DUBAI (Reuters) - If there is a path to compromise in nuclear talks between the big powers and Iran, it leads past Saeed Jalili, a man who bears the physical scars of Iran’s battles to assert itself and its Islamic revolution against outsiders.
For five years, Jalili has been Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, relentlessly asserting what Iran says is its sovereign right to peaceful nuclear power. In those five years, U.N. sanctions over activities that could lead Iran to nuclear weapons have been tightened three times, and several attempts to resolve the dispute have failed.
Academics and diplomats see little sign that Iran is ready for compromise. But they say the United States, China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany - the “P5+1” - can at least be sure when they meet Jalili in Kazakhstan on Tuesday that his defiant position has the resolute backing of Iran’s supreme leader.
Jalili, 47, lost his right leg in the 1980s, fighting for the elite Revolutionary Guards in a war against Iraq where the survival of Iran’s young Shi’ite theocratic revolution was under threat from Saddam Hussein and the Western and Sunni Gulf Arab powers backing Iraq.
“He sees the U.S. and Europe as guilty for supporting Iraq against Iran. When he’s sitting down with them, I’m sure his experiences are somewhere in the back of his mind” said Mohammad Marandi, assistant professor at Tehran University.
“Jalili is a tough negotiator and believes strongly in Iran’s nuclear program and its sovereign rights. He’s not the sort of person to give major concessions.”
When Jalili was appointed in October 2007, the news was greeted with surprise and concern.
Iranian newspapers asked how an inexperienced diplomat had been elevated to lead the powerful Supreme National Security Council, a post that automatically made him chief negotiator on nuclear affairs.
Within days, a U.S. diplomatic cable later published by WikiLeaks spoke of “a move to forestall any compromises on the nuclear issue” and a “hardening of Iran’s negotiating position”.
Another U.S. cable dated January 25, 2008, said an EU official who met Jalili in Brussels “was struck by his seeming inability or unwillingness to deviate from the same presentation ... calling him ‘a true product of the Iranian revolution’”.
For four years from 2001, he ran the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president in 2005, he chose Jalili, 39 at the time, to be his adviser, and within months made him deputy foreign minister.
Latterly, Ahmadinejad and Khamenei have fallen out dramatically. But Jalili, outwardly soft-spoken and almost bashful, appears to have avoided being dragged into the public quarrel, while retaining the confidence of Khamenei, who decides Iran’s nuclear policy.
“What Khamenei knows of the 5+1 position, he has to learn from Jalili. Jalili therefore plays a role in framing what he learns from the negotiations for Khamenei’s ear,” said Shaul Bakhash, professor of history at George Mason University in Virginia.
The challenge for the big powers may be in trying to frame discussions in a way that avoids challenging Jalili’s fierce ideological allegiance to Iran’s theocratic system.
Jalili gained a doctorate in political science at Imam Sadiq University, a training ground for Iranian leaders, where he wrote a study entitled “Foreign policy of (the) Prophet of Islam”, according to a biography that was for a time posted on the Foreign Ministry website.
“He is deeply theologically minded. An education at Imam Sadiq combines a modern education with solid Islamic studies and its graduates rise to the top posts in Iran,” said Sadeq Zibakalam, professor of political science at Tehran University.
Britain’s former ambassador to Iran, Geoffrey Adams, told U.S. diplomats that Jalili “would lecture on the theological and ideological basis of foreign policy in a very academic but pointless manner”, according to another leaked U.S. cable from 2007.
Karim Sadjadpour of the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment think tank said Jalili’s experience of the Iraq had helped to confirm him in “a revolutionary world view that sees Western nations and culture as anathema to the Islamic Republic”.
Yet Jalili has no shortage of ambition and may have to be more pragmatic in time to come.
His high-profile defense of Iran’s position and his strong revolutionary credentials have prompted conservatives to tout him as candidate material for a presidential election in June.
A Western diplomat based in Tehran said Jalili was more likely to bide his time since he had “not yet obtained sufficient public profile for that office”. But whatever his intentions, his loyalty is likely to pay dividends.
“The best way to get a promotion in contemporary Iranian politics is to be obsequious to the Supreme Leader,” said Sadjadpour. “Jalili is a classic apparatchik who is willing to follow orders.”
Editing by William Maclean and Kevin Liffey