Tehran, Iran – Shortly before talks resume in Vienna around restoring Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal, its foreign ministry has made some changes that may well prove critical.
Hardline diplomat Ali Bagheri Kani has been appointed as the new deputy for political affairs, replacing veteran diplomat Abbas Araghchi, who led six rounds of nuclear talks in Vienna up to late July – when talks stopped to allow Iran’s new President Ebrahim Raisi to form his administration.
Araghchi, a career diplomat and senior member of the team that negotiated the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) during the tenure of President Hassan Rouhani, is now an adviser to Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, which may mean he has not been fully sidelined
If the nuclear file stays with the foreign ministry – as opposed to the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) – Bagheri Kani, for years a staunch opponent of the nuclear deal, could become the new chief nuclear negotiator.
But even if he does not lead the negotiations, he is expected to play a significant role in pushing for a stricter stance on the lifting of unilateral sanctions imposed by the United States after it left the deal in 2018.
Bagheri Kani’s appointment was reportedly pushed for by Saeed Jalili, another opponent of the JCPOA and an ultraconservative senior member of the SNSC who ran for president in the June elections.
Jalili himself headed nuclear negotiations with the West – from 2007 to 2013 – but they led nowhere and the UN Security Council continued to sanction Iran under then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. At the time, Jalili was also secretary of the SNSC and Bagheri Kani was his deputy.
The 54-year-old also led Jalili’s presidential campaign when he unsuccessfully ran against Rouhani in 2013.
Before being appointed the foreign ministry political deputy on Tuesday, Bagheri Kani was the head of the judiciary’s human rights council, a position he was appointed to by then-Chief Justice Raisi.
Before that, he held several positions dealing with regional affairs at the foreign ministry, which he joined close to 30 years ago.
Bagheri Kani hails from a family influential in the Islamic Republic’s more than 40-year history.
His 95-year-old father is a former member of the clerical Assembly of Experts, which is tasked with appointing a successor to the 82-year-old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. His uncle led the assembly from 2010 until his death in 2014.
On Tuesday, the Iranian foreign ministry had another impactful appointment as Mehdi Safari was installed as the new deputy for economic diplomacy. Safari is a former ambassador to China and Russia, another signal that Iran is increasingly turning towards the east.
The path ahead
The appointments come as Iran and the US, China, Russia, and European powers are expected to return to the Austrian capital at a critical stage for the JCPOA.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman on Monday said the Vienna talks would happen “in the near future”.
Another crisis looming over the resumption of the talks was avoided on Sunday when Iran and the global nuclear watchdog reached an agreement struck in Tehran.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran agreed the agency would have access to its monitoring equipment to replace their memory cards and service them. The recordings will still be kept in Tehran pending the lifting of US sanctions.
The agreement avoided the possibility of a potential censure against Iran at the IAEA board of governors meeting. The US and European powers had pursued a similar resolution earlier this year, which prompted a temporary agreement between Iran and the IAEA to avert a crisis.
Members of Iran’s hardline parliament, who made temporary agreements necessary when they passed a law in December restricting IAEA inspection access, are unhappy with Sunday’s deal, fearing it undermined their law. They have called Iran’s new nuclear chief, Mohammad Eslami, to brief them in Parliament.
On Tuesday, reports emerged that security staff at Natanz had subjected female IAEA inspectors to unnecessarily intrusive searches in June this year. The agency called the incident “unacceptable” and said it raised the issue with Iran and there had been no further incidents.
Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility has been the target of two sabotage attacks in the past year, which Iran has blamed on Israel.
Kazem Gharibabadi, Iran’s IAEA envoy, said in a tweet on Tuesday that “security measures at the nuclear facilities in Iran are, reasonably, tightened”.
Security measures at the nuclear facilities in Iran are, reasonably, tightened. The IAEA inspectors have gradually come up with the new rules and regulations.
— Gharibabadi (@Gharibabadi) September 14, 2021