The tragic demise of President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and several other Iranian officials in a helicopter crash on May 19 has put the spotlight on upcoming snap elections and possible impacts on leadership succession. Lost in the commotion is attention on the challenges the Islamic Republic faces under Ali Baqeri-Kani’s tenure as acting chief diplomat.

In the aftermath of the chopper crash, the Iranian political leadership has emphasized that there will be continuity. However, having led indirect talks with the US to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal for the past 33 months, Baqeri-Kani could potentially face practical obstacles to continuing that role.

Protocol dictates that a foreign minister should avoid negotiations with an official of lower rank, in this case White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk. If protocol is to be followed—at least until the winner of Iran’s upcoming June 28 presidential vote names his chief diplomat—Tehran could introduce another top nuclear negotiator. However, there are indications that such a change may not be necessary.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, multiple diplomatic and political sources in Iran told that talks between Tehran and Washington have been held in parallel with the indirect engagement in Oman and Qatar. That channel is not led by Baqeri-Kani, and could become the main venue for engagement if the acting foreign minister were to desist from continuing to lead indirect talks with McGurk in the region.

Another change on the foreign policy stage in Tehran, according to several informed diplomatic, political, and security sources, pertains to how the nuclear file is being managed. For the past two months or so—prior to the May 19 helicopter crash—former Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) secretary Ali Shamkhani has been overseeing the contentious portfolio. Some outlets late on May 26 portrayed the development as an indication that the foreign ministry is potentially being sidelined. However, the situation appears far more complex.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior Iranian political source told, “Shamkhani is not running the nuclear file, but rather coordinating and supervising.” Asked about what precisely the former top security official and current advisor to the supreme leader is up to, the senior source stated, “The same role he had under the former [Hassan Rouhani] administration,” elaborating, “At that time, he was doing his job as SNSC secretary. Now, he is carrying out the duty instead of the current [SNSC] secretary because he is more familiar with the job.”

Also preferring that his name be withheld given the sensitivity of the matter, a separate senior political source in Tehran characterized Shamkhani’s renewed involvement in the nuclear file as having more to do with internal coordination than Baqeri-Kani losing authority after Raisi’s death. The former top security official was most recently seen in public at a May 25 event led by Khamenei to commemorate the victims of the May 19 crash.

Shamkhani was appointed as SNSC secretary by moderate former president Rouhani in 2013. However, over time, the two men fell out as the top security official moved increasingly to the right on the political spectrum. As has previously reported, Shamkhani was due to step down in the autumn of 2021, after Raisi took office. However, with the backing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he retained his position, chiefly to oversee indirect talks with the US to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.

Shamkhani also led risky diplomatic initiatives with regional states, leading the delegation which traveled to China in Mar. 2023 to sign a landmark agreement with Saudi Arabia to normalize relations after seven years of estrangement. However, only two months later, in May 2023, Shamkhani stepped down, and was replaced by Ali Akbar Ahmadian, a relatively unknown commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). At the time, his exit was rumored to be linked to political infighting among conservatives.

The timing of Shamkhani’s return to the political stage suggests that the Islamic Republic—even prior to Raisi’s death—could be preparing for major decisions in connection with the upcoming Nov. 2024 US presidential elections.

The changes on the foreign policy stage additionally suggest a shift in how the Iranian state is portraying its decision making. It is common knowledge that the Office of the Supreme Leader, in close collaboration with the SNSC, determines state policies and that the foreign ministry is the implementer. By injecting Shamkhani into the heart of the process on a major foreign policy issue—crucially as senior advisor to the supreme leader rather than SNSC secretary—Khamenei’s office is now ready to let everyone know that it has publicly taken charge of tackling foreign policy issues.

JCPOA opponent-turned-negotiator

Interim President Mohammad Mokhber on May 22 appointed Baqeri-Kani as acting foreign minister. The senior diplomat is no stranger to international engagement. Baqeri-Kani has since 2021 led indirect talks with the Joe Biden administration to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Former US president Donald Trump unilaterally exited the Barack Obama-era accord in May 2018 and reimposed all sanctions on Iran.

Baqeri-Kani’s involvement in nuclear diplomacy has had its twists and turns over the years. Before being appointed as deputy foreign minister in 2021, he was known to the world as a member of the nuclear negotiating team of hardliner Saeed Jalili. Back then, in 2010, Baqeri-Kani served as Jaili’s deputy at the SNSC and was assigned to prepare a draft agreement with the EU. The effort never bore fruit.

When Rouhani was elected president in 2013, Baqeri-Kani and his hardline superior were sidelined. Moreover, the nuclear file was transferred from the SNSC to the foreign ministry, with new top diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif leading two years of negotiations that led to the signing of the JCPOA.

Throughout the Rouhani-era talks, Baqeri-Kani and Jalili were among the loudest opponents of the diplomatic engagement, including direct talks with the US.

Contentious choice

After Raisi won the 2021 elections, his choice of Amir-Abdollahian as foreign minister was widely anticipated. The senior diplomat had previously served as deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs and was generally viewed as having good ties with the IRGC. Most importantly, he agreed with the conservative president’s emphasis on pursuing better ties with neighboring states as a top foreign policy priority, in contrast with Rouhani’s emphasis on engagement with the west.

However, few expected Amir-Abdollahian to appoint Baqeri-Kani as his deputy—let alone lead nuclear negotiator. This led to the assumption that the Raisi administration, handed major progress on a revival of the JCPOA by the outgoing Rouhani government, was not serious about restoring the nuclear deal.

Yet, Baqeri-Kani quickly softened his positions after only a few rounds of grueling talks with the deputy foreign policy chief of the EU, Spanish diplomat Enrique Mora. The pragmatism was an outcome of the clash between ideology and practical, real-life considerations. He was finally ready for “real negotiations,” and in the process sparked the ire of some friends on the far end of the conservative spectrum in Iranian politics.

At the same time, informed political sources in Tehran told, Baqeri-Kani and his formal superior at the foreign ministry never had a boss-employee dynamic. This is said to have had various consequences, including on occasion undermining the authority of the foreign minister.

Issues at stake

Beyond the issues discussed in the indirect Iran-US talks, there has been a growing rift between Tehran and the UN’s nuclear watchdog. At its upcoming June 3-7 quarterly meeting, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors is certain to address the Islamic Republic’s adherence to the promises made during IAEA chief Rafael Grossi’s visit to Iran earlier this month.

In meetings with Iranian officials, Grossi put forward a proposal to gain vast and clear knowledge of Iran’s nuclear activities and push Tehran on further cooperation. In response to rising western pressure and Israeli covert action in past years, the Islamic Republic has gradually reduced collaboration with the Agency.

Grossi left Iran with a string of pledges. And after the deaths of Amir-Abdollahian and Raisi, he has expressed compassion, noting that Iranians are “in a mourning period,” which he “respects.” The IAEA chief, however, has also said he still expects more transparency from Iran. One key part of the contention revolves around uranium traces found at two old sites.

Another issue at play is Iran’s decision to bar eight IAEA inspectors because of the roles played by their governments, namely France, Germany and the United Kingdom, in what Tehran calls “abuse of IAEA Board of Governors’ powers for their political purposes.”

In the aftermath of Grossi’s recent visit and Raisi’s death, Iran likely does not expect a censure resolution at the upcoming meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors. But if such a step is taken, the Mokhber-led government is unlikely to react beyond a strongly-worded statement.

The incoming Iranian parliament, however, may add complications to the mix. The balance of power within the legislature is now tilted towards hardliners who have long been critics of the JCPOA, and who seek to force the government to formally withdraw from the nuclear deal and terminate any agreement made with the IAEA. A censure resolution may not provide a pretext for major action. However, if western governments pursue stronger measures—such as a referral of Iran’s nuclear file to the UN Security Council—all options could be on table.

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