Last summer, when the Trump administration threatened sanctions on Javad Zarif, I argued that this placed too much importance on the Iranian foreign minister. He is, after all, a mere cipher in the Islamic Republic, a glorified spokesman for a regime where real authority is wielded by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the leadership of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Now that there’s a small chance of Zarif gaining an ounce of political weight in Tehran, it is doubly foolish of the U.S. to deny him a visa to attend a meeting Thursday of the United Nations Security Council. And that’s quite apart from the fact that such a ban runs contrary to the UN headquarters agreement of 1947, which requires the U.S. to allow foreign diplomats to visit the multilateral body.
A little background: Although Zarif has been the titular head of the foreign ministry since 2013, he has had little real power in setting policy. He was appointed to the post for the same reason Khamenei allowed Hassan Rouhani to win the presidential election that year: as window-dressing for a regime seeking to make a deal with the West.
Like Rouhani, Zarif had been Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator and had a reputation for charming Western interlocutors, in stark contrast to the dour, sour officials who characterized the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Zarif had also been the Islamic Republic’s ambassador to the UN, where he was said to have developed useful friendships with influential Americans and an acute understanding of U.S. politics.
These qualifications made Rouhani and Zarif the perfect instruments for Khamenei’s top priority: to free Iran from the noose of international economic sanctions over its nuclear program. The two delivered on this with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
From that moment, Zarif’s utility to the supreme leader began to depreciate. Khamenei’s other foreign-policy priorities involved the expansion of Iran’s influence in its neighborhood, by destabilizing governments and promoting mayhem through terrorist groups and proxy militias. Zarif’s charm and credentials as a nuclear negotiator were of no value in this theater; this was a job for Khamenei’s main man in the Middle East, Qassem Soleimani.
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Since May 2018, when President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the JCPOA and reinstated economic sanctions on Iran, Zarif’s role has been, in the main, to try to persuade the agreement’s European signatories to keep their end of the bargain. He was never going to succeed: Europeans fear Trump’s sanctions more than they covet business opportunities in Iran.
The low point of Zarif’s career came early last year, during a visit to Tehran by the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The foreign minister was not even invited to a meeting with Khamenei’s favorite tyrant. Needless to say, Soleimani was.
Zarif pouted and issued a faux resignation — on Instagram, of all places — but allowed himself to be persuaded to stay. His growing frustration manifested in his progressively more tetchy tweets. He has dropped his diplomatic pose in favor of snark, labeling the Trump administration as “the B-team” and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “an arrogant clown.”
This playing to Khamenei’s prejudices — and to the peanut gallery in Tehran — helped preserve Zarif’s job, despite strong criticism from elements of the regime who regard him as a failure.
Now, finally, things may be breaking his way. Soleimani’s death removes the main power player in foreign policy; his replacement as boss of the Quds Force, Esmail Ghaani, is at best an unknown quantity in that arena. Besides, Ghaani will have his hands full with the task of avenging the death of Khamenei’s favorite: If Iran does indeed have 13 retaliation scenarios, it’s a good bet that the majority of them will involve the Quds Force and the proxy groups that now fall under Ghaani’s authority.
This might give Zarif some room to maneuver in foreign policy. And that room could expand if Khamenei decides to take the rational course and seek a detente with Iran’s neighbors and with the U.S. It would require Zarif to walk back some of his spiteful remarks and reprise his role as the regime’s charmer-in-chief, but this shouldn’t be difficult for a practiced chameleon.
That’s why it makes no sense for the Trump administration to bar him from the U.S. or the UN. Yes, there is an industrial quantity of hypocrisy in the idea of having the mouthpiece of a genocidal regime address the Security Council on the topic of upholding the UN Charter — which enjoins members, among other things, “to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors.” But hypocrisy is the UN’s stock-in-trade: just run your eyes down the list of members of the Human Rights Council.
For the first time in years, Javad Zarif might actually matter: The Trump administration could not have picked a worse moment to make him a persona non grata. – Bloomberg
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