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An Iranian Moderate Exposed

Everyone thought Iran's foreign minister was a pragmatist. They were wrong. Australia

“To my esteemed enemy, Mohammad-Javad Zarif.” Iran’s former ambassador to the United Nations remains very proud of this dedication in his copy of Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy. The book was a statesman’s gift, a polite and perhaps hopeful gesture from a former secretary of state to a man who certainly seemed, before the coming of the crude populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, destined to serve as Iran’s foreign minister. With the election of Hassan Rouhani, the American-educated Zarif, who was exiled to the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s university during most of Ahmadinejad’s eight-year presidency, made a comeback. As foreign minister he now leads the Iranian delegation to the Geneva nuclear talks. He is in personality the polar opposite of his nuclear predecessor, Saeed Jalili, who lost his leg, his sense of humor, and his patience for diplomacy in the Iran-Iraq War decades ago and became one of the Supreme Leader Ali 
Khamenei’s favorite minions.

Kissinger likely didn’t really want Zarif as an enemy: he has always had trouble with the Islamic Republic, a revolutionary land that stubbornly refuses to pass into Thermidor and the raison d’état politics in which he feels at home. Zarif has a small legion of American admirers in New York and Washington—journalists and think tank experts especially—whom he assiduously cultivated while at Turtle Bay. Perhaps even as much as Rouhani, he is the Iranian “pragmatist” in whom the White House now has put its atomic hopes. So is Zarif a good bet? Is he actually a realist in 
the Kissingerian tradition?

We may now answer these questions more precisely, since Zarif’s memoir Aqa-ye Safir: Goftegou ba Mohammad-Javad Zarif, Safir-e Pishin-e Iran dar Sazeman-e Melal-e Mottahed, or Mr. Ambassador: A Conversation with Mohammad-Javad Zarif, Iran’s Former Ambassador to the United Nations, has just been published in Tehran. The answer is not entirely edifying. 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.

A certain circumspection is, of course, required: when Zarif commissioned this book, he was obviously interested in returning to the good graces of the Supreme Leader. Ahmadinejad, a lower-class firebrand who exemplified many of Khamenei’s passions until he started to question the necessity of the clergy as intermediaries between man and God, loathed the revolutionary upper crust that revolved around Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the rapaciously corrupt clerical majordomo who was the right-hand man of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the obsidian-eyed mullah who established Iran’s theocracy. Zarif may have felt compelled in this book to alter his religious views and his possible political differences with Khamenei and others who wield the power within the regime. He is without his own power base; his network of friends is largely derivative of those 
he has served.

Still, extended conversations—this memoir is a very long chat with the writer Muhammad-Mehdi Raji—inevitably reveal a lot of truth. And this makes Zarif’s book depressing to read—particularly for those who want to believe that Zarif’s savoir vivre and wit reflect the Islamic Republic’s transformation from a revolutionary state into a more run-of-the-mill, unthreatening if internally 
unpleasant Middle Eastern authoritarianism. Such hope is difficult to sustain after reading Zarif’s book. The memoir also serves as a bad omen for the Islamic Republic’s interim nuclear agreement in Geneva—let alone the felicitous aspirations of those in Washington who want to end the cold war between the Islamic Republic and the West through a “grand bargain,” or just a lot of little ones.

Born in 1960 into an affluent, religiously devout, and politically conservative merchant family in Tehran, Mohammad-Javad, the fourth child of the Zarif family, was not groomed for revolution. Piety rather than politics dominated the Zarif residence behind Bagh-e Shah Square in central Tehran. Upon reaching school age, Mohammad-
Javad enrolled at the Alavi School, a private institution that aimed to nurture a religious elite to counter the secular educational establishment that dominated Pahlavi Iran.

But the religiosity of the Zarifs did not translate into support for Khomeini and the revolutionary movement. In his book, Zarif reveals that his father “from the time of the revolution until his death” in 1984 was “very much against the revolutionaries and the Islamic Republic.” The memoir does not explain why the elder Zarif opposed the revolution, but reading between the lines one clearly sees the Zarifs as members of the Hojjatiyeh Charitable Society, a secretive anti-Bahá′i and anti-communist group that was suppressed by Khomeini after 1979.

Founded by Sheikh Mahmoud Halabi in 1953, the same year Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh’s government was toppled by a clerically aided and American-backed military coup, the Hojjatiyeh urged devout Iranians to await the return of the Mahdi, the Shia Messiah, to start the revolution and establish just Islamic rule. Its eschatology was not of the sort that calls for immediate political action. For obvious reasons, the Shah’s Intelligence and National Security Organization (SAVAK) did not mind postponing revolutions until after the Day of Reckoning. It wholeheartedly supported the Hojjatiyeh as a means of channeling religious fervor and political activism against Bahá′is and communists.

The allusions to the Zarifs’ Hojjatiyeh leaning are clear enough. The Alavi School was founded by a leading Hojjatiyeh member named Ali-Asghar Karbaschian. Zarif further admits that he attended the sermons of Mahmoud Halabi, the charismatic founder of Hojjatiyeh. He also discloses that it was through the intercession of a devout Hojjatiyeh-inclined friend of his father’s, who “later turned out to be a SAVAK agent,” that he managed to leave Iran for the United States without doing 
mandatory military service.

The Zarifs went to great lengths to protect the young Mohammad-Javad from the revolutionary political currents of the 1960s and 1970s. Neither newspapers nor television were to be found in the Zarif home, and the only radio receiver was locked up in a closet, to be used only by the elder Zarif to listen to morning prayers during the fasting month of Ramadan. The family gardener escorted the young Mohammad-Javad to the school bus, and he was not allowed to visit classmates at their homes.

Yet politics has a way of imposing itself upon Iranian families. In high school, socially isolated and friendless, Mohammad-Javad sought the company of books. He devoured “traditional and revolutionary books,” including those of the fashionably radical writer Ali Shariati, whose Fatemeh Fatemeh Ast, or Fatimah is Fatimah, he secretly read and hid under the carpet in his room. This little pamphlet about one of the daughters of the Prophet Muhammad, and a wife of Ali, the first Imam of the Shia, was emblematic of Shariati’s reinterpretation of the Shia faith as a revolutionary creed, with Fatimah as Joan of Arc. Zarif also secretly read a few books by the leftist author Samad Behrangi, whose children’s stories were thinly camouflaged social criticism of the Pahlavi regime.

Zarif does not reveal what in these books ignited the revolutionary spark in him, or what other elements combined to make him militant. Instead he stresses his fear of being arrested, which allegedly was shared by his relatives, who urged him to travel abroad to avoid arrest. But reading Shariati and Behrangi hardly justified fear of arrest or imprisonment in late 1970s Iran. Zarif’s explanation is implausible. The young Zarif’s urge to rebel and to live abroad might well have been more personal than political. A deep attachment to his ailing mother, and bitter arguments with a domineering father, whose funeral in 1984 he did not attend, point in that direction.

In January 1977, with help from the friend of his father, the SAVAK agent, seventeen-year-old Mohammad-Javad avoided the draft and left Iran for the United States. He first enrolled at the Drew Preparatory School in San Francisco, and later at San Francisco State University, to study computer science. Here again politics intervened. “Five to six months before the revolution,” he recalls, “I found these friends [Alavi School alumni turned revolutionary activists in the United States]. Maybe they found me.” Zarif’s ambiguity about who found whom probably shows that, rather than actively seeking the company of revolutionaries, he was recruited by the radicals. Outside the reach of his overprotective family and its always-
surveilling family gardener, Zarif enthusiastically joined the “family” of Mostafa Chamran, who established the Muslim Students’ Association at Berkeley. Here Zarif associated with Mohammad Hashemi Rafsanjani, Javad Larijani, Hossein Sheikh al-Eslam, Mohsen Nourbakhsh, and the notorious Saeed Emami, who would later become a deputy intelligence minister involved in, and probably scapegoated for, the infamous “chain murders” of Iranian dissidents in 1999. All of these men rose to prominence 
through the revolution.

Remarkably, Zarif does not provide any account of the hectic days leading up to the revolution, which reinforces the impression that he was watching events unfold rather than driving them. Even after the fall of the Shah, unlike the hoards of half-educated Iranian students who returned home to serve the cause, Zarif remained in the United States. He was appointed the representative of Berkeley’s Muslim Students’ Association to the Iranian Consulate in San Francisco in order to “prevent the consulate deviating from the path of the 
revolution.” This he did until the closure of the consulate, leaving San Francisco only in the summer of 1979, when he returned to Tehran to marry a girl his sister had 
found for him.

Revolutionary societies are more romantic when observed from abroad, and after just three weeks in Iran the young couple moved to New York, preferring Manhattan to the mayhem at home. As undesirable as revolutionary Tehran might have been, however, Manhattan, and America, did not seem attractive to the newlyweds. Apart from a single visit to a professor’s home, where, out of fear of religious dietary restrictions, he did not touch anything but the salad, Zarif recalls that he never set foot in a residence of a non-Muslim American family in the course of more than twenty-four years in the United States. The couple seem to have shared a total disinterest in American society. Zarif admits that they “never learned the name of spices in English” since they did not, either then or later,
socialize with Americans.

Zarif is keen to let the reader know that, with the pardonable exception of cigars, he never fell victim to the moral temptations of the United States. It is an odd admission from a devout revolutionary Iranian. Male Iranian revolutionaries often want you to know, at least privately, that they have sampled Western delights. Sin, after all, gives credence to repentance, and to zealotry. Publicly professing abstention is not de rigueur inside the Islamic Republic’s political system. Certainly Zarif expresses no revulsion from Western culture, and especially Western women, of the sort that the famous Sunni fundamentalist Sayyid Qutb did after a two-year sojourn in the United States. There is nothing in his book to match the embarrassed shock of young Khamenei, who—camouflaged in Western clothing—snuck into a cinema in Iran showing an American film and quickly fled in disgust. Zarif is not radically pious—but there is a moral prudishness and social insecurity about him that blends into a devout Shia concern for purity. Mohammad Khatami, the former Iranian president, wrote a book called Bim-e Mowj, or Fear of the Wave, which is, among other things, a serious reflection on his fascination with the West, especially its leading seducer, the United States. But Zarif, who has spent more time in the United States than any other revolutionary VIP, offers next to nothing about his second home.

At the time of the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran, which Zarif still calls “the Den of Espionage,” he enrolled in the international relations program at Columbia University. Inspired by the Iraqi invasion of Iran, Zarif began studying the laws of war. By then, the skilled Shah-era diplomats at Iran’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations had been purged and were replaced by informers and spies of the new regime, who did not speak English and, according to Zarif, had no idea what the United Nations was. They used their diplomatic credentials largely as cover for revolutionary work inside the United Nations and the United States. Owing to his network in San Francisco, his presence in New York, and his command of English, Zarif was given a position at the mission in May 1982. This was an important leap in his career. In his book, Zarif seeks to win sympathy from the reader for his purge by Ahmadinejad, but the fact is that his own rise through the revolutionary ranks was built on purges.

Zarif openly admits that he and his fellow revolutionaries were ill-prepared for diplomatic service. “On many occasions,” he confesses, “I have thought that the toll of the mistakes by me and the likes of me in the field of foreign policy was in reality paid by seventy million Iranians.” The toll was great. For example, Ambassador Saeed Rajaei Khorasani, along with Zarif, boycotted the U. N. Security Council sessions that discussed the Iran-Iraq War. It was an unwise tactic, as Zarif today admits. He deplores the Islamic Republic’s diplomacy of trial and error in the 1980s. He also doesn’t seem too fond of his odd speeches at the U. N. Special Committee on Decolonization, which surely were not much different from President Ahmadinejad’s vitriol before 
the General Assembly.

Apart from lacking the proper education for diplomatic service, Zarif also admits that he and other Iranian representatives at the Permanent Mission were kept in the dark by Tehran. “There were some who desired to continue the war until a specific point, and there were others who wanted to reach peace based on our conditions,” Zarif writes. Yet he admits that “in the United States, I was unaware of all this.” Zarif’s admission of ignorance may be just as valid today. He admits, for example, that he has never inspected his country’s nuclear facilities. Previous negotiators of the Islamic Republic have disclosed (in private conversations with the authors of this article) that they were ignorant of the existence of the Fordow facility, which is burrowed into a mountain not far from the holy city of Qom. Even if Zarif negotiates in good faith in Geneva, how much does he really know about the strategy of the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards, who oversee all of Iran’s nuclear sites?

Zarif’s account of the Islamic Republic’s post–Iran-Iraq War diplomacy, in particular in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, will give some comfort to those who have tried so assiduously to see a hopeful evolution in Tehran’s politics. But his discussion of the basic nature of the Islamic Republic and the West exposes Zarif’s ideological commitment and the regime’s revolutionary constancy. 

Illustration by Pedro Matos

“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.”

Zarif does not take the trouble to explain the global vocation of the Islamic Republic, but his reference to the Constitution is doubtlessly to Article 154: “[the Islamic Republic] supports the just struggle of the mustazafun [the oppressed] against the mustakbirun [the arrogant] in every corner of the globe.” This is the “export-of-the-revolution” clause, which the late Grand Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, Khomeini’s “defrocked” onetime successor, who was perhaps the most Trotskyite of clerical revolutionaries, gingerly moved away from before he died under what was effectively house arrest. Very few others have even gone that far.

At times Zarif does not seem to recognize any conflict between ideology and national interests. “From a theoretical point of view, I believe utopian interests can be aligned with national interests,” he says, and cites Iraq and Lebanon as examples. “Interests, which others considered utopian, allowed us to become an influential state in Iraq and Lebanon.” But when the interviewer asks him about why the Islamic Republic does not support Chechen co-religionists against Christian Russians, Zarif refers to “certain considerations” and stresses the primacy of national interests. Zarif further points at the Islamic Republic’s relations with India and Pakistan; Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus; and Azerbaijan and Armenia, where the regime in Tehran sides with non-Muslims.

This might give the reassuring impression that for Zarif interests trump ideology, but a closer look at the foreign relations of the Islamic Republic explains the apparent inconsistency. Zarif does not really provide a review of his country’s diplomatic history, but such a review would be instructive. The Islamic Republic has never demonstrated a great deal of interest in Muslim countries that are not on the front line of its struggle with the United States and Israel. Its fondness for revolutionary, or at least anti-American, non-Muslim states has always been much more pronounced than its efforts with Muslims who do not wish to be party to a “clash of civilizations.” Tehran has thrown a lot of money and “diplomatic” personnel at anti-American Latin American states but relatively little at Sunni Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world. And after an initial euphoria in certain revolutionary quarters when the Soviet Union collapsed, Tehran quickly learned that it had relatively little traction among the Sunni Muslims of Central Asia. Jordanian missionaries with Saudi cash lived in miserable conditions to spread the word; Iranian “diplomats” wanted the 
benighted Central Asians to come to them. When Tehran learned that the peoples of the post-Soviet Muslim territories no longer viewed Iran as the center of the world and were not particularly exercised about American imperialism, Central Asia became an economic zone of interest but not much more.

This brings us back to “pragmatism,” and to Zarif’s fondness for Kissinger’s dedication. Kissinger’s true home is post-Napoleonic Europe where, ever so briefly, the “balance of power” reigned supreme, and ideologies and religion no longer drove states to interfere in each other’s domestic affairs. Metternich, who is Kissinger’s iconic statesman, who squashed revolutionary movements wherever he could, is not a character Zarif could possibly admire. Although Zarif can certainly see the need to make tactical compromises in diplomacy, he makes it crystal clear that he sees national and religious concerns as indivisible. This point really shouldn’t be difficult for Americans and Europeans to appreciate since they have been the trailblazers in globalizing their mores into “universal human rights.” Iran’s first-generation revolutionaries, who drank deeply of Marxism, re-molding traditional Islamic tenets and heroes into religious dialectics about class struggle (often with a nasty anti-Semitic twist), have taken this moral universalism and made it their own.

They are undermined, of course, by the very success of the Western ideas that in part formed them. Individualism has sunk deeply into contemporary Iranian culture. It is impossible to read the Franco-Iranian scholar Farhad Khosrokhavar’s captivating book Avoir vingt ans au pays des Ayatollahs, or To Be Twenty in the Land of the Ayatollahs, which is a long look at the children of senior clerics in Qom, without realizing that the Islamic revolution is in deep trouble. The children, especially the daughters, are profoundly Westernized, especially about matters of identity, love, and marriage. Zarif does not bother much with cultural reflection, but he certainly leads the reader to believe that he is not too keen on internal Iranian reform, culturally or politically. Zarif’s fondness for hunar-e ta’amul, or the art of dealing, in foreign affairs should not be construed domestically as an affection for cooperation within Iran’s contentious and fractured society. It is worth noting that the Iranian police state hasn’t become more polite under President Rouhani. (Under Khatami, at least for a few years, the oppression lightened.) It might have 
even become worse.

Above all else, Rouhani and Zarif aim to preserve the Islamic revolution, not to transform it, as was the passion of the fallen left-wing Islamist revolutionaries who gathered round Khatami and briefly resurfaced in the pro-democracy Green Movement, which Khamenei crushed in 2009. (Neither Rouhani nor Zarif raised a word against the brutal crackdown.) Although Khamenei unquestionably would have preferred Saeed Jalili to be president, he has probably lucked out with Rouhani. Rouhani at home and Zarif abroad are infinitely more effective at hunar-e ta’amul. While Rouhani tries to re-weave the unity of the Iranian elite, badly frayed by the turmoil of 2009, and by Khamenei’s vindictive demolition of Rafsanjani’s political network, and by the anti-clerical populism of Ahmadinejad, Zarif is endeavoring to rebuild the Islamic Republic’s standing beyond its borders. Given his soft manner, his wit, his reassuring English, and his ease with handshakes (difficult for many Iranian revolutionaries), and given the West’s profound fear of another war in the Middle East, Zarif’s biggest problem may be the Supreme Leader’s habit 
of speaking the unvarnished truth.

Whether Zarif succeeds or fails, it is certainly impressive that he has come so far inside Iran’s Islamic regime. He has spent nearly half his life in the United States, the “epicenter of evil.” Many within the Revolutionary Guards who survived the ghastly battles of the Iran-Iraq War are not fond of him. They consider him a draft-dodger. Yet he is trusted enough by Khamenei to have been made foreign minister during the most trying times since 1988. An American who had spent almost a quarter of a century in Russia would never be cleared to work in Washington’s national security establishment. And Iran’s ruling elite is vastly more suspicious and conspiratorial than are Americans. That Zarif has risen certainly shows he has talent, where many of his colleagues have none. It also shows what Kissinger perhaps realized: that he 
is our enemy.

Ali Alfoneh is the author of Iran Unveiled: How the Revolutionary Guards Are Turning Theocracy into Military Dictatorship (AEI). Reuel Marc Gerecht is the author most recently of The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East (Hoover). They are senior fellows at the Foundation For Defense of Democracies.