When Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi spoke to members of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York last September, he did something unusual for an Iranian official: he referred to Israel not as “the Zionist entity”—the term its opponents sometimes use to deny the country legitimacy as a state—but simply as Israel. The context wasn’t exactly favorable; he was describing Israel as “the most significant source of instability and insecurity” in the Middle East. But the reference caught the ear of a journalist in the audience, who remarked aloud that in 20 years of covering the United Nations, she’d never heard an Iranian official utter the “I” word in public. “You want me to change the position?” Salehi responded coolly, drawing laughter.
The exchange captured something noteworthy about Salehi, who has emerged in recent years as a high-profile figure in Iran’s standoff with world powers over its disputed nuclear program. In public forums, he manages to sound more reasonable and more moderate than other Iranian leaders, even as he defends the same unsavory policies, including human rights abuses in his own country. In part, it’s his impressive background. An engineer by training, Salehi has a doctorate from MIT. He spent years in academia and has served as Iran’s permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency. “It’s not uncommon for Middle Eastern autocracies to appoint urbane, English-speaking foreign ministers to project a more sophisticated image to the world,” says Karim Sadjadpour, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington. “He’s a technocrat who has managed to stay somewhat above the political fray in Iran.”
But there’s another side to Salehi as well. According to former U.N. weapons inspector David Albright, Salehi used his position as the chancellor of a university in Tehran in the 1990s to help the Iranian government procure parts for its secret nuclear-fuel-cycle program. Albright’s organization, the Institute for Science and International Security, uncovered hundreds of exchanges between the university and suppliers that show Salehi’s involvement in the purchases—which were ostensibly for university research but ended up feeding the nuclear program. “He knew about this parallel program, and his institute was a front for its procurement,” Albright tells Newsweek. “By signing fictitious end-user documents, he was complicit.” (The Iranian mission to the United Nations did not respond to Newsweek’s request for a comment.)
All of this begs the question: will Salehi have influence over the Iranian position in talks with world powers later this month aimed at reaching a compromise over the nukes? Albright says Salehi is clearly familiar with the details of the Iranian program, having served as the head of the country’s atomic energy agency. But he points out that only officials with a direct channel to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei seem to wield real power. Sadjadpour agrees. “I think the cynical old maxim that an ambassador is ‘an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his government’ captures Salehi,” he says. “I doubt that he really believes Iran should be ruled by a ‘Supreme Leader’ who purports to be the prophet’s representative on earth. But I suspect that he justifies what he does in the name of patriotism.”