The face of Iranian diplomacy
Much of the success in achieving a breakthrough in the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 Group may go to Iranian chief diplomat Mohamed Javad Zarif, argues Salah Nasrawi
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei might be the ultimate power in Iran, but if there is one Iranian the world will remember as being behind the breakthrough in the nuclear talks with the world’s major powers it will be Foreign Minister and chief negotiator Mohamed Javad Zarif.
As chief diplomat of a nation long considered as an international pariah, Zarif has led a diplomatic charm offensive to break his country’s international isolation since he was appointed foreign minister by President Hassan Rouhani in 2013.
In contrast to former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration, which isolated Iran over its nuclear programme and hardline foreign policy, Zarif’s diplomacy has seemed to signal Iran’s preparedness under Rouhani to move away from tough stances on its controversial nuclear programme.
Under the tentative framework agreement he and his team of negotiators reached with representatives of the world powers (the US, Britain, Russia, France and China plus Germany), Iran will keep its uranium enrichment capabilities, though there will be restrictions so that Tehran is unable to use the material in nuclear weapons.
In return, the United States and European Union will terminate all nuclear-related economic sanctions on Iran once the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirms that Iran has complied. All UN Security Council sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear programme will be lifted immediately if a final deal is agreed.
Who is this Iranian diplomat who received a hero’s welcome from jubilant Iranians upon his return from the talks amid hopes that the pact he has reached will end years of Tehran’s international isolation?
Zarif was born in 1959 to “a traditional religious family” in Tehran, according to his biography which is posted on the Website of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
He received his primary and high school education at a private institution in Tehran. According to some accounts, during this turbulent period in Iran’s history he became exposed to religious ideology, including the ideas of Ali Shariati, a famous Iranian intellectual who is sometimes dubbed the ideologue of the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
At age 16, Zarif left Iran for the United States for “security reasons,” apparently to avoid harassment by the secret police of the pro-US Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi who was deposed by the revolution.
In the United States, Zarif attended Drew College Preparatory School, a private school in San Francisco, before joining San Francisco State University from which he received a Bachelors degree and then a Masters degree in International Relations.
Zarif continued his postgraduate studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, from which he obtained a second Masters in International Relations in 1984 and a PhD in International Law and Policy in 1988.
His doctoral dissertation was entitled “Self-Defence in International Law and Policy.”
While still studying in the US, Zarif was appointed a member of the Iranian delegation to the United Nations in May 1982, apparently because of the close ties he had built with the new Islamic regime in Tehran.
After long service as junior diplomat, Zarif was promoted to Iran’s representative at the United Nations in 2002. During his tenure in UN headquarters he participated in international gatherings, and in 2000 Zarif served as chairman of the Asian preparatory meeting of the World Conference on Racism and chairman of the United Nations Disarmament Commission.
At the UN, Zarif also held private meetings with a number of top Washington politicians, including Vice-President Joe Biden and former secretary of defence Chuck Hagel, then prominent US senators.
Zarif left office in 2007 and upon his return to Iran he joined Tehran University as a professor of international law. Later he served as vice-president of the Islamic Azad University in charge of foreign affairs from 2010 to 2012.
Zarif served on the boards of a number of academic publications, including the Iranian Journal of International Affairs and Iranian Foreign Policy, and he has written extensively on disarmament, human rights, international law and regional conflicts.
On 4 August 2013, Zarif was named minister of foreign affairs by the newly elected moderate Rouhani. He was confirmed by parliament with 232 votes.
Zarif has a son and a daughter, both of whom are married and live in Iran.
Despite criticisms by hawks, the nuclear deal which Zarif has signed has been overwhelmingly backed by Iran’s establishment, including Rouhani who pledged in a speech to the nation that Iran would abide by its commitments under the agreement.
If finalised, the agreement will cut significantly into Tehran’s bomb-capable nuclear technology while giving Iran quick access to bank accounts, oil markets and other financial assets blocked by international sanctions.
Proponents have noted that the deal, reached after 18 months of drawn-out negotiations, has proved that diplomacy is not futile and force is not inevitable.
For the negotiator of a country that has been constantly accused of embracing hidden agendas, the personal traits, international experience and professional skills of Zarif seem to have played a key part in making reaching the deal easier.
Many analysts have attributed the breakthrough in the talks to Zarif’s skills in building confidence with his counterparts, many of them maintaining scepticism about Iran’s readiness to reveal secrets about its nuclear programme.
In this regard, Zarif may have succeeded in breaking one of the persistent orientalist clichés of Iranians having a “bazaar mentality,” being expert carpet merchants of duplicity and deception.
Indeed, Zarif proved to be a shrewd politician and seasoned intellectual by brushing up on his history and religious lessons to push his arguments.
One of Zarif’s efforts during the negotiations was to counter Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign to torpedo the deal by claiming that Iran would eventually produce a nuclear weapon and try to destroy Israel.
In an interview with the US news channel NBC, Zarif said that “Iran saved the Jews three times in its history,” referring to the Persian king Cyrus who ordered the Jews of Babylon to return home from captivity after he conquered the Babylonian Empire in the 6th Century BCE.
Zarif said Netanyahu distorted both the current reality and writings in Jewish sources and the Bible.
“It is unfortunate that Netanyahu now totally distorts the realities of today,” Zarif said. “He even distorts his own scripture. If you read the Book of Esther, you will see that it was the Iranian king who saved the Jews,” Zarif said.
But Zarif’s diplomacy has also made him plenty of enemies at home, especially among hawks who have always refused to make concessions on the country’s nuclear programme.
But again Zarif has been proved to possess the skills needed to address both foreign and local detractors.
The ideals set by the late Imam Khomeini and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei were embodied in the nuclear talks held in the Swiss city of Lausanne, he said.
He also came under attack from hardliners for a stroll he took with US Secretary of State John Kerry in downtown Geneva and along the Rhone River for almost 15 minutes on 14 January as part of the bilateral talks.
At least 25 Iranian MPs signed a petition to question Zarif on the issue, calling the stroll “a diplomatic mistake.”
Zarif’s deal has been overwhelmingly backed by Iran’s establishment, however. He even returned to Tehran to a hero’s welcome as thousands of people desperate for an end to international sanctions greeted him at the airport.
But it remains to be seen if the deal will be wrecked by hardliners in Iran who have always preferred their “death to America and Israel” sloganeering to skillful diplomacy and making deals with the “Great Satan.”