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?

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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.”