Iran’s Charmer-in-Chief Resigns

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- There is a temptation to view the resignation of Iran’s foreign minister as a bad omen. Here is a man, Javad Zarif, who helped negotiate the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. He speaks fluent English and forged close relationships with Western diplomats and journalists. He was a moderate in a sea of hardliners. The U.S. — and, more broadly, the West — just lost a portal into a regime that has been misunderstood for decades.

That’s the emerging theory, anyway. It’s wrong.

Zarif’s resignation means very little for Iran’s relationship with the West. Indeed, it may provide Europe with a clarifying moment. This is because Zarif’s main job was to persuade his interlocutors that Iran was a normal nation-state and not a predatory rogue.

For this task, Zarif brought many skills to bear. He excelled, for example, at taking offense. Just this month, when asked at the Munich Security Conference about the imprisonment of eight Iranian environmental activists, Zarif launched into a diatribe about Western arms sales to Saudi Arabia. He ended the rant by reminding the audience that he has been a professor of human rights for 30 years. Then there is that revealing story from 2015, when Zarif threatened to completely walk away from the nuclear talks when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asked him if he was really empowered to accept the American offer.

Zarif was also brazen in his deployment of falsehood. In December, he told a French interviewer that Iran has never called for the destruction of Israel, despite the regular threats Iran’s own supreme leader makes on social media and in his speeches to destroy the Jewish state. Holocaust denial? This is not the government’s position, he said, just that of a few bad apples. Political prisoners? Iran doesn’t have any. And on it goes.

Umbrage and deception are only part of Zarif’s playbook. He was also adept at telling Western diplomats and journalists, particularly Americans, what they desperately wanted to hear. During the George W. Bush administration, Zarif worked with the National Iranian American Council to reach out to members of Congress to make the case that his country didn’t really want war with the U.S. and that all of Iran’s centrifuges were just to make cleaner energy.

Zarif’s charm initiatives paid off. He was able to negotiate a nuclear bargain whose limits on enrichment expire over a 10-to-15-year period and does not formally proscribe missile testing. And after the deal was done, Iran intensified its regional wars in Syria and Yemen. In 2015, Kerry said Zarif had promised him that Iran would negotiate such regional issues after the nuclear deal was finished. Those negotiations never happened.

The secret to Zarif’s success is that he was never the one making decisions. He was always a front man. So he could make appealing public pronouncements about Iran’s intentions, then shrug his shoulders in private when Iran couldn’t deliver. For years, for example, Zarif complained that it was unfair to accuse his country of building a weapon. Then an Israeli operation last year revealed an entire Iranian archive on how to build such weapons. Was Zarif aware of those plans? Probably not. But that’s the point.

In this sense, Zarif’s resignation is welcome news. He was never going to moderate the Iranian regime. His job was to con Westerners into thinking Iran’s regime was moderating. With his departure, the civilized world has one less excuse for failing to see what has been in front of its nose all along.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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