Look who's smiling.

Photographer: Rick Wilking/AFP/Getty Images

Iran's Charmer in Chief Wins Again

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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Now is the time to praise Javad Zarif. Whatever you might think of Iran's foreign minister, he knows how to bargain. 

With a final announcement due any moment from negotiations over Iran's nuclear program in Lausanne, Switzerland, Iran appears to be doing quite well for itself.  

After all, before the real negotiations began, Iran won vague recognition -- from the U.S. and five other great powers -- that it has a right to enrich uranium. Between 2008 and 2012, the United Nations Security Council passed five resolutions sanctioning Tehran for violating the nuclear non-proliferation treaty by operating centrifuges at facilities it had not bothered to tell the International Atomic Energy Agency about. 

QuickTake Iran's Nuclear Program

Now, if press leaks turn out to be correct, Iran is on the brink of securing an agreement to allow it to keep thousands of those centrifuges, and also to operate its laboratory at Fordow, a facility burrowed deep into a mountain for the production of what Zarif assures us are medical isotopes. When U.S. spies smoked out that facility in 2009, Obama demanded that Iran come clean about all of its past nuclear activities. Last week, the IAEA reported that Iran continues to stonewall the agency on the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program before 2003. 

Zarif's ability to negotiate concessions despite Iran's shaky past would be impressive enough for any foreign minister. But consider that he was able to do so even as his bosses in Tehran waged a successful proxy war against Western allies throughout the Middle East. In Yemen, a pro-American government fell this month to Iranian backed Houthi fighters, and prompted Saudi Arabia to launch an air war to beat them back. In Syria, Iranian support has been vital to the survival of Bashar al-Assad, the dictator Obama used to say had to go.

How does Zarif do it? Part of the answer is personal charm. He has for more than a decade cultivated Washington policy elites the way an aspiring presidential candidate works over local party activists in Iowa and New Hampshire. Just as local county commissioners are lucky to just get some face time with national political figures, Zarif, who was ambassador to the United Nations from 2002 to 2007, became the one Iranian official who bothered responding to e-mails from journalists, analysts and members of Congress happy to have the access.

"He makes himself accessible," Ray Takyeh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me. "When he was ambassador, he was willing to debate and have a conversation. Given the fact that there are not too many Iranian ambassadors to the United Nations who have been willing to do so, the fact that he does that is important."

Zarif has had some help in this charm offensive. E-mails that surfaced from a defamation lawsuit brought by Swedish-Iranian activist Trita Parsi against an Iranian emigre, Hassan Dai, show that Zarif has worked closely with Parsi and the organization he founded, the National Iranian American Council.

For example, they show that in 2006, Zarif and Parsi tried to persuade journalists to write about a peace offer Iran had supposedly offered the George W. Bush administration after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Yet according to senior Bush administration officials, that 2003 offer was not a serious piece of diplomacy, and was not made through the channels by which the Bush administration communicated with Iran. Nonetheless, the narrative stuck that the Bush team blew a chance at a breakthrough in 2003. On the eve of the current negotiations in 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry repeated Zarif's talking point about the 2003 offer in an interview with ABC's "This Week." (The Washington Post judged the claim as dubious, earning it three Pinocchios).

It should be noted that when Zarif was cultivating these relationships out of the U.N., the FBI was investigating him for his alleged role in controlling a charity called the Alavi Foundation. The Justice Department claimed that the group --with several hundred million dollars in assets -- was secretly run on behalf of the Iranian government to fund university programs and launder money to evade U.S. sanctions. Last year, the foundation settled a lawsuit with the U.S. government to forfeit a 36-story office building in Midtown Manhattan. 

Yet Zarif's reputation remained untarnished. After leaving the U.N. post in 2007, Zarif largely stayed out of government during the presidency of the stridently anti-American Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But after the election of Hassan Rouhani in 2013, Zarif ascended to his role as foreign minister. At the time, he gave an interview with Iranian TV on his hope to sow discord on Washington's Iran policy. "Despite AIPAC's pressure, twenty lawmakers refused to vote for the latest sanctions against Iran," he said, according to a translation by Dai.  "These divisions over Iran provide us with opportunities to maneuver in Washington and advance our interests. The Iranian community can play an important role to combat AIPAC and defend our interests." 

On a personal level, Zarif's rise within Iran is remarkable. According to an excellent profile in the New Republic last year, during the 1979 revolution Zarif wasn't in Iran, but continued his studies in the U.S. Yet experience in America didn't moderate him: He attached himself to the new revolutionaries and his political fortunes rose with them.

Today, Zarif appears to be on top of the world. In interviews he has been downright brazen with his liberal interpretations of Iran's history. Earlier this month, he told NBC's Ann Curry that Iran -- throughout its history -- has been a savior of the Jewish people. This would seem more credible if Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wasn't tweeting out his fervent wish to see the world's only Jewish state destroyed.

Zarif's contentions on his country's nuclear program also strain credulity. In an interview with C-Span in February 2000, Zarif said, "Iran has opened its doors with regard to inspections of nuclear technology." Three years later, Iran admitted to having hid a secret uranium enrichment facility in Natanz.  

Zarif is fond of saying that Iran's nuclear program has been inspected more than any other country's on the planet, with the exception of Japan. Yet not only did Iran hide the facilities at Natanz and Fordow, it still won't allow IAEA inspectors access to any military installations. Zarif's statements about inspections "are more for political consumption," said Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director general at the IAEA: "Their attitude towards the IAEA has not changed in 10 years. There is a change in tone, but no change in policy." 

But Zarif gets away with it. One of his greatest assets is plausible deniability -- he says he doesn't actually know all of the details of his country's nuclear program, and there is no reason to disbelieve him. The Islamic revolutionaries make war and build nuclear weapons, while the diplomats can say they are seeking peace.  

This diplomatic advantage is perhaps best explained by a long-forgotten episode from the early 2000s. Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Major American Jewish Organizations, remembers pressing Zarif 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. It's worth asking whether Zarif knows anything more about the fate of the Iranian Jews than he does about his country's nuclear intentions. In either case, he's sure to have a smooth answer. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net