What does Iran’s choice of UN envoy reveal?

Iran's appointment of Gholamali Khoshroo as its UN envoy signals a desire for broader engagement with the West.

al-monitor Gholamali Khoshroo, Special Adviser to Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, speaks at the 2013 Rhodes Forum on the "Dialogue of Civilizations," in this still image taken from a YouTube video, Jan 26, 2015.  Photo by World Public Forum.

Topics covered

united states, united nations, p5+1, nuclear negotiations, mohammad javad zarif, iran, hassan rouhani, gholamali khoshroo

Feb 6, 2015

The appointment of Gholamali Khoshroo as Iran's permanent representative to the United Nations on Jan. 31 was an important development. Washington’s refusal to issue a visa for the previous appointee, Hamid Aboutalebi, for alleged involvement in the 1979 US Embassy hostage crisis, had left the position vacant for more than a year.

Tehran has an interests section in the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, but it is staffed by Iranian permanent residents of the United States, not diplomats. Thus, the Iranian UN Mission in New York functions as the Islamic Republic’s most important diplomatic outpost in North America. The influence of some Iranian diplomats who have served in New York or who have spent time in the United States is such that conservative foes have labeled them “NewYorki-haa” (the “New Yorkers”). What marks these individuals is their shared quest for a more constructive Iranian relationship with the West.

Some of these figures include Mohammad Javad Zarif (minister of foreign affairs), Sadegh Kharazi (head of the Reformist Voice of Iranians Party), Majid Takht-Ravanchi (deputy minister of foreign affairs and nuclear negotiator), Hossein Fereydoun (brother of President Hassan Rouhani and special adviser on executive affairs), Amir-Hossein Zamaninia (deputy minister of oil and nuclear negotiator) and Kazem Sajjadpour (head of policy planning at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). Khoshroo is also considered a New Yorker, having previously served at the UN Mission.

During President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s second term, the aforementioned New Yorkers were dispersed among two main institutions: Zarif, Fereydoun, Zamaninia and Sajjadpour were at the Center for Strategic Research, a think tank headed by Rouhani. The others, including Takht-Ravanchi and Khoshroo, were based at Iranian Diplomacy, a think tank led by Kharazi. Aboutalebi had been based at the Center for Strategic Research, but is not considered a New Yorker, nor is Rouhani.

Informed sources have suggested to Al-Monitor that Aboutalebi had not been the choice of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Rather, Rouhani had selected Aboutalebi and insisted on his appointment even when it became apparent that he would be unable to take up the post. Aboutalebi now serves as political adviser to the president. All permanent representatives to the United Nations need the full backing of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which Aboutalebi’s appointment clearly did.

Within the power structure of the Islamic Republic, the position of permanent representative to the United Nations holds significance for several reasons: It functions as a key channel for diplomatic engagement on the world stage, and it is Iran’s only diplomatic outpost on the territory of the world’s only superpower. It also serves as a stepping stone for ambitious diplomats.

Rumored to have been the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' preferred candidate, Khoshroo, a soft-spoken former adviser to former President Mohammad Khatami, was in mid-2014 appointed ambassador to Switzerland. Of note, Takht-Ravanchi once held this position. Signs of Khoshroo’s impending ascent and proximity to Zarif became apparent in the days and weeks before his UN appointment. Earlier in January, Khoshroo accompanied Zarif to the World Economic Forum’s annual summit in Davos. Moreover, he is reported to have subsequently traveled with Zarif to Saudi Arabia following the death of King Abdullah.

Of importance, some observers in Tehran attribute Khoshroo’s endorsement by the supreme leader to support from Zarif, Rouhani and Kharazi. If true, such backing has the potential of elevating the position of Iranian UN envoy to a level last seen in the 2000s, when as ambassador Zarif played key roles in some important developments, including the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

While the permanent representative does not hold cabinet rank in Iran or require parliamentary approval, as it does in the United States, the position can be of comparable importance in the political structure. The envoy to the UN has a direct line not only to the minister of foreign affairs, but also to the presidency and the Office of the Supreme Leader.

Information on Khoshroo’s immediate plans remains scant, but a source told Al-Monitor, “He’s planning to get to New York before Nowruz [the Persian New Year, March 21].” There are multiple dimensions to consider when reviewing the implications of Khoshroo’s appointment.

Domestically, things might become tricky for Rouhani. While Khoshroo has family ties to the centrist president through the marriage of Fereydoun’s daughter to his son, he is known to be firmly in the Reformist camp. In particular, Khoshroo is said to enjoy a “special relationship” with former President Khatami as well as Kharazi and Zarif. Here, Kharazi’s recent maneuvering to expand his presence on the political stage should be noted. Kharazi, who remarkably has family ties to both Khatami and Khamenei, did not support Rouhani in the June 2013 presidential election, having tied his political fortunes to Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf well before Rouhani announced his candidacy.

Moreover, as one source with a good understanding of the situation put it, “Khoshroo is loyal to Zarif. He will 100% be his man in the United States.” Thus, the failure of the Aboutalebi nomination appears to have the potential of weakening Rouhani’s hand vis-a-vis the emerging power broker Kharazi and perhaps even his own ministry. With parliamentary elections scheduled for next year and presidential elections in 2017, potentially troublesome dynamics for Rouhani might be brewing.

On the international stage, the timing of Khoshroo’s appointment indicates that Tehran is gearing up for two potential scenarios, both focused on the UN Security Council: oversight and coordination of the implementation of measures related to the easing of sanctions, and conversely, preparation for the likely nefarious “blame game” should talks fail to produce a final deal.

The late-March deadline looms for Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany) to reach agreement on the political framework of a comprehensive nuclear accord. While the two sides have set late June as the date for sealing the final deal, March is increasingly appearing to be a hard deadline. US President Barack Obama’s threat to veto any new congressional sanctions on Iran seems to have an expiry date. Moreover, Rouhani could use the domestic boost resulting from movement in the talks in connection with Nowruz, which holds outsized significance in the Iranian calendar.

The immediate road ahead will be hectic for observers of Iran. Zarif is slated to attend the Munich Security Conference (Feb. 6-8), and another round of nuclear talks with the P5+1 is due soon. In conversations with Al-Monitor, insiders privately speculated that Khoshroo might show up in Munich and the upcoming nuclear negotiations prior to his departure for New York. Indeed, considering that in the past Khoshroo “‘​had an active role in designing the method of engagement with the opposing’​ side during the 2003-2005 nuclear negotiations between Iran and the so-called EU3, comprised of France, Germany and the United Kingdom,” the coming days and weeks are likely to be a good indicator of his designated role.