In Tehran, a Surprise Session with Iran’s Foreign Minister

At Iran's big diplomatic Non-Aligned Movement extravaganza, Ali Akbar Salehi takes questions about sanctions, nuclear development, Syria, Hamas and himself

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Maryam Rahmanian / UPI / LANDOV

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi speaks during the opening ceremony at the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran on Aug. 26, 2012

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi was clearly surprised by the accent of the two women who’d approached him on his way into the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) conference in Tehran on Tuesday morning. Having studied in Boston, he recognized it as American — which was not quite in tune with the anti-U.S. slogans flying around the diplomatic extravaganza being staged in the Iranian capital.

Barbara Slavin, formerly of USA Today and currently of Al-Monitor, had called out to him as he was about to enter the proceedings and assume chairmanship of the 120-nation group. She and I are two of only seven Americans in the huge international press corps covering the event in Tehran. Apparently intrigued by our presence (“TIME magazine, really?”), he granted us a brief interview on a range of subjects before heading in.

As expected, he condemned the severe economic sanctions imposed on Iran by dozens of countries led by the U.S. over Tehran’s controversial nuclear-development program. “We want unilateral sanctions refuted by the participants,” Salehi told us in English. “You cannot claim your eagerness for democracy, human rights and all these things and through unilateral sanctions try to put all sorts of suffering and inflict suffering and hardship to other people. This is a contradiction.” By Salehi’s definition, anything not endorsed by the U.N. is unilateral, never mind that the sanctions against Iran involve dozens of countries, some of which were in attendance at the conference.

(MORE: Will Iran’s Third-World Jamboree Hasten an Israeli Attack? Probably Not)

Iran’s goal in playing host to more than 50 heads of state has been to show the world that it is not isolated and has broad support, particularly in the developing world, for its right to develop nuclear power. Tehran has inserted language in the conference resolution condemning “unilateral” sanctions. In the past two months, a E.U. embargo on Iranian oil and U.S. financial restrictions have isolated Iran’s economy and its banks from the global market, resulting in a 50% devaluation of its currency, the rial.

The sanctions were put in place to discourage Iran’s nuclear program that Iran says is purely for research, but that most of the Western world believes is a quest for weapons. Three rounds of talks earlier this year have yielded little. Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic continues its uranium enrichment, and Israel threatens to bomb Iran’s suspected nuclear sites. Still, Salehi was bullish that a diplomatic solution was still possible between the U.S., Russia, China, the U.K., France, Germany (together known as the P5+1) and Iran. “I’m optimistic about the future outcome of the talks of the P5+1, but we have to be a little patient and be cautious in our rhetoric and reactions and keep our limits. I’m of the view that there is a way out based on a win-win situation,” he said. “We recognize, although we see no justification for the worries of the 5+1 vis-à-vis our peaceful nuclear activities, but mechanisms [are being worked on] internationally to remove all these worries. But at the same time, we expect in return they also recognize our full rights to peaceful nuclear activities, including the right to enrichment and the complete fuel cycle.”

Salehi wasn’t quite so confident on another subject: Syria. Iran finds itself on the unpopular side of the revolution there because of its friendship with the regime of Bashar Assad. Other than a few bland paragraphs in the conference resolution calling for peace in Iran’s ally, the conflict won’t be addressed by the Non-Aligned Movement, he said. “There may be some sideline talks with like-minded countries and with countries that would wish to take some part in expediting the peaceful resolution of the Syrian crisis, avoiding any external interference in the internal affairs of Syria,” he said. “Let the case be resolved through Syrian-Syrian dialogue.”

(MORE: Is Israel Angling for a Commitment from Obama on Iran?)

Syria also puts Shi‘ite Iran in an awkward position as it attempts a rapprochement with post-Mubarak Egypt. Assad’s opposition is composed mainly of Sunni fighters and politicians. That makes dealing with the very Sunni Muslim Brotherhood and democratically elected President of Egypt, Mohamed Morsy, a little sensitive. Iranian leaders crowed when Morsy said he would attend the NAM conference — Iran is taking over presidency of the group from Egypt — but that elation was tempered when word came that he would only be on the ground in Tehran for a matter of hours and would not hold any bilateral meetings. Salehi tried to put the best face on it. He noted that ever since Egypt accused Iran of helping Islamists assassinate Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, relations between the two countries had been strained. “[Morsy’s] presence by itself is a landmark visit to Iran after decades, I would say, of not having — well, we had some kind of political relationship, but not a full political relationship — therefore his presence is welcomed very warmly. And it’s up to him to decide whether he wants to stay longer, shorter.”

Syria also helped highlight the absence of an erstwhile ally at the conference: that of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. The radical Islamist Palestinian group (which controls the Israeli-surrounded Gaza Strip) announced last year that it is considering moving its exile headquarters from Damascus to Cairo after anti-Sunni violence spread across Syria. Indeed, observers have speculated that Hamas might soon break with its Iranian benefactors. Salehi explained that Hamas’ absence was simply a result of the conference’s regulations that require the official Palestinian head of state to be invited. That would be Mahmoud Abbas who hails from Hamas’ rival, Fatah. “An invitation was issued to Mr. Abbas.” Salehi said. Abbas is not in attendance. “Look at the half-full glass, not half empty.” Staying positive was sort of the theme of the conference.

With rumors rife that the Foreign Minister had higher political ambitions, Slavin asked Salehi if he might run for the Iranian presidency next year, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has to leave office. His answer was a terse “No.”

MORE: What Lies? Beneath the Mysterious History of an Iranian Nuclear Site

16 comments
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JohnWV
JohnWV

Iran

is only Israel's current fixation. America's entire electoral system

has been corrupted by Netanyahu's Israel, AIPAC, Israel Firsters and

ingenious distribution of enormous amounts of Jewish money. Our

representative democracy is nearly defeated and the destruction of

America as we know it well underway. Termination of the criminal

treachery and treason demands immediate priority. The Government of

the United States must again serve American interests, not the Jewish

state's relentless pursuit of invulnerability, territorial conquest

and apartheid supremacist empire in, and beyond, the Mideast.

bzelbub
bzelbub

Someday I hope the US will pull its head out of its nether region. The Shah of Iran was a dictator propped up by the US for oil. When the people overthrew the Shah and stormed the embassy maybe we could have talked to them, even though I will admit the Revolutionary Guard which is still in power basically became the new Shah. Be that as it may, not talking now 33 years later, makes just as much sense as not talking to Cuba for the last 52 years. We seem to  have no problems with other long term dictators. We don't need a full fledged  embassy, however with a diplomatic mission comes the chance for dialogue. And a better chance with boots on the ground to understand better what is going on in another country.

Hoc ke toan
Hoc ke toan

This is very useful for me.Can you share with us something more like this ??? Thanks. 

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

Jay, thanks for this opening report. I wonder how security is there for YOU and other reporters: safety ok, too little, or too much? No doubt some repressive regimes tend to openly or secretly shadow reporters so that “you people” (thanks, Ann Romney) literally can’t be left alone to do your jobs …let alone eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom in peace. I admit zero knowledge of Iranian culture so therefore I can openly ask how many Islamic traditions you need to observe there to blend in with everyone (as compared to say, Saudi Arabia where rules are much tighter for women). Look forward to updates and more thoughts from you.

JohnWV
JohnWV

Iran is only Israel's current fixation. America's entire electoral system

has been corrupted by Netanyahu's Israel, AIPAC, Israel Firsters and

ingenious distribution of enormous amounts of Jewish money. Our

representative democracy is nearly defeated and the destruction of

America as we know it well underway. Termination of the criminal

treachery and treason demands immediate priority. The Government of

the United States must again serve American interests, not the Jewish

state's relentless pursuit of invulnerability, territorial conquest

and apartheid supremacist empire in, and beyond, the Mideast.

faridpourfattah
faridpourfattah

you said western world believes iran's nuclear program is a quest for weapons.

let's assume that you and western governments (which you recognize them as international community) are right and iran is after nuclear weapons, Although ayatollah khamenei (leader of the islamic revolution) said that nuclear weapons and all kind of mass destruction weapons are against islamic sharia because they destroy future generations and the nature and muslims are not allowed to destroy them even in a war.

now lets answer these questions?

- which country in the world has about 10000 nuclear warheads (many of them ready for lunch) and it also has a dark history of using such weapons against civilians? which country in the world had gone in to war with different countries such as iraq and else against the will of international community and UN and even its own people?

according to what kind of principles, certain countries, mainly united states of america( which is the biggest threat for international peace and nation's independence) has the right to have any kind of mass destruction weapons?! have they proved their responsibility for world peace?! or what ever they have done were against the world peace?!

- daily,iran is being threatened by rootless and ruthless israeli regime although that criminal regime has not been an NPT member and doesn't give a damn to world's historic will for stopping govermental terrorist and racist acts against civilians. this regime has stored about 200 nuclear warheads and no one in IAEA an UN even dares to ask israel for simple inspection on it's nuclear program.

in this situation US and some of its europian allies have put sanctions against iranian people and support israel for its terrorist acts against iran nuclear scientist. do you really believe that iranian honored nation would give dame to these sanctions.

the fall of your criminal empire is near. american and european people have lost their belives in their governments and have seen the effect of 1%(we call it zionist network) in their life. your governments should learn to respect other nation's independence and will for progress.

faridpourfattah
faridpourfattah

you said western world believes iran's nuclear program is a quest for weapons.

let's assume that you and western governments (which you recognize them as international community) are right and iran is after nuclear weapons, Although ayatollah khamenei(leader of the islamic revolution) said that nuclear weapons and all kind of mass destruction weapons are against islamic sharia because they destroy future generations and the nature and muslims are not allowed to destroy them even in a war.

now lets answer these questions?

- which country in the world has about 10000 nuclear warheads (many of them ready for lunch) and it also has a dark history of using such weapons against civilians? which country in the world had gone in to war with different countries such as iraq and else against the will of international community and UN and even its own people?

according to what kind of principles, certain countries, mainly united states of america( which is the biggest threat for international peace and nation's independence) has the right to have any kind of mass destruction weapons?! have they proved their responsibility for world peace?! or what ever they have done were against the world peace?!

- daily,iran is being threatened by rootless and ruthless israeli regime although that criminal regime has not been an NPT member and doesn't give a damn to world's historic will for stopping govermental terrorist and racist acts against civilians. this regime has stored about 200 nuclear warheads and no one in IAEA an UN even dares to ask israel for simple inspection on it's nuclear program.

in this situation US and some of its europian allies have put sanctions against iranian people and support israel for its terrorist acts against iran nuclear scientist. do you really believe that iranian honored nation would give dame to these sanctions.

the fall of your criminal empire is near. american and european people have lost their belives in their governments and have seen the effect of 1%(we call it zionist network) in their life. your governments should learn to respect other nation's independence and will for progress.

EarthView
EarthView

"By Salehi’s definition, anything not endorsed by the United Nations is unilateral, never mind that the sanctions against Iran involve dozens of countries, some of whom were in attendance at the conference." Indeed, all the sanctions against Iran outside of UNSC resolutions are illegal. What right does one country have to interfere in commerce between two other countries?

The slavish and gutless countries of Western Europe, including the UK and France, are the lapdogs of the US which threaten them unless they fall into line.

I am amazed that people are so simple-minded that they still believe that sanctions can "pressure" Iran to change course in its nuclear program. Are people stupid? More than 50 years of sanctions against Cuba have not accomplished anything. What makes people think that it will be different in the case of Iran? In fact, the era of sanctions will be dead when Iran defeats these sanctions and emerges as the predominant country in the Middle East. 

As for the potential "strike" by Israel on Iran, don't hold your breath. Israel does not have the capability or the guts to take on Iran. If it is stupid enough to take an aggressive action against Iran, at least for ten years, Israelis will have to run to their bomb shelters every day to avoid Iranian missiles. Also, most educated Israelis will emigrate to other countries, thereby destroying the Israeli economy. So, everybody just relax.

President Obama cannot make any compromise with Iran until the elections in November. However, if he wins, he will be utterly stupid if he does not resolve this stupid fiasco. The only solution is to drop ALL the sanctions, to recognize Iranian nuclear rights and to lift the seizure of the Iranian assets in the US. There is absolutely no other solution.

tonyhaddad2
tonyhaddad2

Backwards John?  Israel has supposedly had nukes for 30 yrs.  Have they threatened to use them?  Have you seen them parading them down the streets?  The Iranian people, once extremely close friends with the Israelis,  have been taken hostage by the mullahs.  The Islamists have poisoned a tremendous peoples' legacy... sound familiar?

parabolus
parabolus

there is old saying that goes 'dog that barks does not bite

EarthView
EarthView

Yes, Israel threaten Iran everyday with a nuclear weapons attack when its leaders shout, "All options are on the table." What part of the definition of the word "All" don't you understand.

JohnWV
JohnWV

However did we get it all so

backwards? As a signatory to the Non Proliferation Treaty, Iran has

an internationally recognized right to develop and implement nuclear

technology. Israel rejected the NPT and has no such right. Yet, the

Jewish state has ICBM nukes and openly threatens Iran; actually

campaigns for war against Iran. Israel, not Iran, should be

sanctioned and forced to reveal its nuclear machinations to IAEA

inspection. However did we get it all so backwards?

JohnWV
JohnWV

Iran

is only Israel's current fixation. America's entire electoral system

has been corrupted by Netanyahu's Israel, AIPAC, Israel Firsters and

ingenious distribution of enormous amounts of Jewish money. Our

representative democracy is nearly defeated and the destruction of

America as we know it well underway. Termination of the criminal

treachery and treason demands immediate priority. The Government of

the United States must again serve American interests, not the Jewish

state's relentless pursuit of invulnerability, territorial conquest

and apartheid supremacist empire in, and beyond, the Mideast.

passivevoices
passivevoices

There are some other

interesting realities; the NAM has often claimed to speak for the world's weak

and marginalized and has had an anti-global-establishment posture. But with

India having become a member of the Club of Oppressor Nations with a very poor

human rights record and a notable member of the global establishment, the Five

Pillars have lost their meanings. The movement was a dead horse based on

diplomatic hypocrisy and it will remain a dead horse. However, it will accrue

great dividends for Iran who has achieved this great diplomatic feat by

managing to defy Western pressure on the attending states. Read more at: http://passivevoices.wordpress...

EarthView
EarthView

India was instrumental in the creation of NAM. India has many poor people but it is the UN that is bankrupt, not NAM. In particular, the UN Security Council, as it exists now, has outlived its usefulness. It has become a tool of oppression at the hand of the US, which twists arms to pass anything it wants until Russia and China woke up this year,and vetoes anything that is even remotely critical of Israel.