Ali Akbar Salehi
Ephron, Dan, Newsweek
Byline: Dan Ephron
How influential is Iran's urbane, mysterious diplomat?
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. …