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memri
August 16, 2015 No.
6134

Iranian VP And Atomic Chief Salehi Reveals Details From Secret Iran-U.S. Nuclear Talks: Khamenei Made Direct Talks Conditional Upon Achieving Immediate Results; U.S. Conveyed Its Recognition Of Iran's Enrichment Rights To Omani Sultan, Who Relayed The Message To Then-President Ahmadinejad

In an interview published in the daily Iran on August 4, 2015 under the title "The Black Box of the Secret Negotiations between Iran and America," Iranian vice president and Atomic Energy Organization head Ali Akbar Salehi, who is a senior member of Iran's negotiation team and was foreign minister under president Ahmadinejad, revealed new details on the secret bilateral talks between Iran and the U.S. that started during Ahmadinejad's second presidential term. According to Salehi, U.S. Secretary of Energy Dr. Ernest Moniz, whom Salehi knew from his period as a doctoral student at MIT, was appointed to the American negotiation team at Salehi's request, a request which the Americans met within hours.

Salehi added that Khamenei agreed to open a direct channel of negotiations between Iran and the U.S. on the condition that the talks would yield results from the start and would not deal with any other issue, especially not with U.S.-Iran relations. Following this, Salehi demanded, via the Omani mediator Sultan Qaboos, that the U.S. recognize Iran's right to enrich uranium, and received a letter from Qaboos expressing such American recognition, which he relayed to Ahmadinejad.  

The following are excerpts from the interview:[1]


Ali Akbar Salehi (image: Tehrantimes.com)

"Q: As part of the negotiations, top diplomatic officials from Iran and America held bilateral meetings, while the first spark of the bilateral talks, which were secret, was lit late in the term of [president] Ahmadinejad. At that time you were at the Foreign Ministry [i.e. foreign minister], and prior to that it was reported that negotiations with America had begun in 1390 [2011-2012]. Could you explain briefly how and why two countries that had had no diplomatic relations for nearly 33 years began to negotiate?

"A: Since the creation of the artificial [Iranian] nuclear dossier, I have been involved in all the details of this challenge, and as a former Iranian representative to the IAEA, I focused on the nuclear issue. Thus, for example, I was interviewed numerous times by international media on this issue, and wrote articles. Later I came to the Atomic Energy Organization [of Iran, AEOI], and after that to the Foreign Ministry. In light of my cumulative experience, I noticed that the members of the P5+1 seemed to not want to arrive at an outcome. In every [round of the] talks, they placed new obstacles for Iran... The other side accused Iran of not being serious in the talks, and said that [then-negotiating team leader Saeed] Jalili was raising unrelated issues and slogans at the talks, instead of negotiating. [However,] since I was knowledgeable on these matters, [I knew] that Iran was serious. Jalili was not acting on his own. There were many committees at the Supreme National Security Council, whose members were from various [Iranian] institutions and organizations, including the AEOI and the Foreign Ministry, which examined all issues. It was in this framework that Jalili was operating.

"Q: Do you believe that the Iranian [negotiating] team had the will necessary to conduct and advance the negotiations?

"A: Yes. Iran aspired to arrive at an outcome, but at this stage I deduced that simultaneous talks with the P5+1 were problematic, because this group does not negotiate under a single head of state. [Catherine] Ashton participated in the talks as representative of the EU, and the three European countries at the talks - Britain, France, and Germany (i.e., the EU3) - saw themselves as a group that was separate from America, China, and Russia.

"Q: According to your description, it seems as though the talks with the P5+1 were more difficult than those with the EU3.

"A: Yes. The nuclear negotiations first began with the three European countries, Britain, France, and Germany, when Rohani headed [Iran's] Supreme National Security Council. They were later joined by the other three countries - America, China, and Russia. That is, the negotiations were with America, China, and Russia + the EU3, and no country was the leader, and it was not clear which [of them] was steering the negotiation. Therefore it was decided that Ashton, and [Javier] Solana before her, would negotiate on their behalf, but actually we saw that the same problems persisted. Thus, for example, when Ashton intended to be flexible and to capitulate on a certain issue in the talks, all it took was one country's objection [to block the move].

"In this situation, things were complicated. In effect, new obstacles were added, instead of removed, at each new round of talks, in accordance with the countries' wishes and intentions...Then I came up with the idea that we should promote a different style [of talks]. At that time (2010-2012), when I was at the Foreign Ministry, [Hassan] Qashqavi, who was deputy foreign minister, went to Oman to deal with the issue of Iranians incarcerated abroad, because we wanted Omani assistance in obtaining the release of Iranians held in Britain and America.[2]

"Q: Why was Oman chosen as a mediator?

"A: We have very good relations with Oman. When [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei referred recently to a distinguished head of state in the region, he was of course referring to the Omani ruler. Oman is respected by the West as well, and has already mediated between America and Iran, such as in the matter of the American hikers arrested in Iran... When [Deputy Foreign Minister] Qashqavi was there, an Omani official gave him a letter stating that the Americans were prepared to negotiate with Iran and were very interested in resolving this Tehran-Washington challenge. We were also willing to assist in order to facilitate the process, and it looked like this was a good opportunity. At that time, the election in America had not yet begun, but Obama had launched his reelection campaign. The Omani message came during the [Obama-Romney] election rivalry, but there was still time before the election itself. At that time, I did not take this letter seriously.

"Q: Why didn't you take it seriously? Was it because the letter came from a mid[-level] Omani official?[3]

"A: Yes. We were [concerned about] this, because the letter was handwritten and at that time I was not acquainted with the official [who had written it]. Some time later, Mr. [Mohammad] Suri, who was director of an Iranian shipping [company - the National Iranian Tanker Company], visited Oman to promote issues related to shipping and to speak to Omani officials.

"Q: How long after the first letter [did Suri arrive in Tehran]?

"A: He came to me about a month or two after the first letter was sent, and said: 'Mr. Salehi, I was in Oman promoting shipping matters, and an Omani official told me that the Americans were prepared to conduct bilateral secret talks on the nuclear dossier.' It was clear that they were interested in negotiating.

"Q: What exactly was the position of the Omani official whom Mr. Suri quoted?

"A: It was a man named [Salem bin Nasser Al-]Ismaily, who at the time was an advisor for the Omani ruler[4] and who still works for the Omani Foreign Ministry. He had good relations with the Americans and was trusted by Omani officials. I told Suri: 'I am not sure how serious the Americans are, but I will give you a note. Tell them that these are our demands. Deliver it on your next visit to Oman.' I wrote down four clear issues, one of which was official recognition of rights to [uranium] enrichment. I figured that if the Americans were sincere in their offer, then they must agree to these four demands. Mr. Suri gave this short letter to the mediator, and stressed that these were Iran's demands. [He added that]if the Americans wished to solve this issue, they were welcome to, otherwise dealing with White House proposals would be useless and unwarranted...

"All the demands in the letter were related to the nuclear challenge. These were issues we have always come against, such as closing the nuclear dossier [in the Security Council], official recognition of [Iran's] right to enrich [uranium], and resolving the issue of Iran's actions under the PMD [Possible Military Dimensions]. After receiving the letter, the Americans said: 'We are certainly willing and able to easily solve the issues Iran has brought up.'

"Q: With whom was the American side in contact?

"A: They were in contact with Omani officials, including the relevant functionary in the Omani regime. He was a friend of the U.S. secretary of state [John Kerry]. At that time, Kerry was not secretary of state, but head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In any case, after I received an affirmative answer from the Americans, I deduced that the ground was prepared for further steps in this direction. That is why I asked the Omanis to send an official letter to Iran so I could present it to Iranian officials. I assessed that this was a good opportunity and that we could derive benefit from it.

"Q: Up to this point, you hadn't consulted with anyone? You were acting solely on your own authority?

"A: Yes. I sent a message to Omani officials saying, 'Write your letter in an official manner so that our officials will know that it is serious.' That was because up to that point, all discussions had been strictly oral. I told our Omani friends: 'Present these demands officially.' They did so, and I presented the letter to [Iranian] regime officials and went to the leader [Khamenei] to explain the process in detail.

"Q: Did you also give the letter to the president [Ahmadinejad]?

"A: I informed regime officials that such a letter had been received. After the letter [was received], I went to the leader and told him, 'It is unlikely that talks between Iran and the P5+1 will achieve the results we desire. If you permit it, I can promote another path [meaning a secret bilateral channel with the U.S.].' I later informed him that Oman was officially willing to act as official mediator.

"Q: Which Omani officials signed that letter?

"A: The Omani ruler did. I told the leader, 'In light of the successful cooperation we have had with Oman, who has always tried to positively cooperate with us and has solved several issues for us in the past - such as the release of Iranians held abroad - then if you permit me to, I will also promote this issue with the Omani friends.' We spoke at length on this issue. The leader presented several points and also said, 'We cannot trust the Americans. We have a bitter experience with them following their violation of promises. They have never adhered to commitments and alliances.'

"Later I told him: 'If you permit it, I will work on this issue to give [them] an ultimatum. We have nothing to lose in any case. We either achieve results or not. Also, these talks will be secret, and we will try to prevent them from abusing them.' Eventually he said: 'It is the right course of action to present an ultimatum. I do not object to this but I have a few conditions. First, the talks can only be on the nuclear issue, meaning that no bilateral relations will be discussed. Second, be vigilant so that the talks do not become a game of negotiating for the sake of negotiating, as happens with the P5+1. You will be able to deduce [whether this is the case] in the first or second meeting.' In any case, the leader generally agreed to talks and said 'go advance this issue.'

"At that time there were disagreements in Iran, with each member having his own specific opinion. These disagreements posed a problem. In fact, the leader was my only supporter, but I did not want to trouble him with the minutia if this problem. I received his permission to negotiate and told the Omani side we were prepared to talk. The Americans also insisted that these talks be secret. Later I began to try and coordinate between the relevant domestic institutions but due to the disagreements, I ran into problems trying to advance the issue.

"Q: Did the Supreme National Security Council play a part in these [secret] talks?

"A: No. I was authorized to advance these talks but I had to coordinate with the other bodies, which is exactly what caused problems. Eventually, after receiving the leader's approval, eight months after the necessary coordination was achieved with the head of the Supreme National Security Council [Saeed Jalili], the first meeting with the Americans was held. We sent a team to Oman that included the deputy foreign minister for European and American affairs, Mr. [Ali Asghar] Khaji, as well as several CEOs. The Americans were surprised in the first meeting and said, 'We cannot believe this is happening. We thought Oman was joking. We aren't even prepared for these talks with you.'

"Q: What was the level of the team that the Americans dispatched?

"A: It included Assistant Secretary of State William Burns. They said: 'We only came to see if Iran was truly willing to negotiate.' Our representative gave them the required response and eventually there were talks on this issue. The initial result was achieved and the ground was prepared for further coordination.

"Q: How were the Americans convinced that the Iranian diplomats who were dispatched had the necessary authority?

"A: [Until] that phase, Iran and America had not been allowed to sit opposite each other at the negotiating table. The fact that Iran had sent a deputy foreign minister to the talks indicated its seriousness. The Americans also noticed how seriously [Iran was taking] the issue. At that meeting, Khaji pressed the Americans to set up a roadmap for the negotiations, and eventually the talks of a roadmap were postponed to the second meeting. At the second meeting, Khaji warned the Americans: 'We did not come here for lengthy negotiations. If you are serious, you must officially recognize enrichment, otherwise we cannot enter into bilateral talks. But if you officially recognize enrichment, then we too are serious and willing to meet your concerns on the nuclear matter as part of international regulations.'

"Q: What [Iranian] body backed this demand?

"A: The Foreign Ministry, since the leader gave me guidelines [as foreign minister] and stressed, 'First you must promote important demands such as official recognition of enrichment rights.' We determined that this issue would be a criterion [for determining whether the talks would continue]. We told ourselves that if they postponed recognition of enrichment to the final stage [of the talks], they would turn out to be unserious and these talks would be fruitless.

"Q: When you presented the results of the first meeting to Iranian officials, what did those who opposed the talks say?

"A: They said that the negotiations were useless and that the Americans were unserious in promoting official recognition of Iran's rights.

 "Q: You have said that the negotiations started during Obama's first term. Did you consider the possibility that Obama's rival would be elected president and would reject Obama's reassessment of Iran, and that the White House would continue the same inflexible hostility?

"A: No, on the contrary, [although] at that time the race between Obama and Romney was very close, [and] in some polls Romney was even ahead of Obama. [But] the Americans intended to push for good terms in the negotiations with all possible speed. In fact, there was a good atmosphere for talks. This was while I was dealing in Iran [with the issue of] dispatching our representatives to Oman, because I did not want to make any moves without coordinating with other [regime] bodies. Eventually there were many obstacles in Iran [created by opponents to the negotiation], and [then] the American elections came about, and the American negotiating team said: 'We are postponing the talks due to the elections so that we can see the results.' Thus, we lost our chance.

"Of course, at that time we were [still] exchanging various information with the Americans via the [Omani] mediation, and this is documented at the Foreign Ministry. We did not do it in the form of official letters, but rather unofficially and not on paper. The Omani mediator later came to Iran, held talks with us, and then later spoke to the Americans and told them our positions, so that the ties were not severed. But there was no possibility for direct talks.

"Thus, a real opportunity was squandered because, at the time, the Americans were genuinely prepared to make real concessions to Iran. Perhaps it was God's will that the process progressed like that and the results were [eventually]in our favor. In any case, several months passed and Obama was reelected in America [in November 2012]. I thought that, unlike the first time, we must not waste time in coordinating [within regime bodies], so with the leader's backing and according to my personal decision, I dispatched our representatives to negotiate with the Americans in Oman.

"Q: Didn't you have another meeting with the leader about the process and content of the talks?

"A: No. Obviously during the process I wrote a letter to the leader detailing the problems. He said 'try to solve them.' He was always supportive but told me to 'act in a manner that includes necessary coordination [within the regime]. In this situation, I dispatched Khaji to the second meeting in Oman (around March 2013) and it was a positive meeting. Both sides stayed in Oman for two or three days and the result was that the Omani ruler sent a letter to Ahmadinejad saying that the American representative had announced official recognition of Iran's enrichment rights. Sultan Qaboos sent the same letter to the American president. When Ahmadinejad received the letter, several friends said that this move would be fruitless and that the Americans do not keep [their]  commitments. [But] we had advanced to this stage.

"We had received [this] letter from Sultan Qaboos that stated the Americans had committed to recognizing Iran's enrichment rights. We [then ] prepared ourselves for the third meeting with the Americans in order to set up the roadmap and detail the mutual commitments. All this happened while Iran was nearing the presidential elections [in June 2013]. At that time, the leader's office told me that I had to cease negotiations and let the next government handle the talks after the results of the elections were known.

"Q: How did the Americans respond to this postponement?

"A: The Americans accepted it. We had also postponed the talks because of the elections in America. Eventually Rohani won the elections. There was a gap between his election [in June 2013] and his inauguration [in August 2013]. Rohani established political, social and other committees. [Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad] Zarif and [another official,] Zamani-Nia, participated in them. At the time, Deputy Foreign Minister [Abbas] Araghchi attended talks with the P5+1 alongside [then-negotiating team leader Saeed] Jalili. I appointed Araghchi as the coordinator and the Foreign Ministry's representative to the committees established by Rohani, so we could update the friends in the Rohani government on the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1. Additionally, I appointed Khaji as the person in charge of reporting on the secret talks between Iran and America [and] presenting papers and documents [about this]. I personally wrote a letter to Rohani and went to him. I said to him: 'We have had these talks with America and we stopped them on the recommendation of the leader. So you can continue this track.'

"When Rohani was updated on these talks, he could not believe it. I said to him: 'You must expedite this issue after your inauguration. Do not abandons this, heaven forbid, so that we do not lose eight months of meetings [with the Americans], as happened in the past.' Things in Iran changed after the elections. President [Rohani], Foreign Minister [Zarif], and the Supreme National Security Council were all coordinated and of the same mind. Therefore, the negotiations sped up and a new chapter in solving the nuclear dossier issue began.

"Q: Why didn't American officials send their message [directly] to the Iranian president [meaning Ahmadinejad]? Politically speaking, his status was higher [than that of the officials who handled the talks]  and he could have played a more influential role.

"A: They preferred to enter into talks with Iran via the foreign [ministry] channel. At that time there were good ties between the foreign ministers of Iran and Oman, which led to Oman relaying the American message to launch talks.

"Q: Was it only Oman's positive view of the [Iranian] Foreign Ministry that led to this channel being opened?

"A: The Foreign Ministry was just the most accessible Iranian channel for Omani officials.

 "Q: You mentioned the pressure applied to you at that time. Considering that atmosphere and the opposition you spoke of, what was your main motivation in seriously dealing with this issue?

"A: That is what all [my] friends ask too. I had dealt with the nuclear dossier since its onset, some 12 years ago. I knew how this challenge began and what problems and issues it created. I had fulfilled roles in various bodies, including the AEOI, the Foreign Ministry, the ministry of science, research, and technology, as well as roles outside Iran. I saw the situation of the [Iranian] people, who were being unjustly subjected to hardship and unnecessary pressure. I thought [to myself]: What is the foreign minister's job in this situation? His job is to push back Iran's enemies, increase [the number of] its friends, and turn enemies into friends so that the international standing of his country could become such that the people would have greater access to international societies and ties. I also wanted to eliminate evil so that I could resolve this issue by any means necessary.

"Q: In fact, you combined a sense of national and ministerial duty with your personal considerations?

"A: Yes. Without [such a sense of duty] no one could have continued [advancing] this issue under this [kind of] pressure. The issue of talks with America was very sensitive. Due to the disagreements, the job became much harder, but I did not let go of this matter until the last minute. Praise God, I am thrilled that we can [now] say that the main part of the task has been accomplished and we have reached the goal. The people are happy and feel assured. It will take a year or two until the agreement [begins] visibly affecting the lives of the people, but the fact that the people are happy that this issue has been resolved and there is calm - this in itself is invaluable for us. It means that a psychological obstacle has been removed, and this was very important.

"Q: What issues were raised in your first meeting with Rohani after he was appointed president?

"A: I gave Rohani a written and verbal report on the talks, as well as several documents I had written. I explained how the talks were conducted and said that the leader had said that, from now on, Rohani would fulfill this responsibility, and once a new foreign minister was appointed, the matter would be promoted as [Rohani] saw fit. Initially he was amazed. He could not believe it. I recommended that he take these talks seriously and promote them, as he indeed did.

"Q: It seems that your view of the negotiations was the same as Rohani's in terms of how to promote them. At that first meeting, did the president give you any new recommendations on cooperating with the new government?

"A: Not at that meeting, but in our next meeting he offered me three roles and gave me a list of priorities, which I accepted. I had no desire to accept an appointment. I must say that I have never aspired to any roles. It is by the grace of God that I was asked to fulfill roles, whether during the terms of Ahmadinejad [2005-2013], [Mohammad] Khatami [1997-2005], [Hashemi] Rafsanjani [1989-1997], and the leader's presidency [1982-1989]. Since the onset of the [Islamic] Revolution and until today, I have fulfilled a series of roles and was never without one. But I never aspired to offer myself for any role.

"Q: What were the three offers that Rohani made?

"A: During [the term of] the ninth government [meaning the first Ahmadinejad government 2005-2009], the ground was set for me to go to Qatar and become the secretary-general of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum, a role currently held by Dr. [Mohammad-Hossein] Adeli. Another offer was from an Arab country in the Gulf, asking that I advise its president and be responsible for establishing a science complex in that country.

"Q: Is this the UAE?

"A: I don't want to name it. The officials of that country said: 'We want to establish a science complex. You should be in charge of it.' I asked Rohani for permission not to be appointed to any office in his government. I was tired. Rohani's offers pertained to the AEOI and the science ministry. The third offer was to continue serving in another capacity.

"Q: What were the priorities? Could you say where the head of the AEOI stood?

"A: Being the head of the AEOI was the third priority. The science ministry was the second priority, and another role was the first priority.[5]

"Q: What was the extent of your previous acquaintance with Rohani and Zarif?

"A:Previously, in 2002, when the affair of Iran's nuclear dossier began, Rohani was in charge of the nuclear negotiations as the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, and I was Iran's representative to the IAEA and part of the negotiation [team]. Afterwards, when the three European countries - France, Britain and Germany - came to Iran for the negotiations, Zarif [who was Iran's ambassador to the U.N. in 2002-2007,] took part in those talks. So from that time onward we were in constant touch.

"Q: During the time that Rohani and Zarif were marginalized, did relations between you continue?

"A:Yes. When I was in the Foreign Ministry I asked Zarif to return, but he retired and threw himself into studies at the Foreign Ministry university. In response to my request that he return [to public office] he told me 'I'm retired.' Being in the Foreign Ministry, I would meet with Rohani in the Supreme National Security Council, and we were in touch.

"Q: What was the Americans' position in the first meetings between Iran and the P5+1 held during the Rohani government [era]?

"A:After the Rohani government began to operate - along with the second term of President Obama - the new negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 were started. By then, Kerry was no longer an American senator but had been appointed secretary of state. As a senator, Kerry had been appointed by Obama to be in charge of handling the nuclear dossier, and then [in December 2012] he was appointed secretary of state. 

"Before that, the Omani mediator, who had close relations with Kerry, told us that Kerry would soon be appointed [U.S.] secretary of state. During the period when the secret negotiations with the Americans were underway in Oman, there was a situation in which it was easier to obtain concessions from the Americans. After the Rohani government and the American administration [of Obama's second term] took power, and Kerry become secretary of state, the Americans spoke from a more assertive position. They no longer showed the same degree of eagerness to advance the negotiations. Their position became harder, and the threshold of their demands rose. At the same time, on the Iranian side, the situation [also] changed, and a most professional negotiating team took responsibility for negotiating with the P5+1.

"Another positive point was that [President] Rohani oversaw the dossier, knew its limits, and as a result succeeded in producing a good strategy to advance the nuclear dossier. At the same time, Rohani took responsibility for everything. Many may have reservations and ask why we were putting ourselves in danger, but Rohani's willingness to take responsibility was very high. There are those who say, from a political standpoint, that he was willing to take a very great risk, because, had the negotiations not achieved certain results, and had the best results not been achieved, he would have faced waves of criticism. But he took upon himself the risk of [such] criticism. In any event, he agreed to take this responsibility, and, God be praised, even God helped him, and he emerged [from the negotiations] with his head held high."

Asked whether Rohani had said anything to bolster Salehi against Rohani's critics, he replied that there were two kinds of critics. One were those with honest and fair criticism that was aimed at improving how Iran operated in the negotiations. The other were those with superficial, politically biased criticism that was motivated by personal ambition and that caused the public to feel concern that the negotiating team was making mistakes in the nuclear negotiations, when the fact was that Rohani was being very careful to abide by the red lines of the regime.

Salehi continued: "There are those who think that the negotiation team made its own decisions in the nuclear issues, while this is not the case at all. [The team] consulted on the issue with the various relevant institutions [in Iran]. Khamenei was involved, both on the general level and in the details. Rohani discussed the details and thus the negotiating team's limits and authority was clarified, and at the next stage the negotiating team attempted to operate in a way that would rake in the maximum concessions [from the Americans] within the framework set [by Khamenei]. They read the terrain. This did not mean settling for the minimum. Sometimes during the negotiations unexpected issues come up, and here Zarif's experience as an experienced diplomat with an extensive diplomatic record can be seen. He oversaw all the international issues closely, and was involved in the smallest details of the nuclear dossier from its very beginning. Therefore, during the negotiations, when unexpected proposals came up, he oversaw [the proceedings] from close up [and] to the best of his ability in order to obtain the outcomes demanded by Iran.

"Q: All right, if a certain issue came up and the negotiating team was unable to make a decision about it on its own, how did the decision-making process go?

"A: There were instances when we were in contact with Iran [i.e., with the leadership]. That was one of the tasks of  [President Rohani's brother] Hossein Fereydoun. I would tell him, 'Ask Rohani whether we should do this thing or not.' I remember, for example, about Fordo, the issue of the number of centrifuges there came up. I told Fereydoun to ask Tehran how many they wanted. I consulted on issues like these. I had up-close familiarity with the technical issues, because I had participated in the nuclear dossier from the very start. I was also familiar with its political dimensions, so I could make decisions. An expert cannot make decisions; experts are constantly challenging each other and never manage to make a final decision, and this is natural.

"Q: There are two views about your presence in the nuclear negotiations. According to one, the political [disagreements] in the negotiations were already solved, and that you were there to solve any remaining technical issues. According to the other, the talks reached a dead end on the technical issues [even before the political issues were addressed], and it was essential for you to participate in them. What happened that caused you to join the talks?

"A: I did not participate in the negotiations until January 2015. One day, at one of the sessions with the nuclear council [sic], where Zarif was present, after he'd returned from the Munich conference, he announced that Iran and the P5+1 had reached an impasse on the technical issues. Until they were resolved, [he said] the legal and political issues would not be resolved.

"Q: The main obstacle was technical?

"A: Yes. We had to solve technical problems so that we could [proceed] to seeking a solution to the political issues.

"Q: If the main obstacles were in the technical negotiations, why did you join the talks [only] later?

"A: I joined the negotiations after these [technical] issues came to a head. In late January [2015] I was invited to a meeting, where Zarif presented a report, and said that no progress was being made. [Majlis speaker Ali] Larijani said: 'Salehi, you have to go [to the negotiations].' I didn't say yes, so Larijani and many other friends insisted, and pleaded with me to go. I thought that if I kept refusing, they would think that it was because of egotism and lack of desire to cooperate. I said 'let me think.' There were 48 hours until the next meeting, and I didn't have much of a chance to think. I consulted with members of the [Iranian Atomic Energy] Organization. The main obstacle that had brought the negotiations to a dead end was connected to Natanz - Khamenei opposed [the P5+1's position]. I had to set aside the proposal that was on the table and that had brought the negotiations to this dead end, and present a new plan, but according to outsiders this was an impossible mission. I said, 'I'm willing to go on three conditions. One of them is that my American counterpart must also join the negotiations.'

"Q: So your proposal was essentially that [U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest] Moniz join [the negotiations]?

"A:Yes, and an additional condition was that if my first demand was not met, I would quit the [Iranian] Atomic Energy Organization and participate in the negotiations as Zarif's scientific advisor. A third condition was that American experts would come to Iran and talk to me. I said that as vice president I would not enter into a discussion with their experts, because as far as the protocol was concerned, this would create a bad situation and they would say that Iran would capitulate in any situation. This was not good for Iran, but I was willing to quit and to come to the talks not as vice president but as the foreign minister's scientific advisor. Larijani said 'he's right.' The next day, Fereydoun asked me to come to his office and asked me who my [American] counterpart was. I said, the [U.S.] Department of Energy. Fereydoun called Araghchi and said, 'Tell [U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs] Ms. [Wendy] Sherman that Salehi is joining the negotiations provided that the American secretary of energy also joins the negotiators.' Araghchi and Sherman were the liaison between Iran and America. Araghchi said in this conversation with Fereydoun that on such short notice it was unlikely that they [i.e. the Americans] would send their secretary of energy. I heard [Fereydoun's conversation with Araghchi]. In short, Fereydoun asked and Araghchi contacted Sherman and a few hours later a report that they welcomed Iran's proposal arrived.

"Q: How many hours did it take before they [the Americans] said yes?

"A: It didn't take long. I went to see Fereydoun in the evening and the next day they responded. This was because of the time difference [between Tehran and Washington].

"Q: The general perception was that because Moniz was brought into the negotiating team, you were brought into the Iranian team?

"A: [On the contrary,] Moniz came because of me. In any case, in February [2015] I joined [the negotiations], and praise God, matters moved forward with Moniz.

"Q: Did you and Moniz study together?

"A: Moniz knew me more than I knew him. I saw him at the annual IAEA meeting. When I was a doctoral student at MIT, he had just been accepted as a staff member. He is five years older than me.

"Q: Did you take one of his classes?

"A: No. He knew me because my doctoral studies advisor was his close friend and right hand man in scientific fields. Even now he is an advisor on many of Moniz's scientific programs. Many of my fellow students are now experts for Moniz. One of them was Mujid Kazimi, who is of Palestinian origin. He recently died. He was two years older than me but we were friends in college. After graduating, he became the head of the MIT Department of Nuclear Science and was a prominent figure who carried out many programs with Moniz.

"Q: How did Moniz treat you initially?

"A: In light of our prior acquaintance, he was excited. We've known each other for years and he treated [me] very well. Our first meeting was in public.

"Q: How did you feel when you heard Moniz was coming [to the talks]?

"A: I was very happy. I was assured. I said that the prestige of the Islamic Republic remained intact [because] an Iranian official would not speak to an American expert but rather would negotiate with a high-ranking American official. This was very important. Second, as I said before, he could make a decision [while] an expert could not. We had a very interesting group meeting. The American experts were same ones who had dealt with disarmament vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.

"I said [to Moniz]: 'I cannot accept your offer for various reasons.' One American expert said, 'We do not accept the basic assumption of your calculations.' I said, 'Tell us what is the basic assumption of [your] calculations so we can work from there.' He said 'we can't do that.' I said to them, 'If you don't accept our estimation, then tell us [yours]. You say that you cannot because this [exposes] your process. If we show [our] calculation, you will know our working secrets.' So then I said 'ok, what do we do now?' The meeting stagnated.

"Later I thought about it... and said 'Mr. Moniz, I am here with full authority from my country. Anything I sign will be acceptable to my country. Do you have full authority as well, or does any result achieved here need to be asked and clarified with officials from other countries?' He said 'no, I have full authority.'

"Q: Did you have full authority?

"A: Yes. In the scientific discussions, I knew the level of [Iran's] demands. I said, 'Mr. Moniz, you made an offer to Iran, and Iran rejects it. I want to ask you a question. If you can answer it [then] I will have no problem with your offer.' I continued and said: 'Show me one place on earth where enrichment is taking place using the method you are demanding of us. If you can give me even a single example then I will sign on the spot and we will become the second country to enrich in this method.' He looked [at me] and then announced that the meeting was over, and we spoke. We had the first private meeting that lasted two or three hours. He said: 'Mr. Salehi, when I was called [out of the negotiating room, it was because] Obama wanted to speak to me. Now I am free [to continue]. What you said is acceptable [but] there are practical problems with your offer.' I said, 'Do you agree? Then I relinquish that proposal.' Eventually we reached mutual understandings on this issue. I said 'let's start from the top.' This diplomatic challenge should be published in a memoir so that everyone can understand how we reached 6,000 centrifuges. It is a very nice story...

"Q: Can we assume that in addition to changing the government, changing the negotiating tactics was one of the keys to unsticking the talks and reaching the final agreement?

"A: This is undoubtedly exactly the case. If the 'second track' [meaning the secret Tehran-Washington channel] hadn't happened, it is unclear how Zarif could have negotiated with the P5+1. Would it have been possible? Each foreign minister [in the P5+1] had his own position and the matter was at a dead end. The 'first track' [with the P5+1] was stuck. Rohani believed in the second track and it was even proven that without it, we would have negotiated for years with no result...

"Q: Do you have [particular] memories of your American counterpart in the talks? I heard that Moniz gave you a gift for the birth of your granddaughter.

"A: To be accurate, I gave him a gift first. The first time I gave Moniz some good honey with nuts. My granddaughter was born on March 3 [2015], when I was at the talks. In the morning I came to continue the talks and didn't know who had told the Americans [of the birth]. They congratulated [me] and asked her name. I said Sara. One American team member said 'my daughter is named Sara too.'

       "In the next meeting, Moniz gave me baby clothes and a doll with the MIT logo and said 'raise her so she is accepted to MIT.' I said 'God willing.' You know that MIT is one of the finest American universities - one of the leading universities - and it is hard to get accepted there, and harder for foreigners, especially if you want a scholarship because tuition is very expensive. When I studied for my doctorate 43 years ago at that school (1972), tuition was 5,000 dollars (currently it is 60,000-70,000 dollars), which was a lot of money. Of course I received a scholarship from MIT as part of the ERDA program."

 

Endnotes:

 

[1] Iran (Iran), August 4, 2015. Recently, Iranian officials have been giving many interviews on the secret nuclear negotiations with the U.S., in what seems like a competition over the credit for the Iranian achievement, and disclosing details about the talks from their beginning. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No.6131, "Iranian Senior Officials Disclose Confidential Details From Nuclear Negotiations: Already In 2011 We Received Letter From U.S. Administration Recognizing Iran's Right To Enrich Uranium," August 10, 2015.

[2] Obama administration officials have denied that the release of the Iranians was related to the negotiations. Wall Street Journal (U.S.), December 29, 2013.

[3] The Farsi word also means "mediator."

[4] This is confirmed in a report in the Wall Street Journal (U.S.), December 29, 2013.

[5] It should be noted that Salehi was eventually appointed head of the AEOI.