Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Mohammad Javad Zarif: Iran’s Most Controversial Diplomat

On 25 February 2019, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif resigned via Instagram with little explanation. The main reason, however, was soon revealed: he had been kept out of the loop during Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s visit to the capital Tehran.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani refused his resignation, and it was said that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, also opposed it. In addition, Zarif received huge public support asking him to stay. He eventually withdrew his resignation and returned to his position. But who is the man who can attract such broad support? And why, despite his evident popularity, was he excluded during al-Assad’s visit?

Zarif, or Javad as his close friends call him, was born in Tehran in 1960. Like many Iranians in the pre-1979 revolution period, his family supported his move to the United States (US) in 1975 to complete high school and pursue further education. He studied international relations at San Francisco State University, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1982 and a master’s degree a year later. He then enrolled for his PhD in international studies at Denver University but was later banned from entering the US and had to finish his PhD from abroad.

While working in the US, Zarif’s sister introduced him to a friend of hers, Maryam Amanieh. They were married in Tehran a year after the revolution and then moved to New York. They have a son, an engineer, and a daughter, an architect, both born in the US.

Iran- Mohammad Javad Zarif
Photo AFP

Zarif is known by his friends and family to be a rational, passionate and sensitive father and husband. In his work, he is respected as a man of discipline, although he is known to become angry when things do not go his way.

Zarif started his diplomatic career immediately after the revolution. He joined Iran’s general consulate in San Francisco in 1979 as an advisor. Two years later, he moved to Iran’s permanent mission to the United Nations in New York where he became Iran’s representative in 1989. After returning to Iran in the early 1990s, he was appointed deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs, a position he held for ten years. He then returned to his post as Iran’s representative to the UN in 2002 and remained there until 2007, when he again returned to Iran to become the senior aide to the foreign minister for three years.

His diplomatic career was halted by the Ahmadinejad government (2005-2013). Although not a member of any party or group, Zarif’s moderate tendencies were well known and distanced him from the regime. After the 2009 contested presidential elections, his career in the Foreign Ministry seemed to be over. He spent the next four years in academia. In addition to joining the Islamic Azad University, Rouhani invited him to the Center for Strategic Research, where he worked as an advisor to Rouhani himself. Both institutions where supervised by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the main moderate political figure at the time. When Rouhani was elected president in 2013, Zarif was his first choice for foreign minister, a choice that, according to many sources, the supreme leader endorsed.

Generally, Zarif’s diplomatic career earned him respect in Iran and beyond. Unlike most of his predecessors, he was not an outsider in the ministry but had started at the bottom and worked his way up. As such, he knew how to negotiate the different power circles in Iran. The resounding endorsement of his nomination for foreign minister by the parliament (232 votes out of 281) reflected his broad support.

His appointment was helped by the international network he had built during his long career in New York as well as his fluency in English and public speaking skills. Since Iran was about to engage the international community in its nuclear program, someone like Zarif was needed to further that agenda.

Following the severing of relations between Iran and the US in 1980, Zarif is one of the few Iranian diplomats to have such an extensive network in the US and in the world generally. Having lived a large part of his life in the US, he used his knowledge of that country to critical effect in the run-up to the 2015 nuclear deal. After the US violated its commitments to the deal, he also used this knowledge to push back against the US’ anti-Iran campaign.

The nuclear deal was a milestone in Zarif’s career. unprecedented in its own right, the deal came with several other firsts. For instance, Zarif is the first Iranian foreign minister to meet and establish a close relationship with his US counterpart. He is also the first Iranian official to have shaken hands with a US president since the revolution. Additionally, he established close working relationships with the representatives and foreign ministers of the six other countries to the deal (the US, United Kingdom, Russia, France, China and Germany) and Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s chief diplomat.

His energy and open approach to discussions, mentioned by many of his counterparts including Mogherini, were regarded as instrumental in successfully guiding the negotiations to an eventual deal. He also tried hard to change some of the assumptions about Iran’s worldview. For instance, he distanced Iran’s anti-Israel policy from its relations with Jews in general. As such, despite his terse rhetoric about Israel and its politicians, he kept congratulating Jews on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

Despite the praise Zarif has earned for his distinct brand of diplomacy, he has also received a great deal of criticism. His main critics come from the revolutionary and conservative camps. They are well represented in parliament, and besides criticizing Zarif in public, they have tried to undermine him by questioning him on various occasions in parliament. Had it not been for his rhetorical capabilities, those questions could have evolved into impeachments. In fact, his critics did attempt to impeach him, and several demanded his removal from office.

So far, he has been unstoppable. If anything, his recent resignation has only bolstered his position, and it forced Rouhani to explain why he was not involved in al-Assad’s visit.

Zarif will undoubtedly go down as the most controversial foreign minister in Iran’s history, criticized and even accused of treason by opponents while praised and regarded as a national hero by supporters.

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