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Zarif Unfiltered

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif wanted to get started as quickly as possible—in fact, it seemed he could not wait to speak. When he took the stage last Wednesday morning at a New America event in New York City, he did not pause to embrace the moderator, David Ignatius, or acknowledge the audience as he sat down. As Ignatius began his first question, Zarif—the man who had spent the past few months negotiating an agreement between the Iran and major world powers to limit access to nuclear weapons in exchange for sanctions relief—could not sit still.

For Zarif, who has made few appearances in Western media, his discussion with Ignatius was a chance to give an audience of journalists, policy experts, and students his unfiltered view on world events. Only the day before, the Iranian Navy had stopped and seized a cargo ship, the Maersk Tigris, in the Persian Gulf—possibly in retaliation against the US and Saudi Arabia for forcibly refusing five Iranian ships entry to Yemen. “We shouldn’t read too much into it,” Zarif said of the incident. “Some people do try to read too much into anything that is taking place now in order to torpedo a process that is independent of all of these problems.”

Zarif’s approach served as a reminder that to reach any agreement, it is important to consider the perspective of the other side. Many of Zarif’s comments struck a similar tone, designed to show a softer side of the Iranian government than its traditional portrayal as aggressive and authoritarian.

In the early portion of his conversation, Zarif spoke mostly in these positive terms. He said that Iran would be willing to follow “the highest level of international transparency” standards for monitoring of its nuclear program should an agreement be made. Judging from Zarif’s speech alone, it seemed a nuclear agreement was in reach.

“I believe it can be done,” Zarif said of an agreement. “I believe it should be done. I believe it is an opportunity for all of us which should not be missed.”

Zarif teased the audience by providing sought after details of the nuclear negotiations. The time-table for negotiations would be “basically non-stop” until June 30th, he said. And if the parties did not reach an agreement by that deadline, it would not be an issue. “No time deadline is sacrosanct.” With a winningly tongue-in-cheek demeanor, he concluded: “…we have all agreed this is a human process, this is not a divine process where you have definite deadlines.”

But this genial tone of the conversation changed mid-way through the event, when Zarif took aim at Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, author of the now infamous Congressional letter to Iran. He declared that any agreement with the US and major powers would trigger a UN resolution to remove sanctions against Iran. A vote on such a resolution “will be mandatory for all member states, whether Senator Tom Cotton likes it or not,” noted Zarif to a round of laughter from the audience.

After his humorous dig at Senator Cotton (which he admitted he couldn’t resist), Zarif become more visibly relaxed on stage and was more willing speak critically and directly. He said that the international community’s biggest concern should be the continued of presence of nuclear weapons in the United States and other permanent members of the UN Security Council, with nuclear weapons in Israel coming second.

Continuing to branch outward to consider relations beyond those between the US and Iran, Zarif then touched on the situation in Yemen, which is in the midst of a civil war. The fighting between Houthi forces (who have received arms from Iran) and Sunni forces in the south (who are supported by Saudi Arabian airstrikes) has all of the dimensions of a proxy war, but Zarif said that only an inclusive dialogue could resolve the conflict.

“It should be a Yemeni-owned and a Yemeni-operated process,” Zarif observed. He proposed a mediation process similar to the Bonn Conference that took place for Afghanistan. But Zarif was also critical of the role Saudi Arabia was playing in Yemen, noting the Saudi government had denied entry to four Iranian planes that were carrying humanitarian supplies into Yemen.

The foreign minister’s explanation of how he views Iran’s current and ideal future roles in the region was enlightening. Zarif put Iran on the same level of Saudi Arabia in terms of regional importance. In his estimation, neither country can be ignored when seeking to address issues in the Middle East. As such, he rejected what he perceived as unfair treatment from the international community, such as being excluded from the Geneva II negotiations on Syria. “I didn’t ask Saudi Arabia not to be invited to Geneva II because they supported Daesh [ISIS],” Zarif pointed out. “[It] would be imprudent to exclude any regional country, but I was excluded from attending Geneva II.”

Continuing on Syria, he said that Syrians needed to decide their own future without the international community setting preconditions on peace negotiations. “People who are accusing the government of Syria, and who are saying that the government of Syria has the blood of so many people on its hands, should go back and do a little bit of soul searching.”

Ignatius, who writes a column for the Washington Post, concluded his questions with one about his colleague, Jason Rezaian. Rezaian—the Post’s Tehran bureau chief—has been held in an Iranian prison since July 2014 on charges ranging from espionage to propaganda against the government. Ignatius asked if now would be a good time to release Rezaian, given the “spirit of the moment.” Zarif expressed hope that Rezaian would be cleared of all charges but implied that Rezaian might have been working with foreign spies. “It is unfortunate that some overzealous low-level operative tried to take advantage of him [Rezaian],” he said.

After the event, Zarif’s commitment to a nuclear deal seemed resolute. Senator Cotton, unable to resist a dig of his own, responded to Zarif’s remarks on Twitter, challenging the foreign minister to a debate. Zarif did not take the bait. He tweeted back: “Serious diplomacy, not macho personal smear, is what we need.”

If Zarif’s goal was to introduce himself to more of America—in person and on their smartphones—then he certainly succeeded.


Justin Lynch is an adjunct editorial fellow at New America, and a journalist based in South Sudan.