Iran’s own charm offensive

The need for more constructive relations between Iran and its neighbours has never been more important.

Far from a radical firebrand, Javad Zarif projected an aura of rationality and ancient civility, writes Heydarian [Getty]
Far from a radical firebrand, Javad Zarif projected an aura of rationality and ancient civility, writes Heydarian [Getty]

As expected, the Iranian nuclear deal is facing stiff opposition in Washington, where a Republican-dominated Congress is determined to deny the Obama administration its greatest foreign policy legacy.

Reflecting divisions within US President Barack Obama’s own party, two leading Democratic senators, Robert Menendez and Chuck Schumer, have also come out against the deal, dampening hopes of preventing the passage of a resolution of disapproval by the Congress.

This means Obama will likely have to exercise his veto power in order to prevent a sabotage of an international agreement, which has been unanimously supported by the UN Security Council.

Obama only needs a third of the 100 votes in the Senate to sustain his veto, with 27 democrats having already expressed their support.

Kerry defends Iran nuclear deal in Senate testimony

So far, it looks like the Obama administration has enough congressional support to sustain a veto, with a Republican leader admitting that “the procedure is obviously stacked in the president’s favour”.

Aside from prominent pundits, such as Thomas Friedman and Fareed Zakaria, a growing number of Jewish leaders have also expressed support for the deal, including major Hollywood producers, such as Norman Lear and billionaire philanthropist, Eli Broad.

Most recently, another 340 American rabbis have also urged the US Congress to support the deal.

Yet, Obama isn’t alone in trying to garner maximum possible support for the historic Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA).

On its part, Tehran has also tried to build international support and allay anxieties, especially among neighbouring countries, over the strategic implications of the agreement with the reopening of the British Embassy in Iran signalling a new chapter in its relations with the outside world.

Iran was not only interested in resolving the nuclear issue, but also in restoring the country's international image and carving out a new chapter in its foreign relations.

The Zarif touch

Without a doubt, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his government have spent considerable diplomatic capital on securing a nuclear deal with the great powers.

For the first time in decades, Tehran engaged in sustained dialogue and haggling with Washington, a process that accelerated after the historic phone conversation between Rouhani and Obama on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in 2013.

Relishing a cabinet stacked with American PhD-holders, the Rouhani administration undoubtedly had a nuanced understanding of the complexities of Washington politics and Obama’s strategic calculus.

Fortunately, Rouhani could also count on the unique talents of his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, who spent decades in the US and was able to develop extensive contacts as Iran’s former ambassador, from 2002 to 2007, to the UN.

True to his name (in Persian, Zarif means “delicate”), the Iranian foreign minister leveraged his command of English with an American accent and adopted diplomatic savvy to enhance Iran’s international image.

Far from a radical firebrand, he projected an aura of rationality and ancient civility, penning columns for leading US publications, such as Foreign Affairs and The New York Times.

He confidently entertained interviews with leading journalists and global media outlets, eloquently articulating Tehran’s point of view and its desire for a diplomatic resolution of the nuclear issue.

US Secretary of State John Kerry talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif [AP]

After two years of relentless negotiations with great powers, led by John Kerry, the US secretary of state, Zarif and his counterparts were able to find the optimal point of convergence to strike a comprehensive nuclear agreement.

Ending Iran’s international isolation was a key promise of the Rouhani administration upon its election in mid-2013, and the JCPA was the key to fulfilling that goal.

As soon as Iran was able to develop a workable understanding with the West, it realised that it was time to provide the global media some window into the Iranian world, as well as reach out to neighbouring countries.

Iran was not only interested in resolving the nuclear issue, but also in restoring the country’s international image and carving out a new chapter in its foreign relations.

Ending isolation

While Obama was busy facing down opponents at home, Tehran welcomed top European officials, such as German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and the European Union Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini, with Austrian President Heinz Fischer expected to visit Iran in September.

Along with foreign dignitaries, there were countless business groups seeking investment opportunities to tap into Iran’s vast hydrocarbon resources and consumer markets.

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As a poignant reminder of Europe’s urge to restore relations with Iran, Rouhani was also invited to visited Paris and Rome with Mogherini, Europe’s foreign policy chief, calling for an “alliance of civilisations” with Iran, especially in the global fight against terrorism.

Tehran also tried to charm the global media.

In the past month alone, Tehran granted press visas to 17 foreign media organisations, including the BBC and the prominent New York-based Jewish newspaper, The Forward, which reported about a society that had “no interest at all in attacking Israel” and was primarily concerned with its “own sense of isolation and economic struggle”.

Crucially, the Rouhani administration also called for constructive ties with neighbouring countries, a major priority of Tehran. Since 2013, Zarif has been on the forefront of Iran’s charm offensive, visiting key members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), particularly the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait.

In a column published by several major Arab newspapers, he called for a unified front against extremism and a spirit of collective security in the region.

Trying to dispel fears that the nuclear deal will usher in greater Iranian regional assertiveness, Zarif has also called for cooperation with powerhouse Saudi Arabia, while the Iranian Vice President Masumeh Ebtekar recently expressed Tehran’s willingness to explore cooperation, even with regional rivals, over shared interests.

With the crises in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq entering a dangerous stage, the need for more constructive relations between Iran and its neighbours has gained unprecedented salience.

Without a doubt, the Rouhani administration has embarked on another challenging diplomatic task.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of “How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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