German companies had begun just four years earlier, under Mohammad Reza Shah.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ordered the creation of a five-person fact-finding committee to investigate the Bushehr plant and advise on its status. One of its members was a young graduate of the nuclear engineering doctorate program at MIT, Ali Akbar Salehi, who in late 2010 became one of the most prominent figures in Iranian politics when he was appointed foreign minister by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

After visits to the Bushehr facility, the committee was unable to reach a consensus. Three of its members argued for the plant's destruction, while two -- including Salehi -- believed it should be completed and brought on line. Occupied by the war with Iraq, Khomeini decided neither to continue work on the plant nor to destroy it, putting off the matter until a later date.

For many years afterward, Salehi kept a safe distance from politics and pursued a career in academia, serving as chancellor of Sharif University of Technology, regarded as the Iranian MIT.

Then, in 1997, President Mohammad Khatami was looking to name a new envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), someone with both expertise in the field and sufficient distance from the regime's power elite to avoid international objections to his appointment. He chose Salehi.

Salehi himself was the source of much of this information relayed to Kambiz Tavana starting in 2003 when the reporter started covering him in Iran and on his travels.

Salehi was never fully accepted, particularly by Hassan Rowhani, a political insider who was chief negotiator with Europe for Iran's nuclear program and a member of the Supreme National Security Council, which coordinates nuclear policy under the Supreme Leader's guidance. Rowhani derisively referred to Salehi as a "foreigner" because of his birth in Karbala, Iraq, years of study at the American University of Beirut, and ability to speak fluent Arabic.

Salehi has stated that he felt "cut off from the team" during his tenure as IAEA envoy. After writing a letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in which he articulated his concerns, he left the country for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he worked on education programs as deputy secretary-general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (now the Organization of Islamic Cooperation) from 2007 to 2009.

In 2009, Ahmadinejad brought Salehi back to head Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, which is the primary body responsible for operating and regulating nuclear energy activities around the country.

Ahmadinejad has championed the development of Iran's nuclear program and it thus seemed odd that Salehi would reenter Iranian politics at his hands and in such a position. Aside from having typically filled key posts with friends and allies, Ahmadinejad has evinced a particular disdain for those who served in the administration of the reformist Khatami. However, one of the top engineers at the Isfahan nuclear facility observed, "People who work on the nuclear program are not political and are not prone to make trouble through partisan in-fighting."

photo_1314537593974-1-0.jpgThroughout his professional life, Salehi does not appear to have pursued any obviously self-serving agenda. Given the cutthroat nature of Iranian politics, a strong support network, involving inner circles within inner circles, is a necessity for almost every officeholder who seeks a lasting career. Salehi, however, does not seem to belong to a clique and has performed his various jobs in academia, administration, and diplomacy without exploiting them as launching pads to superior positions.

These qualities made Salehi an asset to the Khatami and Ahmadinejad administrations, both of which needed, at times, a skilled and devoted worker without the baggage routinely borne by political figures in the Islamic Republic. Now there is a chance that these very qualities may propel Salehi to high office.

The general feeling among most analysts has been that Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani or Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf are next in line for the presidency. They are both central players within the regime and have shown themselves to be loyal to both the Islamic Republic and the Supreme Leader, who will have the final say. (See here and here for how each staked out positions against the British government before and after the November embassy seizure.)

Larijani and Ghalibaf each have strong political bases, as well -- Larijani among the clerical class and Ghalibaf among the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Given the current state of the regime, this must be seen as a mixed blessing. The sort of backing each man enjoys could provide impetus for a challenge to Khamenei once either became chief executive, just as Ahmadinejad has challenged the Supreme Leader over a wide range of matters, most memorably with the president's bid to force out Intelligence Minister Heydar Moselhi. Khamenei and many others in the regime will do their best to avoid the internal divisions that have plagued Ahmadinejad's second term, especially in the face of mounting pressure from the United States and Europe.

Even setting aside the fear of another four years of rampant political intrigue, there is the fact that Salehi has impressive knowledge and experience in two crucial arenas in which Iran has invested considerable financial and political capital: its nuclear energy program and its relations with Arab nations around the region.

With the publication of the new IAEA report and the West's imposition of increasingly severe sanctions, Salehi may be the best act Khamenei has to follow up the provocative Ahmadinejad. Cables made public by WikiLeaks show that some Western diplomats were "optimistic" when he was assigned to head Iran's Atomic Energy Organization. According to one cable from the U.S. mission in Vienna, which covers the IAEA, the consensus among his Western counterparts is that he is an "intelligent and skilled interlocutor and [they] prefer dealing with him than some other Iranian officials." As the volume of accusations about Iran's nuclear program rises, the well-informed, soft-spoken Salehi offers either the best chance to sell the world on the idea of a nuclear Iran, which seems next to impossible, or at the very least to explain his country's position without the bellicosity that has colored Ahmadinejad's defiant speeches.

Iran's relations with its Arab neighbors, meanwhile, are troubled on three distinct fronts: its continued attempts to understand and sway the Arab Spring; the fine line it must walk with Syria between supporting President Bashar al-Assad and maneuvering for maximum influence should the civil war there yield a new government; and Washington's allegation of a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador that has brought Iran-Saudi tensions to their worst level in decades.

There may be no political figure better equipped than Salehi, who has lived for years in Arab countries and has a strong command of the language, to serve as the Islamic Republic's ambassador-at-large to the region. In fact, last month, despite criticism at home, it was he who flew to Saudi Arabia to represent Iran and pay condolences after the death of Crown Prince Sultan ibn Abdulaziz al-Saud.

"If this were the case," quipped one Iranian academic about the prospect of Salehi becoming president, "it would, ironically, be following the tradition of Iran's medieval monarchs and Qajar kings to appoint the most enlightened, but duty-bound person as the chancellor."

On the other hand: "He is a nice person," a principlist told Tehran Bureau. "You know, nice people do not become very important in the Islamic Republic."

Yet with all the chaos that has taken place within the Islamic Republic over the past few years, this may be just what Khamenei wants and what he needs: someone who will get the job done and be smart enough to not be very important.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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