Stalled nuclear talks fuel sharp exchange at Iran's final presidential debate

At a fiery final debate before June 14 elections, Saeed Jalili, Iran's top nuclear negotiator and a leading candidate, was challenged over 'missed opportunities.' 

Iranian State Television
Iranian presidential candidates appear in their last presidential debate before the country's June 14 elections.

Iran’s failure to make progress in nuclear negotiations with six world powers came under fierce attack as conservative presidential candidates clashed over inept and “fruitless” diplomacy one week before Iranians go to the polls.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is known to make all final decisions on nuclear policy, and to shape the parameters of Iran’s negotiating strategy. But the two men with perhaps the most influence to carry out those directives – both of them presidential candidates – publicly revealed wide disagreement during a live television debate on Friday.

The debate was the third marathon session for all eight approved presidential candidates, and focused on a range of issues, from "unsuccessful" past foreign policy performance to ending sanctions and challenging American "hegemony."

But the headline-grabbing eruption came over Iran's controversial nuclear program.

Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, faced withering criticism for winning no diplomatic result after almost 1-½ years of high level nuclear talks with the P5+1 group (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany), while the US and Western nations continue to impose increasingly harsh sanctions on Iran.

Mr. Jalili, who is considered close to Ayatollah Khamenei and therefore a frontrunner in the presidential race, was taken to task by none other than Khamenei’s top foreign policy adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister for 16 years who is also considered a Khamenei favorite for the June 14 vote.

“You want to take three steps and you expect the other side to take 100 steps, this means that you don’t want to make progress,” charged Mr. Velayati, addressing Jalili near the three-hour mark in the debate. “This is not diplomacy…. We can’t expect everything and give nothing.”

The contemptuous exchange revealed for the first time divisions at the very top over Iran’s negotiating tactics, as well as the impact of the stalemate and the stress of increased sanctions. The US Congress this week added more measures against Iran, kicking off a summer legislative campaign that appears aimed at choking back Iran’s oil exports to virtually nothing.  

“Well, Dr. Jalili, speaking of diplomacy, it’s not a philosophy class to say that our logic was strong,” said Velayati, responding to Jalili's efforts to defend his performance. “You have been in charge of the nuclear issue, we have not made a step forward, and the [sanctions] pressure has been exerted on the people.”

Velayati further admonished Jalili: “Being conservative does not mean being inflexible and stubborn." Diplomacy, he added, does not mean to just “give a sermon to other countries,” hold press conferences, and “sit at the [negotiating] table and say something without doing anything else.”

'Absolutely false'

Jalili fought back angrily, bringing energy to the debates and campaigns by relatively bland candidates that have so far failed to spark popular interest. He said Velayati’s description of his nuclear efforts were “absolutely false,” and implied that they had the approval of Khamenei. He said he was pursuing a foreign policy based on “pure Islam” and that Iran must get something of value in return.

Velayati said Jalili had missed important opportunities, including most recently at two rounds of talks earlier this spring in the Kazakh city of Almaty. The P5+1 offered at the time to provide modest sanctions relief if Iran gave up its most sensitive nuclear work.

P5+1 diplomats portray that proposal as “very reasonable and balanced,” though the top US negotiator, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, testified to Congress last month that Iran responded by “putting very little on the table and asking a lot in return.”  The P5+1 offer was also very modest, she noted, saying that “although the sanctions relief we put on the table is not significant, it is meaningful.”

Jalili had instead asked that all sanctions be removed in exchange for taking those steps, and later told the Monitor that the P5+1 “proposals are unbalanced,” since the most damaging sanctions – restricting oil exports and central bank transactions – would remain in place. No date has been set for future talks.

Velayati portrayed the talks in Almaty as wasted opportunities for Iran, hinting that Jalili should have accepted the offer as an interim step.

“In the last meetings Mr. Jalili had in Almaty, they offered some proposals. On the basis of those proposals, we could make some progress. He did not accept those proposals,” said Velayati.

Iran was being asked to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent – a level not too far technically from the 90 percent purity needed to make a weapon, and that also makes parts of a deeply buried facility at Fordow inoperable. Iran officially rejects nuclear weapons as un-Islamic, and says it only aims to to use its nuclear expertise for peaceful power production and medical needs.

Jalili replied that Velayati had misinterpreted events, and that the precise record had been "submitted" to Khamenei: “If your other information is just like this last piece of news, then it’s absolutely wrong."

“The question is what did we get in return?” asked Jalili. “You [Velayati] shouldn’t simply manipulate the information and the news, and what you said about Almaty is absolutely wrong, everything is recorded, everything is registered. I should tell our people that there in Almaty we told them: ‘We are ready to take reciprocal steps, you take one step, we’ll take another. If you go 5 kilometers or 25 kilometers, we will go [the same].’ The British envoy said, ‘Are you ready to do that now?’ And we said, ‘Yes, if you go 25 kilometers we will go 25 kilometers.’ ”

Velayati described publicly for the first time what he called two other missed opportunities as Iran’s nuclear issue was taken up by the UN Security Council. Since 2006, the UN has imposed four sets of sanctions.

Years ago, Velayati said, he had held a previously unannounced, hour-long conversation in Paris with then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and they had agreed on a number of centrifuges and continued but limited Iranian enrichment. That deal fell through, along with another one that had brought Russian President Vladimir Putin to Tehran in 2007, which had become “somehow tarnished,” said Velayati.

Velayati said that “the art of the diplomat” is to prevent efforts being “wasted” and made “useless" – implying that Jalili was falling far short of his appointed task.

Velayati's charges brought other candidates into the fray, and he also came under criticism. Velayati’s poor delivery of his set-piece remarks – he read his short speech as if he were unfamiliar with it – came as the conservative Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqr Qalibaf asked about the 1980s Iran-Iraq war: “If you are such an expert negotiator, how come you didn’t get a penny in Iraq war reparations?”

Hassan Rohani, a moderate candidate and former top nuclear negotiator who has come under criticism from hardliners like Jalili for making a compromise with European diplomats to suspend enrichment from 2003 to 2005, weighed up the costs of continued nuclear defiance.

“All of our problems stem from this – that we didn’t make the utmost effort to prevent the [nuclear] dossier from going to the UN Security Council,” Mr. Rohani said. “It’s good to have [uranium enrichment] centrifuges running, providing people’s lives and sustenance are also spinning.”

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