Diplomatic sources in Iran have confirmed to IranWire that President Ebrahim Raisi has nominated Hossein Amir-Abdollahian to be the country's next foreign minister.
The 57-year-old formerly served as deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Throughout his tenure he was a trusted regime figure and remained so even after being dismissed by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in 2016. Since then he has kept his hand in, serving as special advisor on international affairs to the speaker of the Iranian parliament.
Unlike his successor to the Arab and African role under Hassan Rouhani, Amir-Abdollahian was and is very close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)’s expeditionary Quds Force: the real body in charge of much of Iranian foreign policy. During his time on Ahmadinejad’s cabinet, he was often sardonically described as the representative of the Quds Force to the foreign ministry.
Playing to Both Sides
Amir-Abdollahian speaks both English and Arabic. In his past government role he met repeatedly with Russian, British and European Union officials – but also held frequent tête-à-têtes with Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanese Hezbollah. This, by itself, was a sign that both Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the security agencies trusted him.
“My first in-person meeting with him [Nasrallah] was in 2010,” Amir-Abdollahian told the IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency in an interview in 2018. “Since then I’ve been meeting with him more or less every few months. On average, our meetings last from 3.5 to six hours.
“The interesting thing is that even when you talk with him at three o’clock in the morning, he’s so high-spirited you’d think it was 6am. He’s done his morning prayers, he’s had his breakfast and has the right amount of energy to talk.”
Amir-Abdollahian was born in 1964 in Damghan, Semnan province. He is five years younger than Mohammad Javad Zarif, and unlike Zarif, who was born into a wealthy family, he began life in an underprivileged neighborhood of southern Tehran. “After the war [with Iraq] was over, our area didn’t have a clinic. We tried very hard to get one,” Amir-Abdollahian said in an interview in 2018. “Many of our friends in the Basij and in the mosques had studied medicine or were paramedics. We came up with the idea of gathering together and setting up a charity clinic.”
The One-Time Ambassador
Amir-Abdollahian is a graduate of the Foreign Ministry’s School of International Relations, which is set to close its doors in 2022. Before his appointment as deputy foreign minister, he also served as the Islamic Republic’s ambassador to Bahrain, which severed diplomatic relations with Iran in 2016 following in the footsteps of Saudi Arabia.
This would be Amir-Abdollahian’s his first and last ambassadorial mission. After he was sacked by Zarif in 2016, it was widely assumed that he would next be positioned as Iran’s ambassador to Oman, a state that had played a key mediating role between Iran and Western countries.
But media outlets close to the Revolutionary Guards then reported that Amir-Abdollahian had refused the offer. If true, it was most likely meant as a protest against his dismissal.
John Kerry Had His Number
In a recent leaked audio recording that made waves in Iran – and accelerated the demise of his political future – Javad Zarif claimed, amongst a great many other things, that he had given Amir-Abdollahian’s phone number to then-US Secretary of State John Kerry so that they could speak directly.
One of topics discussed during the first round of nuclear negotiations with the US was the question of Yemen, and specifically Iran’s support of the Houthi rebels in the civil war. Ayatollah Khamenei had forbidden talks with the US about anything other than the nuclear issue. Zarif’s revelations could have put the future of anybody other than Amir-Abdollahian in jeopardy.
“I was boarding the presidential plane to go to Indonesia for the meeting of Islamic countries,” Zarif told the interviewer. “The Indonesian president had invited 10 or 15 Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia.
“On the way to the airport, Kerry called me and told me an agreement had been reached with Saudi Arabia for a ceasefire [in Yemen]. I told him, ‘Ansar Allah is also ready. I’m just boarding the plane and won’t be contactable for about eight hours. Here’s the phone number for Dr. Amir-Abdollahian, my deputy. If you call him he can tell Soleimani [General Ghasem Soleimani, then-commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force], and Mr. Soleimani can inform the Yemenis, and we’ll have a ceasefire.”
No Love Lost Between Zarif and Amir-Abdollahian
In the same interview, Zarif described Amir-Abdollahian as an individual who loved the cameras and gave too many interviews.
After the latter was dismissed as deputy foreign minister, media outlets affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards claimed that his dismissal had been requested by none other than John Kerry himself. In an interview with the Islamic Republic’s state TV, Amir-Abdollahian not only did not refute the claim, but he also took the opportunity take aim a jab at his former boss. “Ask Mr. Zarif,” he said.
Now Zarif’s disgruntled former deputy is poised to succeed him. The situation is slightly reminiscient of the handover of presidential power from Hassan Rouhani to Ebrahim Raisi. In the 2017 presidential campaign, Rouhani called Ebrahim Raisi somebody “who only knows how to execute” but not a lot else. He went on to win a second term in office but now, four years later, must reluctantly yield to the same person.
Hossein Amir-Abdollahian might well have an advantage over Zarif. He is one of very few officials of the Islamic Republic to have negotiated face-to-face with the US in Baghdad, with the blessing of Ayatollah Khamenei. But he is also close to the IRGC. Earlier this year, Zarif’s unguarded comments that Iranian diplomacy had ceded to “the battlefield” caused a political scandal and rebuke by the Supreme Leader. With Amir-Abdollahian as foreign minister, this type of conflict could be circumvented entirely.