The Debate

With New Nuke Team, Iran Raises Status of P5+1 Talks

Iran is likely to task its new foreign minister with leading nuclear negotiations. Will the U.S. send John Kerry?

In what should be read as an overture to the U.S., Iran announced this week that it was placing the Foreign Ministry in charge of negotiations with the P5+1.

Since 2003, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) has handled the nuclear file, with the Secretary of the SNSC serving as Iran’s de facto lead nuclear negotiator (before then, Iran viewed its nuclear program as purely a technical matter and consequently the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran handled most of what was an unorganized nuclear policy-making system).

The SNSC was created by the 1989 constitution revisions in Iran, and its membership consists of:

“[The] heads of three branches of the government, chief of the Supreme Command Council of the Armed Forces, the officer in charge of the planning and budget affairs, two representatives nominated by the Leader, ministers of foreign affairs, interior, and information, a minister related with the subject, and the highest ranking officials from the Armed Forces and the Islamic Revolution's Guards Corps.”

The constitution dictates that all SNSC decisions be approved by the Supreme Leader before becoming official policy.

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In some ways, placing the nuclear dossier with the Foreign Ministry doesn’t change much. After all, Iran’s president already appointed the secretary of the SNSC. In the past, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has given Iran’s presidents a large degree of latitude in selecting the secretary. For example, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was allowed to fire Ali Larijani as the SNSC’s secretary, even though Larijani is a close confidante of Supreme Leader. Khamenei was not willing to extend similar latitude to the former president when it came to selecting the intelligence minister.

Moreover, although the Foreign Ministry will handle the nuclear negotiations with the P5+1, Iran has made it clear that the SNSC will still be in charge of making the strategic decisions involving the nuclear program and negotiations about it. Because decisions by the SNSC have to be approved by the Supreme Leader, this means that the ultimate authority in guiding the negotiations will remain with Khamenei.

Still, the decision to have the Foreign Ministry handle the nuclear negotiations is not entirely inconsequential. Rather, Iran’s decision to move the file to the FM was intended to be a signal to the West in general and the U.S. in particular.

For being irrational Mullahs bent on the destruction of the U.S., Iranian leaders are acute followers of American politics (and in many cases Western literature). Many of the most senior leaders in the country, including the new foreign minister, studied in the United States before the 1979 revolution.

They also closely monitor debates about Iran and the Middle East in the United States, and tailor their actions accordingly. For example, after Khamenei—acting on the advice of all Iran’s factional leaders including the Green Movement— refused to sign onto a nuclear fuel swap agreement Ahmadinejad had worked out with the P5+1 in late 2009, many in the West concluded that the Supreme Leader was adamantly opposed to a deal with the U.S regardless of its contents. When Khamenei later decided he wanted to conclude a nuclear agreement with the P5+1, he took a number of steps to convey this change to the West, including giving the SNSC secretary at the time, Saeed Jalili, the title of personal representative to the Supreme Leader.

The latest decision to have the Foreign Ministry handle Iran’s nuclear negotiations should first be interpreted in a similar light. Since Rouhani’s election as president, skeptics in the West have tried to dampen down expectations about a possible deal with Iran by pointing out that Khamenei could keep Rouhani on a tight leash in handling the nuclear file. By empowering the Foreign Ministry with the delicate task of negotiating, Iran is seeking to convey to the West that Rouhani will have substantial latitude in carrying out the upcoming negotiations. After all, unlike the SNSC, the Foreign Ministry reports directly to Rouhani and the president’s authority isn’t diluted by the presence of other powerful actors, which is the case with the SNSC.

This is further collaborated by other developments in Iran, such as Khamenei’s backing of Rouhani’s “prudent” policy towards the world, Rouhani already appointing a new direct of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) and, more recently, the announcement that he is removing Iran’s long-standing permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  

It’s quite possible that Iran has another, complimentary motivation in empowering the Foreign Ministry—namely, raising the profile of the P5+1 talks. This could prove more problematic for the U.S.

Although no announcement has been made yet, by naming the Foreign Ministry as the lead negotiating body, Iran is likely to have its new Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif lead its negotiating team. As other sources have noted, this is in some ways a positive development for the West as Zarif is seen as a pragmatist who has good working relationships with many of his Western counterparts.

But it also puts the U.S. in a difficult place as to whom it should send to the talks. Traditionally, the U.S. has had the fourth-highest ranking official at the State Department, the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, handle the P5+1 talks. If Iran sends Foreign Minister Zarif to the next round of talks, reciprocating would require that the U.S. send Zarif’s American counterpart, Secretary of State John Kerry.

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This would raise the status of the negotiations considerably, and is likely something the Obama administration wishes to avoid. But if the other P5+1 countries respond by sending their own foreign ministers, it will be difficult for Washington to avoid this outcome.