So what kind a man is Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s current foreign minister? I finished his memoir in the form of an interview and based on this book we can understand his mentality. Although the book itself is stylistically a mess, it gives us many interesting things we can understand about the history of Iranian foreign policy under Islamic Republic, and the philosophy and the mindset behind Rouhani’s administration.
At heart, Zarif’s views are not that much different from Islamic Republic’s anti-western and postcolonialist attitude. He is staunchly loyal to Islamic Republic and its values. But he is three things that most Iranian theocrats are not: sophisticated, tolerant, and pragmatic. He represents the reconciliation camp of the Islamic Republic through and through.
Why do I call him sophisticated? Because he brings real examples which make Islamic Republic’s mistrust of the USA and the UN understandable to a large degree, such as their support for Iraq in Iran-Iraq War, and he seems to be informed by postcolonial views towards west. I personally disagree with these conclusions at the end, but at least he’s not “DEATH TO AMERICA BLURGH” type.
Why I call him tolerant? Firstly, he is very critical of himself, and Islamic Republic diplomacy under him, and he talks respectfully about his opponents. He takes this to extremes not seen in Islamic Republic. He says I never use the word “enemy”, which puts him in direct contrast with Khamenei who is notorious for overusing that word. He talks respectfully of Shah’s diplomats, even Iraqi diplomats he was fighting against. He talks respectfully about international figures he’s friends with, from Kofi Annan to Joe Biden.
Why I call him pragmatic? He has this view about multilateral diplomacy, how to rebrand Islamic Republic’s face, the win-win diplomacy, plus you see he’s deeply knowledgeable about international politics. He keeps talking about reducing costs and increasing benefits. He believes in constructive dialogue. He believes in reducing tensions around the globe. He believes in open relations with the west, especially United States.
But more importantly, he believes in diplomacy based on rationality and expertise in foreign policy. It might seem that is obvious, but in Iranian politics it is not. Our previous negotiator in nuclear issue, Saeed Jalili, is a fundamentalist who didn’t believe in diplomacy and negotiations. Our previous foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, is a moderate conservative but he had zero experience regarding foreign policy. Iranian foreign policy has always been one overtaken with preachers, fundamentalists, and people more interested in sounding revolutionary than diplomacy.
Zarif is the antithesis to that inside the regime fractions. He’s a great scholar of diplomacy, very experienced, and he has been complimented by people such as Jack Straw, Kofi Annan, Henry Kissinger, and others as a great diplomat. He’s rational, diplomatic, and an expert.
Although he’s very clear about foreign policy, he’s very vague about internal politics. It’s very clear that he’s pissed with both reformists and conservatives, but his problems with reformists seem to be personal, and with conservatives deeper than that. He was always on the side of “let’s amend our relationship with the USA”, and therefore he clashed with both reformists and conservatives, because at the beginning the reformists were anti-USA and now the conservatives. But you can see what he thinks because he clearly admires former presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani, Khatami, Kharrazi, (the latter two reformists) and Velayati. I’d say he is on the right side of reformists, on Hashemi Rafsanjani’s team but with strong reformist leanings, which makes him similar to Rouhani himself.
Zarif is one of the people that I think will be useful even in a future democratic Iran. He’s an able politician, and his Islamic and postcolinialist ideology is not radical at all. But, in the current climate, he is simply the best choice possible for the position of Iranian foreign minister right now. He is the man who can make nuclear talks successful, and if he can’t, then no one can. I personally respect him, and it goes even beyond the usual “lesser of two evils” situations.