According to well-placed EA sources, the Supreme Leader's top advisor for foreign policy, Ali Akbar Velayati, has met US officials in Doha in Qatar earlier this month. Velayati and the Americans discussed the renewal of high-level talks over Tehran's nuclear programme.
The account from our sources follows more than a week of reports and rumours about "back-channel" US-Iran discussions. On 20 October, The New York Times published a Page 1 story citing the claim of US officials that Washington and Tehran had "agreed in principle for the first time to one-on-one negotiations". Laura Rozen of Al Monitor reported the next day that Gary Samore, the White House's advisor on non-proliferation, had been in "authorized back channel talks with an Iranian official posted to Turkey".
The next twist came from the opposition website Kalemeh, which claimed that Velayati and Hossein Taeb, Hossein Taeb, former head of the Basij militia and current chief of the Revolutionary Guards' Intelligence Bureau, had gone to the US to see American officials.
The claim, while unsupported, ran like wildfire not only through opposition circles but within the Iranian establishment. It was fueled by an article in Le Monde which claimed that Velayati had been in regular contact with Robert Einhorn, the State Department's Special Advisor for Nonproliferation and Arms Control.
Baztab posted a lengthy evaluation which rejected the specific claim but pointed to the existence of back-channel talks, claiming they were inconclusive:
In the language of diplomacy dialogue and negotiations are different and [dialogue] is counted as an introduction for [negotiations]. The most optimistic view of that rumour is that Velayati wasn’t there, someone else was, it wasn’t in America, but somewhere else, Taeb wasn’t there at all, nor were there negotiations, there was dialogue and it didn’t result in agreement.
The article, dismissing Velayati as an envoy becuase he is "a political-diplomatic personality and a presidential candidate", did suggest that discussions "will certainly for a number of rounds take place in a third country. The first options seem to be Qatar, Oman, Iraq or Turkey."
The chatter grew so intense that Velayati decided he had to issue a denial, via an interview with the hard-line site Mashregh: “As far as I am aware of the government’s decisions, there are no direct talks with America.” He struck a pose of defiance:
Our logic vis-a vis the United States is clear: They say our nuclear activities are not peaceful but we will not cave in to their demands because even if we even temporarily forgo our right (to uranium enrichment), they will find another excuse.
Initially, we were also sceptical that the Supreme Leader's office would despatch their senior advisor, particularly to the US, for the talks. However, we did some checking, and sources in Iran indicated that the state of discussions was serious enough for Velayati to be involved.
Even more importantly, Velayati's presence makes clear that the initiative is backed by the Supreme Leader. Our sources are not certain of the specific reasons for Ayatollah Khamenei's embrace of the talks, but they suggest that the growing economic pressure on the Islamic Republic is a powerful influence.
The sources go further in saying that the Supreme Leader's office was keen to develop the contacts before the US Presidential election. Doing so, they would establish momentum for the renewed high-level discussions after an Obama re-election, while setting down a marker for a President Romney to consider should he win on 6 November.
There is also an important domestic factor at play, according to our correspondents. The Supreme Leader's office, very aware of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's vocal statements in New York in September for a US-Iran dialogue on the nuclear issue, want to make sure that the President does not claim credit for any breakthrough.