Last night it was confirmed that the Foreign Ministry's long-serving political deputy, Abbas Araghchi, one of the country’s top nuclear negotiators for the last decade, is to be replaced by Ali Bagheri Kani. The latter is a member of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s family and a noted critic of the first Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 powers, China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany.
Few Iranians may have heard of Bagheri Kani to date – but CIA Director William Burns knows him well.
Before the 2013-15 nuclear talks, Burns, who was then the US Deputy Secretary of State, held bilateral talks with Iran’s lead negotiator Saeed Jalili. Bagheri Kani was present during those unprecedented short talks in October 2009 in the courtyard of a hotel in Geneva, Switzerland. The meeting was held in the courtyard to avoid possible eavesdropping indoors. No photos were published – unlike the widely-photographed strolls taken by then Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the then US Secretary of State John Kerry.
So who is 53-year-old Ali Bagheri Kani? His father, Mohammad Baqer Bagheri Kani, was previously on Iran’s Assembly of Experts and is still an influential cleric and one of the presidents of Imam Sadegh University. His brother, Mesbah al-Hoda Bagheri Kani, is a son-in-law of Ali Khamenei, and therefore Ali Bagheri Kani, an economist by training, is himself a trusted figure in the Islamic Republic.
Iran’s political establishment is saying a long goodbye to its first generation of leaders. Newer ministers never served under Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic; Bagheri Kani is one of them, and his fortunes have been tied to Khamenei’s own ascendancy.
Bagheri Kani was initially seen as a flexible negotiator during the JCPOA talks. But within the Islamic Republic he is also seen as an extremist whose understanding of political issues is incompatible with the realities of the West and its relationship with the Middle East.
Deep Suspicion of the JCPOA
Bagheri Kani surprisingly believes Iran was not subjected to any sanctions under the Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. Chapter VII deals with threats to international peace and security; between 2010 and 2013, Resolution 1929 passed by the UN Security Council imposed one of the harshest sanctions regimes on Iran because of its nuclear program.
The agreement and Security Council approval of the JCPOA deal meant that the Islamic Republic later escaped punishment under Chapter VII. But the US 2018 withdrawal from the deal, under then President Donald Trump, has in Bagheri Kani’s view created a new uncertainty and exposed Iran once again to Chapter VII sanctions.
During Iran’s 2013 presidential election, which Hassan Rouhani won, the lead nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili was also a candidate; Ali Bagheri Kani was the head of his campaign. Jalili had intended for Bagheri Kani to lead the foreign ministry in his administration. Bagheri Kani was critical of Rouhani’s policies, the nuclear negotiations and the JCPOA itself.
Ali Bagheri Kani's family position is such that he cannot remain without a position. He previously held a role as deputy for international affairs and head of the judiciary's human rights headquarters during the chairmanship of Sadegh Larijani, and he replaced Sadegh Larijani's elder brother Javad as judiciary chairman when Ebrahim Raisi took over the judiciary.
When Raisi was declared winner of the 2021 presidential election, Bagheri Kani was quickly seen as a contender for foreign minister. His presence at a meeting with India’s foreign minister seemed to increase the chances. But Hossein Amir-Abdollahian’s ultimate appointment to the role seemed to remove Bagheri Kani from contention for any foreign affairs role – even though he had previously held a position as Director-General of the Central and Northern European department.
But Bagheri Kani now being placed as a senior nuclear negotiator has created a paradoxical situation; he may be tasked with reviving an agreement of which he was one of Iran’s most vocal, longstanding critics. Bagheri Kani wants to pursue a policy that continues to place the Islamic Republic at odds with the US – an approach that seems unrealistic given Iran’s ongoing financial and economic crisis.