VIENNA — Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator, did not take questions from the international press while in Vienna last month for nuclear talks. But he did take time to Skype with an American audience at the University of Denver, where in the 1980s he earned an M.A. and PhD in International Studies.
The Feb. 18 exchange, webcast live, showcased Zarif as the very model of a moderate diplomat. As CNN described it, Zarif “took the unusual step of addressing the American public directly from the talks.”
It was more like an event of historic amnesia. For starters, Hill, the host of this encounter, served from 2005 to 2009 as the chief U.S. envoy to the Six-Party nuclear talks with North Korea. These were a spectacular failure. They were marked by a series of U.S. concessions to North Korea, punctuated in 2006 by North Korea’s first nuclear test.
At the end of 2008, shortly after Hill testified to the Senate Committee on Armed Services that “we have made important progress” toward the denuclearization of North Korea, the talks collapsed. The following year, 2009, North Korea conducted its second nuclear, test, followed in 2013 by a third. Preparations for a fourth test are now visible.
North Korea offers a neat template of how a rogue state can haggle, defy, sneak, cheat and lie its way to the bomb. Like North Korea in the Six-Party Talks, Iran with its own flair for nuclear extortion has been elevated at the negotiating table to the status of equal bargaining partner with an array of world powers (in this case the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia, collectively dubbed the P5+1, all led by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton).3
In the North Korea talks, the bargaining principle as described at the time by Hill was “action-for-action.” In the 2013 Joint Plan of Action that now frames the Iran talks, the slightly wordier plan is for “reciprocal step-by-step.” By July, or maybe early 2015 — depending on how it all goes — these steps are supposed to arrive at the Joint Plan’s grand goal of a “mutually-agreed long-term comprehensive solution that would ensure Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful.” Already, in an echo of North Korea’s tactics, Iranian officials have been publicly disputing U.S. administration accounts of what’s on the table.
But in Hill’s interview with Zarif, the subject of North Korea didn’t even come up.
Instead, viewers were treated to a parade of praise and diplomatically neutered questions for Zarif. In Denver, Hill sat in a beige leather wing chair, in front of an audience of students, faculty and other guests. They were all facing a big screen on which the bearded and bespectacled Zarif appeared via a blurry Skype connection, grinning into the camera from some undisclosed location in Vienna — Iran’s embassy, perhaps? — an Iranian flag behind him.
One of Zarif’s former professors, Edward Thomas Rowe, lauded Zarif’s decades of service to Tehran, telling him: “In the 25 years since you completed your degree, we’ve watched with admiration and excitement, pleasure, pride, your extraordinary diplomatic career in the Iranian foreign service.”
Hill invited Zarif to make remarks. Zarif, who speaks fluent English, delivered a 17-minute statement in which he recast U.S. objections to Iran’s nuclear program as the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding. As Zarif tells it, the worry about an Iranian bomb is overwrought: “I believe we have a shared objective, for Iran to have a nuclear program that is exclusively peaceful.” Scolding the U.S. for imposing sanctions on Iran, dismissing use of force as “no longer an effective instrument of foreign policy,” Zarif urged that everyone “work together” to “move forward in a globalized world.”
The audience clapped. Hill began asking questions, culled in advance from the audience. Here’s a sampling of Zarif’s responses:
On whether Iran has a nuclear weapons program: “It doesn’t make any sense for Iran to be pursuing nuclear weapons from a strategic point of view.”
On the Iran nuclear talks: Agreement is “totally achievable, since Iran is not seeking nuclear weapons.”
On Iran’s dealings with Syria: “We have been sending humanitarian assistance to Syria for the past several years.”
On terrorists migrating to Syria: “As a committed Muslim, I can tell you it has nothing to do with Islam. Islam is a religion of compassion.”
On Israel: “Probably the United States is well aware that there is only one huge stockpile of both chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in our region, and that it is in Israel, and it is extremely important to rid this region of this threat once and for all.”
On human rights abuses in Iran: “Every country can improve its human rights record, and Iran is not an exception.”
And, on Iran’s suppression of massive protests in 2009 over a rigged presidential election: “Every president in Iran has presided over an election that brought his opposition into office…Iran’s own form of indigenous democracy is working.”
Nobody mentioned that Iran’s government, vehicle of Zarif’s stellar career, ranks as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. Nor did anyone point out that Iran leads the world in juvenile executions, imprisons and tortures dissidents, hangs homosexuals, censors speech and rigs elections.
Nobody brought up Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the despot who has ruled Iran for the past 25 years, since the death in 1989 of the Islamic Revolution’s founding tyrant, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini .
No one mentioned that Iran’s “aid” to Syria has included support for the Assad regime, in the form of weapons and shock troops of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. No one mentioned the IRGC at all, despite its role as custodian of Iran’s nuclear program.
Nor did anyone inquire about Iran’s ballistic missile program, support for Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon, or U.S. government reports over the past decade that Iran maintains chemical and biological weapons programs. No one inquired about Iran’s threats to obliterate Israel.
There were no challenges to Zarif’s assertion that Iran doesn’t really want nuclear weapons after all.
Hill wrapped up the Denver dialogue by asking Zarif for help in organizing “some group trips to come to Iran and see how things are going there.” Zarif said he’d do his best.
And with that, Iran’s chief diplomat signed off the call, thanking his Denver hosts for the opportunities they’d given him, past and present. As well he should.
— Claudia Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.