Iran’s Foreign Minister Turns to YouTube to Defend Tehran’s Nuclear Program

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif calls for "dignity" and "respect," but makes no direct mention of the uranium enrichment that is at the heart of diplomatic wrangling under way between Iran and the West

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Thomas Koehler / Photothek / Getty Images

Mohammad Javad Zarif, Foreign Minister of Iran, in New York City, Sept. 24, 2013.

Without quite saying what he’s talking about — it’s the right to enrich uranium on Iranian soil — Iran’s Foreign Minister talks for nearly five minutes in a new YouTube video about everything that’s wrapped up in that highly technical issue, which coincidentally is one that can produce fuel for a nuclear weapon.

“What is dignity?” Mohammad Javad Zarif asks, peering at the camera through rimless spectacles. “What is respect? Are they negotiable? Is there a price tag? Imagine being told that you cannot do what everyone else is doing, what everyone else is allowed to do. Do you back down? Would you relent? Or would you stand your ground?”

The video, titled “Iran’s Message: There Is a Way Forward,” was released on the eve of the scheduled resumption of talks on Iran’s nuclear program in Geneva on Wednesday. It’s the latest bit of public diplomacy from the Islamic Republic of Iran, and one of the more entertaining ones. Iran has taken substantial pains to change its image since the June election of Hassan Rouhani as President, and met with considerable success at the U.N. General Assembly and festivities around it, an excursion crowned with a historic phone call from U.S. President Barack Obama. But the video effort takes some chances, opening as it does to a winsome piano solo as the camera follows Zarif through the richly adorned hallways of a Tehran palace to our little talk. The solemn style is Persian to the core, but if the intended audience is a Western one, the approach risks framing the most volatile fundamental issue of the nuclear talks as an episode of Masterpiece Theatre.

The greater risk, though, may be the decision not to name the matter at hand: uranium enrichment, which Iran insists is a “right” granted it under membership in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and which negotiators on the other side, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, say is not a right at all. Iranians are masters of what has been termed “Oriental indirection” — which amounts to not quite saying what you mean, but getting your point across in a range of subtle ways. Yet Iran’s leaders have repeatedly said (and Zarif himself just the other day) that being able to continue enriching uranium inside Iran is the government’s “red line.” In the video, however, the soft-spoken Foreign Minister prefers to emphasize what is not the issue:

“It’s not about stubbornness, or refusal to take into account the views of others,” Zarif says. And: “We have repeatedly joined hands to stand up against tyranny, demanding respect for our freedom.” And: “For us, nuclear energy is about a leap, a jump toward deciding our own destiny, rather than allowing others to decide for us.” That’s the Iranian case for a nuclear program, all right: nationalism, pride and an appetite for scientific achievement.

The problem, once again, is what’s left unsaid: in Iran, the government blocks social-media such as Twitter, Facebook and indeed YouTube — the same tools Rouhani’s people have embraced in their campaign to win the West.