The P5+1 group, comprised of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, is convening in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Tuesday to discuss Iran’s nuclear program. The two-day meeting follows inconclusive talks that were held last year in Istanbul, Baghdad, and Moscow. Iran watchers are hoping for modest progress after the U.S. signaled its willingness to roll back some sanctions on the country, in exchange for Iran halting the bulk of its controversial nuclear activity.
Here’s a deeper look at the key players around the negotiating table, which may lend insight into how the talks will progress.
Iran is represented by Dr. Saeed Jalili, a soft-spoken, yet hard-line, Iranian politician who has served as Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and lead nuclear negotiator since 2007. He is reportedly a favorite of Iran’s Supreme Leader, who approved his appointment to his current position and values his loyalty. In 2005, he rose from more junior positions Iran’s Foreign Ministry to serve as an adviser to President Ahmadinejad, an old personal friend, and deputy foreign minister for European and American Affairs. He previously served in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps on the front lines of the Iran-Iraq War, where he suffered a serious leg injury that forced his retirement from the military.
Jalili’s name is increasingly mentioned as a possible successor to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which has put him front and center in Iran’s domestic political struggle between its Supreme Leader and current president. Western interlocutors describe him as ideologically rigid, overly theoretical and academic, and an apparatchik of the Iranian regime.
2. The U.S.
Wendy Sherman, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, is representing the U.S. She manages day-to-day regional policy issues and is the Department’s point person on Iran. A political appointee with a close relationship to the Clintons, she previously served as State Department counselor and policy coordinator for North Korea and assistant secretary of legislative affairs under President Clinton.
Sherman is a fixture of the democratic foreign policy community and has also served on the Department of Defense’s Defense Policy Board, the Congressionally-appointed Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation and Terrorism, and as chair of the Board of Oxfam America. Sherman is reportedly staying in her current position and will not be immediately replaced 3/4 in contrast to other under secretaries of state.
3. Great Britain, France, and Germany
Baroness Catherine Ashton is a U.K. Labour Party politician who represents the U.K., France, and Germany at the P5+1 talks in her capacity as the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy. She concurrently serves as vice president of the European Commission and oversees the Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. Ashton previously served as EU trade commissioner and as leader of the U.K. House of Lords. Relatively unknown in European foreign policy circles before her appointment as High Representative in 2009, she held various political positions in the U.K., including in the Ministry of Justice and Department of Education during Prime Minister Blair’s government.
China is represented in Almaty by Assistant Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu, who has responsibility for international organizations and arms control. A career diplomat and former debate champion, he previously served at several overseas diplomatic posts, including the Chinese Mission to the UN in New York, the Chinese Embassy in the U.K., and the Chinese Embassy and Mission to the EU in Brussels. He was appointed to his current position in late 2011 after serving most recently as director general of information and foreign ministry spokesperson. He represented China at previous P5+1 negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, including in Baghdad in May 2012.
Finally, Russia is represented by Sergei Ryabkov, a career Russian diplomat who has served as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs since 2008. He previously served for six years in senior positions at the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and as director of the Foreign Ministry Department of European Cooperation. In statements leading up to today’s talks, Ryabkov expressed optimism about significant progress being achieved and cautioned against allowing long gaps like the eight month hiatus between the May 2012 talks and February 2013 talks, which could slow progress of future talks.
The venue of today’s talks is symbolic, because Kazakhstan proactively gave up the large nuclear arsenal it inherited from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. While the outcome remains unclear, the key negotiators are all veterans of the P5+1 discussions and know the importance of their task.
Hopefully, Iran — and its lead negotiator Saeed Jalili — will respond constructively to a joint offer from the P5+1 to hold future talks focused on finding ways for Iran to ease tensions with the international community.