Iran's top diplomat just dazzled New York City -- but his performance raises several critical questions

RTR4XAH5Reuters/Andrea ComasIranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is excelling at one of the hardest jobs in international diplomacy.

Zarif, a fluent English speaker with a PhD from an American university, must persuade world powers that both he and the policy positions he represents are essentially reasonable, acceptable, and within the international mainstream.

At the same time, Iran’s top diplomat must also reassure the Islamic Republic’s leadership that this new engagement won’t dilute the revolutionary messaging and avowedly anti-western state ideology of the regime.

What makes him so valuable to Tehran also makes his position potentially untenable: In essence, Zarif can’t call America the “great Satan,” or seem like someone who would. But he has to represent a regime for which virulent anti-Americanism is an ideological pillar and a perceived source of revolutionary legitimacy.

It’s a hard balancing act. And while he’s slipped up before — notably by expressing agnosticism about the historicity of the Holocaust during a 2006 appearance at Columbia University — Zarif often nails it, as he did during a talk at New York University hosted by the New America foundation on April 29th.

Zarif, who was in New York for the UN’s bi-decadal review conference of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, brilliantly argued for Iranian policies in the Middle East, and regarding the still-ongoing nuclear talks.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad ZarifREUTERS/Lucas JacksonIranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks at the New York University (NYU) Center on International Cooperation in New York April 29, 2015.

He asserted that in terms of outstanding issues with the US, the nuclear question is “easiest to resolve, because there’s no contradicting objective” — each want “no nuclear weapons [in Iran]” and Iran to have “normal relations with the West.”

He said that Shi’ite Iran doesn’t want to stoke global religious conflict: “As the minority in the Muslim world, we don’t want a sectarian planet.” And he warned against finding purely military solutions to the conflicts in Syria and Yemen.

Reasonable enough, on the face of it. But Zarif’s endeavour in New York was inherently contradictory.

There’s a tension in being the representative of an ambitious authoritarian power while also remaining palatable to a high-powered audience in a Western, democratic society.

This is a microcosm of a larger problem facing the Iranian regime as it tries to break out of its international isolation: The regime wants closer ties with the rest of the world, but in a way that enhances the regime’s prospects for long-term survival.

Khamenei Meets Rouhani IranAnadolu Agency/Getty ImagesSupreme Leader of Iran Ali Khamenei (L) meets with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani in Tehran, Iran on July 14, 2014.

Zarif offered the clearest and most articulate possible case for Iran’s behaviour in the world. But the dissonance in his messaging — in trying to cater to two radically different audience — still left us with four huge questions.

How far is Iran really willing to go to prop the Assad regime?

Zarif articulated a plausible-sounding way out of the Syria morass: The conflict “should be left to the Syrian people to decide,” albeit through a process that stakeholders like Iran and Saudi Arabia could mediate.

Not that Zarif is a fan of Riyadh: “Saudi Arabia supported Daesh [ISIS], provided arms and assistance to Deash, and I didn’t ask Saudi Arabia to be excluded from Geneva II,” Zarif said, referring to a Syrian peace negotiation to which Iran was pointedly not invited.

“You need to include everybody,” Zarif said of a post-conflict Syrian government. Syria needs “a broad-based government with good relations with its neighbours. We can mediate.” For Zarif, what prevented a solution from being reached earlier “was a precondition” from the opposition that talks be premised on the removal of Bashar al Assad as president.

Assad loyalist Syria flag photoReutersA fighter loyal to Syria’s president Bashar Assad holds his picture as fellow fighters rest by a Syrian national flag after gaining control of the area in Deir al-Adas, a town south of Damascus, on February 10, 2015.

Contra Zarif, there’s no tension between removing Assad and the Syrian people deciding their own future. As it happens, the Syrian civil war is the result of a critical mass of Syrians no longer wanting Assad in power, and the regime’s area of control is now limited to a coastal enclave and parts of Damascus and Aleppo.

Members of the Syrian opposition long believed the preservation of Assad’s rule was itself a kind of precondition they wouldn’t accept. Zarif’s statements inspire little confidence that Iran can be a constructive player in the Syria conflict, especially since the Assad regime wouldn’t be able to survive without Iranian and Hezbollah manpower and assistance.

Assad has suffered a string of losses and his government is in its worst position in years. Iran could decide to go back on its own preconditions for peace — namely, the preservation of Assad’s rule — if the regime’s days seem numbered.

But its more likely that Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps will only deepen their commitment to bailing out Assad, as they have at several other inflection points throughout the conflict.

Just when will sanctions be lifted after a nuclear deal is signed?

Iran Pakistan oil pipeline 2013AP/Vahid SalemiIRan is waiting for tns of billions of dollars in oil revenue to be released.

One of the most significant parts of Zarif’s talk had to do with mechanisms for removing sanctions against Iran under a final nuclear agreement.

Zarif said that “a few days” after the signing of a final nuclear agreement, there will be a UN Security Council resolution that “terminates all previous resolutions, including all sanctions, and sets in place the cessation of [European Union] sanctions and the termination of US sanctions.”

There’s a certain elasticity within this statement: The superseding UN resolution could itself create a phased removal of sanctions, and Zarif vaguely alluded to “steps that will take only a few weeks to implement” in preparing for the sanctions’ removal.

Zarif allowed for the strong possibility that US domestic politics would slow the termination of Washington’s sanctions regime, but emphasised that “the president has the responsibility to bring the other bodies of government in line.”

At the same time, Zarif message was clear: The process for removing the sanctions would have to begin within days of a deal being signed, and sanctions relief would be front-loaded.

“They have to have a timeframe that will be simultaneous,” he said of Iranian implementation of its side of the agreement and the lifting of international sanctions.

Who really controls the fate of Jason Rezaian?

Zarif said that he hoped the Washington Post correspondent, a US citizen who Iran has held for over a year on espionage charges, will be acquitted.

“I hope that Jason will be able to clear his name before a court,” said Zarif.

In context, it was clear Zarif wasn’t calling for his release, but hoping that Rezaian would be able to prove that he hadn’t committed the crimes of which he stands accused.

Zarif actually endorsed the premise of the espionage charges: “It’s unfortunate that a lower-level operative tried to take advantage of him,” Zarif said, suggesting that some kind of unscrupulous foreign actor had at least been attempting to exploit Rezaian.

The Rezaian case is troubling for reasons beyond its chilling human rights and freedom of expression-related dimensions. Zarif’s job of simultaneously playing to his American negotiating counterparts and to the regime’s anti-American power center would certainly be a lot easier of Rezaian were freed. But for whatever reason, Zarif doesn’t seem to have the ability or the inclination to affect his release.

There’s a camp in the Iranian security state that clearly sees some kind of value in holding an American citizen hostage. What’s Zarif’s relationship to them? And what does this say about the value of reaching a landmark arms control agreement with one power center in what is apparently a deeply compartmentalized regime? with

What’s the deal with Hajji Qassem?

While Zarif discussed Iran’s relations with its “neighbours” and “region” in fairly general terms, he didn’t get into as much detail in discussing Iraq’s current situation as he did while talking about Syria and Yemen.

SuleimaniIranQassam Suleimani (right) celebrating with Hade Amre, chief of Shia militias, during the liberation of Jawlala in Iraq from Islamic State.

Maybe that’s because Tehran’s most important policy instrument in their western neighbour isn’t the foreign ministry, but the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Qods Force, and its commander, Qassem Suleimani.

Zarif said that his first op/ed in a foreign newspaper after his elevation to Foreign Minister in 2013 was in an Arabic-language paper, and was entitled “our neighbours are are priority.”

But it isn’t Zarif who’s responsible for say, organisation Shi’ite militias in Iraq, or directing the deployment of IRGC officers and high-ranking Hezbollah figures to the Syrian-Israeli border.

That’s all Suleimani’s portfolio. It’s at least as important as anything Zarif is capable of doing.

“Suleimani is the leader of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen,” Ali Khedery, who served as a special assistant to five US ambassadors and a senior adviser to three heads of US Central Command between 2003 and 2009, told The New York Times earlier this year. “Iraq is not sovereign. It is led by Suleimani, and his boss, [Iranian Supreme Leader] Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.”

Nevertheless, the Quds Force leader’s name didn’t come up once.

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