The Man Who Actually Runs Iran’s Foreign Policy
Tehran’s course is set by a shadowy figure behind the scenes—not the leaders who talk to the West.
Mohammad Javad Zarif has been Iran’s foreign minister for the past five years. In that time, he has become a familiar face in the West, earning a reputation as one of the key people to talk to to resolve any given disagreement with Tehran. It helps that he went to graduate school in Colorado, acquiring fluent English along the way—and that he has a reputation for being one of the leading figures in Iran’s camp of reformist officials.
Over the past two years, however, Zarif’s power has dramatically waned. Although he has continued his speaking tours in the West, he has been supplanted on the regional policy portfolios that most matter to Tehran—including Iran’s presence in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen—by a quieter but far more influential figure: Ali Akbar Velayati, the longtime foreign-policy advisor to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Anyone interested in understanding Iran’s current foreign-policy strategy would be best off studying what Velayati has been saying at home and during his increasingly frequent travels in the region. The critical challenge for the West will be to grasp Velayati’s conservative worldview, which is distinct from both Zarif’s pragmatism and the ideological bellicosity of Iran’s hard-liners.
Although he’s relatively unknown abroad, Velayati has been a fixture of Iran’s post-revolutionary politics. Like Zarif, he attended university in the United States, studying medicine at Johns Hopkins during the 1960s; unlike Zarif, however, he mostly rejected, rather than assimilated to, American cultural habits and mannerisms. After the overthrow of the Shah, he immediately joined the government, eventually becoming the Islamic Republic’s longest-serving foreign minister, holding the job for 16 years beginning in 1981. His tenure came to an end in 1997, when the reformist Mohammad Khatami, who wanted to deepen ties with the West, won that year’s presidential election. Khamenei then appointed him as his personal advisor on international affairs.
In 2013, Velayati emerged from this advisory role to run for president. During this race, the contours of his political profile first came into public view. Velayati was originally part of a loose coalition of conservative candidates opposed to the moderate Hassan Rouhani and reformist Mohammad Reza Aref. But on the campaign trail, he quickly became a target of his own coalition’s anger. Fellow conservative contenders Saeed Jalili and Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf launched an onslaught on Velayati for his role a decade previous in pursuing nuclear talks with the West, associating his earlier foreign-policy record with Rouhani’s. Velayati and Rouhani thus became allies of convenience, coming to one another’s defense against the hard-liners who opposed any talks with the West at all. Velayati ultimately went back on his promise to withdraw in favor of the conservative coalition’s leading candidate, Qalibaf, thus splitting the conservative vote and advantaging Rouhani.
After Rouhani’s victory in 2013, Velayati was ostracized by hard-liners, who labeled him a traitor, and increasingly embraced by reformists and moderates. Later that year, Velayati was named by former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as the head of Iran’s leading think tank, the Center for Strategic Research. From that position, Velayati prominently defended Zarif’s direct nuclear negotiations with the United States.
In recent years, however, Velayati’s positioning has changed yet again. Following the death of Rafsanjani in 2017, Velayati was selected to replace him as the chairman of the board of trustees of Islamic Azad University, the country’s largest academic institution and a traditional haven for reformists. Immediately, he implemented a purging operation, dismissing most of the university officials who were loyal to Rafsanjani. He then fired a long list of reformist professors, despite growing public protests.
After the election of Donald Trump in the United States, Velayati’s attitude about the nuclear deal with the West—known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA—changed, too; he began publicly comparing it to two notorious 19th-century treaties that forced Iran to cede control over the territories comprising modern-day Dagestan, eastern Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. “The other problem of the JCPOA was the lack of a Farsi version [of the agreement], which makes one feel belittled. Even the Golestan and Turkmenchay treaties with that humiliating [content] had a Farsi version,” Velayati declared on May 31.
In the same speech, Velayati also reiterated hard-liners’ slogans against the deal while taking a swipe at Rouhani’s willingness to negotiate from a position of weakness amid international sanctions: “On the issue of the JCPOA, they tied [supplying] people’s water and bread to the JCPOA and closed down the country. … They injected disappointment and despair into society and told them that we should negotiate to solve the problems.”
If Velayati’s ambition was to return to the good graces of conservatives and hard-liners, he has succeeded. Hamid Reza Moqadam Far, a well-known hard-liner and former head of the Fars News Agency, remarked on Aug. 19 that nobody should doubt Velayati’s revolutionary credentials. “Unlike what was attributed to Velayati in the 2013 election, he is a revolutionary figure,” Moqadam Far declared. “I didn’t assume that despite being recognized as a diplomat, he would have such a zealotry for the Islamic revolution.”
Velayati has turned against Rouhani precisely at a time when his administration is losing support among both Iranian political elites and the broader public. Ever since Trump’s exit from the nuclear deal in May, the JCPOA has been on the brink of collapse, and Rouhani and Zarif’s moderate approach to foreign policy has been widely discredited. According to surveys conducted by the University of Maryland, Zarif’s approval rating in Iran has fallen from 78 percent in 2016 to 43 percent in 2017. Meanwhile, 61 percent of Iranians say they have highly positive views of the commander of the elite paramilitary Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani.
Having succeeded at cleansing his reputation after his previous support for Rouhani, Velayati has been granted a more prominent role in shaping Iran’s Middle East policy. He has been dispatched repeatedly to conflict zones and capitals across the region, even when this interferes with Rouhani’s own preferred policies in Syria and Yemen. Unlike Zarif, Velayati gives little indication that he is interested in negotiating with anyone—neither Iran’s adversaries nor even its ostensible allies—about a mutually acceptable peace. “Iran will only leave Damascus by Syria’s request,” Velayati told the Russian broadcaster RT on July 18. “Iran will not change its strategic policies in the region and, as it helped Syria and Iraq, will help Yemen if it wants to.”
It’s also clear that Velayati’s broader geopolitical priorities differ greatly from Zarif’s, as reflected in recent trips to China and Russia to deepen ties with those countries—trips that have been heavily criticized by reformist media for overshadowing the foreign minister’s efforts to deepen ties with European powers. At the heart of Velayati’s strategy is a deep skepticism of the West (in part because it has proved untrustworthy but also because its power is in decline in general), paired with a belief that Iran must seek powerful allies anywhere else it can find them, though without compromising the independence of its own foreign-policy strategy. That attitude is apparent in Velayati’s openly expressed skepticism that Europe can deliver on its promises to maintain the nuclear deal. “The contradictory talk of European officials is [making us] doubtful [about them],” he said in an interview on May 20, about Europe’s nuclear negotiators.
Velayati sometimes describes this as a need for Iran to turn to the East rather than the West. “A strategic view to the East is the easiest thing we can do to get rid of hide-and-seek games of the Westerners,” he said in a different speech in May. “We shouldn’t be influenced by the Westernizers [who] like Paris more than Moscow.” Velayati has also concertedly pushed back against a narrative in Iran’s reformist media that Russia has stabbed Iran in the back over the future of Syria. “We, Russia, and China’s national interests overlap on various issues, and we can work together,” Velayati said in that same speech. “Russia is not able and is not planning to force Iran [to do something]. We have been working with this country on defensive areas, and they have given us everything we have demanded, more or less,” he said.
Velayati can no longer claim to be a behind-the-scenes figure; he has acquired power for himself through open politicking—cozying up to hard-liners and elbowing aside his erstwhile allies, Rouhani and Zarif. This has allowed the latter figures to fight back by openly touting the need for a pragmatic foreign policy that tries to work together with Europe to save the nuclear deal and work cooperatively with the West in the region. Before leaving Iran for his European tour in July, Rouhani said, “There are some regional issues that we have talked about to Europe and will continue these talks about the role Iran can play in the stability and security of the whole Middle East, including Syria and Yemen.” Meanwhile, Abbas Araghchi, the deputy foreign minister for political affairs, claims that talks are currently underway between Iran and Europe to resolve the Yemeni crisis.
But for such talks to succeed in Yemen, and ultimately in Syria, Rouhani and Zarif will need to win the support of their skeptics in the Iranian political establishment, and that will require first achieving success in rehabilitating the nuclear deal with Europe and unlocking its long-promised economic gains. In that sense, it’s up to officials in the West to decide whom they prefer to deal with in Tehran in the long term—and whether Velayati’s political rise will plateau anytime soon.