x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 October 2017

Tehran's unlikely nuclear envoy

Saeed Jalili, the chief negotiator in talks about Iran's controversial programme, has little diplomatic experience to fall back on.

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator is like no other diplomat. Saeed Jalili drives a battered Kia Pride that was assembled many years ago in Iran, insists on lugging his own suitcases around on high-level trips abroad and has a reputation for indulging in monologue rather than debate. It is not just Mr Jalili's style that makes him so different to the international big-name envoys he grapples with on the momentous issue of Iran's nuclear programme. His background is alien to the likes of Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, or William Burns, the US undersecretary of state for political affairs.

Mr Jalili's world view - and enduring suspicion of the West - was forged during the horrors of Iran's eight-year war against Iraq. Like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mr Jalili served in the Revolutionary Guards, but unlike the Iranian president, he spent most of his time on the front line. Mr Jalili lost half his right leg in the war and is said to have survived two Iraqi chemical gas attacks. He is a hardline ideologue, a true believer in Iran's Islamic system. Roger Cohen, a columnist for The New York Times, wrote in August that Mr Jalili was described to him in Tehran "as a chief architect" of the post-election clampdown.

Mr Jalili had little diplomatic experience when, in October 2007, Mr Ahmadinejad appointed him secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, a post that automatically made him the country's chief nuclear negotiator. He was a controversial choice. The West feared it signalled Tehran would take a harder line in the nuclear standoff while prominent Iranian conservatives complained that Mr Jalili lacked the negotiating experience to secure Iran's nuclear rights.

Nader Entessar, an Iran expert at the University of South Alabama, said: "The framework from which he [Jalili] looks at foreign policy issues is essentially the experience of the seventh century and how it could apply to contemporary events and I think that is his most important drawback." Mr Jalili wrote a book titled The Foreign Policy of the Prophet, a development of his PhD thesis, Paradigm of Political Thought of Islam in the Holy Quran. His doctorate was in political science, but his thesis was essentially a theological dissertation. He studied at Imam Sadeq University, a conservative institution where many Revolutionary Guards and members of the Basij paramilitary are educated.

Mr Jalili is said to have spoken at length about his thesis during a meeting on Iran's nuclear programme with international envoys in July 2008, forcing some to stifle yawns. His monologues often bear little relevance to the subject matter at hand, experts say. Hardline Iranian newspapers, however, hailed Mr Jalili's performance in the Geneva talks on October 1 with representatives of the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany. Iran agreed to give international weapons inspectors access to its newly disclosed uranium enrichment plant under construction near Qom.

The meeting also resulted in a tentative, but vital, confidence-building measure under which Iran will send most of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to Russia to be converted into material for a medical research reactor in Tehran. Such decisions would not have been made by Mr Jalili, but by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in consultation with other senior regime figures. "But he's [Jalili] responsible for conveying the messages [from Tehran and how he does this] - is also very important", Mr Entessar said in an interview.

Many analysts doubt Mr Jalili is the right person for such a sensitive role. If negotiations move on to the expert level, Iran will need to draw on more sophisticated technocrats from its foreign ministry. From Iran's point of view, the Geneva meeting tacitly acknowledged its right to enrich uranium, the most controversial aspect of its nuclear programme. "We did not retreat. They did backtrack!" enthused a headline on an editorial in Iran's Kayhan daily newspaper. The editor, Hossein Shariatmadari, a fiery hardliner and close aide of Ayatollah Khamenei, made clear his admiration for Iran's chief nuclear negotiator.

"By the way, Dr Jalili is a war veteran who lost a leg during the Sacred Defence era," Shariatmadari wrote. "He has also memorised the entire Holy Quran. Certainly, it does not hurt anyone to bring this up!" Mr Jalili, who was born in the north-eastern city of Mashhad 44 years ago, became the director general of Ayatollah Khamenei's office in 2001, but remained a relatively obscure figure until his surprise appointment as chief nuclear negotiator six years later.

He was already a favourite of the president, an old friend. When Mr Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, he appointed Mr Jalili deputy foreign minister for European and US affairs. Critics said he got the job because of his hardline political views and loyalty to the president: he had no experience in the diplomatic corps. The characters of the two men are very different. Softly spoken and low-key, Mr Jalili does not revel in the limelight like the president and does not share Mr Ahmadinejad's love of bombast and slogans.

Diplomats who have met Mr Jalili say he expresses strongly held convictions and is very persistent in discussions. Despite his inexperience, Mr Jalili is said to have been instrumental in shaping Mr Ahmadinejad's policy of strengthening relations with Latin America and Africa. He is reported to have used a visit to Cuba in 2005 to attempt to convince Fidel Castro to embrace Islam. Mr Jalili is also said to have helped Mr Ahmadinejad with a remarkable 18-page letter to George W Bush in 2006. The US president was informed that western-style democracy and liberalism had failed and it was time for him to return to religion. Mr Bush never replied.

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae