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Iran's President Puts Foreign Ministry In Charge Of Nuclear Negotiations

Iranian President Hassan Rohani (left) has handed over responsibility for nuclear negotiations to his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif (right), perhaps signaling a more flexible approach.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani has announced that the country's Foreign Ministry will be in charge of nuclear talks with world powers over Tehran's controversial nuclear activities.

The decision gives Rohani and U.S.-educated Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif more influence over one of the Islamic republic's most important foreign-policy dossiers, but Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is highly suspicious of the United States and Western countries, will remain the ultimate decision-maker.

Until now, nuclear negotiations were conducted by the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), which is under Khamenei's direct control. The council's secretary, Said Jalili, often simply parroted Khamenei's views. He was the lead nuclear negotiator in several rounds of talks with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany, the P5+1 negotiating group.

The announcement of the change was made on Rohani's website and didn't say whether Zarif, who's known as a pragmatist, would replace Jalili himself or appoint someone else.

Analysts believe the reshuffling indicates readiness on Tehran's part to show some flexibility on the nuclear issue. The decision also appears to demonstrate Khamenei's trust in Rohani, who has promised to ease tensions with the world and bring more transparency to the country's nuclear activities.

Davood Hermidas Bavand, a professor of international relations in Tehran, says the decision is likely to make Iran's nuclear negotiating team more effective. "It aims to create a strategic unity between the president, the foreign minister, and also the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council," he says. "This wasn't the case in the past. The president was left out of the nuclear issue."

Bavand says Iranian leaders have realized that a new approach is needed because of the severe problems Iran is facing as a result of crippling Western sanctions over Tehran's disputed nuclear work.

"In order to find a [way out], the president and his team need more to have a freer hand," Bavand says. "A number of factors, including the problems inside the country, regional issues, and also ties with world powers have led to the decision to give [Rohani] more freedom, at least in the beginning."

Double-Edged Sword

But Ali Vaez, a senior Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group, says the shift could be a double-edged sword. "While it will increase Rohani and Zarif's control over the nuclear dossier, it will make it easier for the hard-liners to criticize them, as the process will no longer have the supreme leader's imprimatur, at least not on tactical moves," Vaez says. "Additionally, it will give the parliament oversight of the diplomatic process, which could be problematic."

Vaez adds that it appears that Rohani's past experience as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator may have convinced him that the change is a necessary price to pay to get more flexibility at the negotiating table.

Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the nonproliferation and disarmament program at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, says the decision to put the Foreign Ministry in charge of the nuclear talks allows Rohani to explore some compromises that have not been possible to date.

Yet he cautions that the change does not guarantee the success of talks, which have so far failed to produce a major breakthrough. "Whether these compromises would be sufficient to allow real progress, I'm not too optimistic," Fitzpatrick says. "But I think it is certainly a good sign that Rohani does want to move forward in a way that would fulfill his campaign promise to try to relieve pressure on Iran."

The most recent round of talks between Iran and world powers took place in April. EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton, who leads the negotiations on behalf of the P5+1, has said that she is ready to hold new talks as soon as possible.

Syria's Shadow

New negotiations are likely to take place under the shadow of the crisis over the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. The U.S. Congress is now debating whether to authorize a limited military response to the attack.

Such a move could complicate talks with Iran. "How exactly it will play out is uncertain: on the one hand, it could very well undermine any prospect for engagement between Iran and the United States and make it harder for Rohani to pull together the consensus that will be needed for Iran to make any compromises," Fitzpatrick says. "On the other hand, U.S.-led strikes will demonstrate American resolve and will be a factor that Iran will have to consider in terms of its own willingness to defy the United States."

The UN's nuclear watchdog agency says in its latest report that Iran has expanded its uranium-enrichment program, bolstering the belief in the West that it is secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons.

Iran says all of its nuclear activities are peaceful.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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