INTERVIEW Zarif turbocharges Iran's diplomacy
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
NEW YORK - Dr Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's new foreign minister, is in New York to attend the UN General Assembly meeting and at the same time advance Iran's foreign policy priorities at a delicate time in Middle East politics which is wrought with multiple conflicts and endemic insecurities.
Since his appointment and subsequent enthusiastic approval by the Iranian Parliament (Majlis), Zarif has traveled first to Iraq and then Central Asia, for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit, which endorsed Iran's peaceful nuclear program, arriving in New York with a bundle of pressing issues that pose serious foreign policy challenges to Iran, and hoping to secure
"win-win" concrete results from the intense week of negotiations.
In a conversation with the author on Friday, Zarif elaborated on his perspective on Iran's foreign policy priorities and his expectations from the trip, which entails marathon meetings with several dozen UN diplomats. After six years of "academic rest" following his return to Iran as Iran's ambassador to the UN after Mahmud Ahmadinejad's victory, Zarif is now re-energized and ready to take on the chore that will include extensive travels in the months to come.
The diplomat-turned-professor of international relations-turned foreign minister has published a few volumes on international organizations and is keenly aware of the complex dynamic of power relations operative at the UN and other international bodies and the various constraints and opportunities provided by them to "middle power" countries such as Iran.
Zarif, now shouldered with the responsibility of the nuclear file, which has been transferred from the (inter-agency) Supreme National Security Council to the Foreign Ministry, has an impeccable record in, among others, the past nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conferences and is generally credited for advancing the interests of developing nations at those conference, not to mention his often-cited role in brokering a deal for post-Taliban rule in Afghanistan. An enthusiastic supporter of the UN's idea of a Middle East nuclear weapons-free zone, Zarif has expressed dismay at the US's recent cancellation of the conference on the subject and yet is optimistic about the initiative's prospects.
With respect to the nuclear issue, Zarif insists that "it is relatively easy to resolve" and much depends on "political will and foresight" by the other side in order to end an "unnecessary crisis" since Iran is "100% against nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons have no place in Iran's national security outlook."
When pressed on the nuclear issue, Zarif replied that Iran has in the past demonstrated that it is capable of defending itself with a conventional army, has not attacked another country for the past 250 years and has no hostile intentions. He said there is a futility to having a "nuclear armed" Iran as long as it does not have "second strike capability" in the face of the overwhelming nuclear might of countries such as the United States.
He pointed out that his predecessor, Ali Abkar Salehi, who now heads Iran's atomic organization, has met the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with a view to finalizing a new transparency agreement and thus build more international confidence in Iran's peaceful program, which "has no weapons component whatsoever."
Such categorical statements against nuclear weapons have been heard before, above all from the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei as well as President Hassan Rouhani, who in his first interview with an American media outfit stated categorically that Iran will not produce nuclear weapons "under any circumstance." What is new about the Rouhani-Zarif approach, however, is the provision of fresh perspective and added depth to the Iranian counter-proliferation stance, based on Iran's national security calculus.
According to Zarif, one of the problems with the Americans is that "they have enjoyed a free lunch" with one-way "illegitimate" sanctions against Iran, without having to incur many costs and it is now time to tell them "the free lunch is over" and that an opening for a "paradigm change" on Iran has arrived.
Zarif is a true believer in the force of communication and diplomacy, and is intent on "re-educating" the Americans and the West about Iran, described as a status quo power in the region and "stability provider" that has "very cordial relations" with Iraq and Afghanistan, two neighboring countries still grappling with the impact of post 9/11 invasions. "I was in Iraq recently and during the holy month alone over 1,000 Iraqis died in Baghdad, an alarming situation."
One of the tragic pitfalls of American policy in the Middle East, according to Zarif, is the short-sighted approaches that disregard negative long-term consequences, such as US's decision to arm the Syrian rebels, many of whom are in bed with al-Qaeda. Zarif cited a recent report that indicated the majority of leading groups fighting the government in Syria are radical jihadists with strong links to al-Qaeda. Zarif insisted that there is no legitimacy and legal justification for the US military threat against Syria, thus hinting that Iran like Russia and China is opposed to the US and European push for a UN Security Council resolution that would put a seal of approval on attacking Damascus if it failed to implement the chemical weapons disarmament agreement brokered by Russia.
"As you know Iran has been a main victim of use of chemical weapons in the past and therefore we are extra sensitive about this subject and we stand for universal adoption of the protocol on prohibition of chemical weapons." Another point of concern by Zarif is the Syrian opposition's access to chemical weapons, in light of an Iranian report to the US nine months ago regarding the shipment of Sarin gas to the rebels.
But is America willing and ready to reciprocate Iran's significant gestures of conciliation? Zarif is guardedly optimistic, an optimism based first and foremost on his "faith in Iran's diplomatic ability". Citing the need for a "cognitive shift" in America toward Iran, Zarif insisted that "we need to change the American calculus on Iran nuclear and other issues". On a broader level, Zarif is determined to educate the West about their own forgotten legacy of "banning war as an instrument of national policy," which was promulgated in the aftermath of World War I. This forgotten "cognitive gap" between principles and policies must be raised anew, as part of a new approach to international affairs, based on the UN principles and "proactive diplomacy of constructive and prudent engagement".
Also, Zarif referred to the attractions of "Iran model," the fact that "election is power" and the orderly, popular and legitimate election process in Iran is a priceless example of the viability of Iran's political system that is behind Iran's ability today to be a major player in the international scene still mired in various "distortions of power," inequities and injustices.
In conclusion, Iran's foreign policy machinery is now blessed with an astute observer of global diplomacy with intimate knowledge of American politics and its traditional susceptibility to "third power influence", who nevertheless exudes real confidence in the ability to "push the scourge of war to a corner", not only for the sake of Iran and its neighbors but also the whole world community. "I would describe myself as an optimistic realist, not an idealist but we need hope and will to peace to generate a better reality on the ground especially in the Middle East."
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For further biographical details, clickhere. Afrasiabi is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction (2007), Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing, October 23, 2008) and Looking for Rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations (CreateSpace, November 12, 2011).
(Copyright 2013 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)