It’s Official: Washington’s Favorite Iranian Takes On The Nuclear File

After weeks of rumors, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has finally made it official, issuing a statement that shifts responsibility for Iran’s nuclear negotiations from the Supreme National Security Council to the Foreign Ministry. This move places one of Iran’s most talented and widely-respected diplomats, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, firmly in the drivers’ seat for the upcoming round of talks with the international community. And it reinforces the underlying message of Rouhani’s June election: that Tehran is determined to fashion an accord with the international community and overcome the dangerous standoff over its nuclear program.

Zarif’s spot at the helm of the nuclear negotiating team is sure to draw the same sort of cheers that greeted his nomination as Foreign Minister last month. During his tenure as Iran’s representative to the United Nations in New York, Zarif established a reputation as a thoughtful and reasoned spokesman for a government pursuing policies that were often anything but. Now, in addition to taking on the daunting challenge of rehabilitating Iran’s relations with the world, Zarif has been tasked with leading Iran’s negotiations with the international community on the nuclear issue as well. Zarif is an extraordinarily talented diplomat; however, overcoming the ideological imperatives and factional divisions that have reduced a great nation to a pariah state will be a herculean undertaking at a time when turmoil and uncertainty in the region is particularly high.

The portfolio shift matters for reasons that transcend Zarif’s individual skill set; it reflects a conscious decision by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to vest Rouhani and the executive branch with explicit authority for the country’s most sensitive and significant mission. This represents a real investment in Rouhani (and the Islamic Republic’s often belittled office of the presidency) — but it also poses some risks as well. Zarif and Rouhani now own this issue for Iran quite explicitly, and their ability to craft a viable deal will make or break the nascent revival of representative institutions and authority in Iran for the foreseeable future.

No one should doubt that Zarif was the right man, at the right time, to tackle the nuclear crisis for Iran. He has spent nearly as much time in the United States as in Iran, a discrepancy that hard-liners occasionally invoked to discredit him. He boasts long-standing exposure to the specific complexities of the nuclear file; he understands American political dynamics at least as well as any Iranian official; and perhaps most importantly, his own professional rehabilitation hints at his quiet talents for navigating the intricacies of Iranian domestic politics and maintaining the confidence of Khamenei.

Zarif managed to use his stint as Iran’s UN representative to its maximal advantage. Despite the unusual constraints of the bilateral estrangement— the absence of bilateral diplomatic relations means that Iranian diplomats posted to the UN are restricted to a 25-mile radius of the UN headquarters except with prior approval from the State Department — Zarif became well-known to many in Washington during his five-year stint in New York. He regularly organized small dinners for academic experts and Washington analysts, including some of the most senior officials in the Obama Administration.

After a rare Washington visit that served as his swan song in 2007, then-Senator, now Vice President Joe Biden called Zarif “pragmatic, not dogmatic,” and added that “he can play an important role in helping to resolve our significant differences with Iran peacefully.” Another of his interlocutors on that visit was then-Senator Chuck Hagel, now U.S. Secretary of Defense, who followed Zarif’s visit by advocating “direct engagement” between the two countries. Zarif worked closely, and by retrospective accounts very cooperatively, with Ambassador James Dobbins, who is currently serving as the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. My own boss, Martin Indyk, who is currently on leave from his position as Brookings Vice President for Foreign Policy Studies while he serves as the U.S. envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, described Zarif’s stint in New York as “the best chance” for direct U.S.-Iran talks, adding that “without him, it will be much more difficult.” All these personal ties will serve him well as he tries to hammer out an accord with Washington and its international partners.

Zarif’s elevation has meant that, for the first time since the 1979 hostage crisis subsumed Iran’s -revolutionary postprovisional government, the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy is in the hands of an individual with deep familiarity with the United States. In this sense, it is worth pointing out that Zarif’s appointment to lead the nuclear talks gives the Iranian negotiating bench an advantage over that of the international community. Although many officials in the Obama Administration have had the opportunity to meet Zarif, Washington currently can rely on no real equivalent to Zarif’s skill set. There is no senior U.S. official engaged with Iran policy who commands any depth of the knowledge about Iranian politics and culture on par with Zarif’s familiarity with Washington and American life.

As with almost anyone else who has worked on Iran in Washington for more than a millisecond, I had several opportunities to see Zarif in action during his time at the UN Mission. Like any seasoned diplomat, he is charming and articulate, and he is tough enough to hold his own against the regime’s most determined critics in a debate. More than this, from what I saw of Zarif’s engagement with the policy community and public, he is also honest and decent; in dealing with Americans, Zarif took pains to set realistic expectations and seemed determined to avoid making promises he could not fulfill.

As I’ve written more generally on the nuclear issue, it’s important to temper any irrational exuberance. Zarif represents a government that has deep problems at home and abroad. Power in Iran remains profoundly contested and the nuclear issue will entail complicated concessions from both sides to resolve. And, unfortunately, the historical record shows that each step forward in healing Tehran’s breaches with the world has been accompanied by a step, or more, backward. Neither Zarif nor Rouhani are miracle workers — as the president himself tweeted a few weeks ago. Zarif’s return to influence speaks to the same pragmatic tendencies that preserved Rouhani, which means that he will err on the side of caution rather than ambition.

Still, anyone who wants to see a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear standoff with Iran should wish Zarif well in his new responsibilities. And it is worth recalling several statements that Zarif made during his final visit to Washington in 2007, in the same interview with the Washington Post linked above, to appreciate his judicious discernment of Iranian political trends and the trajectory of the nuclear crisis. At that time, he lamented that “it would have been far easier to resolve the nuclear issue two years ago, a year ago or last week than it is now,” arguing that the West had misinterpreted Iran’s prior agreement to suspend uranium enrichment as “a sign of weakness, whereas it was a genuine desire by people like me to change the nature of the relationship,” he says. “Since it was misinterpreted, the reaction was disappointing and in fact only heightened tension and increased mistrust.”

These views align Zarif perfectly with the position articulated by President Rouhani, and his fluency in the political cultures of both Iran and America makes him the ideal interlocutor to avoid any future misinterpretations.