Javad Zarif, the diplomat Iranian hardliners love to hate
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Javad Zarif, the diplomat Iranian hardliners love to hate

Iran’s foreign minister may have ruffled conservative sensibilities, but eventually they are the ones calling the shots, expert says

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif laughs with reporters before meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015 (photo credit: AP/Rick Wilking)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif laughs with reporters before meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015 (photo credit: AP/Rick Wilking)

A photo of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif strolling the streets of Geneva with US Secretary of State John Kerry last week has irked Iran’s conservatives, who have called on him to “apologize to the Iranian people.”

Zarif, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, spent many years studying and working in the US and holds a PhD in international law from the University of Denver, and has long been regarded with suspicion by Iran’s hardliners. And an interim agreement brokered by Zarif with the superpowers in November 2013, ostensibly regarded by conservatives as disadvantageous to Iran’s national interests, has only increased the heat on the Iranian diplomat.

“I have so far tried to remain mum on the foreign ministry so as not to weaken its position during the negotiations, but some mistakes have become unbearable,” Mohammad Reza Naqdi, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ radical Basij paramilitary force, told conservative website Dana. “I say honestly that Zarif has fallen, as far as I’m concerned.”

“Walking with Kerry through the streets of Geneva was like trampling the blood of the martyrs,” Naqdi added, saying that Zarif must apologize to the Iranian people for his “repeated mistakes.” Adding insult to injury, Zarif traveled to Paris “on the very day that the French prime minister displayed the caricature offending the prophet before the cameras,” he noted.

According to Raz Zimmt, an Iran expert at Tel Aviv University’s Alliance Center for Iranian Studies, Zarif’s biography, coupled with his personal responsibility for the nuclear portfolio, makes him even more susceptible to domestic right-wing scorn than Iran’s relatively moderate president, Hassan Rouhani.

Mohammad Reza Naqdi, commander of Iran's Basij force (screen capture: Youtube/PresTVGlobalNews)
Mohammad Reza Naqdi, commander of Iran’s Basij force (screen capture: Youtube/PresTVGlobalNews)

“Every few months Zarif is attacked for different reasons. He has already been summoned twice for a hearing at the Majlis (the Iranian parliament) over the past year,” Zimmt told The Times of Israel. “Iran’s relations with the US are still considered a taboo. The supreme leader may have permitted negotiations with the Americans, but anything beyond concerted talks surrounding the nuclear issue arouses anger.”

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (photo credit: AP/Office of the Supreme Leader)
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (photo credit: AP/Office of the Supreme Leader)

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has reiterated his complete mistrust of the Americans over the past year, making Zarif’s convivial photo ops with Kerry all the more irritating to Iran’s conservatives, especially as the US Senate mulls imposing new sanctions on Iran.

“The radical right wing in Iran is opposed in principle to any significant concession in the negotiations. The Geneva interim agreement is already viewed by the Iranian right as a concession. Freezing the nuclear program, or discussing limiting uranium enrichment to 20 percent, is viewed as unacceptable,” Zimmt said.

Uzi Rabi, head of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, said that the clash between Zarif and the conservatives represents an ongoing tension within Iran since 1979 between “loyalists of the state” and “loyalists of the [Islamic] Revolution.” The latter group still represents Iran’s decision-makers, including Ayatollah Khamenei, who will certainly veto any pragmatic agreement Zarif could possibly reach with the West.

“Sanctions may bring Iran to the negotiating table, but will not cause Iran to back down from its nuclear program,” Rabi told The Times of Israel. “I see no significant backing down on the enrichment or research programs, or allowing inspection of Parchin [military complex] irrespective of Zarif, the Ayatollahs or the Revolutionary Guard. These negotiations are nothing more than a show for international media. For Iran, it’s irrelevant.”

Iranian protesters burn an American flag during an annual anti-American rally in Tehran, Iran, Monday, Nov. 4, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Iranian protesters burn an American flag during an annual anti-American rally in Tehran, Iran, Monday, Nov. 4, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Ebrahim Noroozi)

“Real” Iran, Rabi argued, is the one acting as a destabilizing, subversive force in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen through the Revolutionary Guards’ al-Quds Force.

“Iran is a very tricky place. Zarif and the Revolutionary Guards represent two different rhythms of a very sophisticated and creative player,” he said. “They can cooperate, as long as the interests of the ‘Revolution loyalists’ aren’t harmed. Zarif and Rouhani are statesmen with no power base in Iran; while the political, economic and military resources are held by the Revolutionary Guards,” he said.

According to Zimmt, Zarif’s domestic opponents comprise conservative Majlis deputies, radical student bodies (members of which pelted Rouhani’s convoy in Tehran with shoes, eggs and stones upon his return from the US in September 2013), and senior clerics such as Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi. The foreign minister is also regarded with suspicion within Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

“Zarif is viewed by some of these elements as a red flag, as almost a representative of American interests,” Zimmt said.

In an interview with Iranian website Farda, the Iranian foreign minister defended his walk with Kerry as “natural” after many hours of intense negotiations in a closed hotel room, saying his critics were using the matter as a partisan issue.

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