Who’s Who in Iranian Politics
Mohammad Javad Zarif
Born in 1961, Mohammad Javad Zarif is an associate professor at the University of International Relations, teaching diplomacy and international organizations in the Master’s program. He is one of the best known and experienced Iranian diplomats, and was the Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the United Nations from 2002 to 2007. He has been nominated by President Hassan Rouhani for the position of Foreign Minister, and has been introduced as such to the Majles, or parliament. Zarif has held other domestic and international positions as well: advisor and senior advisor to the Foreign Minister, Deputy Foreign Minister in Legal and International affairs, member of the prominent personalities of the Dialogue among Civilizations, Head of the UN Disarmament Committee – New York – member of the prominent personalities of global governance, and Deputy in International Affairs of the Free Islamic University. Considering his positive outlook with regard to the world community, the nomination of Mohammad Javad Zarif for the position of foreign minister is considered to be a turning point for all countries in their relations with Iran, especially for Europe and the US. Dennis Ross, a senior US diplomat and Obama’s former advisor in Middle East affairs states: “His selection is considered in Washington and Europe as a sign that Rouhani intends to interact with the West.” He further added: “But at the same time, Zarif is not an individual who would do favors for the US.”
Mohammad Javad Zarif is an experienced diplomat whose capability, more than anything else, is in his diplomatic language. At the Columbia University in New York, where Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was criticized and even insulted for his questioning of the Holocaust, Zarif, while answering a question about this issue said: “I believe that numerous crimes and violence had occurred during WWII. This question must be proposed in this manner; that what was the crime of the Palestinians in the violence of WWII?” In fact, he was saying that a huge number of people were killed in WWII, many of whom were Jews. This was a crime and any crime against humanity must be condemned, and we condemn any such crime. But the question that you do not intend to answer is what was the role of the Palestinians in these crimes? The Palestinians are suffering from the consequences of this war, while they played no role in it. This view illustrates how Zarif could express the speech made by Ahmadinejad in a diplomatic framework, while he also expressed his opinion and, to some extent, convinced the other side. The reason is that he is well aware of the facts, and that is what is important for a diplomat is this minimum amount of persuasion.
Dr. Zarif has published several books in his field of expertise, including “International Organizations”, “New International Trends”, “Multilateral Diplomacy: Theory and Performance of Regional and International Organizations”, “Dealing with the Iran and US Crisis, the Need for a Paradigm Change”, “Islam and the World Human Rights Declaration” and “Ban on Threat and Usage of Nuclear Weapons”.
Due to his long diplomatic presence in the US, he has had relations with US society, and the political and scientific circles of this country. In an article in the Herald Tribune, the author mentions Zarif’s presence in US society, stating: “Mohammad Javad Zarif’s presence in the universities, political and social circles is to the extent that Liza Anderson, the head of the International Relations Department of the Columbia University has asked him whether he intends to run in the US presidential elections.“
Zarif was born to a relatively wealthy family in Tehran, and his father was a textile merchant. He received his US student visa in 1976, and garnered a BS and MS in International Affairs from the State University of San Francisco, in 1981 and 1983 respectively. After passing a comprehensive exam in 1985, the US Immigration Office cancelled his student visa. He then started working in Iran’s Permanent Mission to the UN in New York, and three years later he completed his studies and received a PhD in Law and International Relations from the University of Denver.
In the past, Zarif has, several times, called the unilateral sanctions imposed by the West, especially the US, as an act against international law and an intervention in Iran’s internal affairs and as such unjustifiable measures. He points to the flow of the developments in the international scene and states: “The fact that in some cases we see contradictions in the behavior of the governments is the result of this basic characteristic.” He believes that the international system, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, does not have one leader and we can take advantage of the competition between different governments to secure our own interests. Years ago, when Zarif was a young diplomat, he was present as a member of the negotiating team in the process of gaining the freedom of US diplomats held hostage in Lebanon. Although the US’ behavior was not proper at that time, Zarif remained committed to an improvement in relations.
James Dobbins, one of the prominent US diplomats at the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan in 2001, says that Zarif, with his respectful manner, has had a positive role in diplomacy. He further adds that Zarif was effective in an agreement, without which the government of President Karzai could never have come to power. These are the special cases about which Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, says at exceptional times negotiation with the US officials can take place. Therefore, it seems that the established presence of Zarif in the US, and his knowledge of the ruling logic behind the behavior of the officials of this country and other western societies can greatly help the resolution of the dispute between Iran and the West, particularly over the nuclear issue.
But the positions taken on Mohammad Javad Zarif in Iran’s political society are two-fold. Some, while mentioning his bright record, consider him the best choice and trusted by the government to break the ice between Tehran and Washington. Mohammad Sadegh Kharrazi, Iran’s former ambassador to the UN and an advisor to Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s former president, states: “Zarif has a realistic outlook with regard to international issues and is able to find a solution. He is trusted by the Leader and is the best option to normalize relations between Tehran and Washington.” In his memoir, titled “Mr. Ambassador” which has recently been published, Zarif talks about his selection as the Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations and says: “I assume that it was in February 2001 that an agreement was made between me and Dr.Kharrazi (foreign minister at the time) with regard to my mission in New York. Apparently, Dr. Kharrazi had mentioned my proposed responsibility to the Leader. Later, the Leader told me that he told Mr. Hejazi on the same day that ‘you are the best choice for New York; but let the general trend in the Foreign Ministry take place. When you are officially introduced to us, you can officially accept it … ‘ The Leader also mentioned some necessary points for this mission, one of which is a point which I always talk about in my classes with students. He told me that even if in a case where you are certain that your viewpoint is 180 degrees different from mine, you are duty bound to state your own outlook. He even mentioned that this is a religious obligation. Thank God, I have always followed this advice.”
The Deputy Head of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of the Islamic Consultative Assembly, who is a member of the moderate faction of the Principalists of Iran, says: “Mr. Zarif is one of the suitable choices for the Foreign Ministry under these sensitive conditions. Expertise, experience and knowledge are among the most important characteristics of Mr. Zarif. He also has good relations with the diplomats of other countries and is known in the world as an experienced diplomat. Mr. Zarif is a religious person who is trusted by the Leader. In my opinion, Mr. Zarif will easily gain the confirmation of the parliament. “That is why some say that if Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s elected president, intended to show his determination to reconstruct the relations with the US and engage in political bargaining, he could not find a better person than Mohammad Javad Zarif to pursue this task.
But others, who are part of the radical faction of the Principalists, refer to the same presence of Zarif in US circles and the sensitivity of the issues in which he has played a role, and discuss issues that seem to be irrelevant. For example, they derogatorily mention issues like his presence in the “New York circle”, “appointment of diplomats close to the US and inclined towards the West”, and/or “planning Khatami’s visit with (George) Soros”, and consider Zarif a dubious and untrustworthy individual. Of course there are, as usual, no bases for such claims. There are superficial statements based on a Reuters’ report which states: “The telephone numbers of Joe Biden, the US Vice President, and Chuck Hagel, the Defense Secretary, and national security officials of the US can be found in Zarif’s phone book.” But Zarif has denied these allegations, and has said that despite being eligible to receive a Green Card, he has never applied for one.
The point which must seriously be considered is that contrary to the reports and analysis of some media, Dr. Mohammad Javad Zarif has always defended the interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran and has insisted on defending the principled positions of the country. Zarif is indeed a stubborn defender of Iran. Having relations with US politicians and university circles is a necessity of the task undertaken by the Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the UN, and what can be important and decisive are the attempts to safeguard Iran’s national interests in the best possible way; facts which have always been obvious in the performance and behavior of Dr. Zarif.
It should be mentioned here that despite his long presence in the US, Mohammad Javad Zarif does not have US residency and is not committed to it in any way. Although some media, during the past year, attempted to show that there is a separation between the political system and some of the former diplomats of the Foreign Ministry, including Mohammad Javad Zarif, this is not a fact. Dr. Zarif is one of the Iranian diplomats who is known for being close to the Leader. The Supreme Leader has always had a positive view of him, which is why he was appointed as the Permanent Representative to the UN in the first place. (It should be stated here that the Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations is one of Iran’s diplomatic positions that is decided with the Leader’s approval.)