Journalist and Iran specialist Robin Wright has written a lengthy profile of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif for the New Yorker. Wright discusses Zarif’s diplomatic credentials and style, the nuclear negotiations between Tehran and the P5+1 countries, and the problems created by antagonistic rhetoric emanating from both America and Iran.
Zarif took to Twitter to promote Wright’s article. With a wry sense of humor, summed up his position regarding US relations with Iran: “Iranians respond very positively to respect. Try it. It won’t kill you.”
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) May 23, 2014
I first met Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, in the nineteen-eighties, when he was a junior member of the Iranian delegation at the United Nations. This week’s issue of The New Yorker includes a Profile based on twenty-five years of conversations with him, including four in Tehran and New York since last September. Zarif is now the pivotal broker in nuclear talks between his government and six world powers—Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States. After eight months of diplomacy, the serious drafting of terms for a long-term deal to insure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon began last week, in Vienna. The deadline for reaching an agreement is July 20th.
A nuclear deal would almost certainly affect Iran’s political future. “If we can ascertain and show to our people that the West is ready to deal with Iran on the basis of mutual respect and mutual interests and equal footing, then it will have an impact on almost every aspect of Iran’s foreign policy behavior—and some aspects of Iran’s domestic policy,” Zarif said.
Iran and the six powers must address points of contention on virtually every aspect of a nuclear deal, from the future of suspect facilities to accounting for past programs, but Zarif has been noticeably upbeat about prospects for a breakthrough. I asked him how difficult it would be to reach an agreement. The red lines—particularly between Washington and Tehran—often seem insurmountable.
“It’s going to be both hard and easy,” he said. “Easy, because ostensibly we have a convergence of views on the objectives. We don’t want nuclear weapons, and they say the objective is to insure Iran does not have nuclear weapons. So, if that is the objective, in my view it’s already achieved. We just have to find mechanisms for agreeing on the process.”
But the details “may be cumbersome,” Zarif added. “More so because those who do not want to see an agreement, those who seek their interests in greater mistrust and conflict, are hard at work. And they do their best to prevent.” He presumably meant opponents in the United States and Israel, as well as in Iran. But he predicted that they were regrouping to prepare for what comes next if a deal is struck.
“Now they have had time to collect themselves and to come up with probably new tactics,” he said. “I still believe that they’ll lose. But they are going to make life a bit tougher for those who want to do something positive.”
* * *
For Iran, the singular theme in negotiations with the six major powers is respect. “Respect for Iran’s rights,” as Zarif put it, is a euphemism for the right to enrich uranium, a process that can be used both for peaceful nuclear energy and for weapons. Tehran believes that enrichment is necessary for building alternative energy sources. Within a generation, because of soaring domestic oil consumption, Iran could run out of oil for export—the country’s main source of revenue. Iran also wants to restore Persia’s historic standing in the annals of science, and it sees nuclear energy as crucial to modern development. It feels the West wants to block any such advancement.
“Nuclear talks are not about nuclear capability.” Zarif told me. “They are about Iranian integrity and dignity.” He went on, “If the other side understands the importance of dignity and integrity to the Iranian people, and grasps the fact that various Iranians—who may never have seen [facilities at] Natanz or Arak or Fordo—believe that dignity is not up for sale, that their technology and development is not up for sale … then they will be able to reach an understanding with us.”
* * *
Iran’s nuclear debate is technically the domain of the Supreme National Security Council, which advises Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. He will have the last word. But there is a smaller committee—including Iran’s new President, Hassan Rouhani—that has worked out specific terms for the nuclear talks.
“It’s a debate,” Zarif said of discussions within the Iranian government. “And debate is healthy, heated or otherwise. It’s a very, very serious subject and it has important implications, and that is why it is a difficult decision. And a lot of mistrust is there, of the West. So every step is taken, I hope, with a lot of prudence, and consideration.”
When I was in Tehran in March, I asked Zarif how much a nuclear deal depended on him. “I don’t know,” he said. An aide, sitting nearby, chimed in quickly, “Ninety per cent! The outcome depends ninety per cent on him.”
“I hope that’s not true,” Zarif said.
* * *
For decades, Iran was one of two pillars of American foreign policy in the Middle East. Israel was the other. I asked Zarif if the United States and Iran had any common interests thirty-five years after their diplomatic split.
“Did I say there were common interests?” Zarif, who is known for his wry humor, replied. “Iran has a national-security interest in nonproliferation, so, if the United States is interested in nonproliferation, that is one issue. Iran has a national-security interest in freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf. We have a national-security interest in stability in this region. We have a national-security interest in fighting terrorism in Afghanistan, instability in Afghanistan.” He continued, “We have a national-security interest in stability and in maintaining stable governments in the region. We have a national-security interest in in putting an end to the bloodshed in Syria.” In sum, he said, “If I take what the United States says at face value, there should be convergence.”