Ahmadinejad's new cabinet: more conservative than ever

Former British ambassador to Iran suggests ways to negotiate over nuclear policy.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Iranian lawmakers attend an open session of parliament during the second day of debate on the 21-member Cabinet proposed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in Tehran, Monday.
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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's cabinet nominations, scheduled for a parliamentary vote this Wednesday, reveal a shift towards figures suspicious of the outside world, including some associated with the Revolutionary Guard, a paramilitary group charged with protecting Iran's Islamic revolution from threats at home and abroad.

Perhaps most indicative of a pugnacious stance towards the outside world is Mr. Ahmadinejad's choice of Ahmad Vahidi as defense minister. Mr. Vahidi is a former leader of the Quds Force, a Revolutionary Guard unit that has helped arm and train militant groups outside Iran. He is wanted by Interpol for his alleged role in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Argentina that killed 85 people.

Ahmadinejad's choice for interior minister, Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, is a Revolutionary Guard veteran, and Heydar Moslehi, his choice for intelligence minister, has worked closely with the basiji, the civilian militia supervised by the Revolutionary Guard that was used to smash postelection protests.

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Though Ahmadinejad's choices are generating some controversy in parliament, particularly his nomination of three women for cabinet posts, it appears likely that most of his choices will win approval, lending an even more hard-line sheen to the Iranian government as the Obama administration's informal September deadline for progress in nuclear negotiations draws nearer.

Sir Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to Tehran, argues that while Ahmadinejad's new cabinet may rule out "any softening of domestic policy" the composition of the new government in Iran will have little impact on international nuclear talks, particularly with the US.

"We are very much where we were before the [Iranian presidential] election," Sir Richard says in an interview. "The odds [against successful talks] have worsened, but not by much.… It was always going to be very hard. We can't pick Iranian representatives or their policy, ever."

Sir Richard was Britain's ambassador to Iran between 2002 and 2006, a period in which the European Union carried out extensive negotiations with Iran as Tehran suspended uranium enrichment, the most sensitive part of its nuclear program. It was also a time when the British Embassy in Tehran was attacked by a suicide bomber, was shot at four times, and had all its windows broken seven times.

Sir Richard says that he believes President Barack Obama will continue efforts to engage Iran, despite ongoing show trials of Ahmadinejad's political opponents and other efforts to squash domestic dissent.

From 1993 to 1997, Sir Richard was consul-general in Jerusalem at a crucial period in Israeli-Palestinian talks, and then became ambassador to Libya as Britain resumed diplomatic relations with Tripoli after a 17-year lapse.

Since retiring from the British Foreign Service in 2006, Sir Richard has been an associate fellow at Chatham House, an influential London-based think-tank.

Resuming nuclear talks

Sir Richard expects Iran to resume talks with the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany "once the political situation in Iran has settled down, and by the date suggested by the US and others – the third week of September."

He says that public disquiet in the West over the Iranian authorities' suppression of domestic dissent was unlikely to prevent the Obama administration from joining negotiations. "The president has made a commitment and repeated it. If Iran comes forward with a proposal for opening talks, then the US will respond," he notes.

Sir Richard recommends Iran and the US set aside for the moment the tough question of suspending Tehran's nuclear enrichment to focus on cooperating in areas of mutual interest, "for example over drug-smuggling in Afghanistan, or against Al Qaeda."

He also argues that both the Americans and the Iranians should drop their preconditions for talks. "The sort of text I have in mind," he says, "would be one in which the two agree to put all their disputes on the table but do not try to prenegotiate what the exact agenda or timing should be beyond the first round."

Sir Richard expresses skepticism over new sanctions against Iran, particularly a possible effort to restrict Iranian gasoline imports mooted by the US Congress.

The threat of sanctions should be kept in reserve by Western negotiators, he says, to be applied as appropriate, rather than required by legislators.

"The US/EU have to show some leadership," says Sir Richard. "They should explain to their publics that there is no better course for now, and insist that their governments are given a free hand over timing of new sanctions and are not tied down by congresses."

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