Writing in The New Yorker, Dexter Filkins makes a familiar observation about Iranian foreign minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif, who visited New York University’s Center on International Cooperation on Wednesday for an hour-and-a-half question-and-answer session with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius:
He comes off as practically American: he went to college in the United States, at San Francisco State University, and to graduate school at the University of Denver. As ambassador to the United Nations, he lived in New York for five years. His English is perfect. And yet he is the foreign minister of a state that has killed hundreds of Americans (in Iraq, in Lebanon), and is possibly the world’s most active sponsor of terrorism. He doesn’t apologize for, or even acknowledge, any of that. . . . You get the sense, watching Zarif, that his most difficult job is not haggling over the details of a nuclear agreement with the West as much as keeping the darker forces in his own government at bay.
Creating that sense — that he is “pragmatic, not dogmatic,” as Joe Biden said; that he is, according to Senator Dianne Feinstein, “thoughtful” and “real” — is, of course, Javad Zarif’s crucial gift. He is generously endowed with that most dangerous of diplomatic qualities: charm.
But it is a front. In an essay for The New Republic in January 2014, Ali Alfoneh and Reuel Marc Gerecht, senior fellows at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote about Zarif’s memoir, Mr. Ambassador: A Conversation with Mohammad-Javad Zarif, Iran’s Former Ambassador to the United Nations, then-recently published in Tehran. Write Alfoneh and Gerecht: “To the extent that his book accurately reflects Zarif’s worldview and fundamental beliefs, the affable foreign minister turns out to be every bit as religiously ideological as the radicalized student activist he was in the late 1970s.”
Consider the following:
“We have a fundamental problem with the West and especially with America,” Zarif declares. “This is because we are claimants of a mission, which has a global dimension. It has nothing to do with the level of our strength, and is related to the source of our raison d’être. How come Malaysia [an overwhelmingly Muslim country] doesn’t have similar problems? Because Malaysia is not trying to change the international order. It may seek independence and strength, but its definition of strength is the advancement of its national welfare.” While Zarif considers national welfare one of the goals of the Islamic Republic, he stresses that “we have also defined a global vocation, both in the Constitution and in the ultimate objectives of the Islamic revolution.” He adds: “I believe that we do not exist without our revolutionary goals.”
This is Zarif not in 1979, but in the last 36 months.
His charm, then, is only the instrument of his — and his regime’s — shrewdness, its ability to say what the Obama administration wants to hear, while ultimately forwarding its own goal, viz. “trying to change the international order.” Certainly that was the case on Wednesday when Zarif declared, for instance, that Yemen — which Iran-backed rebels took over earlier this year – “was not a theatre for war” but “for humanitarian assistance,” and that no one should “create sectarian strife” in the region.
Or when he said that Iran “would welcome” a peaceful Saudi Arabian nuclear program.
Or when he said that Iran, not the United States, “represented the international community,” and that “the single biggest concern of the international community is the continued presence of nuclear weapons in the U.S. and the P5 countries.”
Or when he declared, “We believe there is nothing hidden in our nuclear program. . . . We want no weapons.”
At Bloomberg in March, Eli Lake related a telling anecdote about Zarif’s charm:
Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Major American Jewish Organizations, remembers pressing Zarif [in the early 2000s] about the case of eight Iranian Jews from Shiraz who had gone missing in 1994. ”He has charm,” Hoenlein told me. “He was gracious. He invited us to his home.”
But at the end of the day, Zarif’s personal qualities masked an inability to help the Jewish leaders find the men, who ranged in age from 15 to 36. “He kept promising us on the missing young people, but we never ended up getting any information,” Hoenlein told me. “We gave him the information on where they were seen, in jail, we communicated this to him, and asked him to look into the fate of these young boys. But in the end the answer was, ‘we don’t know, we have no information.’ “
Last year, the Israeli government made public a report that its intelligence service, the Mossad, had learned the missing boys were captured, jailed and murdered by Iranian authorities.
Mohammad-Javad Zarif is not a “pragmatist,” a partner, or a friend. He is every bit as radical as the regime he represents. He merely cloaks himself in the knowledge gained by a quarter-century living in America, his jests and jabs and chuckles, and the fashionable rhetoric of Edward Said that he peddles with the authority conferred by a Persian accent.
“A real diplomat,” said the Norwegian politician Trygve Lie, “is one who can cut his neighbor’s throat without having his neighbor notice it.” Javad Zarif has the knife drawn, and this administration is oblivious.