Diplo­matic Exit

For Iran’s Javad Zarif, a Cur­tain Call Be­hind the Scenes

The Washington Post Sunday - - Style - By Robin Wright

Javad Zarif, the high­est-rank­ing Ira­nian diplo­mat in the United States, made a rare trip to Wash­ing­ton last month. The tim­ing could not have been worse.

Five days ear­lier, Iran’s Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard had seized 15 Bri­tish sailors in the Per­sian Gulf. The U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil had just im­posed new sanc­tions on Iran for fail­ing to en­sure that its nu­clear en­ergy pro­gram could not be sub­verted to make the world’s dead­li­est weapon.

Yet Zarif, whose five-year stint as Tehran’s am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions is about to end, was widely wel­comed here, get­ting ac­cess that would make en­voys from Amer­ica’s clos­est al­lies green with undiplo­matic envy.

He was even in­vited to Capi­tol Hill to chat with with pres­i­den­tial hope­fuls from both sides of the aisle.

“Zarif is a tough ad­vo­cate but he’s also prag­matic, not dog­matic. He can play an im­por­tant role in help­ing to re­solve our sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences with Iran peace­fully,” Demo­crat Joe Bi­den said af­ter­ward. Not­ing his pre­vi­ous talks with the Ira­nian en­voy, Repub­li­can Chuck Hagel called for “di­rect en­gage­ment” be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Tehran. “Iso­lat­ing na­tions does not fix prob­lems,” Hagel said.

Dur­ing Zarif’s talk with Demo­crat Dianne Fe­in­stein, Ma­jor­ity Leader Harry Reid and Repub­li­can John Warner of the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee dropped by to have a word. “I find him to be a pos­i­tive, rea­son­able fig­ure, and it would be use­ful if he could stay at the U.N.,” Fe­in­stein said later.

Sim­i­lar en­comi­ums were heard as Zarif made the rounds of Wash­ing­ton think tanks. At a lun­cheon hosted by the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, Martin Indyk, the for­mer am­bas­sador to Is­rael, turned to the Ira­nian en­voy and said, “We’re go­ing to miss you.”

At a din­ner hosted by the Nixon Cen­ter, its pres­i­dent, Dmitri Simes, in­tro­duced Zarif as “one of the most im­pres­sive diplo­mats I’ve met any­where. He ob­vi­ously is a strong

spokesman for his coun­try, but he knows how to do it with elo­quence and cred­i­bil­ity.”

All this tran­spired in just over 24 hours — the time limit dic­tated by a spe­cial State De­part­ment per­mit that al­lowed him to leave the 25-mile quar­an­tine im­posed on Ira­nian diplo­mats at the United Na­tions.

Ever since the Iran hostage cri­sis in 1979, re­la­tions be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Tehran have de­volved into a bizarre mix of non-com­mu­ni­ca­tion, mis­un­der­stand­ing and oc­ca­sional farce. With Iran’s his­tory of arm­ing Iraqi, Le­banese and Pales­tinian mili­tias, seiz­ing Bri­tish sailors, re­fus­ing to sup­port Arab-Is­raeli peace, al­legedly hav­ing a nu­clear weapons pro­gram, and swing­ing from revo­lu­tion­ary to re­formist back to hard-line pol­i­tics, both Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic ad­min­is­tra­tions have strug­gled with whether there is any Ira­nian of­fi­cial that the United States can talk to — and ac­tu­ally be­lieve.

Some U.S. for­eign pol­icy ex­perts say Zarif may be one of the few.

Simes com­pares Zarif to Ana­toly Do­brynin, the leg­endary Soviet am­bas­sador who served in Wash­ing­ton for a quar­ter­century dur­ing the Cold War.

“Both coun­tries were lucky to have some­one who was will­ing to serve as an hon­est com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nel, who knew there were a lot of voices in both coun­tries who wanted to de­stroy the re­la­tion­ship,” says Simes. “Do­brynin’s role was to keep a modicum of co­op­er­a­tion alive. That’s what Zarif is try­ing to do.”

Oth­ers think Zarif is just more skilled at talk­ing out of both sides of his mouth — and that any­one in the cur­rent regime shares the same ex­trem­ist agenda. “All their goals are the same. They all want to de­stroy Is­rael,” says Ken­neth Tim­mer­man, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Foun­da­tion for Democ­racy in Iran and au­thor of “Count­down to Cri­sis: The Com­ing Nu­clear Show­down With Iran.”

“But there are tac­ti­cal dif­fer­ences on how to achieve it,” he says. “Some think they can trick the U.S. into mak­ing a deal that would be ad­van­ta­geous to the regime and keep it in power. Oth­ers are will­ing to be more con­fronta­tional. But there’s no doubt that they’re all out to get nu­clear weapons.”

“He’s very used to West­ern habits, so he is the per­fect face for an un­rea­son­able regime,” says for­mer U.N. am­bas­sador John Bolton. “But he has no in­de­pen­dent dis­cre­tion on what he does.”

Be­fore Sec­re­tary of State Con­doleezza Rice’s an­nounce­ment last year that the United States was will­ing to join Europe in talks with the Ira­ni­ans if they sus­pended ura­nium en­rich­ment, Bolton was asked to de­liver an ad­vance text to let Tehran know. His sec­re­tary no­ti­fied the Ira­nian U.N. mis­sion and set up a time for Bolton to hand it to Zarif. But a half-hour later, the mis­sion called back to say the Ira­nian gov­ern­ment did not want a meet­ing. “I called him and said: ‘I have to give you this piece of pa­per and you have in­struc­tions not to meet me. So what do we do?’ ” Bolton re­called. “We agreed to have it sent by mes­sen­ger.”

Iron­i­cally, Zarif is sus­pect among hard­lin­ers at home, too — one rea­son an­a­lysts be­lieve he is be­ing re­called this sum­mer.

Zarif fol­lows the rules of the revo­lu­tion­ary Is­lamic regime: He won’t shake a wo­man’s hand or wear a tie, which is dis­par­aged as a sym­bol of the West. But he speaks English with an Amer­i­can ac­cent af­ter get­ting two de­grees at San Fran­cisco State and a doc­tor­ate in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at the Univer­sity of Den­ver. He was at Den­ver shortly af­ter Rice fin­ished her PhD there in the same sub­ject.

“We had some of the same pro­fes­sors,” Zarif says with a chuckle.

He then moved to New York for his first U.N. post­ing, be­fore go­ing home to be- come deputy for­eign min­is­ter. As he of­ten notes, he has spent more of his adult life in the United States than in Iran. Both of his grown chil­dren are cur­rently liv­ing in the United States.

“In Amer­ica, he’s the face of the Is­lamic Repub­lic, and in Iran hard-lin­ers view him as the face of Amer­ica,” says Karim Sad­jad­pour of the Carnegie En­dow­ment for In­ter­na­tional Peace.

Be­ing in the mid­dle has taken a phys­i­cal toll. Zarif’s hair has gone from a lit­tle salt in a lot of pep­per to snowy white dur­ing his time at the United Na­tions — and he is only 47.

Even un­of­fi­cial di­a­logue be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Tehran has been an elu­sive goal since the Carter ad­min­is­tra­tion broke off re­la­tions af­ter the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Em­bassy. Each coun­try has made over­tures to the other, but rarely at the same time. The one con­nec­tion im­ploded in the dis­as­trous arms-for-hostage swap dur­ing the Rea­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Indyk, who served in the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion, re­calls when he and two other State De­part­ment of­fi­cials went to New York for a speech to the Asia So­ci­ety by then-For­eign Min­is­ter Ka­mal Khar­razi. They dis­persed around the room, Indyk says, to try to meet him. But when a mu­tual con­tact of­fered to make in­tro­duc­tions, Khar­razi ap­par­ently got wind of it and quickly left.

On an­other oc­ca­sion, Sec­re­tary of State Madeleine Al­bright at­tended a small U.N. meet­ing on Afghanistan in part to have con­tact with her Ira­nian coun­ter­part, Indyk says. But the Unites States knew so lit­tle about what Ira­nian of­fi­cials looked like that they did not re­al­ize he had sent his deputy. The for­eign min­is­ter had skipped the meet­ing to avoid the po­ten­tial con­tro­versy at home of meet­ing with Al­bright.

Af­ter the 9/11 at­tacks, diplo­mats from the two coun­tries be­gan to ac­tu­ally meet when they were in the same room. In 2001, Zarif was Iran’s emis­sary to U.N. talks on the fu­ture of Afghanistan af­ter the Tal­iban’s ouster. In Bonn, Ger­many, he met daily with U.S. en­voy James Dob­bins, who cred­its Zarif with pre­vent­ing the con­fer­ence from col­laps­ing be­cause of last­minute de­mands by the North­ern Al­liance to con­trol the new gov­ern­ment.

“It was about 2 in the morn­ing,” Dob­bins re­calls. The North­ern Al­liance, an eth­nic fac­tion backed by the United States, Iran and Rus­sia, in­sisted on 18 of 24 min­istries, ex­ces­sive given the pop­u­la­tion and po­lit­i­cal re­al­i­ties, Dob­bins says.

“Fi­nally, Zarif took him aside and whis­pered to him for a few mo­ments, af­ter which the North­ern Al­liance en­voy re­turned to the ta­ble and said, ‘Okay, I give up,’ ” says Dob­bins, who is now di­rec­tor of the Rand Corp.’s In­ter­na­tional Se­cu­rity and De­fense Pol­icy Cen­ter.

As­signed to the United Na­tions in 2002, Zarif met three times in 2003 with then-Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil staffer Zal­may Khalilzad or Am­bas­sador Ryan Crocker about Afghanistan and Iraq, a ten­ta­tive be­hind-the-scenes ef­fort that died af­ter a mas­sive sui­cide bomb­ing by al-Qaeda in Riyadh that ini­tially ap­peared to have pos­si­ble Ira­nian links.

Since then, Zarif has con­tin­ued “Track 2” diplo­macy. In 2005 he agreed to a din­ner-party de­bate on Iran’s nu­clear pro­gram with Robert Ein­horn, for­mer as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of state for non­pro­lif­er­a­tion, spon­sored by the In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group and hosted by board mem­ber Ge­orge Soros.

Ein­horn is among those who be­lieve that Iran is worth deal­ing with — even­tu­ally. “I’m not sure it would be pro­duc­tive at this junc­ture,” he says. “But in six to 12 months, if Iran comes to the con­clu­sion that it’s play­ing a los­ing hand and it needs a bet­ter deal, there is no one bet­ter than Zarif to do that.”

Last year Zarif par­tic­i­pated in a Prince­ton sem­i­nar — by video, as he could not get State De­part­ment per­mis­sion to travel from New York — when he was pressed on Iran’s po­si­tion on the Holo­caust. Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad had just ques­tioned whether it truly hap­pened. As he has of­ten said pub­licly, Zarif said he be­lieved the Holo­caust took place and that it was geno­cide and a crime against hu­man­ity. He then coun­tered that the Pales­tini­ans should not have to pay the price for mass mur­der by the Ger­mans. Only later did he learn that the ques­tioner was Uri Lubrani, Is­rael’s en­voy to Iran be­fore the 1979 revo­lu­tion.

“I asked him a very tough ques­tion. He is a very loyal and able ser­vant of his masters,” Lubrani re­calls. “But I have a no­tion — only a no­tion — that he did not agree with his boss.”

And when for­mer sec­re­tary of state James A. Baker III was work­ing on the Iraq Study Group re­port, he went to din­ner at Zarif’s el­e­gant diplo­matic res­i­dence across from Cen­tral Park to talk about co­op­er­a­tion on Iraq. The most con­tro­ver­sial sec­tion of the fi­nal re­port rec­om­mended diplo­matic out­reach to Iran and Syria to help sta­bi­lize Iraq.

Un­like most of Iran’s reclu­sive en­voys, Zarif has also been a reg­u­lar on Amer­i­can television, from “The Char­lie Rose Show” to C-SPAN. But his will­ing­ness to talk doesn’t mean any give in his de­fense of his coun­try’s po­si­tions:

He in­sists that Iran is not in­ter­ested in de­vel­op­ing a nu­clear weapon. He says Iran wants sta­bil­ity in Iraq, its neigh­bor. And he de­nies that Iran is try­ing to cre­ate a “Shi­ite cres­cent” run­ning from Iran into Iraq, Syria and Le­banon. “It is a scare tac­tic,” he said on “Char­lie Rose” in Fe­bru­ary.

On the is­sue of ter­ror­ism, Zarif coun­ters the long list of ex­trem­ist move­ments sup­ported by Iran by not­ing that U.S. troops in Iraq are not tak­ing ac­tion against the Mu­ja­hed­din-e Khalq, a group that is both the lead­ing Ira­nian op­po­si­tion group and on the State De­part­ment’s ter­ror­ism list.

What draws for­mer U.S. of­fi­cials and Mid­dle East an­a­lysts to Zarif is his will­ing­ness to talk about so­lu­tions to pol­icy dif­fer­ences. Arms spe­cial­ists credit him with meet­ing Amer­i­can sci­en­tists to dis­cuss ways to al­low Iran to en­rich ura­nium, while guar­an­tee­ing Tehran could not use it for bomb­mak­ing.

As he pre­pares to leave the United Na­tions, Zarif warns that time is run­ning out. “It would have been far eas­ier to re­solve the nu­clear is­sue two years ago, a year ago or last week than it is now,” he said at the Nixon Cen­ter din­ner. “And it is far eas­ier to re­solve the nu­clear is­sue to­day than in two or three months’ time, af­ter the next Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion against Iran. I know if you fol­low this path, you will have a few more res­o­lu­tions and we will have a few more cen­trifuges spin­ning in Natanz.”

“The out­come is not res­o­lu­tion but greater con­fronta­tion on both sides,” Zarif said. “That is not the path that is needed.”

The Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion re­mains skep­ti­cal. A se­nior State De­part­ment of­fi­cial, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity, says Zarif has pre­sented a “user-friendly face” for the Ira­nian regime. “But the fact of the mat­ter is that their be­hav­ior has be­lied his smooth diplo­matic ef­fort.”

Zarif is san­guine about his fail­ure to bring down the “wall of mis­trust,” his man­date when he was orig­i­nally dis­patched by the com­par­a­tively re­formist gov­ern­ment of Pres­i­dent Mo­ham­mad Khatami.

Asked what he has achieved dur­ing his U.N. stint, Zarif says, “Not much.

“I don’t think that the West in­ter­preted our open­ings and ac­com­mo­da­tions the way they should have. They in­ter­preted them as a sign of weak­ness, whereas it was a gen­uine de­sire by peo­ple like me to change the na­ture of the re­la­tion­ship,” he says. “Since it was mis­in­ter­preted, the re­ac­tion was dis­ap­point­ing and in fact only height­ened ten­sion and in­creased mis­trust.

“A stupid ide­al­ist who has not achieved any­thing in his diplo­matic life af­ter giv­ing one-sided con­ces­sions — this is what I’m called in Iran.”

Some U.S. an­a­lysts sug­gest that Zarif may have played more of a role than he re­al­izes.

“The his­tory of re­la­tions since the revo­lu­tion has been ships pass­ing in the night,” says Indyk. “When we were ready to talk, they weren’t, and when they were, we weren’t. We’ve never been able to get to the ta­ble. With him there, we had the best chance. With­out him, it will be much more dif­fi­cult.”


Javad Zarif, Ira­nian en­voy to the United Na­tions, was widely wel­comed last month while in Wash­ing­ton.


Am­bas­sador Javad Zarif, right, with Ira­nian Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad at the United Na­tions last year, when the is­sue of sanc­tions against Iran for its nu­clear pro­gram was raised.


Zarif, who holds de­grees from Amer­i­can univer­si­ties, fol­lows the rules of the revo­lu­tion­ary Is­lamic regime, in­clud­ing not shak­ing a wo­man’s hand or wear­ing a tie.


The Ira­nian en­voy, in his U.N. of­fices, was widely wel­comed in Wash­ing­ton last month de­spite the fact that his coun­try and the United States cut diplo­matic re­la­tions in 1979.

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