When it comes to being a nuclear negotiator, stress is just part of the job. But Iran’s newly minted Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif nearly overdosed on it Tuesday when a conservative newspaper in Iran misquoted him in such a way that it seemed he was trashing his new boss, President Hassan Rouhani. Never mind the gray hair (he has a head of it already), Zarif checked himself into the hospital after suffering acute back pain. Writing a lengthy post on Facebook
Zarif stated that he had been so troubled by a local newspaper story exposing a private conversation with lawmakers in the days prior that he canceled his meetings on Tuesday. “I experienced back and leg pain after reading a newspaper headline this morning,” he told his nearly half-million followers. “I could not even walk or sit. So I left the foreign ministry and went to a hospital.” The diagnosis, he said, was a muscle spasm brought on by stress.
The story, which ran on the front page of the conservative Kayhan Newspaper on Oct. 8, was topped with an explosive headline, a quote attributed to Zarif and referencing last month’s sudden warming of relations between the United States and Iran on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly: “Rouhani’s [phone] chat with Obama and my lengthy meeting with Kerry were inappropriate.” The story went on to detail a conversation between Zarif and other government officials about the U.N. visit and ties between the two countries. In his Facebook post Zarif fumed over what appeared to be an intentional leak. “It is a source of regret that an hour and a half of serious, earnest and private discussions with lawmakers – which had been clearly agreed to be secret and non-reportable – were summarized in a few sentences.” He went on to complain that his words were misrepresented, particularly in the headline. “Those quotes had nothing to do with my comprehensive argument… [The] content did not correspond to what I said.” In a press appearance on Wednesday, covered by the Mehr News Agency, Zarif was at pains to reiterate his satisfaction with the meetings. “I consider the New York trip a massive success for the government.” Kayhan, for its part, has continued to push the “improper” line, leading today’s paper with another Zarif quote saying that he did not deny the content of the reported conversation.
Kayhan has long been thought to have the ear of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, and is a reliable indicator of where the conservative branch of Iran’s leadership leans. But this time it may have gone too far – putting in Zarif’s mouth the conservatives’ own reservations about the rapidly warming relations between the U.S. and Iran. In the wake of the famous 15-minute telephone call between Rouhani and U.S. President Barack Obama, Khamenei did express some concern that it might have been too precipitous, telling military commanders and cadets in a speech on October 6 that while “We support the diplomatic initiative of the government and attach importance to its activities in this trip [to the U.N. General Assembly]….some of what happened in the New York trip was not appropriate.” HJe was quick, however, to add an unusually deferential qualifier: “Although we trust in our officials.” The speech was posted to Khamenei’s website. Zarif, in his Facebook post, subtly dissed Kayhan without referring to it by name, saying: “It is interesting that those who claim loyalty to the Supreme Leader are superceding him.”
Stressful headlines aside, warming relations between the U.S. and Iran have made the world hopeful that one of the most intractable international spats might soon be resolved, and with it a whole host of other issues that have blocked progress in the greater Middle East – most importantly in Syria, where Iran carries a lot of influence. But for every supporter of thawed relations, there are spoilers who are not ready to let go of the status quo, be they conservatives in the Iranian parliament who still see the U.S. as the Great Satan, to conservative members of Congress in the U.S. who still back stronger sanctions to further isolate Tehran. Then there is Saudi Arabia, Iran’s petro-chemical rival and a key U.S. ally, whose rulers see renewed ties between the U.S. and Iran as the ultimate betrayal. Saudi Arabia’s Sunni monarchy, as guardian of the sacred city of Mecca, claims a God-granted Islamic authority that is threatened by Iran’s street-level, and essentially proletarian Islamic Revolution. Israel, for its part, dismisses Iran’s outreach as pure subterfuge designed to mask its true desire for Israel’s annihilation.
But getting misquoted and misinterpreted in Saudi, American or Israeli newspapers is one thing. When it happens at home, what’s a man to do? Zarif, of course, took immediately to Facebook to set the record straight. Too bad it’s still technically banned in Iran – although web-savvy Iranians have figured out ways to get around the firewall. Maybe Zarif shouldn’t be so stressed after all — with one quote reserved for newspaper-reading conservatives, and others for the web-savvy intelligentsia, Zarif may have just managed to please all of the people at the same time.