Much of the western optimism around Iran’s new leader, Hassan Rowhani, centers on his early cabinet choices, in particular a single individual—his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.
For years, the 53-year-old Zarif has been Iran’s unofficial ambassador to the West’s political and diplomatic elite (watch his January 2007 appearance at Princeton University). With soft-spoken, clearly accented English picked up from doctoral studies at the University of Denver, Zarif has plied western circles as Iran’s former ambassador to the United Nations and its former lead nuclear negotiator.
The western hope is that after years of escalating friction with the west, Rowhani will shift the responsibility for nuclear negotiations to Zarif, who would then have a concentration of bureaucratic influence in negotiations. Talks are currently led by the Supreme National Security Council, a grouping of senior Iranian political and military officials; Rowhani was sworn in as president on Aug. 4.
Zarif is an “extremely skilled diplomat and has an engaging personality,” Cliff Kupchan of the Eurasia Group wrote in a note. “He will likely support more creative solutions to the nuclear crisis, and he will appoint a very able team of advisers.”
His search for the middle ground has left him out of favor since the 2005 election of outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Among US officials with whom Zarif has talked over the years are Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.
No one expects Zarif to give away the store—he is not pro-American, and negotiations would still be tough. The greatest skeptics continue to dismiss hopes in the Rowhani presidency as illusory. After Rowhani’s inauguration, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Iran retains an objective “to develop a nuclear capability and nuclear weapons in order to destroy the State of Israel, and this constitutes a danger not only to us and the Middle East, but the entire world, and we are all committed to prevent this.”
But to the degree that Zarif is trusted by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s ultimate decision-maker, he could be the best chance to bridge decidedly deep suspicions on both sides.