Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, is expected to extend an olive branch to the US and set a new tone in his country’s foreign policy by choosing a former Tehran ambassador to the United Nations as his foreign minister.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, who has been previously involved in rare and often secret bilateral negotiations between Tehran and Washington, is being tipped as Rouhani’s nominee for the post.
Rouhani will publicly announce members of his cabinet next week, after his official inauguration on Sunday, but local agencies in Tehran reported that the appointment of a number of top ministers had been finalised, with key positions set to be held by technocrats and pro-reform moderate figures.
Under Iranian law Rouhani will have to present his full list of cabinet nominees to the parliament, which will consider their merits one by one before their appointments are made official.
Although Rouhani, as head of the government, is responsible for choosing ministers, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final word on all state matters, traditionally has full influence over key ministries, including the foreign ministry. If Zarif’s appointment is confirmed, it would probably mean that it has had Khamenei’s blessing.
Mohammad Sadegh Kharazi, another former ambassador to the UN and an adviser to the reformist former president Mohammad Khatami, said Zarif would be in Rouhani’s cabinet. “He has an objective view about international issues and is capable of finding solutions,” Kharazi told the Guardian by phone from Tehran.
Above all, Kharazi said, the 53-year-old Zarif, a fluent English speaker and a PhD graduate from the University of Denver, was trusted by Khamenei. Given this, he said, Zarif was best positioned to normalise Tehran’s relations with Washington should Khamenei decide on such a policy.
Khamenei has recently signalled he is not optimistic about any future direct talks between the US and Iran, but analysts reading between the lines said he did not voice any objection either.
“Our foreign policy is completely centralised, meaning that it should be approved by the supreme leader,” said Kharazi. “If we see positive signs from the US and if normalisation becomes our policy then Zarif would be the best person to evaluate things and act appropriately and without misunderstandings.”
According to Etemaad, an Iranian reformist newspaper, Zarif went to the US on a student visa two years before the 1979 Islamic revolution and later chose to work for Iran’s UN mission in New York for immigration reasons. “I became a diplomat accidentally,” Etemaad quoted Zarif as saying. Iranian web users said Zarif had deactivated his Facebook page since being touted as foreign minister.
William Miller, a former US ambassador to Ukraine who has met Zarif frequently in New York in the past, described him as “extremely well-informed” about the US and “deeply knowledgable” about his own country.
“His knowledge of nuclear issues, which is the main question between Iran and the US, is very deep and it follows along technical lines as well as policy lines,” Miller said. “He’s admirably suited by temperament, background and education to work on these issues that have divided the US and Iran for 34 years.”
Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council, said he had dealt with Zarif on numerous occasions when the ex-diplomat visited Washington and led the US-Iran negotiations over Afghanistan at the beginning of the Bush administration, particularly after 9/11.
“He is a tremendously impressive diplomat and I think to many of the Americans they found someone that completely understood them and worked and lived in the US for so long,” he said.
But Parsi said Zarif belonged to a group of Iranian officials burnt by the US when the Bush administration labelled Iran as “an axis of evil” at a time when Tehran was showing signs of compromise. “While there were people who are capable and willing to deal with the US, these are the very same people who actually got burnt for having done so.”
Parsi criticised US representatives who are trying punish Tehran with yet more sanctions, to be voted on in a bill on Wednesday. He said it was a negative step while both sides were trying to send positive signals. The White House and the Congress are currently at odds over Iran.
“It will definitely have a very negative impact on the ability to use the fresh opportunity to move things to a better place because at the end of day this is the first US government response to the election of Rouhani,” he said. “I think it’s the wrong signal to send to Iranians who in big numbers voted for moderation against radicalism, while the US Congress wants to respond to that by imposing new sanctions.”
Since his victory in mid-June, Rouhani has been under pressure from conservatives about his cabinet nominations. Saham News, an opposition website, reported on Monday that Khamenei had rejected four of Rouhani’s nominations so far.
Others touted for the cabinet include Eshagh Jahangiri for vice-president, Bijan Zanganeh for oil minister, Ali Janati for culture minister and Mohammad Forouzandeh for chairman of the supreme national security council and de facto chief nuclear negotiator.
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