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Iran: New Foreign Policy Council Could Curtail Ahmadinejad's Power

Former Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi will head the new council (Fars) The creation in Iran this week of a foreign policy council connected with the Supreme Leader's Office may reflect a desire to balance the brash and inexperienced foreign affairs apparatus of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad with the more measured input of elder statesmen. It could also this could be a sign of the Iranian leadership's outright dissatisfaction with the Ahmadinejad team. A third possibility is that the new council will serve as a back-channel foreign policy instrument. Coming on the heels of Washington's willingness to take part in multilateral talks with Tehran on the nuclear issue, the creation of this council could have profound implications on Iran-U.S. relations.

The new Strategic Council for Foreign Relations (Shora-yi Rahbordi-yi Ravabet-i Khareji) was created by a June 25 decree from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The council is supposed to facilitate the country's decision-making process, find new foreign policy approaches, and make use of foreign policy experts, according to the decree.

Kharrazi, the head of the council, suggested that the executive branch has failed to implement national strategies. He said Supreme Leader Khamenei "sensed a deficiency" in which there was no strategy for the implementation of his policies.

Vast Experience On Council

The council's membership reflects a search for practical expertise. Kamal Kharrazi, who served as foreign minister from 1997-2005, will head the council. Other members are Ali Akbar Velayati, who preceded Kharrazi as foreign minister and who currently serves as Khamenei's foreign affairs adviser, and former Islamic Revolution Guards Corp admiral Ali Shamkhani, who served as defense minister from 1997-2005. These three officials have experience in the highest levels of foreign policy.

Two other council members -- Mohammad Shariatmadari and Mohammad-Hussein Taremi-Rad -- are not as well known. Shariatmadari's whole career, it seems, has been spent in the Commerce Ministry, and he served as minister from 1997-2005. Taremi-Rad is the only cleric on the council. An alumni of the hard-line Haqqani Seminary, he has headed the Iranian Center for Historical Studies since May 1997 but, more significantly, has served as ambassador to China and Saudi Arabia.

The cumulative experience of this council surpasses that of the youthful and inexperienced foreign policy team under President Ahmadinejad. Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki is a relatively young 53 years old, although he has served as a foreign envoy (ambassador to Turkey from 1985-94 and ambassador to Japan from 1994-99) and also as a legislator. Individuals named to ambassadorial postings have been criticized for their relative inexperience, furthermore, and the replacement by Ahmadinejad of some 60 envoys in important posts such as Berlin, Brussels, London, and Paris, is viewed as disruptive.

Unhappy With The President...

The creation of the new foreign relations council is the most recent indication that Supreme Leader Khamenei is concerned about Ahmadinejad's confrontational approach as well as his management style. Shortly after the president's August 2005 inauguration, Khamenei tasked the Expediency Council with overseeing the system's policies by supervising the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government and reporting on their performance to him.

This development was followed by the addition of old foreign affairs hands -- former Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani and former President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami -- to the Expediency Council's Strategic Research Center. The Expediency Council must consider any issue submitted to it by the supreme leader, according to the Iranian Constitution (Article 112), so it appeared that he was turning to it for foreign policy advice.

This coincided with speculation that responsibility for the nuclear account no longer rested with the Supreme National Security Council, which is chaired by the president. Expediency Council chief Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, however, rejected such claims and observed that decisions on this subject are reached collectively.

Ali Akbar Velayati (left) with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (Fars file photo)

Collective decision-making almost certainly continues to be the case. Last autumn, however, there were calls for the creation of a foreign-policy guidance team. The new Strategic Council for Foreign Relations appears to fulfill that role. The leadership is keen to preserve the illusion of unity within the governing system, so it will not publicly chastise or shunt aside the executive branch of government. Behind the scenes -- where real power is wielded -- it could be that this is what has happened.

...Or A Means To Talk To The U.S.?

The third possible explanation for the creation of this foreign relations council rests in Supreme Leader Khamenei's repeated disavowals of any interest in holding talks with the U.S. Most recently, during a June 27 meeting in Tehran, he said, "Talking with America does not have any benefits for us; and we do not need such talks," state television reported. Nevertheless, it was Khamenei who in March defended Tehran's willingness to discuss Iraqi affairs with Washington bilaterally. He may not favor talks with Washington, but he or his advisers recognize that they are necessary if the nuclear impasse is to be resolved.

The Strategic Council for Foreign Relations could conduct such talks away from the limelight that an official diplomatic delegation would attract. Indeed, one of the council members, Velayati, has been used for such communications in the past. He established an office in Dubai to facilitate clandestine contacts with U.S. officials in the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported in August 2002. More recently, he was in Riyadh to relay a direct message from Khamenei to the Saudi monarch.

Some observers hope the new foreign relations council will supplant the executive branch in foreign affairs. An enthusiastic "Sharq" on June 27 described this as the return of the "moderates" to foreign relations. The pro-reform daily noted that the council has the makings of a presidential cabinet -- a military person (Shamkhani), a commerce person (Shariatmadari), and a political and cultural person (Velayati), working along with the head of the council (Kharrazi).

At this early stage it is difficult to determine if this will be the precise role of the new council. Executive branch spokesman Gholam-Hussein Elham put on a brave face, saying on June 26 that the council will add new views on foreign policy, but it is not empowered to interfere with the Foreign Ministry or Supreme National Security Council, IRNA reported. Kharrazi, the head of the council, was more blunt, suggesting that the executive branch has failed to implement national strategies. He said on June 27 that Supreme Leader Khamenei "sensed a deficiency" in which there was no strategy for the implementation of his policies, IRNA reported. He said the council will devise appropriate strategies and present them to Khamenei. If he approves the strategies, Kharrazi continued, the relevant foreign policy bodies will act accordingly.

The Structure Of Iran's Government

The Structure Of Iran's Government

INSIDE THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC: Iran is a theocratic Islamic republic governed under a 1979 constitution that was revised in 1989, when presidential powers were expanded and the prime minister's post was abolished.
Appointed -- not elected -- offices and bodies hold the real power in the government. The supreme leader, who serves as a chief of state would, is appointed for life by an Islamic religious advisory board that is called the Assembly of Experts. The supreme leader oversees the military as well as the judiciary and appoints members of the Guardians Council and the Expediency Council.
The Guardians Council -- some of whose members are appointed by the judiciary and approved by the parliament -- works closely with the government and must approve political candidates and legislation passed by the parliament. The Expediency Council is responsible for resolving legislative disputes that may arise between parliament and the Guardians Council over legislation.
The president, who is popularly elected for a four-year term, serves as the head of government. The legislative branch is made up of a 290-seat body called the Majlis, whose members are elected by popular vote for four-year terms...(more)


RFE/RL's coverage of Iran.