Iran's 'win-win' guy emerges in nuclear talks: Nahlah Ayed

Iran's relentlessly optimistic new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has all but guaranteed a deal over Iran's nuclear ambitions. But Iran's "moderate" leadership is also facing a serious backlash at home, Nahlah Ayed writes.

Javad Zarif fronts new tone in reaching out to West, but 'moderate' leaders can't overlook challenges at home

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry jokes with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (centre) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the Iran nuclear talks in Geneva earlier this month, the kind of interaction that would have been unheard of under the former regime. (Jason Reed / Reuters)

There was nothing nuanced about anything former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ever said in public.

To the outside world, he was the uncontested face of the regime, and his often outrageous remarks and confrontational style were hard to stomach — though his black-and-white outlook did take all the guesswork out of the Iran-West relationship. It was clearly cadaverous.

What a difference one Iranian election can make.

To be sure, Iran's relationship with the West hasn't been revived yet, and probably won't be for some time — possibly never.

But there is no doubting the tone, at least, has changed.

A new personality now occupies Ahmadinejad's office — Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate (though still an establishment figure and cleric, pre-screened as a presidential candidate) with a comparatively reformist agenda that espouses better relations with the West.

On the international stage, meanwhile, it is Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif who is emerging as the face of Iran, and possibly the most potent weapon in its public relations arsenal.

Zarif will be familiar to Iran watchers — he was once the country's representative at the UN — and now, as then, he is (whether you believe him or not) an eloquent voice for a regime that is often hard to decode from afar.

For Westerners, it isn't just that Zarif once lived in the U.S., attended the University of Denver, and has mastered English like a native speaker.

It is also his swift command of nuanced, diplomatic language, likely honed at the UN, that makes him such a key figure in Iran's recent attempts to adjust its place in the world.

The 'win-win' guy

In Geneva earlier this month, for the first round of talks on Iran's controversial nuclear program, Zarif illustrated this versatility, communicating in ways the monotone Ahmadinejad and his former chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, could only dream of.

For one, Zarif was comparatively and indefatigably open.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a seasoned diplomat, educated in part in the U.S., and one of the most potent weapons in the new Iran's PR arsenal. (REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)

In interview after media interview, he painstakingly made his case for what he called a "win-win" scenario.

He repeatedly said he was optimistic an interim deal was coming that would satisfy the West's demands about Iran's nuclear ambitions and so ease the economic sanctions against his country — a key motivator for Iran. (Further talks would be required to cement a more permanent deal.)

He was so optimistic that he pushed for other foreign ministers to attend the negotiations. And he eventually got his wish when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made a detour from his Mideast visits to drop in, followed by several others.

In one surreal snapshot, a smiling Zarif joked across the table with Kerry, the kind of interaction that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago.

The many hours the two men and their officials spent together stood in stark contrast to the reported 45 minutes of direct U.S.-Iran talks over the previous four years. And for their part, American officials believe the current negotiations, with a second set of talks set for tomorrow, are "serious."

In Geneva earlier this month, Zarif spoke of the need to "regain trust," and for "a different approach."

We are prepared to show to the international community that we have no intention of acquiring weapons.- Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif

"We are prepared to show to the international community that we have no intention of acquiring weapons," he said emphatically.

While many distrust that assertion, Iran agreed last week to allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors "managed" access to two nuclear sites. Though for now at least it is keeping another controversial site controlled by its military off limits.

In his interview with CBC News, Zarif also allowed that the disturbing human rights situation in Iran left "a lot to be desired" — a rare admission. But it's best handled domestically, he swiftly added.

Over the 23- minute conversation, his most acerbic barbs were actually reserved for the Canadian government, for unilaterally cutting off diplomatic ties last year. Yet even there he still kept the door open to mending the relationship.

And when the ministers failed to come to agreement two weeks ago, Zarif said he was not disappointed. Progress had still been made, he said.

With that, he was done speaking to the outside world. He turned his attention exclusively to the Iranian media along for the trip.

Problems at home

The Rouhani government clearly has many skeptics to contend with abroad — among them Israel and Canada — who insist its foreign minister is merely part of a "charm offensive" that masks the same inflexible, untrustworthy anti-West regime.

Many point to the diplomacy, the push for negotiations, as just friendlier examples of Iran’s usual stalling tactics, aimed at allowing it to amass more technical know-how and capability, from which there is no return.

That is partly why Israel called the proposal on the table in Geneva the "deal of the century" for Iran.

The scourge of the West, former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, shown here at one of his last press conferences, telling reporters in New York earlier this year that the U.S. played a role in the 9/11 attacks. (Reuters)

But opposition at home is just as formidable. A hardline Iranian newspaper also claimed the plan was the "deal of the century," but for the West.

Just days before the talks began, tens of thousands of Iranians gathered in Tehran for the annual ritual of marking the anniversary of the 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy (dubbed, if you will recall, the "den of spies") in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution.

Protesters chanted the familiar "death to America" slogans at the site of the former embassy and, notably, Ahmadinejad's nuclear negotiator, Jalili, who ran for presidency in June and lost, was a keynote speaker.

I asked Zarif if there wasn't some incompatibility between his presence at Geneva talking to the Americans, while his rivals organized protests against them at home.

"It's not necessarily two competing versions," he said. "People in Iran, as I said, are very distrustful of the history of our relations with the United States."

People in Iran, as I said, are very distrustful of the history of our relations with the United States.—  Zarif

But it is up to the U.S. to change their minds, he said, not him.

Clearly many, if not most Iranians, want an end to the country's isolation, cemented during the intransigent Ahmadinejad years. That's why they voted for Rouhani.

The talks resuming tomorrow in Geneva are one avenue to make that happen. Another, almost as necessary, would be some kind of rapprochement with the U.S.

But if Zarif and Rouhani are sincere about changing Iran's approach and relationship with the West, their toughest task may not be at the international negotiating table but in selling whatever emerges to their powerful detractors at home — the Revolutionary Guard and the hard-liner remains of Ahmadinejad's crowd.

Ultimately, of course, it is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who calls the shots. If he's not persuaded, there will be no deal.


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.


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