Javad Zarif’s Checkered Legacy

Iran's former foreign minister alleges previously undisclosed details about the collapse of the nuclear deal — including a message Trump sent him

Javad Zarif’s Checkered Legacy
Iran’s then-Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a press conference in Baghdad, Iraq, on April 26, 2021. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images)

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Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s May 2018 withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, resonates with many Iranians as a traumatic episode that wreaked havoc on their lives. Earlier this month, the Iranian mastermind of the deal, former Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, recounted what he presented as the untold stories of the genesis of that diplomatic blockbuster, now in a state of suspended animation, during an online forum on the Clubhouse app that stretched for six and a half hours, well past midnight in Tehran.

At a maximum, a Clubhouse room can host 8,000 users, but the moderator said roughly 42,000 people had tuned in through parallel rooms streaming the forum on June 6 to listen to the words of a personality for whom Iranians harbor bittersweet feelings, but one who is unanimously judged to be the most dexterous foreign minister throughout the Islamic Republic’s lifespan. A live broadcast of the same event on Twitter Spaces also pulled in roughly 10,000 listeners, indicating the abiding relevance of a public figure who has been away from the corridors of power for two years now.

Among the allegations made by Iran’s U.S.-educated former top diplomat were that Trump was eyeing a fresh agreement with Iran after walking away from the original nuclear deal, and that he offered to meet Zarif at least twice, but Zarif was not allowed to accept.

Zarif explained how the nuclear deal had been a lifeline for Iran, neutralizing what he described as a project of securitization aimed at portraying the country as a threat to global peace, which he said was initially engineered by Israel.

Zarif said Iran was on the brink of catastrophe when its nuclear program was censured in seven U.N. Security Council resolutions under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which addresses “threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression.” Security Council resolution 2231, which endorsed the deal, terminated the application of those earlier resolutions and created a state of normalcy in Iran’s relations with other countries, followed by the halcyon days of foreign investment, including unprecedented deals with plane manufacturers Airbus and Boeing. Those days of luster were cut short with the U.S. pullout from the deal.

In a thinly veiled excoriation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Zarif challenged the irregular army for its attempts to scuttle the cherished agreement, including by test firing two ballistic missiles emblazoned with the message “Israel must be wiped out” in March 2016.

Zarif’s revelations and his candid appraisal of the conception and crumbling of the JCPOA sparked indignant responses from the U.S.-hating hard-liners who currently monopolize the media landscape and hold a firm grip on the elected and unelected bodies in Iran. Once again, on the order of the attacks that were unleashed on him when the JCPOA came to fruition in July 2015, an avalanche of imprecations is being hurled at him by the pundits and political grandees who tout themselves as the loyal partisans of the “revolution” and brand Zarif an “infidel,” “Westoxified infiltrator” who sold off the nation to the United States.

Despite its problems, the JCPOA was the first diplomatic understanding since 1979 that involved Iran and the U.S. as co-signatories, dispelling the myth that hawks in the two countries could take the prospects of bilateral cooperation hostage indefinitely. It didn’t resolve every single problem in the universe, but it represented a solid component of the global nonproliferation architecture, revoked the status of Iran’s nuclear program as an imminent threat and enabled the besieged people of Iran to enjoy the benefits of an embryonic but fleeting economic integration with the world. Recognizing these results, Zarif continues to be proud of his seminal brainchild and reiterated in the Clubhouse talk that the current administration cannot pull off anything more persuasive than what he hammered out.

Some of what he went over in the forum had previously spilled into the media through the leaked audio tape of an interview he did toward the end of his mandate in 2021 as part of a presidential oral history project. In the controversial interview, first leaked in April 2021 by exiled Iranian broadcasters, Zarif divulged how the IRGC had interfered with his responsibilities over an extended period, adding that the Guards’ stonewalling of diplomacy with the West was complemented by Russia. His statements were so acerbic and their disclosure so embarrassing for him at home that he was forced to issue two public apologies to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

He once again mused on how Russia had sought to throw Iran and the West a curveball during the negotiations that resulted in the 2015 deal by filibustering the diplomatic efforts and proposing that any final agreement should be submitted to the Security Council for periodic reviews every six months, meaning that the removal of every bundle of sanctions remained a temporary relief subject to cyclic deliberations. This way, Russia could foreclose Iran’s economic proximity to the West and maintain its leverage over the rest of the negotiating parties, especially the U.S. He stressed that “I am not a Russophobe” but explained how he thwarted those gimmicks through persuasive negotiation craft and engagement with all parties.

He argued that if the current administration is hashing out a strategic partnership with Moscow, to which he does not object and which he indeed vouches for, it should understand that Russia only prioritizes its national interest, not Iran’s woes.

Zarif also said he missed two opportunities to meet Trump after his JCPOA pullout, noting that he was prepared for an audience with the former president but was denied the green light by his superiors in Tehran. When Trump abrogated the nuclear deal with Iran to fulfill his campaign promise, the ultraconservatives and anti-U.S. hawks in Tehran felt vindicated because Trump had just handed them concrete evidence of American “untrustworthiness” and that direct talks with Washington were futile. The new state of affairs mounted pressure on Zarif and his team as the radicals were indicting him, rather than finding fault with Trump, for the unraveling of a deal that was successfully negotiated and being implemented. This development blocked any channels for future communications with the U.S. for a debilitated Rouhani administration that had invested enormous capital in sealing the accord.

The Iranian foreign minister was invited to the 45th Group of Seven Summit in Biarritz, France, in August 2019, where the French leader Emmanuel Macron was hellbent on making a Zarif-Trump meeting happen, as he believed they could salvage an atrophying JCPOA if they talked to each other. To avoid an unwanted encounter, Zarif said he didn’t even go to the hotel where Macron was staying because it was also Trump’s residence. Instead, Macron and his Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian went to the municipality building to talk to him. Zarif told them he wasn’t allowed to talk to Trump, and an opportunity that could have laid the groundwork for a new Iran-U.S. agreement slipped away.

On an earlier occasion, Zarif was in New York City for an NPT review conference, before he was sanctioned by the Department of State in July 2019, when a senator close to Trump reached out to see him. “‘I am here to tell you that Mr. Trump has invited you to come to the White House and meet each other at the Oval Office,’ he said. I responded that, for such an encounter, I couldn’t certainly make a decision on my own, and I had to ask for permission,” Zarif recounted.

“I relayed to Iran that I knew such an affair would be a political suicide for me, but if the nation had the readiness, I was willing to do it. If it achieved a result, then it has paid off, but if not, then it’s only a foreign minister who has held a meeting. It’s not such that our president has met Trump, something that Trump was very much willing to achieve,” he continued. But before the higher authorities were even made aware of the request, the message was obstructed by some mid-ranking officials, and he was spared the “political suicide”; something that would have been a personal liability for him against the backdrop of growing aversion to direct talks with the Trump administration at that time, but which could have given a new lease on life to the nuclear deal.

Zarif intoned on Clubhouse that he had been advocating for Iran-U.S. dialogue since the 1990s and believed the two countries should have sat down to discuss their sticking points and patch up relations. But he said he was only one stakeholder; his elbow room was modest and his prerogatives limited. The early years of the 1990s were the crescendo of conservatism in Iran, before the pro-reform President Mohammad Khatami rose to power in 1997 and any public reference to Iran-U.S. talks would be construed by the establishment as some punishable profanity.

Zarif openly entertained closer Tehran-Washington bonds, flaunted his cordial connections with his interlocutor John Kerry, and wasn’t apologetic about his alacrity to meet Trump while a clamorous coterie of radicals was relentlessly bad-mouthing the U.S. leader for his tough Iran stance and his subsequent role in the assassination of the Quds Force commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani. These statements underline his distinction from the mainstream of the Islamic Republic’s change-resistant, ponderous diplomatic elite while spotlighting the intellectual persuasion he represents. It is for good reason that, during his incumbency, Kerry spent more one-on-one time with Zarif than any other foreign minister.

As opposed to certain superhero narratives and exaggerated portrayals, Zarif isn’t phenomenal or worthy of deification. But he is a living testimony to the reality that the dichotomy of moderates vs. hard-liners is not a myth, and it matters who is in the driver’s seat in different executive branch agencies, including the diplomatic apparatus. Iran’s contemporary experiences with conservatism evoke stretches of intensified domestic crackdowns, vanishing civil liberties, isolationism on the world stage, adversarial relations with other nations and economic austerity, like what is unfolding today. The reformists have obviously not produced a masterpiece of statecraft, but they didn’t deliberately plunge the country into chaos when in power, either, and they were comparatively more committed to people’s rights — rights that were never enjoyed to the full. In the ideal, parallel world that the most militant factions of the Iranian diaspora conceive, hard-liners and reformists are two sides of the same coin, and they are the saviors themselves. But the constituents inside Iran have had to make choices in the past 44 years, which they’ve not made in a vacuum, and those decisions, when not rigged, alternatingly brought pro-reform and conservative administrations to power.

The bottom line of resistance to the idea of reform is that the perennially divided diasporic opposition sees any charming figure with pro-reform proclivities, such as Zarif, to be its rival in a power game that determines who remains in charge in Tehran. It is already a foregone conclusion that most Iranians have lost hope in reformists being able to enact concrete change, vanquish extremism and better their lives. But that doesn’t mean the diasporic opposition has a substitute roadmap or would swoop in to lambaste the hard-liners who wield power in the kaleidoscope of formidable institutions running the country today; rather, they remain fixated on ensuring their pro-reform competitors are totally sidelined.

This attitude explains why campaigns to sanction Zarif in the U.S. and Canada gained traction in the expat community and were eventually rubber-stamped by these governments, while there has never been any viable campaign urging the hidebound faces of the Islamic Republic to be sanctioned, such as former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili or the current Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. Zarif’s ubiquity in social media, his position as a fixture of popular American talk shows and his unwavering presence in Western think tanks had become anathema to those who were vying for the same visibility and entitlements.

Zarif made an inflexible theocracy that was constantly receiving bad press and painted as a dungeon of savagery seem palatable, and this is what had frustrated his detractors in the expat community. The West had decided that he was someone it could work with, and his international credibility would put apocalyptic agendas for the future of Iran on the back burner. But after all, he was an insider, and even his more nuanced critics find his mandate objectionable. Shortly before the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, he started mollycoddling an otherwise detested insurgent group and rolled out the red carpet for them in Tehran. He used his bully pulpit and authority to stick up for the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and fell out of favor with many when he said in a contentious interview that Iranians are suffering because they have made a choice to have this specific lifestyle.

Defamed at home by raucous “revolutionaries” as a Western stooge and maligned by the exiles as a regime apologist, Zarif’s credentials were not lost on his international negotiating partners. Aside from the many plaudits he has won for his diplomatic finesse, including the well-known tribute paid to him by Henry Kissinger as “a respected adversary,” Zarif used to be a focal point for intimacy with an otherwise unapproachable, guarded government and was recognized for facilitating this connectivity.

On Sep. 27, 2017, he gave a talk at the Asia Society, an institution that has long been his popular rendezvous. The former TV journalist Charlie Rose, who moderated the session, closed his remarks by addressing Zarif: “You have a long relationship here in America. You’ve been in this country many times; you speak our language; you understand our culture … You’re my friend, and I’ve enjoyed this long association.”

Zarif was and continues to be an employee of the Islamic Republic. He didn’t represent a monarchy, nor was he the public face of a secular democracy. Within the rubric of what is acceptable to the Islamic Republic, he was an innovator, and in what is evolving into a religious aristocracy, he proved to be an executive who was prepared to listen to his constituencies. In a political atmosphere characterized by a fierce competition by the straight-laced white-collars, to use the most pejorative adjectives to describe Israel and the Western powers, he ditched the “Zionist regime” jargon and just said “Israel.” With his achievements and failures, his complicated legacy remains to be judged.

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