Iran’s Nuclear Negotiators Discredited Amid Spy Allegations

April 16, 2018
Reza HaghighatNejad
10 min read
Abbas Araghchi, deputy foreign minister for political affairs, is the only senior figure from the negotiating team who still plays a role in Iranian politics
Abbas Araghchi, deputy foreign minister for political affairs, is the only senior figure from the negotiating team who still plays a role in Iranian politics

At one time, Iran’s nuclear negotiators were celebrated, hailed as skilled diplomats who helped secure a good deal for Iran and usher in a bright new future. Today, they are rarely seen or talked about, having become the targets of an effective smear campaign that has left them discredited, or at the very least, ignored and shut off from mainstream debates in Iranian media and society. 

So what happened to the Iranian officials that helped Iran reach a deal with world leaders back in 2015? 

On April 12, while speculations about the expected US missile attack on Syria were rampant, two photographs were widely circulated on social media networks. One was of Ali Akbar Velayati, the senior adviser to the Supreme Leader in international affairs, shown ranting against the west in Eastern Ghouta, the suburb of Damascus that had been recaptured from anti-Assad forces a couple of days earlier. The other photograph showed Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Montevideo, delivering a speech during a meeting about Iran’s hopes to expand economic ties with Uruguay. Just one of Zarif’s many meetings in the faraway South American country, the discussions took place around the time that the US President Donald Trump and members of his administration cancelled their scheduled diplomatic trips to decide how to punish Syria for the chemical attack in Douma.

While Velayati and Zarif were in foreign lands, Alexander Lavrentiev, President Putin’s Special Envoy on Syria, paid an unexpected visit to Tehran on April 12. While there, he met with Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC). Immediately after the meeting, Shamkhani set out to talk to President Hassan Rouhani and his cabinet. When he arrived at the president’s office he was accompanied by Majid Takht-Ravanchi, Rouhani’s deputy for political affairs.

Takht-Ravanchi, a member of the nuclear negotiating team and deputy foreign minister for European and American affairs from 2013 to 2017, has been a key figure in Iran’s foreign ministry under Mohammad Javad Zarif. After the 2015 nuclear agreement — or, as it is officially known, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — he was also put in charge of high-level talks between Iran and the European Union. The talks revolved around human rights and the opening of a European Union office in Tehran, but never advanced since Iranian diplomacy after the deal did not focus on the European Union. Instead, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei was more keen on expanding relations with Russia and China.

But not only was Takht-Ravanchi’s diplomatic career sidelined, he faced other obstacles too, not least because his brother-in-law came under fire from Iranian officials. Cyrus Nasseri, a businessman, diplomat and a member of the nuclear negotiating team under the reformist president Mohammad Khatami, was forced to leave the country not long after the JCPOA was signed, after he was accused of spying and authorities issued a warrant for his arrest. He cannot return to Iran. 


The Spying “Gang of Four”

On September 1, 2017, Javad Karimi-Ghoddousi, a hardliner member of parliament and a former Revolutionary Guards general, said, “The president’s office denies that there were spies within the negotiating team, but as of now the identity of four spies in the team has become known to us, three of whom have escaped Iran.” He further claimed that the four spies managed the nuclear negotiations from behind the scenes and that Cyrus Nasseri was the spymaster. In the coming months, he made further allegations.

In early 2017, Alireza Zakani, another hardliner member of the parliament, claimed that Nasseri and Hossein Fereydoon, President Rouhani’s brother, had clubbed together to decide how to divide the spoils of the nuclear agreement. Nasseri participated in post-JCPOA meetings with Abdolrasoul Dorri-Esfahani, a member of the Committee to Implement the JCPOA.

Dorri-Esfahani was the Central Bank’s representative during the nuclear talks, and on February 8, 2016, President Rouhani recognized the role he played in negotiations by presenting him with a Service Medal, 3rd Class, and 50 gold coins. But then, in August 2016, there were reports that authorities had arrested Dorri-Esfahani for spying. The Intelligence Ministry and officials of the Foreign Ministry denied reports of his arrest and the espionage charges, but the judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei confirmed the arrest, adding that “the charge against him has not been proven yet.”

Nevertheless, in October 2017, the Iranian judiciary announced that Dorri-Esfahani had been sentenced to five years in prison for espionage and that the verdict was “final.” But then he was released on bail, a rare event in the Islamic Republic for somebody who has been convicted of spying. And on October 11, the Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi said that Dorri was not only not a spy but had actually worked with his ministry. Nevertheless, the judiciary and the hardliners successfully tarnished his name.

Another name that came up in connection with Dorri-Esfahani’s case was that of Mohammad Nahavandian, Rouhani’s chief of staff from 2013 to 2017 and a prominent figure who presided over many post-JCPOA economic conferences. He was accused of being the person who brought Dorri-Esfahani into the team. He categorically denied that he had played any role, but on August 20, 2017, in a public session of the parliament, the principlist representative Mohammad-Javad Abtahi said: “Mr. Nahavandian must tell us who was it that paid the cost of Dorri-Esfahani’s frequent travels from London to Tehran out of the public treasury.”


The Flying Kitten

In January 2018, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace reported that, as early as 2013 and as recently as February 2017, a group calling itself “the Flying Kitten” had hacked the email accounts of people close to President Rouhani, including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and other Iranian diplomats. According to this report, the hacking group was affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards. The report said that once the accounts were “compromised,” the hackers could have had access to  “diplomatic contacts and peers.” It was also reported that the other targets of hacking besides Zarif included Majid Takht-Ravanchi, Abbas Araghchi, Hossein Mousavian and Cyrus Nasseri. So it would appear that during the nuclear negotiations the Revolutionary Guards Corps not only wanted to keep the negotiating team under surveillance, it also attempted to be able to pose as them.


Majid Takht-Ravanchi and Nahavandian, who was replaced as Rouhani’s chief of staff at the beginning of Rouhani’s second term, were thus both marginalized. The campaign to smear and isolate Dorri-Esfahani and other members of the team, however, continued. On October 11, 2017 the newspaper Vatan-e Emrouz published an article that said that the relations between Dorri-Esfahani and Hamid Baeidinejad, a senior member of the negotiations team, must be “carefully examined,” because it was Baeidinejad who worked Dorri-Esfahani’s views on financial and banking matters into the text of the JCPOA. “We must find out how effective Dorri-Esfahani’s views have been in creating the current banking and financial troubles regarding JCPOA,” the article read.

No evidence was offered for these accusations and other allegations like them — and they were not true. But Baeidinejad was lucky to be out of the reach of his accusers. In September 2016, he was appointed Iranian ambassador to the United Kingdom and so was out of the country during the fierce domestic campaign against the negotiating team. But he did have something to say about the espionage charges against Dorri-Esfahani. “There are many who want to prove espionage charges against Mr. Dorri-Esfahani as soon as possible by exaggerating certain untrue and defective information because they want to prove that the enemy has infiltrated our negotiating team and this is where the problems with JCPOA come from,” Baeidinejad said. 

The project to discredit the team had two other targets as well. The first one was Moshkan Mashkour who, like Dorri-Esfahani, had received a Service Medal, 3rd Class, from President Rouhani. He was also  accused of espionage.

Mashkour, introduced as a “lawyer member” of the team in post-JCPOA meetings, holds a PhD in International law and, according to Javad Karimi-Ghoddousi, escaped Iran after he was accused of spying so the security forces could not arrest him.

On the Run

Karimi-Ghoddousi also mentioned a fourth “spy,” a man by the name of Shabani “who was responsible for the media affairs of the team and is now on the run.” He did not provide a first name, but it appears he was referring to Mohammad Ali Shabani, who was a member of the Expediency Council’s Center for Strategic Studies when Hassan Rouhani was its director. During the negotiations, Shabani wrote pieces for western media defending a nuclear agreement.

The last spy on Karimi-Ghoddousi’s “spy ring” list was Hossein Mousavian, who was a member of the negotiating team under President Khatami. He was arrested on espionage charges in 2007 and was briefly jailed during the administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In the course of the nuclear negotiations and after the JCPOA was signed, he was considered a key confidant of the negotiating team.  Whenever he was in Tehran, the conservative media  targeted him for criticism. According to an informed source, it was Ali Larijani, speaker of the Iranian parliament, who got him out of jail.

Rouhani’s brother Hossein Fereydoon was not a member of the negotiating team, but his attendance in negotiation sessions roused the intense interest of the media. These days he is dealing with a big corruption case against him and plays no role in Iranian politics.

At the moment, the only senior member of the nuclear negotiating team who has any role in Iranian politics is Abbas Araghchi, the deputy foreign minister for political affairs. Although his main job post the success of the JCPOA should have been to implement the deal and help solve problems arising from the sanctions, instead he has practically become a spokesman for the nuclear agreement, tasked with  constantly defending the JCPOA to parliament and the media and repeatedly being asked to prove that the JCPOA did not amount to treason. Trapped in this situation, he is unable to grasp any real hold on the political stage words, 


Kissing Hands

And yet Araghchi enjoys the support of his powerful and wealthy family, has good relations with the Revolutionary Guards and has commanded the trust of Iran’s conservative principlists. But over the last three years, there have been occasional rumors that he, too, could be dispatched from Iran by being appointed to an ambassadorial role. In recent months, he has tried to shore up his safety. In his latest interview with Young Reporters’ Club, he was profuse in praising the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and said that he was ready to kiss the hand of General Ghasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s expeditionary Qods Force fighting in Iraq and Syria. Foreign Minister Zarif and Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Organization, have been displaying similar behavior, but with a lot more finesse.

But these kowtows, whether voluntary or out of desperation, point to the more important reality. Iran’s nuclear negotiating team successfully conducted the most complex negotiations since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. But over the last three years, the negotiators have been transformed into defendants with a close-up view of Iran’s politics and diplomacy, without having any important role. They are either in jail, have left the country, or have been marginalized.

None of the accusations the members of parliament linked to the Revolutionary Guards or the media have leveled against them have been proven. But this hardly seems to matter. No proof is needed. They have already won. They have fought for and secured the same thing Ayatollah Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards wanted: Doing away with diplomacy and diplomats.


More on the Nuclear Agreement and Its Aftermath:

US and the Nuclear Agreement: Rouhani is Missing the Point, September 2017

What Do Iranians Think Of US Sanctions?, July 2017

The Iranian Election and the Nuclear Agreement, May 2017

Iran Detains Nuclear Negotiator on Spying Charges, August 2016

Khamenei: Show me the money!, April 2016

Hardliners Launch Fresh Attack on Nuclear Deal, November 2015

Parliamentarians Threaten Negotiators with Death, October 2015

Iran Passes Nuclear Deal, October 2015

No Nukes, but Plenty of Fallout, August 2015


Speaking of Iran

Iran's Real Enemy in Syria

April 16, 2018
Speaking of Iran
1 min read
Iran's Real Enemy in Syria