May 1, 2015
Iran’s Zarif Dancing As Fast as He Can
By Barbara Slavin
On Tuesday night, Robert Fairchild, the New York City ballet star turned Broadway phenomenon, managed to eclipse his idol Gene Kelly in a reimagining of the movie musical "An American in Paris."
The following morning, the somewhat less athletic-looking foreign minister of Iran, Mohammad Javad Zarif, waltzed his way around persistent questioning about Iran's nuclear program, regional ambitions and abuses of human rights.
Zarif, whose performance before a large crowd at New York University was live-streamed by the New America Foundation, knew that his every word would be followed by skeptical audiences in a range of places, from the U.S. Congress and Iran to Israel and the Arab nations across the Persian Gulf.
On the nuclear front, Zarif, who is also Iran's chief negotiator, clarified some apparent contradictions between statements about an emerging deal by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and a fact sheet issued April 2 by the Barack Obama administration.
A comprehensive agreement, Zarif said, would be codified by a U.N. Security Council resolution within days of its signing and then it would be a matter of "only a few weeks to implement," he said.
For the U.S., the European Union and the rest of the international community, that means lifting all nuclear-related sanctions against Iran. Iran, in turn, would be obliged to remove excess centrifuges from Natanz and Fordow, take out the core of a heavy water reactor under construction at Arak and substantially decrease Iran's stockpile of low enriched uranium. Restrictions on Iran's program are to last for at least a decade and in the case of intrusive monitoring, in perpetuity.
Zarif, who has faced criticism from hard-line elements in Iran's parliament and security establishment, said that Iran could "snap back" to its pre-2013 nuclear program if the U.S. does not fulfill its promises to lift sanctions — just as the U.S. and others could restore sanctions if Iran falls short.
He suggested that Iran would be more likely to implement its part of the bargain faithfully than the U.S., judging from what he complained was a spotty record of U.S. compliance under an interim agreement reached 18 months ago.
"It's a good agreement," Zarif said of the document now being drafted by Iran, the U.S., the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, with the goal of finishing it by June 30. "It's not perfect for us, for the U.S., or the EU but it's the best anybody can get and it's balanced."
Zarif was less persuasive when the questioning by moderator David Ignatius of the Washington Post and the audience turned to Iran's posture in the region and its domestic policies.
He claimed that Iran's Revolutionary Guard had seized a U.S. Marshall Islands-flagged commercial ship in the Persian Gulf because the ship was involved in a legal dispute in Iran. A more plausible reason is that Iran wants to show the U.S. Navy – which forced an Iranian flotilla out of the Persian Gulf last week so that it could not reach war-torn Yemen – that Tehran cannot be pushed around with impunity.
Zarif then made vague inuendos about a Washington Post reporter, Jason Rezaian, who remains jailed for nearly a year on what appear to be bogus charges of espionage. Rezaian was taken advantage of by an unidentified "low-level operative" trying to get a visa to come to the United States" for also unidentified individuals, the Iranian minister said.
Zarif devoted considerable time to describing Iran's vision for a new security architecture for the Persian Gulf – something he said Iran had sought since the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88.
Sunni Muslim-majority Arab countries have rebuffed Iran's overtures, accusing the Islamic Republic of seeking to undermine Arab regimes by supporting discontented elements within Arab societies. Arab leaders are particularly concerned that a nuclear accord between Iran and the world's major powers will signal that the United States is tilting toward Tehran and away from traditional Middle Eastern allies.
Zarif, not surprisingly, focused on Arab missteps, including the Saudi-led bombing of Yemen. He accused the Saudis of forcing back four Iranian planes carrying humanitarian supplies for Yemen and bombing a runway to prevent one plane from landing.
He denied that Iran controls the Houthis, a Shiite faction that has overrun much of the country, but at the same time said Iran should play a role in diplomacy to achieve a peaceful outcome in Yemen and other war-ravaged nations such as Syria, where Iranian support is keeping the regime of Bashar al-Assad in place.
"Iran is not a force that can be excluded in this region," Zarif said.
Zarif accused Iran's Sunni and Arab adversaries of creating and supporting proxies that turned out to be "monsters" such as al-Qaeda and the group that calls itself the Islamic State.
He recounted an anecdote from a decade ago when he was Iran's ambassador to the United Nations and then Iraqi President Jalal Talabani hugged him at a U.N. meeting, while only shaking hands with assembled Arab ambassadors.
"For 30 years, you supported the wrong guy," Zarif said he explained to his Arab colleagues, in a reference to Talabani's nemesis, Saddam Hussein, who had just been overthrown by the United States. Borrowing a phrase often used by President Obama, Zarif said, "We were on the right side of history. We were with the people of this region."
Such self-congratulation infuriates Arab leaders, especially Iran's historic rival, Saudi Arabia, where a new king has just reshuffled his cabinet and line of succession in a way that puts in place individuals that may be even more hostile to Iran than their predecessors.
"I'm not a dancer," Zarif told the audience when asked why the Arabs were not responding to Iran's outreach. He acknowledged that in diplomacy as in dancing, "it takes two to tango."
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Voice of America.
Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.