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.

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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.”

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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.”

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