Mohammad Zarif

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You are Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Foreign Minister of Iran



“The election of Mr. Rouhani shows that the people have decided to have constructive interaction with the world and, through his speeches and choices, Mr. Rouhani has also displayed his political determination to do so. Now, what is important is for the same determination to be formed on the other side.”

“In the past few years, a few big powers have spared no effort in turning the Security Council, or the threat of resorting to it, into a tool for attempting to prevent Iran from exercising its inalienable right to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.”

“(W)e have made it very clear that nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction have no place in our defense doctrine and we have been more than willing to cooperate with the international community to remove any doubt as to even the possibility of a weapons program in Iran."

"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” (Statement by US Vice President Joseph Biden)

Early Life

Born in 1961, you are a native of the Elahieh district of Tehran, and your family made its living in the textile business. You received a Master’s Degree in International Relations from San Francisco State University, and you later obtained your doctorate in Law and International Relations from the University of Denver. You’ve served for many years on the faculty of International Law at Tehran University.

Political Career

As a member of the Iranian diplomatic corps, you played an important role in facilitating the release of American hostages held by a pro-Iranian group in Lebanon. Your facility with English, your extensive experience living in America, and your reputation as a plain-spoken, trustworthy man helped you to build a strong network of contacts in the United States, even in the context of terrible relations between the US and Iran. You further enhanced your reputation by playing a central role in facilitating an agreement between the warring militia in Afghanistan in 2001, in the wake of the ouster of the Taliban. You won many admirers among the Russians and Americans for helping to facilitate these negotiations. It was perhaps no surprise, then, when the reformist President Mohammad Khatami nominated you as Iran’s Ambassador to the United Nations in 2002. In your five-year tenure as Ambassador, you skillfully handled a very challenging job. Your job was dramatically complicated by the surprise you received very early in your tenure when the American President George W. Bush included Iran in his so-called “Axis of Evil.” This statement was made at a time when events like the negotiations on Afghanistan had created some glimmers of hope for a more positive relationship between Iran and the United States and, rightly or wrongly, undercut President Khatami at home and put you on the defensive. Because so many Americans saw Iran as a bad actor with no interest in making reasonable accommodations with the world community, it is instructive for Americans to know that you once said that Iranians see you as "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." Your reputation for having a good relationship with many American leaders didn’t serve you well at home, especially with the election of hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005. You left your post at the UN in 2007 and led a quiet life, working at the university and publishing your memoirs, for the balance of Ahmadinejad’s presidency. Still, it has been noted that you refer to America as a “rival” nation rather than “the enemy,” the label preferred by Iran’s hard-liners.

Your Foreign Policy

With the surprise election of Hassan Rowhani in 2013, you suddenly returned to prominence with your selection as his Foreign Minister. Your selection was rich with symbolism, as it clearly indicated that President Rowhani was going to seek a less confrontational relationship with the West. The fact that the Supreme Leader did not exercise his veto of your nomination was widely noted by Iran-watchers, and seemed to indicate that Khamenei was persuaded that Iran’s diplomatic isolation was exacting a heavy price, and that a positive overture towards the West was in order. This change was dramatic enough, however, that state media felt the need to mention what your critics have said about you (that you are in “the New York Circle,” or that you had the phone numbers of Vice President Biden and Defense Secretary Hegel in your rolodex) only to refute such criticisms and reaffirm that you have always “defended the interests of the Islamic Republic.”

In your public statements you have made little mention of the United States, choosing instead to emphasize your belief that Iran should normalize relations with Europe and Asia, and work to counter anti-Iranian policies being pursued by regional neighbors through, for example, making effective use of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. You have also spoken extensively about the potential benefits from Iran being the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, which is a holdover from Cold War times when many nations (officially or unofficially) former political and military relationships with either the United States or the Soviet Union, and some countries took the explicit step of joining neither side, joining the “non-aligned bloc.” You will follow President Rouhani’s lead in seeking a new, less tense relationship with the Saudis, and many are eager to see if the new administration will bring any changes in Iranian policy regarding Syria. One event to watch in this regard will be the talks held in Astana, Kazakhstan, which bring together diplomats from Russia, Iran, and Turkey, as well as government and opposition representatives from Syria, in an effort to prolong the ceasefire and help plan the future of the country. Immediately upon your confirmation you spoke out on behalf of “innocents” in Egypt, and addressing the outbreak of sectarian violence, particularly given the rise of ISIS, clearly has your full attention.

Most significantly, perhaps, is the role you played in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOC), otherwise known in the West as the Iran Nuclear Deal. You drove a hard bargain, at one point walking away from talks in 2013. However, you were persistent, and as the deal was nearing completion you stayed in Vienna for 18 days, a record time away from Iran for a foreign minister. Details of the deal can be found in the sources below, but in simple terms you agreed (on behalf of Iran) to give up all means to developing a nuclear weapon for ten years, in exchange for the lifting of sanctions – a huge boon to the Iranian economy. At home, the deal was greeted positively and made you an extremely popular figure, while abroad it cemented your reputation as a top-notch diplomat. However, in the West the deal soon became swept up into partisan politics. While the bulk of international experts looked favorably on the final terms, Netanyahu and the Israeli right were harshly critical, while in the US Donald Trump sought to portray the deal as a disastrous misstep, and referred to it often in his successful campaign for president.

Character Playing Notes

As previously mentioned, one big challenge for you will be to take advantage of the positive relationships you have with many American leaders, while avoiding being seen as too cozy with the Americans. You are widely-regarded as a highly skilled diplomat, and this reputation is of real value to you, although it is also something that can mask both praise and criticism. Dmitri Simes, head of the Nixon Center for the National Interest, called you “one of the most impressive diplomats I’ve met anywhere” and compared you to the highly respected Russian diplomat Anatoly Dobrinin for your honesty, and for your dedication to getting past the rhetoric and focusing on cooperation. On the other hand, former American ambassador John Bolton cited your familiarity with “Western habits” as making you the “perfect face for an unreasonable regime.” You must use and build upon your reputation for honesty, as many eyes will be on you to see what, in practical terms, you mean by your focus on “moderation” as a guiding principle both for Iranian policy and for the nuclear negotiations.

It is also worth noting that, for all the emphasis on your familiarity with American culture and western ways, you live by what many will see as a conservative interpretation of the Islamic faith, in that you will not shake a woman’s hand, and your wife rarely appears in public. You also do not wear a tie, the wearing of which is criticized in Iran as a symbol of the West.

Going forward, your skills as a diplomat will continue to be essential, first in Syria and second with the Americans. In the first case, you must remember that while Russia may appear to be an ally (you both support the Assad regime, and Russia does see a powerful Iran as important regional counterweight against US-Israeli-Saudi cooperation) the situation is somewhat more complicated. Russia wants a strong Syria to secure its military holdings in the country, no matter who is in charge. Iran, on the other hand, benefits from a weak Syrian state, which allows it to project power across Iraq to Hezbollah in Lebanon via what has been called the “Shiite Crescent.” As the conflict in Syria develops, it will be important to bear this in mind. In the case of America, there is certainly no love lost between the Rouhani regime and the Trump administration, and working with the latter to maintain the terms of the nuclear deal with be a great test of your diplomatic skills, particularly as Ankara and Moscow look to strengthen ties to the new American government. Iran has been left out in the cold before, and the economic ramifications were dire. Maintaining Iranian interests abroad will be an ongoing challenge.


Nuclear Deal:

While House:

EU (Mogherini) and Zarif Joint statement:

Astana talks:

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