Iranian President Is Sworn In and Presents a New Cabinet of Familiar Faces, Including Javad Zarif

In an August 5, 2013, New York Times article entitled, “Iranian President Sworn In and Presents His New Cabinet of Familiar Faces,” the events surrounding Hassan Rouhani’s swearing in ceremony, and his press conference afterward, were reported.  According to the article, Rouhani, in a speech after the ceremony offered hope to the Iranian people and a new path for Iran internationally.  Rouhani, the New York Times explained, stated that his election showed the Iranian people want ‘to live free,” and “are longing for change and progress.”  Regarding his cabinet, the article noted Rouhani’s choice for foreign minister, Javad Zarif, “raised the most eyebrows.”  This was a curious statement concerning Zarif.  Yet, the article did not discuss what was meant by it.  Rather it went on to explain Zarif, 53, has lived half his life in the US.  It stated that he is fluent in English and served from 2002 to 2007 as Iran’s ambassador to the UN.  The New York Times piece also noted that Zarif was part of Rouhani’s negotiating team, which in 2003, struck a deal with European states to temporarily suspend uranium enrichment.  Zarif still needs to be confirmed by Parliament.  Looking at Zarif’s background and experience, he would appear to be an obvious choice for foreign minister.  No one who has ever had the opportunity to interact directly with Zarif would doubt his qualification for the post.  For the US, his selection creates the best possibility for positive progress to be made in US-Iran relations.

As the member of who had the privilege to interact with Zarif and his associates at the Iranian Mission to the UN on numerous occasions while he was Iran’s permanent representative to the UN, my colleagues at greatcharlie have urged me to weigh-in with a few insights on Javad Zarif, and explain why he is an excellent choice for foreign minister.  This approach was more acceptable than having another culleague write a report on Zarif in the abstract, basing it simply on reports and articles. Previously, my colleagues urged me, having visted Iran during the period of Hassan Rouhani’s tenure as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and having met with members of that organization, to weigh-in with a few insights on how Hassan Rouhani may perceive events occurring in Syria.  The result was the July 3rd past entitled “The President-elect of Iran Says He Will Engage the West, But Don’t Think He Will Give in to It.”  Seeking to remain discreet concerning my discussions with Zarif and his associates, presented is some information that may shed light on his perspectives on foreign policy and diplomacy.

Zarif is a highly intelligent, very energetic, very capable, and considerate gentleman that would be a pleasure for anyone to meet.  He holds a Ph.D. in International Law and Policy from the Graduate School of International Studies of the University of Denver.  Zarif was acreer diplomat and served in different senior positions in the Iranian Foreign Ministry.  In addition to being a diplomat, he served as a Visiting Professor of International Law at Tehran University, teaching human rights, international law, and multilateral diplomacy.  Zarif played a leading role at the UN, the Non-aligned Movement, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.  He has written extensively on disarmament, human rights, international law, regional conflicts, and US-Iran relations. 

At the Mission of Iran to the UN, Zarif’s associates described him as being professional capable, honest, forthright, generous, friendly, and very likable.  They would often explain how it was a privilege to work with someone so dedicated, motivated each day to work hard for his country and tackle its most critical issues on the international stage.  They claimed that his enthusiasm was contagious.  In the mission, Zarif changed the stark office surroundings maintained by his predecessor with leather upholstered furniture and the superb wool carpets and runners from Iran.  Books, “copper-work” trays and vases, and ceramics were brought in.  Unique and exquisite paintings from Zarif’s personal art collection adorned the walls of the mission’s rooms and halls.  A memorable piece was a faintly brush stroked image of a cragged mountain top on camel skin by an artist named Tabrizi located in the meeting room.

Zarif was extremely popular in New York and wherever he spoke in the US–whenever he was able to travel beyond the limits set on travel for Iranian diplomats in the US.  He would give brilliant speeches at think-tanks, membership organizations, and colleges and universities on Iran, US-Iran relations, and other important issues in international affairs.  Zarif’s door at the Iranian Mission to the UN was usually open to academics, think-tank analysts, research fellows, independent scholars, journalists, students, business leaders, and nearly anyone else, when he had time available, to respond to questions or simply discuss Iran.  Zarif was a student of US, and through these interactions, he managed to keep his finger on America’s pulse.

Talking to Zarif about Iran’s foreign policy, he often would seek to counter very negative perspectives proffered by academics, scholars, and analysts on the formulation and implementation of Iran’s foreign policy.  Most common was the idea that Iran’s policies were based on revolutionary zeal and that Tehran was reactionary, never basing its decisions on strategy or giving strong consideration to outcomes.  All those who ever met with Zarif could probably quote his mantra on Iran, calling it “a country not in revolution, but in evolution.”  In that respect, policy formulation and implementation by the Islamic republic today is quite different than it was previous years, and it continues to develop.  In Zarif’s view, it was the US that was unable to look the future with hope, and only looked to the past with bitterness.  Nevertheless, Zarif believed strongly that dialogue was critical to developing and maintaining positive relations between states.  Those familiar Zarif also were likely gifted with a copy of Crossing the Divide, Dialogue Among Civilizations, published by the School of Diplomacy and International Relations of Seton Hall University.  The precepts compiled in the book were those of Zarif and other UN permanent representatives, and academics, seeking to explain how to establish a constructive dialogue among nations now and into the future, in the face of growing challenges to global peace and security.

Given his dedication to the notion of dialogue as the key to global peace and security, it was no wonder that Zarif, while at the UN, fell into the unofficial role of “the UN diplomat’s mentor.”  Senior diplomats from other UN Member States, with either issues before the UN Security Council or in negotiations, unrelated to Iran, would very often seek Zarif;s counsel, knowing that he would bring to the discussion his expertise on UN procedure and some fresh thinking.  More often than not, his advice on an issue would make a positive difference.  Zarif’s efforts to find solutions to an array of different issues were authentic, and most likely driven by his intellectual curiosity, and to some degree, by empathy.  Being an Iranian diplomat, he could understand the dilemma of others facing difficult negotiations or an impasse.  Few states that received Zarif’s assistance in this manner ever publicly acknowledged his efforts.  The legitimate fear of admonishment or retribution from the US was very likely the rationale for that behavior.  (Interestingly, it could be argued that Zarif’s position of establishing and maintaining a dialogue with other states fell within Rouhani’s concept expressed in a book on foreign affairs which is, “We [Iran] need to keep a good relation with the people; only with them we can continue to resist and confront the U.S.A.”)

The strong sense of patriotism that Zarif possessed for his country would become most apparent whenever Iran’s nuclear energy program was being discussed.  Zarif would emphasize that Iran did not have nuclear weapons and did not seek to have them.   He would explain that nuclear weapons only serve as a deterrent, and if a state concealed the fact that it had them, the weapons’ use as a deterrent would be lost.  Zarif made it clear that Iran recognized its right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to which it was committed, as well as the comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.  Demands at the time by the Bush administration for greater compliance and verification were viewed by Zarif as an effort to politicize and undermine the International Atomic Energy Agency’s system of inspection and voluntary verification.

In one meeting, Zarif explained that it would be irresponsible for Iranian government not to seek access to more diversified and secure sources of energy.  Although Iran is rich in oil and gas, those resources are finite.  He stated that the Iranian population was projected to grow to 103 million by 2050.  Zarfi predicted that the increased demand for energy resources with that population growth would result in the total depletion of oil and gas resources within 20 to 30 years.  He saw the US demand that Iran rely on fossil energy as a recipe for disaster in his country.  Moreover, Zarif would explain that attempting to adjust to meet the increase in domestic demand for energy would reduce the availability of energy to meet foreign demand.  That would result in a dramatic reduction in Iran’s oil import revenues.  Iran’s national economy, which is reliant upon those revenues, would suffer immensely.  Zarif saw the proposal that Iran could keep a nuclear energy program under the requirement that it compromise by acquiring fuel for its multi-billion dollar nuclear program from Russia or other foreign states as counterintuitive.  By doing so, Zarif assessed Iran would by subjecting itself to the political whims of suppliers in a tightly controlled market.

Upon the arrival of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the scene, change was sought in the approach to formulating and implementing Iran’s foreign policy.  The goal of Ahmadinejad and his adviser was to put policy making in line with his their more aggressive approach to relating with the world.  While revised histories of Ahmadinejad’s presidency point to disappointment among the populace and its failures internationally, that was not completely the case, particularly in his first term.  Ahmadinejad took over Iran’s presidency at a time when Iran had faced threats of coercive diplomacy, pre-emptive strikes and  military options.  Iran was called part of an “Axis of Evil.”  US and other foreign troops occupied Iran’s neighbors east and west, in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Ahmadinejad engaged in fiery exchanges with the West, and made it clear to his conservative leaning political base that he was prepared to pursue and engage Iran’s adversaries.  He presided over Iran’s support of Hezbollah in its war with Israel in 2006, which resulted in Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon.  He ramped up Iran’s efforts against US and coalition forces in Iraq, using the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Quds Force to train Iraqi Shi’a militias and to allegedly supply sophisticated rocket propelled explosive devices to insurgents.  He facilitated Hezbollah’s entry into the Iraq conflict.  He intensified counter-narcotics efforts and waged a counter-terror war against Jundallah along Iran’s border with Pakistan.  In Afghanistan, he directed the Quds Force to work with elements of the Taliban against US and coalition forces, and had them strengthen Iran’s influence over towns and villages in Afghan provinces along Iran’s eastern border.  (This was all quite contrary to Iran’s initial effort after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US, in which it worked in tandem with the US led military effort supporting the Northern Alliance and playing a constructive role in the Bonn Process that brought Afghan President Hamid Karzai to power.)

Ahmadinejad’s momentum on the international stage posed problems for those involved in Iran’s diplomatic efforts.  He selected Manoucher Mottaki as foreign minister.  Mottaki proved to be a capable diplomat. (Perhaps this is in part why he was relieved in 2010.)  However, Ahmadinejad wanted to effect more change.  He viewed many of Iran’s seasoned diplomats as being out of step with his foreign policy concept.  Ahmadinejad culled the foreign ministry of such personnel and relieved several ambassadors of their posts.  Although he accomplished much during Ahmadinejad first term, and worked well with Foreign Minister Mottaki, Zarif became an obvious target for Ahmadinejad and his advisers.  In 2007, Zarif was called back to Tehran.  However, it was thought by some in the Iranian community that Zarif faced a greater issue than being called home.  Tension was thick during a gathering organized on June 25, 2007, by the Iranian Mission to the UN to bid Zarif farewell, as rumors gently floated in the room that Zarif might encounter difficulties from very dangerous extremists in Ahmadinejad’s camp.  Those extremists viewed Zarif in particular as being debris from the weak administration of President Mohammad Khatami which sought compromise with the West, even the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program.  They were disinterested in Zarif’s intellect, experience, and capabilities.  Zarif returned to Iran, and apparently was never harmed. 

US Secretary of State John Kerry is a very discreet person who undoubtedly has an interest in improving relations with Iran.  Zarif is someone with whom Kerry would be able to have a dialogue and with which Kerry would be able to form a good relationship.  The US needs to talk directly with Iran.  Rouhani, before and after he was sworn in, indicated a willingness to have direct talks with the US.  However, no one in the administration of US President Barack Obama should expect miracles.  Iran will not simply give up its nuclear program at this juncture.  In fact, the August 5th, New York Times article stated, “Rouhani emphasized that sanctions and even war, would not change the minds of Iran’s leaders regarding the nuclear program.”  Demanding Iran give up its nuclear program, as a first step in talks, will only lead to greater tension. 

There is a need for continued contact and communication between Washington and Tehran over time.  Efforts such as the proposal by the US Congress to impose further sanctions on Iran just before Rouhani took office might normally put up barriers to Washington or Tehran initiating dialogue.  However, it is such very poorly timed incidents and other encumbrances coming from both sides that Kerry and Zarif could work through.  Diplomacy works around the world, and Zarif is great at it.  Rather than raise eyebrows, Zarif’s selection as foreign minister should have been met by smiles in both the US and Iran.

1 thought on “Iranian President Is Sworn In and Presents a New Cabinet of Familiar Faces, Including Javad Zarif

  1. Pingback: A Breakthrough Agreement at Risk; An Unorthodox Approach Might Support It | greatcharlie

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