Senior former Iranian diplomats are expressing open criticism of their government, warning that by failing to revive the nuclear deal and supplying drones to Russia in Ukraine, the country risks becoming isolated, its economy weakened and the protest movement emboldened.
The increasingly stark warnings may reflect the views of a waning old guard of reformist diplomats, but appear to echo a live battle within the government over strategy and policy.
Hamid Aboutalebi, a former envoy to the EU and former political adviser to the previous president, Hassan Rouhani, tweeted on Monday that “Iranian foreign policy has been captured by extremists”.
The longest blast has come from Seyyid Mohammad Sadr, the former head of the foreign affairs ministry’s Europe division and still a serving member of the Expediency Council, the main advisory body to the supreme leader.
In a front-page interview with the Etemaad newspaper, he said feared Iran had thrown away “a golden opportunity” to revive the nuclear deal and suggested the country had abandoned its neutrality in Ukraine, leaving Tehran exposed to American claims of war crimes by supplying drones for use against Ukrainian civilians.
Jalal Sadatian, a senior diplomat in the UK between 1982 and 1986, said “a way must be found to answer the current human rights issues so that a meeting can be held again to revive the [the Iran nuclear talks] and reach an understanding. Europeans don’t act based on emotions, and if some of their interests are secured, they may adjust their approach.”
In November, a group of 36 retired diplomats signed a carefully framed joint statement claiming grave mistakes in Iran’s foreign policy were having a damaging knock-on effect domestically. Urging the country’s leaders to listen to the youth, they expressed concern about Iran’s moral position if it played the dangerous game of supplying weapons to Russia.
Nosratollah Tajik, one of the signatories and the former ambassador to Jordan, said a closed elite had locked Iran into a dangerous space by allying with Russia over Ukraine. He warned: “Becoming a belligerent in the Russia-Ukraine war will cause the economic situation of Iran to collapse, create more public dissatisfaction and challenge the government’s authority to solve political, social and economic problems.”
Sadr in his Etemaad interview said he feared it was Iranian negotiators that prevented a deal from being reached to revive the nuclear agreement, adding he had warned the Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, personally that if the issues blocking the deal were left unresolved, “all the economic pressures would be on his government’s shoulders”.
He said opposition to reviving the nuclear deal came from three sources: “Some security forces; those who benefit from the [western] sanctions; and the third group of people [are those] who do not have a proper understanding of foreign policy and international relations.”
He warned: “According to official statistics, at least 30% of the people are below the poverty line, meat and fruit are being removed from the food basket of many people, the unemployment rate and inflation are increasing every day. Unfortunately, some people do not know the conditions in which people live and have closed their eyes to the realities of society.”
He predicted the country would become increasingly isolated partly due to the executions of protesters, adding its diplomats may be expelled from some EU countries.
Some Iranian commentators have warned Iran is on the brink of a crisis in its relations with Europe to match the moment when Iranian diplomats were thrown out by 13 European countries after a German court in 1992 ruled that Iranian agents had assassinated three Iranian Kurdish opposition leaders in a Berlin restaurant.
Sadr warned Russia may have dealt “a fatal blow” to Iran by attacking Ukraine. Russia put itself into a confrontation with the whole of Europe and “made us its partner in crime”.
The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has shown his support for Moscow, saying that “if Russia hadn’t sent troops into Ukraine, it would have faced an attack from Nato later”.
The foreign ministry, after some denials, admitted it supplied a small number of drones to Moscow, but not specifically for use in Ukraine. The ministry has remained evasive about whether it will supply Russia with missiles or ask it to stop using its drones.