In his 2013 memoir, “Mr Ambassador”, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif writes: “You should always smile in diplomacy but you should never forget you are talking to an enemy.”
Zarif’s smile has indeed invaded the political scene, concealing behind it decades of tensions between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Needless to say, his “smile diplomacy” has had a great impact on Iran’s relations with the West. But it could also be the other way around. It is quite possible that Tehran’s decision to ease tensions that has put the ‘smile’ on Zarif’s face as its diplomatic weapon of choice.
Regardless, the 56-year-old has long been recognized as a skilful diplomat who is capable of conducting himself in a moderate yet pragmatic fashion. He smiles but does not forget whom he is talking to.
Earlier this month, the Iranian foreign minister was asked by a reporter why Iran is developing ballistic missiles. The first answer by Zarif was a wide smile, followed by his taking the podium and delivering another reply that won him the respect of the audience and beyond.
“If you ask the same question in a hundred different ways you will get the same answer,” Zarif said after he broke a laugh that echoed in the room.
After the humorous response, Zarif preferred to address the crowd while standing up and gave an unrelenting response.
“We are entitled to the rudimentary means of defence which we need in order to prevent another Saddam Hussein around the corner [from] attacking us with chemical weapons because the international community has failed miserably in protecting the Iranian people, in safeguarding international humanitarian law,” he said.
There was nothing shy about the diplomat’s reaction. His smile then faded to make way for his defence.
“We are the safest, most stable, most business-friendly country in the region where investments will have the highest returns and these weapon will never be used because we will never… never use them against anybody unless [it be] in self-defence and be sure that no body has the guts again to attack us,” Zarif concluded.
He wore a triumphant smile as the sound of applause resonated in the conference room.
Sitting around the table at talks and smiling at cameras while making side jokes with diplomats, is distinctly part of the historical nuclear deal reached by Tehran and the p5+1 over Iran’s uranium enrichment program.
Leading Iran’s negotiating team in sealing an agreement in Vienna after almost two years of negotiations, the FM flashed a smile before the six world powers but did not back down when it came to the lines that the Islamic Republic had drawn. Even before the two sides reached a middle ground, Zarif’s smile remained part and parcel of the meetings. Eventually the Iranians secured sanctions relief after decades of tensions.
Yet it took some media outlets no time to prey on Zarif’s tears. Attending a religious vigil in Vienna following a round of talks, Zarif was photographed shedding tears in supplication. Some websites tried to spin the situation to foretell the failure of the talks. However, they were proven wrong.
“Zarif is the most effective diplomat Iran has had since the revolution,” Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Reuters.
The impression that Zarif is capable of leaving on other diplomats comes from his familiarity and awareness of Western culture.
At the age of 17, Zarif moved to the US where he studied in San Francisco and Denver. Later on, he became a diplomat to the United Nations in New York, where he served as Iranian ambassador from 2002 to 2007.
In 1987 when Iran’s then president, Sayyed Khamenei, travelled to New York to address the UN general assembly, Zarif helped organize the trip.
“According to Kamal Kharazi, a former Iranian foreign minister, it was Khamenei who personally gave Zarif permission to talk directly to the US at that time,” The Guardian stated.
Back home, Zarif enjoys both public support and the trust of the country’s highest authority.
The FM’s appealing tactic, in addition to his fluency in English, has garnered him the respect of his Western counterparts including US Secretary of State John Kerry. Some reports even say that the former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gave him a copy of his 1994 book Diplomacy, signing it “To Zarif, my respectful enemy”.
However, Zarif has maintained his loyalty to his country, culture, and leader. Throughout the years, he has been keen to refer to Supreme Leader Sayyid Ali Khamenei on key issues.
According to his memoirs, Zarif’s identity did not change during the time he lived abroad. “I lived for 30 years in the US, but always kept my Islamic and Iranian culture and customs … even now western lifestyle feels strange to me,” the Iranian diplomat assures.
Although he has been criticized for going to the US instead of staying in Iran during the war in 80’s, Zarif has proven that he’s a warrior in the battle of politics. It just so happens that his smile is his armour.
To testify for his skilfulness in the art of diplomacy the nuclear deal will probably go down in history as the main accomplishment under his tenure as foreign minister and lead nuclear negotiator.
Once he arrived in Tehran following the agreement, the self-proclaimed optimistic realist wrote: “The art of a diplomat is to conceal all turbulence behind his smile.”