Can Iran’s New U.S.-Educated Foreign Minister Mend Ties With Washington?

Mohammad Javad Zarif, the man tapped to be Iran's next Foreign Minister, has been dealing with the U.S. for over two decades. Can he lead the push for rapprochement?

  • Share
  • Read Later
ABEDIN TAHERKENAREH / EPA

From left: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani talks to Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the presidential office in Tehran, on Aug. 4, 2013

The U.S. and Iran maintain no formal diplomatic ties. Neither country stations an ambassador in the other’s capital nor do their top diplomats talk to each other all that much. Three decades of tensions mean both American and Iranian politicians are far more practiced at demonizing the other than reaching compromise. But Mohammad Javad Zarif has long proved an important exception to the rule: the Iranian career diplomat received a doctorate at the University of Denver, his children were born in the U.S., and his fluent English carries little trace of an accent. As Iran’s ambassador to the U.N. from 2002 to ’07, he built up a world of contacts in Washington, even once taking a train on his own from New York City to call on a Senator in the U.S. capital. Here’s an Iranian who can speak American. And here is Iran’s next Foreign Minister.

Zarif’s appointment was announced Aug. 4 by new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani following the latter’s inauguration. A forthcoming confirmation vote in parliament is expected to be a formality. His emergence alongside Rouhani, say some analysts, marks a hopeful shift in Iranian foreign policy from the bellicose antics of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose eight years in power deepened the Islamic Republic’s isolation and led to rounds of international sanctions that hobbled Iran’s economy. Rouhani, a moderate cleric, has used the days since assuming office to extend an olive branch to the U.S., expressing his wish for “serious and substantive” talks. Zarif will be at the helm of this new effort. “I think we should be very optimistic,” says Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American writer and commentator based in New York City. “Zarif is far more capable of compromise and diplomacy, which was virtually nonexistent under Ahmadinejad.”

Zarif, 53, is a known entity in Washington, with some 20 years of experience in dealing with American interlocutors. Since Iran has no formal ties to the U.S., its mission at the U.N. is doubly important, attracting some of the country’s sharpest civil servants. “There’s a tradition of clever, subtle Iranian diplomats,” says Álvaro de Soto, a former senior U.N. official. “A sense of thousands of years of Iranian history and culture informs their diplomacy deeply — there’s no question about it.” Zarif distinguished himself in particular and was seen by colleagues to be a talented, suave operator who charmed many on Manhattan’s diplomatic circuit. He faced the American press, including an appearance on the Charlie Rose show, and was able to speak with both confidence and candor.

Alongside Rouhani, he was one of Iran’s lead negotiators in a 2003 bid to achieve a “grand bargain” with the U.S. over Tehran’s nuclear program — negotiations that collapsed after the Bush Administration lumped Iran together with North Korea and Iraq into the “axis of evil.” Two years earlier, in 2001, Zarif was Iran’s main representative at the Bonn Conference, which brought together regional players in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the ousting of the Taliban. His American counterpart at the summit, James Dobbins — who was recently named the Obama Administration’s special envoy to Afghanistan — wrote in the January 2010 issue of the Washington Quarterly about both of the Iranian’s good humor and seriousness about getting things done. The two met repeatedly “over morning coffee and cakes” and worked together to thrash out a deal that led to the installation of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government weeks later in Kabul. It was the most successful instance of joint U.S.-Iranian diplomacy since the 1979 Revolution.

But Zarif’s appointment won’t thaw relations between Washington and Tehran overnight. “People who are celebrating should be a little more cautious,” says Edward Luck, a former high-ranking U.N. official who is now dean of the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego. “We’ll get a better face, better music, but the basic fundamentals of the relationship with the U.S. will be the last thing to change, not the first.”

As Foreign Minister, Zarif of course will have a global agenda, not just an American one, and will enter office at a delicate moment at home. “He will have to be a little careful, he’ll have to look over his right flank,” says Luck. The Rouhani Administration has to wade through an economic mess inherited from Ahmadinejad’s tenure and do damage control in the neighborhood. Relations with key regional players like Saudi Arabia are at the lowest of ebbs. “There’s also the situation with the Arab Spring, conflicts in Syria, tensions in Egypt. The U.S. is not the central part of the conversation,” says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, which seeks to build bridges between Washington and Tehran.

Iranian nuclear policy, moreover, is dictated by the Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, who has presided over a decade of intensifying enmity with the U.S. Zarif is known to be close to Khamenei and will not likely be rewriting many scripts in Tehran. After the 2005 election of Ahmadinejad — a demagogic firebrand who, according to some observers, frustrated Zarif deeply — Zarif managed to keep his post at the U.N. for a year and a half even as many of his peers in the Iranian diplomatic corps lost their jobs. “Even if he didn’t agree with Ahmadinejad,” says Majd, “Zarif is patriotic and loyal to his government and country.” Moreover, after the disappointment Zarif, Rouhani and others experienced when attempting negotiations with the U.S. a decade ago — “they were the ones who got burned,” says Parsi — their return to prominence may mean simply a more cautious Iranian approach to nuclear talks, not the more conciliatory one some in the U.S. seem to expect.

Meanwhile, despite the changing of the guard in Tehran, Washington’s hawkishness shows little sign of abating. On the same day last week that news leaked of Zarif’s appointment, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a tough new sanctions bill on Iran, which will go to the Senate in September after summer recess. On Monday, 76 U.S. Senators signed a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to ratchet up the pressure on Iran. This adversarial climate won’t lead to productive diplomacy, says Vali Nasr, a former foreign policy adviser to the Obama Administration and dean of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. “If [the American] approach is going to continue to be demands backed by escalating sanctions, it will not matter who Iran’s chief diplomat is. There will be no forward movement,” Nasr tells TIME. While Zarif may be a figure with whom the U.S. can do business, he will only succeed, says Nasr, “in so far as he can show Tehran that diplomacy pays dividends.” That requires signals from Washington that it, too, desires engagement and rapprochement, Nasr says. The White House should put forward its own “serious interlocutor,” he adds.

A lot has to happen before the hope that surrounds Iran’s new leadership translates into tangible progress on the diplomatic stage. But if Zarif musters both the charm and endeavor on display while he was stationed at the U.N., he might be able to help usher in a new era of communication between Iran and the U.S. “In political systems [like the one in Iran], where institutions aren’t that strong, personalities make a huge difference,” says Parsi. “And Zarif is a heavyweight.”

85 comments
msteckchandani
msteckchandani

@ishaantharoor A Heavy weight Articulate write up ,full of perception Thoughts well presented and Projected -Appreciations

Ocsicnarf
Ocsicnarf

i dont like Iranian foreign policy ( nor US) and i dont expect much improvement.however a little step from psicosis should be welcome.


AdamGoharpour
AdamGoharpour

Netanyahu has been saying Iran is 1-2 years from nuclear weapons capability since 1992. By his logic Iran would have a massive stockpile by now. He doesn't care about the cost of war with Iran because he expects the US to bear the brunt of it. We gotta learn that Israel doesn't care about American interests at all. They know Iran would be a better partner than they are.

BigPeteLangdon
BigPeteLangdon

Do we really want to even talk about mending ties?  These guys are a pain in the neck to every nation in the region.  They act like they're the Islamic voice, but even the Saudi's fear them.  And do you know why?  The regime's nuts, they fear one tiny state they don't share a border with, and one resistance organization that has been struggling against them for decades, it's a little ridiculous.

CondonKen
CondonKen

@TIME He will try but the US will have nothing to do with it

Josue_Quinones
Josue_Quinones

@TIME this can make us as a globe a better chance for the future. I have faith in the foreign minister peace be with you and Iran.

highjack79
highjack79

@TIME thought it was English I know it's hard to believe but that's what we speak

EarthView
EarthView

There is nothing that Iran can do to bring the U.S. out of its delusions. It is as if the U.S. is in a trance and it is completely unaware of what is going on in the world. Congress just keeps passing more sanctions bills authored by AIPAC and Obama is busy vacationing or playing golf. There is no prospect of a detente.

Iran should just forget about stupid USA and concentrate in building its economy and trading with the rest of the world. The US is hopelessly lost. It belongs in an insane asylum.

Bob Newman
Bob Newman

It would sure beat another costly war.

sam777
sam777

It is a shame that AIPAC and the Zionist lobby has hijacked US. Even the US Business Chamber calculated that American companies have lost over $300 billion worth of business and 150,000 high paying jobs in the US due to these idiotic sanctions and unnecessary hostility. Iran is a stable, rich, educated and highly civilized nation that has contributed immensely to humanity for the past 5000 years. It should be a natural ally to the US. 

The so-called nuclear issue is a farce being pushed by AIPAC and the Zionist entity, the real issue is the Zionist pipedream of regional hegemony and Iran which is a powerful non-Arab nation is viewed as an impediment by the Zionists. The US public and its deadbeat economy are the biggest losers from this completely unnecessary tension. US should look after its own economic and national interests and not let the crazy warmongering Zionists wag its tail. A renewed relationship with Iran is a WIN-WIN for both nations.

PAg
PAg

“There is absolutely no proof anywhere by any intelligence agency or any military organization” that Iran’s nuclear activities have been diverted toward military objectives“ Nevertheless, the propaganda against Iran has been such that in the United States even President Obama has talked about Iranian nuclear weapons. This is a major falsehood on the part of the American right-wing,”  Google "US interest groups blocking diplomacy with Iran: American professor"

PAg
PAg

“Every single time that the United States appears to be coming closer to reaching some kind of solution with Iran, then interest groups in the United States try to torpedo that effort,” William Beeman, a professor at the University of Minnesota, said in an interview with Press TV on Tuesday. Google: "US interest groups blocking diplomacy with Iran: American professor"

smehgol
smehgol

As a signatory to the Non Proliferation Treaty, Iran accepts continuing IAEA inspection and has an internationally recognized right to develop and implement nuclear technology. Having rejected both IAEA inspection and the NPT, Israel has no such right. Yet the Jewish State has hundreds of nukes and openly threatens Iran, actually campaigns for war against Iran. Israel, not Iran, is the warmonger. Resolution lies with lifting all sanctions and compensating Iran for damages from the $$$ billions we will no longer be giving the Jewish state. American foreign policy must again serve American interests, not the Jewish state's paranoid pursuit of invulnerability, territorial conquest and racist empire in and beyond the Mideast.

SumayaAJ
SumayaAJ

@TIME the last foreign minister was a graduate of MIT as well, being US educated doesn't change the fundamental beliefs they run on

Illuminati Nigeria
Illuminati Nigeria

Do you want to become the member of the sacred order of the illuminati or you want to cast a spell on your love one or your ex, or you need riches and fame then add us now or better still contact mr fred @ 07060550205 dont worry your identity is safe and no body will know.

Gary McLean-Quin
Gary McLean-Quin

It is a ray of hope. And the new president Rouhani was educated in Scotland, returning again there for his doctorate.

BigPeteLangdon
BigPeteLangdon

@EarthView Well, considering the US is the world's largest economy.  I'd think the Iranian people would get tired of being left in the dust all of the time and actually try to get a new and democratically chosen government in there, rather than the Ayatollah's personal draft choice.

BigPeteLangdon
BigPeteLangdon

@sam777 Yes you're right, it's all the Zionists.  Nothing to do with the fact that this is a country that seeks to destroy all people who don't agree with them.  

mikevolze
mikevolze

@PAg Well considering that the Wall Street Journal just ran an article disputing that fact, you might want to go check that out.  Or is that paper too biased for you?   This is a regime that kills its own people for not agreeing with them, and you think they're the good guys?

benyaminshaker
benyaminshaker

@SumayaAJ @TIME at least they have dignity, culture and history, terms not fimiliar to a an arab

EarthView
EarthView

@BigPeteLangdon @EarthView Have you been sleeping. Rohani was not Khamenei's choice. Their election was much more fair and democratic than the stupid American presidential elections which are based on money, insults and shenanigans.

As for the U.S. being the largest economy, big deal. EU has a bigger economy than the U.S. and China is close behind. The U.S. is just sanctioning itself when it bans trade with Iran. Do you have any idea how much Iran's industrial growth has advanced since the sanctions started? Also, Tehran's stock exchange has had the second best performance of any stock exchange in the world this year. So, just keep dreaming.

alex.reston
alex.reston

@benyaminshaker @azmalhome  

Why shouldn't America respect Iran? Does saber rattling ever work? We Americans should feel guilty for interfering in Iran's affairs in the past. Iran is oil and gas rich. We want access to those resources. All we do by sanctioning Iran is create an opportunity for our competitors to gain access to those resources at reduced rates at our expense.

mikevolze
mikevolze

@PAg @azmalhome What have they done to earn respect?  Everytime a truly secular leader arrives there they either kill him or he's imprisoned.  I shudder to think what would happen if it was a woman.