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Iran Placed Hopes on ‘Silver Bullet’ Diplomat to Win Deal With West

Image: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a press conference

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a press conference closing two days of closed-door nuclear talks on Oct. 16, 2013 in Geneva. AFP - Getty Images file

It was just before the United Nations General Assembly last fall when Javad Zarif, the new foreign minister of Iran, joined Twitter and quickly posted something that got a lot of people’s attention.

It was a signal that Zarif, named to the job by reform-minded President Hassan Rouhani, was a different breed of Iranian diplomat — savvy, public and, most important, interested in moving past the hardline politics of his predecessors as he worked toward a tentative nuclear deal with the West.

But it was no surprise to the people who have known and studied Zarif, 54, over a long and unique career in the United States, part of which he spent as a fixture on the diplomatic circuit in New York and making regular appearances on television.

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“He’s the guy on the move, the guy in the media,” said Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, who has met him. “Hobnobbing with foreign ministers, all that sort of thing.”

Zarif came to the United States on a student visa in 1977, two years before the Islamic Revolution. He earned degrees up to a doctorate at American universities. Having mastered English, he was given a job at the Iranian U.N. mission in 1982.

He rose to become Iran’s ambassador to the U.N. in 2002. By the time he left his post five years later, Zarif had built such a reputation for being reasonable and approachable that a former Israeli ambassador told him publicly: “We’re going to miss you.”

After Rouhani was elected last year, he chose Zarif as foreign minister and quickly assigned him the nuclear portfolio, Iran’s biggest sticking point with the West. When Zarif sat down with Western diplomats last fall to talk, they did it in English.

“Before, half of what they were saying was lost in translation,” said Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan policy organization in Washington.

Zarif has written that he still observes Iranian and Islamic custom by declining to shake hands with women or drinking alcohol, and he does not wear neckties, which Iran banned as decadent after the revolution.

What he does do is engage on social media, much of which is blocked in Iran. During the nuclear talks, Zarif took regularly to Facebook and Twitter. Sometimes the messages were hopeful:

But he did not shy from criticizing the US government, either. After Obama met with Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, and talked tougher on Iran, Zarif had this to say:

The messages illustrated the difficult line Zarif has to walk, offering overtures to Western diplomats while trying to satisfy a skeptical right flank back home that he is tough enough.

Hardliners in Iran have frustrated Rouhani and Zarif as they strain for a deal with the West — Zarif, during last fall’s negotiations, blamed stress from the hardliners for a bad back that put him in a wheelchair.

And the Iranian Parliament, as recently as early May, has threatened to censure Zarif for refusing to deny the Holocaust.

American officials, though, said that they found in Zarif a negotiating partner they could deal with.

“He came, he did his job, and he put his ideas on the table,” said Wendy Sherman, one of the American nuclear negotiators.

“He sometimes catches you by surprise, and you have to stop and remember: This is not an American, this is an Iranian,” she said. “He is a personable person, quite charming.”

A Secret Back Channel 2:24

Outside analysts said that it was impossible that Zarif could strike such a conciliatory tone without the approval of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who may realize that years of economic sanctions and frosty relations with the world have hurt Iran.

There are still plenty of skeptics. After Zarif and Secretary of State John Kerry were pictured smiling together in Iranian newspapers, someone threw a shoe at the Iranian president’s motorcade. But even some of the doubters see the gladhanding Zarif as their best bet to win a final nuclear deal, improve Iran’s standing in the world and get the economy moving.

“I think they realize that Zarif is a silver bullet,” Maloney said.