Iran’s leader ayatollah Khamenei today appointed new members to the Council on Iran’s Strategic Foreign Relations (Shoraye Rahbordie Ravabete Khareji Iran).
The leader established this council in 2006 and bestowed it the important responsibility of “devising strategies, policies, and tactics to provide the Islamic republic with satisfactory results” and to “create greater coordination in all the activities related to foreign relations.”
While domestically and internationally the creation of this body was viewed with great attention, it has provided absolutely no initiatives in the realm of Iran’s foreign relations in its eight-year history.
It is perhaps because of this that in today’s remarks by Khamenei he expresses his hope that the council will have a “more effective presence” in its new term in foreign policymaking.
Does the Change in the Composition of the Council Have Any Meaning?
The composition change that ayatollah Khamenei has implemented in the Council today matters. Until this change, the members of the Council were Kamal Kharazi, Ali-Akbar Velayati, Ali Shamkhani, Mohammad Shariatmadari and Mohammad-Hossein Taromi. The new composition of the council excludes a moderate former diplomat (Velayati) and two of Hassan Rouhani’s colleagues (defense minister Shamkhani and trade minister Shariatmadari) who have been replaced with a hardline former diplomat (Saeed Jalili) and two ministers from Ahmadinejad’s cabinet (former defense minister Ahmad Vahidi and former central bank governor Ibrahim Sheibani). In addition to these changes, a sixth post has been added to the body which is filled by Mehdi Mostafavi Ahari, the former chief of international affairs at the supreme leader’s office.
The reduction in the number of moderates in the Council may not necessarily mean a major change in policy. Back in 2006 there was some evidence that ayatollah Khamenei wanted the Council to be made up of specialists outside executive agencies and with views that differed from those of the administration. It was because of this that three cabinet ministers from former president Mohammad Khatami (who were the closest to ayatollah Khamenei) were appointed to the Council along with Velayati and Mohammad-Hossein Taromi (a confidant of ayatollah Khamenei and a former ambassador to China and Saudi Arabia).
If individuals outside the executive agencies are to sit on this body then it is not out of line that individuals such as Shariatmadari (who was Rouhani’s executive deputy) and Shamkhani (a former secretary general of the supreme national security council) should leave the Council and if individuals with views other than the sitting administration are to be on the body then the inclusion of individuals such as Saeed Jalili and Ahmad Vahidi are in line.
Soon after the creation of the Council in 2006, the division of responsibility inside it became apparent: Kharazi was to head the Council, Velayati was to lead the “foreign policy committee,” Shamkhani was to lead the “defense-security committee,” Shariatmadari to head the “economic committee” and Taromi to head the “cultural-scientific committee.”
While the division of responsibilities for the new Council has not been announced yet, one may safely speculate that Jalili would lead the committee on foreign relations, Vahidi would lead the defense-security committee and Sheibani would lead the economic committee. Taromi would most likely remain as the head of the cultural-scientific committee.
What Was the Goal of Creating the Council?
It is said that the idea of a strategic council on foreign policy was initially raised by ayatollah Khamenei himself. According to former head of the economic committee on the Council Mohammad Shariatmadari ayatollah Khamenei had brought up the idea at the time of his own presidency. It is also said that prior to its creation he had talked about such a body and his model for this was the American Council on Foreign Relations.
Apparently one of the individuals with whom he conferred about this was former president Mohammad Khatami when the two were still on the best of terms.
In January of 2006, Mr. Khatami had gone to Germany to attend a seminar on Dialog Among Civilizations and during a press conference with the then foreign minister of Germany defended Iran’s rights to nuclear energy. It is said that upon his return to Tehran he presented a report of his trip to Khamenei who was impressed. During the meeting, the leader lauded Khatami’s defense of Iran’s right to nuclear energy - even though he was no longer the head of government at the time - and then spoke about a council on strategic issues in foreign policy to be made up of individuals outside the government which would provide diplomatic and foreign policy opinions to the regime.
Mr. Khamenei referenced how American governments benefited from expert advice of the opponent party and said that such a practice would be beneficial for Iran as well. It thus appears that Mr. Khamenei’s goal in creating this body has been to benefit from the ideas and views of experts outside the government.
The Position of the Council During Ahmadinejad’s Presidency
When the Council was first created, the head of Iran’s supreme national security council Ali Larijani welcomed it. But no news emerged after that indicating cooperation between the two councils.
At the time, initial meetings were held between the council and seven cabinet ministers where the goals of the Council were presented. But these meetings too did not continue. Immediately after its founding, Gholam-Hossein Elham the spokesman for Ahmadinejad’s administration said that the Council merely had an advisory role and should stay away from interfering in executive matters.
More importantly was the fact that Ahmadinejad who would not tolerate any encroachment into his sphere by any higher council, while he also was negative about the composition of the Council. He did not take the Council seriously right from the beginning and even rejected requests to meet its members.
What made matters more difficult for the Council was that until the end of Ahmadinejad’s first term, Mr. Khamenei himself fully supported the president’s foreign policy outlook. Prior to the Council and after its creation, the supreme leader on a number of occasions lauded the government’s “assertive” foreign policy and in some gatherings criticized Khatami administration foreign policy for avoiding to challenge the West, calling it weak and ineffective. So it was clear then that the leader would support Ahmadinejad’s foreign perspective rather than the views of the members of the newly formed council.
Following the controversial 2009 presidential elections and the rift between close associates of ayatollah Khamenei and supporters of Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the Council lost even more ground and became irrelevant. One indication of such insignificance was that despite the passage of five years since the appointment of its initial members, Mr. Khamenei had not taken the trouble of appointing new members for the body.
Reinvigoration of the Council For What Purpose?
At first glance, the appointments may simply indicate a desire to administratively revive a high council that had been in limbo for a few years. But from a different perspective, this Council may well provide the supreme leader with valuable advice, allowing those who have a different take on foreign policy issues than the current administration to present their views.
Hossein Bastani is a journalist for BBC Persian
At best, this Council may actually be asked to provide suggestions on such important matters as the nuclear dossier. In view of the calls for greater “expertise” of the nuclear talks with the West, such suggestions may come to play a very meaningful role in Iran’s diplomacy on the ground. If Rouhani’s administration reaches an agreement on the nuclear issue with the West in the remaining one month deadline, then the calls from within the regime for strengthening the negotiating team may lose their ground for such calls. But should the talks not result in an agreement by July 20th, then it is quite possible that the Council may play a greater role in the draftsmanship of Iran’s foreign policy.
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