Iran’s nuclear negotiator will ‘resist’ west if elected president

Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, who is a leading candidate in the forthcoming presidential contest, has pledged to use his experience in talks with major powers to pursue the same policy of resistance to western demands if he is elected.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Saeed Jalili, the most prominent among a group of candidates in the June poll who are close to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, said he would apply a policy of “progress, justice and resistance” as president, insisting that international sanctions imposed over Iran’s nuclear programme could be circumvented.

“My understanding is that the more we rely on our religious and internal principles, the more we can create the capacity to pursue the path of progress and the more we can resist [pressure from outside opponents of the regime],” he said in his first interview since announcing his candidacy.

Mr Jalili represents the views of the Islamic republic’s rulers, who believe western powers will be forced to make compromises towards Iran only when they are confronted with fierce resistance, instead of bowing to the pressure of sanctions.

A 47-year-old Iraq-Iran war veteran who is seen by Iran’s hardliners as having vociferously defended the country’s nuclear ambitions, Mr Jalili was a late-comer to the presidential race. But his registration last week for Iran’s presidential election immediately caught domestic and international attention and some fundamentalist rivals were quick to announce their readiness to withdraw if his candidacy gathered momentum before polling day on June 14.

Many analysts already consider Mr Jalili a frontrunner and speculate that he could be the supreme leader’s favourite candidate, given his loyalty to revolutionary causes, particularly his negotiations with the international community over the nuclear programme.

Mr Jalili insisted, however, that he was not favoured or supported by Ayatollah Khamenei, who has the final say in state affairs. He said he had decided to join the race because he felt it was his duty.

Unity among fundamentalists might be essential if Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president who is backed by opposition reformers, remains in the contest. Mr Rafsanjani’s candidacy, also announced last weekend, is thought to be opposed by the supreme leader and has raised the stakes in the campaign.

It has still to be approved by the Guardian Council, the body that vets candidates for their Islamic credentials and which will deliver its verdict on Tuesday.

Although he is described as distant and secretive – and his negotiating style frustrates his western counterparts – Mr Jalili is credited even by his opponents for being one of the few senior politicians in Iran whose record is free of corruption. He is also said to have a simple lifestyle.

The electoral campaign has also been complicated by the entry of another contender: Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, an ally of the outgoing president, Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, who is accused of disloyalty to the Islamic regime.

Mr Jalili did not deny that the candidacies of Mr Rafsanjani and Mr Mashaei had an impact on his decision to run. Many analysts are speculating that the contest will be between Mr Rafsanjani and Mr Jalili, who do not share the same views of the nuclear programme. The former backs detente in foreign policy and blames unnecessary rhetoric for creating tensions between Iran and the west.

“Our approach has been totally defensible and logical and can lead to and speed up progress,” Mr Jalili insisted. “Naturally, if other approaches are raised, we can seriously criticise them and seriously defend the current approach. But we need to see what his [Mr Rafsanjani’s] approach will be.”

Mr Jalili was in Istanbul to hold talks with EU foreign policy chief Lady Catherine Ashton. The two sides agreed that Iran’s talks with six major powers – US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany – should continue but without providing any new dates.

Western officials say previous rounds of talks have highlighted the wide expectation gap and shown that Iran remains unwilling to compromise. Iran denies assertions that it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, insisting its programme is for peaceful energy use.

Iran has rebuffed the world powers’ suggestions to trade limits on Iran’s stockpile of 20 per cent enriched uranium, the most pressing concern, for modest relief from sanctions.

There is speculation in Tehran and western capitals that Iran could suspend enrichment of uranium at 20 per cent should major powers acknowledge its right to continue enrichment at least at a lower grade and lift oil and banking sanctions, the most crippling in an array of restrictions imposed.

“What matters today is the issue of accepting Iran’s right to uranium enrichment under the NPT [non-proliferation treaty], whether 5 per cent or 20 per cent. Then we can discuss our needs,” Mr Jalili said in the interview.

He added Iran’s stockpile of 20 per cent enriched uranium could not be shipped abroad, as demanded by the six powers. “We have not produced it to be sent abroad but to meet the medical needs of people.”

By The Financial Times

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