Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Ali Shamkhani, who served as the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) for almost a decade, during a meeting in Tehran

Man Tipped as Iran’s Nuclear Negotiator Was Against a New Deal

Tuesday, 05/28/2024

Two days after reports from Iran suggested that Ali Shamkhani, an adviser to the Supreme Leader, would become the new chief nuclear negotiator, a former official charged that he had previously opposed the 'revival' of the JCPOA.

Shamkhani is an old-guard military figure who served as the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council until last year. In that role, he oversaw negotiations to mend relations with Saudi Arabia. This background lends credibility to reports that Khamenei has chosen him to handle the nuclear issue, prompting significant reactions.

On Tuesday, however, several Iran-based news websites rehashed an interview from two weeks ago, in which Mahmoud Vaezi, the chief of staff to former President Hassan Rouhani, suggests Shamkhani was against the idea of reviving the JCPOA nuclear agreement, after it was ditched by Donald Trump.

"[Iran’s] Supreme National Security Council Secretariat during Shamkhani's term took a line of non-revival,” Vaezi says in his interview. “If the secretariat had been aligned [with Rouhani’s administration], the nuclear deal would have been revived at that time."

The reason why some outlets in Iran have highlighted this line from Vaezi’s interview remains unclear. It could be an effort by those in favor of a deal—and closer cooperation with the US in general—to undermine Shamkhani before his official announcement in the new role. Alternatively, if the appointment is already finalized, it might be an attempt to put Shamkhani on the defensive from the start. Either way, this appears to be another instance of factional politics that ultimately reinforces Khamenei's position as the ultimate arbiter.

Khamenei has the final say on all matters of security, intelligence and foreign policy. Many view his key appointments as windows into his thinking and an indicator of the direction that Iran would most likely take in the short to medium term. Those opposed to Khameni’s choice of direction can do little but to shoot the messengers –high ranking officials whose role is the implementation of policies developed in Khamenei's office, and who, more often than not, are where they are by virtue of their subservience.

Vaezi’s interview provides a glimpse of this factionalism and the dynamics of power in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

"Some individuals and the secretary in the secretariat adopted different methods. Some pursued policies that were not even discussed in the council meetings,” he says of the alleged disruptive impact of Shamkhani and his team during the negotiations to revive the nuclear agreement with the Biden administration. “As far as the nuclear deal is concerned, they had a line that it should not happen. They didn’t say it explicitly, but their behavior indicated this."

Vaezi then reveals why the situation could not have been rectified, why, in other words, it was out of President Rouhani’s hands.

“To replace the Secretary, there has to be an agreement between the President and the Supreme Leader,” he says in the interview. “That agreement didn't come about. Mr. Rouhani tried several times, about 5-6 times during his four years [second term]."

The nuclear negotiations between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) seem to have halted following the death of Iran’s president and foreign minister on May 19 when their helicopter crashed. But rumors persist –just as they have on a number of occasions in the past few years– that back-channel, indirect talks are underway between Iran and the US.

Shamkhani’s appointment as the 'chief negotiator' has yet to be officially confirmed. If and when it is, it will be significant primarily for what it reveals about the intentions of the true chief negotiator, Ali Khamenei.

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