Hassan Rohani’s appointment of Mohammad Javad Zarif as his foreign minister suggests the new Iranian president would like to break the 34-year impasse between the Islamic Republic and the U.S.
Zarif, 53, a fluent English speaker who earned his doctorate at the University of Denver, is a former ambassador to the United Nations who has been involved in several secret negotiations between the U.S. and Iran over the past 20 years.
“He’ll be an excellent face for Iran, but his ability to steer policy depends on what latitude the Supreme Leader gives him,” said Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, who has met Zarif on several occasions. “Iran’s condition is an excellent reason for diplomacy.”
Rohani, 64, who took his oath of office yesterday, said the U.S. and the European Union should drop sanctions imposed to stop the country’s nuclear enrichment program. Over the past year, the sanctions have crippled Iran’s economy, sending inflation above 40 percent while the rial has lost more than 50 percent of its value against the dollar.
Although Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, 74, has the final say on national security issues such as the nuclear program, Rohani has some latitude to engage with the West.
“Rohani has appointed his A-team to do a deal with the U.S.,” said Flynt Leverett, professor of International Affairs at Penn State University and co-author of Going to Tehran. “It shows Iran is serious.”
The new president named several former ministers in his cabinet, which he announced at the end of his inauguration ceremony. Apart from Zarif, Rohani named Bijan Namdar Zanganeh to head the oil ministry and Mohammad Reza Nematzadeh as the minister of industry, mines and trade. Rohani’s chief of staff will be Mohammad Nahavandian, the former head of Iran’s Chamber of Commerce, Industries and Mines, who earned a PhD in economics from George Washington University in 1994.
“Rohani has picked technocratic, non-ideological people,” said Alireza Nader, a senior analyst in the Arlington, Virginia, office of the Rand Corp., a research group. “They have been in crisis situations before.”
For Rohani, fixing the economy means reducing the impact of the sanctions. His election has helped the rial gain more than 13 percent since the June 14 vote.
In his inaugural speech, Rohani said his government would “take fundamental steps to elevate Iran’s position based on national interest and the lifting of the oppressive sanctions.”
Members of parliament cheered as he said: “If you want an adequate response, you shouldn’t speak the language of sanctions, you should speak the language of respect.”
In a statement released an hour after Rohani spoke, the White House said it would be “a willing partner” if Rohani’s government decides “to engage substantively and seriously” in honoring its international obligations and works toward a peaceful solution to the nuclear issue.
A bipartisan group of 76 senators urged President Barack Obama in an Aug. 2 letter to “toughen sanctions and reinforce the credibility of our option to use military force at the same time as we fully explore a diplomatic solution to our dispute with Iran.”
The senators expressed concern that Rohani’s pledge to seek renewed negotiations and to ensure transparency in Iran’s nuclear program might be a stalling tactic to allow the suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons to continue.
Zarif’s appointment suggests that Rohani is serious about reaching out to the U.S., said a senior Western diplomat who has had repeated dealings with him. He “gets” America, said the diplomat, who asked not to be identified because he’s not authorized to speak directly on Iran.
“Potentially it’s a positive development,” said Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush, who met him on several occasions. “He seemed genuinely interested in improving relations, which is not easy.”
Born in 1960 in Tehran, Zarif obtained a Ph.D. in International Law and Policy from the University of Denver and also attended San Francisco State University as a graduate student. He was closely linked with developing the so-called “Grand Bargain,” a plan to resolve outstanding issues between the U.S. and Iran in 2003, according to Trita Parsi, president of National Iranian American Council, which opposes sanctions.
As a former ambassador to the UN, Zarif held private meetings with a number of Washington politicians, including the then-Senators Joseph Biden and Chuck Hagel. Biden is now the vice president and Hagel is secretary of defense.
Before becoming the deputy foreign minister in 1992, Zarif, who is associated with former President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, was involved in negotiations with the UN for the release of Western hostages in Lebanon, according to the memoirs of the former envoy Giandomenico Picco.
After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., Zarif was among the Iranian diplomats urging greater engagement with the West. He met a number of U.S. diplomats, especially over the issue of Afghanistan’s future.
As a career diplomat, Zarif has gained the trust of key Iranian decision makers, said Kamran Bokhari, vice-president for Middle Eastern affairs at the Austin, Texas-based consulting firm Stratfor.
“It was under Zarif’s tenure as ambassador to the UN that the U.S. and Iran cooperated behind the scenes on the toppling of the Saddam government,” Bokhari said. “Rohani would not have nominated him if he thought the nomination would face opposition from the parliament.”
Zarif is credited with playing a critical role during the 2001 Bonn conference that established the new Afghan government after the fall of the Taliban, said James Dobbins, U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, in 2007 Congressional testimony.
Zarif also has a sense of humor, Dobbins said. At one point the UN had circulated the first draft of the Bonn declaration, which was to serve as Afghanistan’s interim constitution, Dobbins recalled. It was the Iranian envoy, Zarif, then a deputy foreign minister, who said that the document made no mention of democratic elections. “Don’t you think that the new Afghan regime should be committed to hold democratic elections?”
Dobbins had to say that the U.S. did, in fact, favor democratic elections.