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IranSource May 31, 2024

A nuclear negotiator takes the helm of Iran’s foreign ministry. So what’s next?

By Arash Azizi

With the dramatic death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash on May 19, much attention is being paid to the race to replace him. But the chopper ride included another high-ranking official: Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the foreign minister who has now been replaced with his deputy, Ali Bagheri Kani, in an acting capacity. Ordinarily, an acting minister wouldn’t matter much because he could legally serve for only fifty days, per the Islamic Republic’s constitution. But things are different this time because, as a leading diplomat, Bagheri Kani has a good chance of remaining as foreign minister under the next president, who will be elected on June 24 (or July 8 if elections have a second round).

Although somewhat media shy, Bagheri Kani is not an unknown face to the Iranian public or Western diplomats. When Raisi was elected president in 2021, Bagheri Kani was one of the top names bandied about as a possible foreign minister. Ultimately, the job went to Amir-Abdollahian, with Bagheri Kani serving as his top deputy and heading the crucial political department in the foreign ministry. In this capacity, Bagheri Kani has been Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, engaging in several rounds of direct talks with the European Union in Vienna and clandestine talks with the United States in Muscat. On May 19, shortly before Raisi’s crash, Iran confirmed the discussions with the United States.

Speaking at the funeral of Amir-Abdollahian, Bagheri Kani affirmed that he would follow the policies of his predecessor. In his interviews since, he has talked less about the sensitive talks with the United States and the West and more about upgrading Iran’s diplomatic ties with some regional countries—chiefly Saudi Arabia—which took place during the Raisi administration. Tehran-Riyadh relations are still patchy, as evidenced by the recent expulsion of an Iranian media delegation from Saudi Arabia. But, according to Iran, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has accepted an invitation to visit Tehran—something that would have been unthinkable not that long ago.


Bagheri Kani has had a stormy first week on the job, holding phone conversations with many of his counterparts, including those from Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. In person, he hosted Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on his first-ever trip to Tehran, as well as Ismail Haniyeh, the political leader of Hamas and other Palestinian armed factions, both of whom were in Iran to attend the state funeral.

But who is Bagheri Kani? And if he were to stay on the job, what kind of foreign minister would he be?

The school of Imam Sadeq

Born in Tehran in 1967, Bagheri Kani hails from an influential clerical family that firmly belongs to the conservative side of the Islamic Republic’s faction politics. His father spent years serving in the Assembly of Experts, an eighty-eight-member clerical body tasked with dismissing and choosing the supreme leader, before losing his seat in 2016 as a list of centrist challengers backed by Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani performed particularly well. Bagheri Kani’s brother, Mesbah al-Hoda, is married to the youngest daughter of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, making him one of many regime officials related to the head of state.

His uncle, Mohammadreza Mahdavi Kani, was among the Islamic Republic’s founding fathers, serving as interior minister and interim prime minister in the early days of the regime. Mahdavi Bagheri Kani’s landmark project was the founding of Imam Sadeq University, built after the regime expropriated a Harvard-affiliated institution. Named after a Shia imam, the university has long been the Islamic Republic’s main cadre-building factory.

Bagheri Kani studied economics at the university his uncle founded and, like several of his relatives, also taught there for a while. In the 1990s, Imam Sadeq graduates started filling up governmental bodies of the Islamic Republic, and Ali was among them.

For a short time, Bagheri Kani worked at the state broadcaster, already serving as the head of political news at national radio in 1994, a rapid rise that probably had something to do with his strong familial ties to the regime’s establishment. Bagheri Kani soon left for the foreign ministry, serving as a Middle East specialist. He married his first cousin once removed in 1997 and has two daughters.

In the foreign ministry, Bagheri Kani became close to hardliner Saeed Jalili, another Imam Sadeq graduate whose star was in the ascendency when reformist President Mohammad Khatami gave way to hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005. In 2007, when the European-American department of the foreign ministry was split into two, Bagheri Kani headed the European department.

However, in 2008, Iran started a new round of nuclear negotiations with the West, which was then headed by the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC). Jalili led the talks as SNSC secretary. During negotiations, Bagheri Kani left the foreign ministry to serve as Jalili’s top deputy. The talks during the Jalili era were not really negotiations, as Jalili and his entourage often lectured their Western counterparts about imperialism and the “crimes” committed by the United States, without making meaningful progress.

The failure of these talks provided the background to the 2013 presidential elections, in which the centrist Hassan Rouhani was backed by reformists pitted against four conservative candidates, including Jalili. Rouhani ran explicitly on a platform of getting a nuclear deal with the West that could ease the sanctions on the Iranian economy. In contrast, Jalili championed his track record at the talks. Bagheri Kani led Jalili’s 2013 electoral campaign and held a debate on foreign policy with Mahmud Vaezi, Rouhani’s chief of staff, in which the latter accused Jalili of having a Taliban-like foreign policy. Rouhani won the election with 50.7 percent, while Jalili finished third with 11.4 percent.

When Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, led the nuclear talks, Bagheri Kani was a major critic who often spoke against them in the parliament, both before and after the 2015 deal. He also wrote several op-eds against Rouhani’s pursuit of the agreement. Bagheri Kani went as far as claiming that Khamenei wasn’t truly in favor of the deal, although he publicly supported it. In 2023, Bagheri Kani wrote a foreword to the unauthorized Persian translation of Not for the Faint of Heart, a memoir by Wendy Sherman, a leading US diplomat and a key negotiator of the 2015 deal. Translated by one of Raisi’s top aides, the book is riddled with deliberate mistranslations, as first revealed by IranWire, that aim to portray Sherman in conspiratorial colors. In the foreword, Bagheri Kani clarified his position by calling Iran’s talks with the United States “a bitter historical experience.”

In 2020, in the final years of the Rouhani administration, Bagheri Kani went to the judiciary, which was then headed by Raisi. Bagheri Kani headed the judiciary’s High Council of Human Rights, which was founded in 2005 to overcome the massive international pressure on Iran over its dismal human rights situation. Its main job is denouncing United Nations human rights procedures, with which Iran doesn’t collaborate.

The new Bagheri Kani?

When Raisi became president in 2021 after an engineered presidential election, Bagheri Kani went back to the foreign ministry, heading the talks aimed at renewing the very deal he had so bitterly critiqued. Unlike his predecessor, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, Bagheri Kani wasn’t that media friendly. But in a speech for the faculty of a teacher-training university in Tehran in 2023, he shocked some by criticizing “those who, under the cover of defending values, want to portray any negotiations as opposed to values.” In regime speak, this counted as a turnaround. The centrist and reformist press even started speaking of a “new Bagheri Kani” who now understood the importance of diplomatic talks with the West. On May 25, a former diplomat told reformist daily Etemad that Bagheri Kani’s position had changed when he saw the difficulties of engaging in the talks compared to safely critiquing them from the sidelines.

Bagheri Kani’s intense negotiations with the European Union—which was also acting on behalf of the United States—resulted in a text publicly defended in 2022 by European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. But Tehran rejected the text. A month later, the eruption of the Women, Life, Freedom anti-regime protests made any talks with Tehran radioactive for the West. With the movement in retreat and the region in turmoil following Hamas’s attacks on Israel on October 7, 2023, the talks have been ongoing again, if often clandestinely, now covering regional issues as well as the nuclear file. Bagheri Kani has reportedly led many of these talks. Yet, some reports allege that the nuclear file is now led by Ali Shamkhani, Iran’s secretary of the SNSC until his dismissal last year. Bagheri Kani, however, has neither confirmed nor denied these reports. At the same time, Rouhani insiders such as Vaezi and Zarif have vociferously criticized Shamkhani, claiming that he was an obstacle to the nuclear talks. Whomever is Iran’s next president and foreign minister would need to navigate these difficult domestic and international dynamics in pursuit of any diplomatic talks with the West.

Bagheri Kani seems to be aware of the stakes. Speaking at the memorial of his boss, he highlighted how difficult the job of a top diplomat was and said, “It won’t be an easy job for whoever becomes the next foreign minister.” He was seen smiling, surely thinking that someone might very well be himself.

Arash Azizi is a writer and scholar. He is the author of The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the US and Iran’s Global Ambitions and What Iranians Want. Follow him on X: @arash_tehran.

Further reading

Image: FILE PHOTO: Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian speaks with Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani before a meeting with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in Tehran, Iran June 23, 2022. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS