- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 20, 2022

He rose to prominence as the smooth, English-fluent mouthpiece of Iran’s theocratic regime. He went toe-to-toe on Twitter with President Trump and built deep connections with power players on the American political left looking for a softer U.S. policy toward Tehran.

Still, Mohammad Javad Zarif has largely gone underground since “retiring” from politics last year and ending his eight-year run as Iranian foreign minister. Once an outsized presence on social media, Mr. Zarif has tweeted just six times this year.

He has pulled back from public discourse even while Iran’s high-stakes negotiations with the Biden administration over reviving the 2015 nuclear deal hang by a thread.

His absence looms large. Foreign policy analysts say no other Iranian figure comes close to matching Mr. Zarif’s public relations skills or his personal relationships with influential Americans.

Javad Zarif has kept a very low profile. He’s not in the headlines. He does not give interviews,” said Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute. “He’s not making statements. He’s not critiquing the negotiations going on today, not as far as I know.”

He’s “not shaping any debates,” Mr. Vatanka said in an interview. “I suspect that’s because he wants to be left alone.”

At the United Nations General Assembly this week, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi does not have Mr. Zarif by his side. As head of Iran’s foreign ministry under Mr. Raisi’s more moderate predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, Mr. Zarif was a ubiquitous presence at the U.N. gathering, particularly in the years leading up to the signing of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). That deal limited Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for economic sanctions relief but was repudiated by Mr. Trump in 2018. The Biden administration is trying to revive the pact, though talks have dragged on for nearly two years.

Mr. Raisi and President Biden will be at the New York gathering this week, but the Iranian leader on Sunday shot down the prospects for a face-to-face meeting, casting more doubt that the two sides can overcome domestic headwinds and reach a deal.

“I don’t believe having a meeting or a talk with [Mr. Biden] will be beneficial,” the hard-line Iranian president said in an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes.”

“The new administration in the U.S, they claim that they are different from the Trump administration,” he said. “They have said it in their messages to us, but we haven’t witnessed any changes in reality.”

Analysts say Mr. Raisi and Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian maintain close ties with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which the Pentagon says is directly linked to militias that regularly target American troops stationed in Iraq and Syria. The Justice Department accused an IRGC member last month of attempting to pay for the assassination of former Trump-era White House National Security Adviser John Bolton and other prominent U.S. officials.

Mr. Zarif bemoaned the IRGC’s power over Iranian politics in leaked audio recordings that surfaced last year. Mr. Vatanka said the new leaders in Tehran “have zero independence” from the IRGC and seem to have little flexibility in political negotiations with the West.

Mr. Amir-Abdollahian also does not appear to have the willingness or the ability to hold back-channel talks with American decision-makers, a central pillar of Mr. Zarif’s brand of diplomacy.

While a key figure in Iran’s official business, Mr. Zarif also became famous — or perhaps infamous — for holding clandestine meetings with powerful American liberals at or near U.N. headquarters. In 2018, Mr. Zarif reportedly met with former Secretary of State John Kerry in New York shortly before Mr. Trump formally pulled the U.S. out of the JCPOA.

Mr. Kerry, who served as the Obama administration’s secretary of state during the initial nuclear negotiations with Mr. Zarif, defended the meetings with the Iranian foreign minister. Later in 2018, he told radio host Hugh Hewitt that he was trying to find out “what Iran might be willing to do in order to change the dynamic in the Middle East for the better.” He acknowledged speaking several times with Mr. Zarif during Mr. Trump’s time in office.

His second home’

Mr. Zarif’s relationship with Mr. Kerry is just one example of what some national security sources say is his clear influence in U.S. political circles backing a more accommodating policy with Tehran, despite reservations of U.S. allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Although he is out of the public spotlight, Mr. Zarif retains a loud voice behind the scenes and is attempting to shape political discourse through his relationships with foreign policy insiders at U.S. think tanks and in other corners of society, sources say.

“Zarif appears to be playing a very quiet, background role of both public messaging and relationship maintenance. He is not a strategist; he is a propagandist,” one former U.S. official told The Washington Times. “While Raisi wanted to clean house of anyone tied to the JCPOA … [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] understands his utility in paralyzing Europe from returning to a pressure track and sending messages to the U.S. echo chamber to guide the information war.”

Such a contention is difficult to prove, but some former U.S. officials say Iran’s religious leadership may be encouraging, or at least passively allowing, Mr. Zarif to keep his relationships with U.S. and European diplomats alive. Such relationships could provide useful back channels for negotiations.

Mr. Zarif seems uniquely qualified for such a role. His understanding of Western politics began long before he served as Iranian ambassador to the United Nations from 2005 to 2007 and during his eight years as foreign minister. Mr. Zarif left Tehran to attend college in the U.S. His education includes a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in international studies from the University of Denver.

“The U.S. to him is his second home,” Mr. Vatanka said. 

Mr. Zarif also proved especially adept at using social media to promote his point of view and to push a pro-Iran, often anti-Israel message. One of the most notable instances was in January 2020, just weeks after a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC.

In a Twitter post, Mr. Trump specifically referenced Mr. Zarif. He said the “Iranian foreign minister” wanted to revive talks with the U.S. but wanted economic sanctions removed.

“No thanks!” the U.S. president said.

Mr. Zarif shot back directly at Mr. Trump.

“@realdonaldtrump is better advised to base his foreign policy comments & decisions on facts, rather than @FoxNews headlines or his Farsi translators,” Mr. Zarif tweeted on Jan. 25, 2020.

Mr. Zarif has tweeted just six times this year and just once since April. Those tweets have included support for JCPOA negotiations and criticisms of U.S.-Israeli policies.

On Jan. 1, he mourned the death of Soleimani while taking shots at Mr. Trump and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“2 years ago, I lost a friend, Iran a hero & the world a champion in fighting terrorism. To those in denial, Trump’s true colors were on full display only a year later in US Capitol,” he said in his Twitter post. “The world needs brave fighters like #Soleimani — not coward warmongers like Trump, Netanyahu & Co.”

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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