You should've seen it. The fish was this big!

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Show Iran a Little Disrespect

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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Many Western journalists, diplomats and others seem desperate to believe that Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, is a moderate in a sea of hardliners, a rare Iranian with whom the West can and has done business.

Take Secretary of State John Kerry. It seems that every other day he is in contact with Zarif, implementing the spirit of the nuclear deal the two men have been negotiating since 2013. Zarif himself told the New Yorker in an interview published Monday that they are usually talking at least two to three times a week, sometimes two to three times a day.

If only Zarif were worthy of Kerry's attentiveness. He is not. Kerry is sincere in his desire to resolve past differences between the U.S. and Iran and place the relationship on a sounder footing.

Zarif has a very different mission. The Iranian foreign minister's job is not to change Iran's behavior, but to pretend that Iran is no different from any other Western country, with hardliners and moderates, national interests and diplomatic imperatives.

If Zarif were foreign minister of Belgium, he wouldn't have to work so hard at getting people to believe him. But he is the top diplomat for the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism, whose security services marked the completion of the nuclear deal by arresting an Iranian-American dual national businessman a couple months later. So Zarif has to engage in the ancient art of lying, to put it undiplomatically.

Consider Zarif's New Yorker interview. He complains that the U.S. is not holding up its part of the Iran deal because it is not guaranteeing that any bank or company that invests in Iran will have no problems with the U.S. Treasury down the road. And yet, Zarif must know that the nuclear deal lifted only the sanctions levied for Iran's nuclear program, but left in place U.S. sanctions for Iran's support for terrorism and human rights abuses.

Zarif is most brazen when he is asked about Iran's upcoming Holocaust cartoon contest. His first answer is that the government of Iran is not hosting the contest. "It’s an N.G.O. that is not controlled by the Iranian government. Nor is it endorsed by the Iranian government," he said. Zarif then went onto compare the contest's organizers to the presence of the Ku Klux Klan in the U.S. "Why does the United States have the Ku Klux Klan?" he asked. "Is the government of the United States responsible for the fact that there are racially hateful organizations in the United States? Don’t consider Iran a monolith. The Iranian government does not support, nor does it organize, any cartoon festival of the nature that you’re talking about. When you stop your own organizations from doing things, then you can ask others to do likewise."

For good measure, Zarif acknowledged that the government granted visas to the Holocaust-mocking cartoonists coming to Iran in June. But don't worry, he assured: "We take into consideration that people who have preached racial hatred and violence will not be invited."

Zarif is counting on readers to not scrutinize his claims. The website of the organization hosting the contest for example says it was founded in 1998 and is sponsored by "municipality of Tehran," the capital of Iran.

Nik Kowsar, an Iranian cartoonist who fled Iran in 2003 under death threats for his anti-government cartoons, told me that the Cartoon House also must receive permission from Iran's interior ministry to host its biennial exhibition. 

Zarif's attempt to draw a Klan parallel also fails. He's pretending Iran has free speech protections like the U.S. does. The First Amendment makes the Klan possible, the logic goes, and so Iran's society allows a few Holocaust deniers, he says. But this is nonsense. Iran arrests cartoonists for drawings that do not please the state, while its supreme leader is an avid Holocaust denier.

Take Atena Farghadani. She was initially imprisoned for drawing a cartoon that depicted Iranian officials as monkeys and goats, in protest of legislation to restrict access to birth control. She was later sentenced to 12 years in prison for shaking hands with her male lawyer. She would be free today if only she had mocked the Nazi genocide against European Jewry. 

Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told me that Zarif was the "master of double-speak." When asked for his reaction to Zarif's claims about the Holocaust cartoon contest, he said: "The idea that they don't control this contest is farcical. This is a country where you can be put in prison for liking something of Facebook, where the intelligence ministry monitors every tweet and every blog."

One can hope that Kerry is raising these issues with Zarif in his many phone calls and meetings. But if he is, the Iranian foreign minister does not seem to be getting the message. Perhaps the time has come to try a different approach and to begin treating Zarif with the same lack of respect he has shown his Western audiences. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net