United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Profile: New Foreign Minister

            The following article by Robin Wright was originally published by The Washington Post as Iran’s next foreign minister, Javad Zarif, left the United Nations in 2007. Zarif served as Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations from 2002 to 2007.

Diplomatic Exit
For Iran's Javad Zarif, a Curtain Call Behind the Scenes
By Robin Wright
April 15, 2007

      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 quarter-century 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 hard-liners 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 become 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 last-minute 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."
Photo credit: Javad Zarif by Max Talbot-Minkin via Flickr
Robin Wright has traveled to Iran dozens of times since 1973. She has covered several elections, including the 2009 presidential vote. She is the author of several books on Iran, including “The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and transformation in Iran” and “The Iran Primer: Power, Politics and US Policy.” She is a joint scholar at USIP and the Woodrow Wilson Center. See her chapter, “The Challenge of Iran” from "The Iran Primer."

Rouhani's Cabinet

            On August 4, Hassan Rouhani was formally inaugurated as Iran's seventh president. He presented the following list of cabinet nominations to parliament. 


First Vice President: Eshaq Jahangiri 

Vice President for Parliamentary Affairs: Teimour Ali Asgari 

Vice President for Political and Security Affairs: Ali Younesi 

Vice President for Executive Affairs: Morteza Bank 

Vice President for Supervision and Strategic Affairs: Mohammad Baqer Nobakht 

Vice President and Head of Iran Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization: Reza Salehi 

Head of Presidential Office’s Inspection Bureau: Hossein Fereidoun 

Chief of Staff: Mohammad Nahavandian 

Chief Advisor: Akbar Torkan 

Foreign Affairs Advisor: Mahmoud Sariolqalam 


Minister of Oil: Bijan Namdar Zanganeh 

Minister of Interior: Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli 

Minister of Economy: Ali Tayebnia 

Minister of Intelligence: Mahmoud Alavi 

Minister of Energy: Hamid Chitchian 

Minister of Defense: Hossein Dehqan 

Minister of Industry, Mine and Trade: Mohammad Reza Ne'matzadeh 

Minister of Labor, Cooperative and Welfare: Ali Rabiei 

Minister of Agriculture: Mahmoud Hojjati 

Minister of Road and Urban Development: Abbas Akhoundi 

Minister of Education: Mohammad Ali Najafi 

Minister of Health: Hassan Qazizadeh Hashemi 

Minister of Sports and Youth: Massoud Soltanifar 

Minister of Foreign Affairs: Mohammad Javad Zarif 

Minister of Justice: Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi 

Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance: Ali Jannati 

Minister of Information and Communications Technology: Mahmoud Vaezi 

Minister of Science, Research and Technology: Jafar Meili Monfared 


76 Senators Call for Tougher Sanctions

             On August 2, 76 Democratic and Republican senators called for tougher sanctions and credible military threat to accompany dialog with Iran. Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Bob Casey (D-PA), Roy Blunt (R-MO), Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) circulated the following letter addressed to President Barack Obama.

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, D.C.
Dear Mr. President:
With the election of Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian people signaled their clear dissatisfaction with Iran’s government and its policies. We hope such a surprising and convincing electoral outcome will persuade Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to abandon Iran’s nuclear weapons quest. But until we see a significant slowdown of Iran’s nuclear activities, we believe our nation must toughen sanctions and reinforce the credibility of our option to use military force at the same time as we fully explore a diplomatic solution to our dispute with Iran. 
We deeply sympathize with the plight of the Iranian people, who have suffered under the Khamenei regime. We note that President-elect Rouhani has pledged re-engagement with the P5+1 and promised to bring transparency to Iran’s nuclear program. At the same time, Iran has used negotiations in the past to stall for time, and in any event, Khamenei is the ultimate decision-maker for Iran’s nuclear program. Moreover, Iran today continues its large-scale installation of advanced centrifuges. This will soon put it in the position to be able to rapidly produce weapons-grade uranium, bringing Tehran to the brink of a nuclear weapons capability.
Accordingly, Mr. President, we urge you to bring a renewed sense of urgency to the process. We need to understand quickly whether Tehran is at last ready to negotiate seriously. Iran needs to understand that the time for diplomacy is nearing its end. We implore you to demand immediate serious moves on Iran’s part. Iran should move quickly toward compliance with United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding it suspend enrichment. Iran must cease installing centrifuges, agree to the removal of 20 percent enriched uranium from Iran, and cease work on the heavy water reactor being built in Arak.
We believe there are four strategic elements necessary to achieve resolution of this issue: an explicit and continuing message that we will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, a sincere demonstration of openness to negotiations, the maintenance and toughening of sanctions, and a convincing threat of the use of force that Iran will believe. We must be prepared to act, and Iran must see that we are prepared. 
Mr. President, we share your conviction that Iran must not be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.  We want you to know that you will have our support in doing all you can to resolve on an urgent basis this most pressing challenge to international security.
Senator Robert Menendez                                                                             
Senator Lindsey Graham
Senator Robert P. Casey Jr.                                                                           
Senator Roy Blunt
Senator Tim Kaine                                                                             
Senator Kelly Ayotte
List of Cosigners (76)
1.    Graham
2.    Menendez
3.    Ayotte
4.    Blunt
5.    Kaine
6.    Casey
7.    Boozman
8.    Crapo
9.    Flake
10. Ron Johnson
11. Burr
12. Manchin
13. Roberts
14. Grassley
15. Moran
16. Cornyn
17. Inhofe
18. Hoeven
19. Isakson
20. Begich
21. Coons
22. Cardin
23. Hatch
24. Wicker
25. Murray
26. Hagan
27. Mikulski
28. Fischer
29. Lee
30. Thune
31. Risch
32. Collins
33. Portman
34. Schatz
35. Stabenow
36. Cruz
37. Rubio
38. Schumer
39. Markey
40. Donnelly
41. Nelson
42. Heller
43. Pryor
44. Coats
45. Gillibrand
46. Bennet
47. Vitter
48. Chambliss
49. Enzi
50. McCaskill
51. Barrasso
52. Toomey
53. McConnell
54. Brown
55. Warner
56. Reed
57. Blumenthal
58. Hirono
59. Cochran
60. Shaheen
61. Whitehouse
62. Scott
63. King
64. Cantwell
65. Merkley
66. Klobuchar
67. Johanns
68. Franken
69. Sessions
70. Landrieu
71. Alexander
72. McCain
73. Chiesa
74. Heitkamp
75. Murphy
76. Warren

Firestorm: Rouhani on Jerusalem

            An international firestorm erupted on August 2 over misreported comments by President-elect Hassan Rouhani on Jerusalem. On International Quds Day—the Arabic name for Jerusalem—Iranian and Western media initially reported that Rouhani called Israel an “old wound” that “needs to be removed”—using the same inflammatory language of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
            The reported comment immediately evoked angry reaction from Israel. Rouhani’s remark “revealed his true face by making anti-Israel comments,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement.
            But Iranian state television quickly scrambled to clarify Rouhani’s remarks—and release video of his comment with English subtitles to show the distortion. The video is linked below. Its translation:
            “International Quds Day, which is the legacy of Imam Khomeini, is a day to demonstrate the unity of the Muslim world and resistance against oppression and aggression. After all, in our region, there's been a wound for years on the body of the Muslim world under the shadow of the occupation of the holy land of Palestine and the beloved [city of] al-Quds. This day is a reminder that Muslims will never forget their historic right to resist oppression and aggression.” Click here for the Iranian video.

             The Telegraph posted the following video with a similar translation.

A Setback for US-Iran?

            On July 31, the U.S. House passed a new sanctions bill that calls for broader economic sanctions and stiffer penalties for human rights violators. The Nuclear Iran Prevention Act’s main goal is to reduce Tehran’s daily oil exports by an additional one million barrels by imposing stiffer penalties on countries trading with the Islamic Republic. The vote was 400-20. Several members of Congress commented on the measure, including the awkward timing just days before the inauguration of new president. But to become law, the bill must pass the Senate, where it may meet for opposition. President Barack Obama must also sign the measure into law. The following are excerpted remarks by members of Congress with a summary of the bill.  

For the Measure:
Speaker John Boehner (Republican, Ohio)
            “We know Iran is the world’s most aggressive sponsor of terrorism – extending now into Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, even into this hemisphere.  We know that Iran is attempting to build illicit nuclear weapons capability, in willful defiance of both the UN Security Council and the IAEA.  And we know the Supreme Leader and the Ayatollahs remain committed to the destruction of Israel – one of our dearest allies.
            “The United States – especially its Congress – has a duty to respond to Iran’s actions, not its rhetoric.  So this bill seeks to reduce Iran’s oil exports by an additional 1 million barrels a day – which would be a two-thirds reduction from current levels.  We’re also looking to target human rights violators, close the loophole on access to hard foreign currency.  And we’ll give the president the authority to restrict significant commercial trade with Iran.” July 31 on the House floor
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Democrat, California)
            “Iran’s nuclear pursuits continue.  Iran’s leaders refuse to change their approach in their policy.  Iran’s neighbors still feel the threat of the regime’s declarations and actions.  So our message must remain firm: Iran must suspend uranium enrichment, return to the negotiation table, and abandon its reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons.” July 31 on the House floor
Ed Royce (Republican, California)
            “Iran may have a new president, but its march toward a nuclear program continues.  The economic and political pressure on Tehran must be ratcheted-up.  Today the House took a critical step toward crippling this regime to prevent a nuclear Iran and the dire security consequences.” July 31 in a press release
Eliot Engel (Democrat, New York)
            “Congressional efforts to impose new sanctions should not be based on the Iranian political calendar. Today’s vote illustrates that the paramount consideration of the Congress is the Iranian nuclear clock – the amount of time it will take Tehran to achieve a nuclear weapons capability.  If President Rouhani truly has the will and authority to make a bold gesture on Iran’s nuclear program – such as suspending enrichment -- he has a small window of opportunity before this bill becomes law.  I think all of us would welcome such a gesture, but until that point we will continue to pursue a path of diplomatic pressure on the Iranian regime.” July 31 in a press release
Against the Measure:
16 Democrats to House Leadership
            “We believe that it would be counterproductive and irresponsible to vote on this measure before Iran's new president is inaugurated on August 4, 2013. A diplomatic solution remains the best possible means for ensuring that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon, and the House of Representatives should not preempt a potential opportunity to secure such an outcome with another sanctions bill. While we have no illusions about the nature of Iran’s government, Iran’s president-elect has sent several positive signals that must not be not be rejected out of hand.” July 31 letter to House leadership
Keith Ellison (Democrat, Minnesota)
            “Why aren’t we at least curious to find out whether or not President Rohani means that he wants to pursue this course of peace? I say let’s accept the olive branch extended by the Iranian people who selected a more moderate candidate.” July 31 on the House floor
Jim Moran (Democrat, Virginia)
            “This bill empowers the very hardliners that are the problem. This is the best opportunity we've had in the last eight years. Why throw that away?"
Bill Summary from the House Committee on Foreign Affairs
H.R. 850, as amended:
Ø  Stiffens penalties for human rights violators by applying the financial sector sanctions in existing law to transactions involving:
  • human rights violators
  • persons transferring technologies to Iran that are likely to be used to commit human rights abuses
  •  persons who engage in censorship or related activities against citizens of Iran, corrupt officials that confiscate humanitarian and other goods for their own benefit, and
  • persons exporting sensitive technology to Iran. 
Ø  Strengthens existing sanctions by compelling countries that are currently purchasing crude oil from Iran to reduce their combined purchases of Iranian crude oil by a total of 1,000,000 barrels per day within a year.  By taking 1,000,000 barrels per day of Iranian crude oil off of the market within a year (with safeguards to ensure that international oil markets can withstand such a reduction), the Iranian regime would continue to lose the long-term funding that it requires to pay for its nuclear program, ballistic missiles, and sponsorship of terrorism. 
Ø  Penalizes foreign persons who engage in significant commercial trade with Iran.  This would use the same model – targeting transactions through the Central Bank or a designated Iranian bank - that has successfully curtailed Iran’s oil trade over the past year. 
Ø  Expands the list of sectors of the Iranian economy effectively blacklisted, and provide the President the tools to add additional sectors of strategic importance to the government of Iran. 
Ø  Limits Iran’s access to overseas foreign currency reserves and impose additional shipping sanctions to limit the ability of the regime to engage in international commerce.      
Ø  Requires that the Administration produce annually a national strategy on Iran highlighting Iranian capabilities and key vulnerabilities that the United States may exploit, providing the United States Government a roadmap as to how to effectively address the Iranian threat.

Click here for the full text.


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