Iran's Pick for Nuclear Talks Carries Hope of Eased Tensions

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TEHRAN -- Until this summer, Mohammad Javad Zarif, one of Iran's most accomplished diplomats, was an outcast, exiled from the government by ultraconservatives for working too closely with the West. Rather than presenting the Iranian case to the world, as he had done so effectively throughout a 35-year diplomatic career, he was spending his days teaching at the Foreign Ministry's training center on a quiet, leafy campus in North Tehran.

That changed with the election of the moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, in June. Now, Mr. Zarif is the country's new foreign minister and seems virtually certain to lead Iran's delegation in nuclear negotiations with the West -- further indications, analysts say, that Mr. Rouhani is serious about reducing tensions with the United States and other Western countries.

"Mr. Zarif is the new face of a new policy," said Davoud Hermidas-Bavand, a professor of international relations at Allameh Tabatabaei University in Tehran, who knows Mr. Zarif personally. "Our former foreign policy obviously did not yield any results and was clearly doomed. We need to revise our former methods and soften our stances in order to find a solution to the nuclear problem and reduce the sanctions."

Previous negotiations over Iran's nuclear program have broken down on the West's insistence that the country's government first stop enriching uranium, which world powers suspect is a first step to developing nuclear weapons. The Iranians have maintained just as steadfastly that they have the right to enrich uranium for fuel to power reactors and other peaceful uses. Now, this diplomatic logjam may be giving way, analysts say.

"We can be sure that Mr. Zarif -- if he gets to handle the nuclear issue -- will quickly and officially propose ideas such as Iran ending enrichment up to 20 percent as a compromise," said François Nicoullaud, a former French ambassador to Tehran who often met with Mr. Zarif.

If Iran's leadership has decided to pursue a new policy of easing tensions with the West, and that still remains to be seen, Mr. Zarif would seem the ideal person to carry it out.

For most of the past three decades, Mr. Zarif, 53, has sought to establish a working relationship between Iran and the West. But he has focused particularly on the United States, a country he prefers to call a "rival" nation rather than "the enemy," the label preferred by Iran's hard-liners.

He helped draft the cease-fire ending the bloody Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, negotiated Iranian intelligence assistance for American forces in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks and spent years in New York as Iran's ambassador to the United Nations.

But his government career faltered after 2005, with the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a conservative who relished confrontation, particularly with the United States and Israel.

Mr. Ahmadinejad was returned to office in disputed elections in 2009 with the support of Iran's governing establishment of hard-line clerics and commanders, and that of the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But eight years of confrontation, primarily over the nuclear program, left Iran increasingly isolated politically and reeling economically from international sanctions, discrediting the hard-liners in the public eye.

During his presidential campaign, Mr. Rouhani scored heavily against his opponents by repeatedly calling for a review of the country's foreign relations. "Review does not mean a change in the principles," he often said. "But our tactics and approaches should change."

Mr. Rouhani's choice of Mr. Zarif as his tool for conducting this review is not surprising. The young Mr. Zarif moved to the United States to pursue his studies when he was 17. After Iran's diplomatic corps was expelled in retaliation for the seizure of United States Embassy personnel in Tehran in 1979, Mr. Zarif staffed Iran's embassy in Washington as an unofficial spokesman, only three weeks after his marriage. He was 19.

Years later, Mr. Zarif was allowed to fulfill his obligatory military service studying and working in the United States instead of in the trenches of the Iran-Iraq war, where upward of 400,000 young Iranian men died. He studied international relations at San Francisco State University and the University of Denver. From 2002 to 2007, under the reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, he served as Iran's representative to the United Nations.

He spent nearly 30 years in the United States, more than anybody in Iran's current ruling establishment. So close are his ties to the United States -- and so suspiciously are they viewed in Iran -- that recently, while defending his nomination in Parliament, he was forced to emphasize that he had never applied for American citizenship nor permanent residency.

His English is fluent, and both Western diplomats and journalists laud him as one of the rare Iranian officials who actually talk clearly to them. But Mr. Zarif is by no means a westernized Iranian. His wife rarely appears in public, and like other Iranian diplomats, he declines to shake hands with women for religious reasons. In New York, he rarely attended parties or gatherings, the way other diplomats do, saying he was by nature very shy.

In a series of interviews with him in recent years published a month ago and titled "Mr. Ambassador," Mr. Zarif made clear that he was a proponent of establishing relations with the United States because that was in Iran's best interests, and not because he had any special affection for the country or doubted Iran's revolutionary ideals.

"I, due to many reasons, believe that we would lose less by having direct interaction," he said in a chapter on hypothetical relations between the estranged countries. "Relations with America is a means to be in line with national benefits." Still, as he mentions in another interview in the series, "those relations can never be friendly."

He was a member of Mr. Rouhani's three-man negotiating team in 2003, when Iran struck the only nuclear deal with the West and agreed to suspend enrichment from 2003 to 2005.

But that deal ultimately fell apart in acrimony, empowering hard-line factions that effectively sidelined Mr. Zarif and his mentor, Mr. Rouhani, labeling them as sellouts to the West.

The language of Iran's foreign policy has long alternated between harsh language and delicate diplomacy, at times playing up tensions with Western countries and at other times cooling them down, often in response to domestic imperatives. With the appointment of Mr. Zarif, analysts say, the pendulum seems to have swung decisively to the cooler zone.

"Mr. Zarif is certainly the best choice for the coming time, when Iran will try to reach out to the West," said Mr. Nicoullaud, the French diplomat. While he is optimistic about Mr. Zarif's appointment, he cautions against raising expectations too high. "Iran's style will change, but they will not give in on their principles."

Both Mr. Rouhani and Mr. Zarif have been calling for "a single foreign policy," rather than sending out diffuse and conflicting messages and statements. If he is indeed given the nuclear portfolio, Mr. Zarif can be expected to bring this new approach to the negotiations -- a far cry from his predecessor, Saeed Jalili, who was known for his endless theoretical debates with his Western counterparts.

But Mr. Zarif can bend only so far, many analysts warn. "Both he and Mr. Rouhani will try hard to solve this matter," Mr. Nicoullaud said. "But in the end, their faith is in the hands of their Western counterparts. If they do not seize this opportunity, domestic critics will again take them down."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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