Laura Rozen reports in Al-Monitor’s Back Channel on the explosive Wikileaks US cable that implicates Ayatollah Khamenei’s top aide and former Iran Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Velayati, in a purported outreach to the U.S. government, seeking funds for a prospective run in Iran’s presidential election. From Laura Rozen’s report:

In 2007, an Iranian doctor who claimed to treat members of the Supreme Leader’s family met with a U.S. diplomat in Dubai and suggested the US government help fund the prospective presidential candidacy of a top aide to Supreme Leader Khamenei, according to a US diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks.

The US diplomat dismissed the proposal, which she described in the cable as bewildering, and in the end, Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran’s former foreign minister and the long-time foreign affairs advisor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, did not run in Iran’s contentious 2009 presidential race, though he is expected to run in Iran’s June polls this year.

But the cable offers an intriguing glimpse into how some in Iran’s stridently anti-US hardline political camps privately demonstrate more complex dealings with the United States than their public reputations would suggest.

Read more:

This by itself is likely to shock the uninitiated in Iran’s Machiavellian system due to the Iranian regime’s carefully nurtured image of the Supreme Leader as being a virulently anti-American revolutionary who is unwilling to cut back door deals with the U.S., while those that follow Iran know that Ayatollah Khamenei has dropped hints in the past that he is willing to deal with the U.S., as long as he is the primary beneficiary, and as long as he can spin such an interaction as a victory for himself.

It’s not clear that this doctor’s claim of having treated the Supreme Leaders family is true. It’s also not clear even if it is true, that he was acting with the Supreme Leader’s knowledge, or even the knowledge of Velayati for that matter. It could all be hearsay. This would not be the first time that someone purporting to represent the interests of the regime, or elements within it, has reached out to to the U.S.

In 2003, for instance, Iran purportedly made an offer through the Swiss for a broad and comprehensive dialog with the United States. The Bush administration apparently spurned the offer. But the question remains, who made that offer? Was this party really talking on behalf of the Islamic Republic? If so, was this offer endorsed by the Supreme Leader? Or was this an outreach by then Iranian president Khatami? Or was it someone else? Who knows…

The point is that it is not uncommon for Iran to make offers or put out feelers through intermediary interlocutors, effectively giving the Supreme Leader plausible deniability. At any point, the Supreme Leader’s office can throw such intermediaries under the bus should it suit them.

What makes this Wikileaks cable release potentially explosive on Iran’s current political scene is that this constant plausible deniability which has worked in the favor of Ayatollah Khamenei and others in Iran’s ulta-conservative circles for years might now backfire for them, big time–if–and it’s a big if–Ahmadinejad and his supporters capitalize off of it.

Ahmadinejad and his right-hand man and relative (through the marriage of their children), Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, are priming to launch a presidential campaign against the wishes of the conservatives supporting the Supreme Leader (oft referred to as principalists). The principalists have labelled Ahmadinejad and Mashaei as the heads of a “deviant current”, a sort of fifth column that intends to neuter and bypass clerical supremacy in the Islamic Republic. Mashaei and Ahmadinejad have been promoting a kind of opportunistic Iran-first discourse as opposed to an Islam-first one. A big no-no in the hyper-controlled polity of the Islamic Republic. In effect, Ahmadinejad is trying to re-brand himself, and by extension, Mashaei, as a nationalist.

Nationalism has always had broad appeal in Iran, where many people that do vote in the elections cast their vote for the person they think will be the biggest potential thorn for the regime from the lot of candidates that manage to get through the vetting process controlled by the Guardian Council (a group of clerics dominated by supporters of the Supreme Leader).

Yes, it’s complicated.

Bottom line: Ahmadinejad is in trouble. He knows that if he doesn’t manage to at least secure some form of immunity from the regime’s long knives after his presidency ends in less than two months, that he may even be prosecuted or see his influence severely restricted.

Being a president or presidential hopeful in Iran under the Islamic Republic can be a serious hazard, as a stream of former presidents can attest to (including Bani Sadr, Rafsanjani, Khatami, Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and now Ahmadinejad himself).

Ahmadinejad has been by far the most blatantly bold in his public stances against the Supreme Leader, but only after the 2009 election and subsequent massive protests and unrest that followed. Khamenei threw his support, and his reputation essentially, behind Ahmadinejad and so he can’t easily dismiss him without losing face. Soon after the last election, Ahmadinejad had several public and high-profile confrontations with the Supreme Leader’s camp, the first big one of which was his attempt to dismiss the head of the Intelligence Ministry, only to have Ayatollah Khamenei reject his decision and reverse it. (Ahmaninejad disappeared for eleven days in a sulk-fest).

Recently, he embarrassed the Larijani’s (a power clan of brothers in Iran who have benefited from their relationship with the Supreme Leader, with one brother currently the head of the Judiciary in Iran, and another the Speaker of Parliament). Ahmadinejad used his trademark “Begam? Begam?” threat (meaning, “Should I tell? Should I tell?”), implying that he will reveal dirt that he has on the regime’s elite if they dare oppose him, in a live-broadcasted parliamentary session where he played a recording revealing one of the Larijani clan peddling influence for money. It was a huge embarrassment for the Larijanis and an heretofore unheard of public airing of dirty laundry that angered the Supreme Leader–to the point that he chastised not only Ahmadinejad, but the Larijanis as well, calling for the end to the publicly displayed in-fighting, and prompting rapid apologies from the Larijanis. Ahmadinejad did not apologize. It looked like Khamenei blinked.

This was profound, and it opened the door for more boldness from Ahmadinejad, who has been appearing at public venues and events in Iran with Mashaei by his side, essentially campaigning on his behalf, using the slogan “Viva Spring” thought to be a reference to the recent uprisings in the region. Again, a shockingly bold move in the face of the principalists and the Supreme Leader.

In another example of the machinations between the camps, the Supreme Leader labeled this Iranian new year, in March, the “Year of Political and Economic Epic”.

Ahmadinejad and Mashaei turned this around on the principalists, invoking the Iranian epic, Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, and promising a political epic indeed.

Earlier, the Supreme Leader’s camp announced a group that included his close aide, Velayati, intended to present a unity candidate that would tow the line of the leader. Velayati is now implicated in the released cable, by extension implicating the Supreme Leader’s camp in the unthinkable: asking for money from the U.S. government to fund an election campaign.


Now for Ahmadinejad and Mashaei this can’t be anything other than mana from Heavan. Not only do they not need to tap into their own supposed store of dirt on the power players within the Supreme Leader’s circle, but the dirt that has now been delivered on a platter for them has the potential to severely discredit the Supreme Leader’s camp without Ahmadinejad or Mashaei having to lift a brow.

Of course if this leak gets aired in Iran, the principalists will dismiss it, possibly claiming that this doctor referred to in the cable was a rogue operative acting on his own–perhaps a delusional person suffering from grandiosity (or some other discrediting statement) and it may get swept under the rug in the broader political battle that is about to unfold. But plausible deniability is not going to cut it in a situation where for years everything has been plausibly deniable.

The stakes are very high, and in this scenario, the slightest dirt has the potential to stick.

Maybe this leak will be missed by Iran’s internal players. Maybe not.

Either way, things are getting interesting.

[Added after initial publication]

It should be noted that Ahmadinejad has on numerous occasions made it obvious that he wants to deal with the U.S. directly, even sending letters directly to former President Bush, and President Obama. This doesn’t take away from the fact that if the Supreme Leader’s camp sought U.S. government money, for any reason (let alone to fund an election campaign) it would be very damaging to them politically. This is substantively very different from seeking direct talks or some other kind of deal (either with respect to the nuclear program or some kind of grand bargain).