Talking nuclear with an old friend of the president
Simon Tisdall | The Guardian | October 23, 2007
Saeed Jalili, who replaced Ali Larijani as Iran's top nuclear negotiator at the weekend, is a man of strong moral views who believes spiritual values should inform political actions. His absolute conviction of the rightness of Iran's cause, and his loyalty to his old friend, Iran's hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, may make him an awkward interlocutor when nuclear talks with the European Union resume in Rome today.
In a lengthy interview conducted in Tehran last year, Dr Jalili, then a deputy foreign minister, offered a robust world view that simultaneously revealed a lack of understanding and experience of the west largely typical of the Ahmadinejad government. Although his official brief covered Europe and North America, he has spent little or no time there.
Dr Jalili's views on the nuclear issue reflected this odd mixture of moral certainty and political disingenuousness. "We have announced time and again that we believe in the logic of negotiation. But at the same time we will never give in to the logic of intimidation and threats," he said.
"Two issues or components have to be considered. One is the concerns of the Europeans. The other is the inalienable rights of the Iranian nation."
Iran was not seeking the bomb he said. Iranians had been the victims of weapons of mass destruction, supplied by the west to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war. They regarded them as illegal and inhuman.
Dr Jalili said Iran had already gone much further, in terms of a previous two-year suspension of its enrichment research and additional inspections, than it was obliged to do under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). "Basically what we are dealing with here is nuclear apartheid. Some countries have rights and others are told they do not have similar rights ... I also believe our insistence on our position helps maintain the spirit of the NPT."
Dr Jalili described Mr Ahmadinejad as an "old friend of mine" whose principal offence, in the eyes of the US and Britain, was to speak truth to the world. The president's political philosophy began and ended with Islam, he said.
He was leading a "big debate" about how to reinsert justice and spirituality into political life. He defended Mr Ahmadinejad's controversial threats against Israel.
"He is saying that the state of Israel will fade away if the democratic process is observed [a reference to Iran's official view that all Palestinians, including those living in exile, should be given a vote] and they will only have themselves to blame."
There were no difficulties over Judaism inside Iran, he claimed, pointing to the presence of a Jewish MP in Iran's parliament and a 25,000-strong Jewish community nationwide. The problem lay instead with Israel and with a "small group of people imposing their views" on the rest of the world. "It is time the international community did something about this."
Such conspiracy theories are nothing unusual in Iran. One newspaper this weekend labelled France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy, a "Zionist henchman" for his warnings about Tehran's nuclear activities. Dr Jalili's unexpected elevation to the supreme national security council could help him promote his views.
But the conclusion of many western analysts that his appointment marks a major advance for the Ahmadinejad faction in Iran's divided government may prove overly simplistic.
The president has recently won battles over other key portfolios, including the oil and industry ministries. But he is under fire over his failure to grow the economy, petrol rationing, and so far unsuccessful privatisation measures. Even conservative members of parliament have criticised the choice of the inexperienced Dr Jalili. There is evidence, meanwhile, that UN- and US-orchestrated financial sanctions are biting. All this appears to indicate uncertainty about the wisdom of Iran's nuclear confrontationalism, unease over its international position, and a resulting, accelerating power struggle in ruling circles as the possibility of a reformist-pragmatist comeback in parliamentary elections next March looms large.
Dr Jalili's advance is but one move on a much bigger board. And the fact that the displaced Dr Larijani will still attend the Rome talks, as the personal representative of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, suggests the struggle is growing ever more intense.