Can Iran’s Zarif Pull Through?

by Jasmin Ramsey

“He may be the only person in the world who can telephone both Senator Dianne Feinsten and the Hezbollah Chief Hassan Nasrallah,” writes the veteran U.S. foreign affairs journalist Robin Wright about Iran’s famous foreign minister.

Her New Yorker profile is a fascinating read for anyone interested in Javad Zarif, whose mere smile so frightens the Israeli government and for those want to understand why Iran, faults and all, has been recently covered in American mainstream media as much more than — and perhaps not at all — a charter member of George W. Bush’s “axis of evil.”

We recently published an important piece by France’s former ambassador to Tehran, François Nicoullaud, who is probably more familiar with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani than with Zarif (Rouhani was Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator when Ambassador Nicoullaud was in Tehran). Nicoullaud’s post nonetheless made an important point related to Wright’s article:

One of [Rouhani’s] first acts as president was transferring Iran’s nuclear negotiating file from the Supreme National Security Council to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That enabled him to build a “dream team” of seasoned negotiators, perfectly comfortable with the codes and practices of their Western counterparts. Iran’s new and refined team has stood out in stark contrast to the collective clumsiness of the P5+1 negotiators, as in the early November 2013 episode, when four Wester foreign ministers rushed prematurely to Geneva, spurring the media to believe, mistakenly, that a deal would be signed. (It was signed 10 days later.)

The Iranian government hasn’t been remade since the June 2013 surprise election of Rouhani; it still contains hard-line and questionable cabinet picks by the president, such as Mostafa Pourmohammadi. But it’s hard to make a convincing argument today that Iran isn’t trying to change under Rouhani, who will mark his first anniversary as president in August.

That’s right, it hasn’t even been a year since that historic phone call between Rouhani and U.S. President Barack Obama last September in New York as the Iranian leader was being driven to JFK airport from the United Nations General Assembly where, in a furious series of meetings and speeches, he spelled out Iran’s new approach to the world.

Of course, Iran, which gives off a “striking impression” of “strategic loneliness” according to Wright, still has a long way to go on all fronts, and expectations are higher than ever.

Indeed, there has been considerable speculation about why the last round of nuclear negotiations between Iran and world powers ended in Vienna last Friday without the customary plenary. Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen pointed to the “wide gaps” cited by a U.S. official, while the Guardian’s Julian Borger saw the parties hitting a wall. For his part, Zarif seemed as cool and collected as ever in his brief post-talks remarks. “Back from Vienna after tough discussions. Agreement is possible.But illusions need to go.Opportunity shouldn’t be missed again like in 2005,” he tweeted on May 17.

Whatever the reality of the situation (the negotiators have been remarkably disciplined about keeping the details of the talks under wraps), Rouhani needs a nuclear resolution. And as Wright’s profile shows, there may be no one in Iran better equipped or as determined as Zarif to achieve that goal. So can Zarif pull through? Stay tuned.

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Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.



  1. Thanks for the update, as well as the link. Hitting a stone wall, everyone knew that was coming. So much time, effort, money is wasted on posturing and the boogieman, it seems that all of that could be put to better use for the betterment of the immediate area, as in helping to solve the water crisis for instance. Spending all that money on military arms and war[s], but then, who am I to bring this up?

  2. I think its important to understand one crucial element in this and that is that the decision by Rouhani to alter oversight of nuclear negotiations was not made in some attempt to become more flexible or moderate in Iran’s negotiating stance. In fact, recent negotiations have shown that Iran remains ultimately recalcitrant and committed to its course. The decision was meant to portray a more accommodating face to the West, one that knew the language of diplomacy, but because Iran’s governmental structure remains unchanged with the ruling mullah council and Supreme Leader Khamenei retaining all authority for foreign policy issues, the change was — in the end — nothing more than window dressing. It was designed to appease the West and provide initial ammunition for Iran’s PR and lobbying machine to push for an initial break in the sanctions logjam to show “good faith” from the West without having Iran concede anything other than agreeing to more talks.

    Zarif’s long history, along with Rouhani, in Iran’s military, security and political arms is more compelling a barometer of Iran’s true intentions. The West should come to realize the inescapable truth that unless changes in human rights conditions and real political liberalization that reduces the power of the religious theocracy and vests it in a non-religious, democratically elected body takes place, the West should not trust Iran to negotiate a real deal.

  3. One may endlessly debate on regime’s calculations.Those who follow the nuclear issue as from long on a daily basis know some elementary factors : Neither President Rohani nor Foreign minister Zarif are negociating for accomodating “naive” westerners.Issue is far more serious.A deal was signed on last november for a very simple/basic reason :Treasury was empty.There was a panic as from october 2012 while iranian economy due to both sanctions and Ahmadinejad’s deleterious economic management.
    Should you have any doubt, ask why the Guide signed ( approved) a “Resistance economy” Plan a few months ago? This is

  4. Apologies: my comment was unwillingly interrupted before both corrections and conclusion.Here is the conclusion.
    This is a mix of a Chinese-style auto sufficiency economy plan and a genuine liberal/reform incorporating former candidate Rohani’s program and critical recommendations from IMF ( see latest Mission Report).
    Resistance economy, beyond an “old timer” slogan for domestic audience,is a B and C plan ( something which I have checked).B plan in case of a collapse of negociations.C plan because in case of success a significant delay will be necessary for implementing a full withdrawal of US sanction for well known reasons;and due to the fact that iranian economic apparatus is not ready for this and will need time for accomodation ( a far less well known factor).

  5. I do think we’re missing the point of this article which is the belief that Zarif is the right man to pull a nuclear deal through. The truth of the matter is that Zarif is indeed the right person for Iran since Iran wishes to preserve its nuclear infrastructure and weaponizing tools, hence the firm stance by Zarif that Iran be allowed not only to keep its centrifuge capacity, but to increase it significantly. Which is why it can give up on downgrading its current uranium stockpile while it boosts its refining capability. As a true loyalist to the ruling religious leadership, Zarif is a true soldier for the cause which is why his skills are valuable to Khamenei as Iran seeks to fool the West.

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