The Mullahs’ Chief Liar, and Their Most Effective Weapon

Mohammad Javad Zarif / Getty

Iran's most effective weapon is not a missile or a tank, but rather a middle-aged, bespectacled man. Sure, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the affable foreign minister of Iran, does not seem threatening, but that is precisely the point. With his charm, fluent English, and American education, the former Iranian ambassador to the United Nations has successfully wooed journalists, think tank experts, and policymakers across the Western world, including in the United States. Indeed, if Washington's political and cultural elites made a formal club, they would grant Zarif honorary membership. Fraternizing and sharing disdain for American "chauvinism" can form such a bond. It is always quite a sight to observe certain think tanks welcoming Zarif to the United States with such fanfare. And when is the last time an American journalist made the smooth-talking diplomat at least a little uncomfortable during an interview? After all, he is the face of an Islamist theocracy that executes homosexuals simply for being homosexuals and that wreaks mayhem across the Middle East. Perhaps he should be challenged to defend those crimes.

And here we get to the point: Zarif is not only Iran's chief diplomat, but also its chief liar. He charms overly comfortable, idealistic Americans into believing that he wants the same as them, and that the regime in Tehran is a benign, responsible actor. Of course, much of Washington's elite buys the shiny car that the greasy diplomat is selling them, and therefore will not challenge him, even if, under the thin layer of paint, there is a broken down, used vehicle.

If only the United States stopped its own belligerence, Zarif tells his Western fans, Iran could flourish and the bilateral relationship would be peaceful. The reality is quite different, however. Take Zarif's tweet this week on the Iranian nuclear program. "Ayatollah @khamenei_ir long ago said we're not seeking nuclear weapons—by issuing a fatwa (edict) banning them," Zarif wrote, referring to Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. "#B_Team's #EconomicTerrorism is hurting the Iranian people & causing tension in the region. Actions—not words—will show whether or not that's @realDonaldTrump's intent." The so-called "B-Team," a term that Zarif began using earlier this month, consists of National Security Adviser John Bolton, United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Curiously, former top officials in the Obama administration began using the term after Zarif introduced it, amplifying the Iranian diplomat's talking points against President Trump.

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For years, Zarif has said that Iran does not seek nuclear weapons, using Khamenei's fatwa, or Islamic legal edict, against the development of the bomb as a primary piece of evidence. The problem is that literally every part of Zarif's claim is false. First, the world now has documentary evidence showing that, while Zarif was declaring Iran's nuclear innocence, the regime was planning to build weapons. A massive cache of secret Iranian files that Israel seized and publicized last year revealed that Iran had concrete plans to build at least five nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the fact that the regime kept and concealed mountains of such detailed plans suggests, at the very least, that, even today, Tehran wants to obtain nuclear weapons. Zarif also lied by touting the mysterious fatwa, which no one, including experts who spent extensive time looking for it, has been able to find. Nor has the regime been able to produce it. But regardless, fatwas can be revised under new circumstances and, as Mehdi Khalaji and Michael Eisenstadt noted in a report on the alleged edict, "nothing would prevent Khamenei from modifying or supplanting his nuclear fatwa should circumstances dictate a change in policy."

And yet, too many powerful Americans have fallen for Zarif's nonsense. On several occasions, Barack Obama used the fatwa to "prove" that Iran did not want nuclear weapons, as did several of his top officials—most notably John Kerry, Ben Rhodes, and Hillary Clinton. As with Zarif's anti-Trump rhetoric, pundits and policymakers, especially on the political left, have repeated his talking points to benefit their political agendas. First they wanted to strike a nuclear deal with Iran on the road to rapprochement; now they want to save that road after Trump crushed it into bits.

It seems that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) has also become smitten with Zarif. Last week, Politico reported that Feinstein had dinner with Zarif when he was in the United States a few weeks ago. The dinner was "arranged in consultation with the State Department," according to Feinstein's office. This news followed an earlier report that Feinstein was walking around the Capitol with Zarif's contact information pulled up on her cell phone. Why would Feinstein, a former chair and vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, dine with and possibly text or call the foreign minister of an adversary that has been at war with the United States for 40 years?

The answer is actually quite clear. Khamenei and his conservative allies in Iran know how to place Zarif the charmer and like-minded technocratic elites—the so-called "moderates" or "reformers" within the regime—in positions of power when the Iranian government is facing a serious internal crisis. In 2013, for example, Hassan Rouhani became president as the Islamic Republic was on the verge of economic disaster. The revolutionaries in Tehran with the real power deploy these weapons to deceive the West, to get the United States and others to negotiate something as foolish as the nuclear deal, which alleviated the economic pressure on Iran while, astoundingly, allowing the regime to maintain the ability to obtain nuclear weapons. Iran knows it can never defeat the United States in a war or escape American sanctions if Washington is determined, but the Islamic Republic also knows it can fool a lot of important people in Washington, who will go to any length to appease the regime in order to avoid conflict. As importantly, those Americans who buy what Zarif is selling believe that rapprochement with Iran, at the expense of Washington's Middle Eastern allies, is the best policy, one that combines realist ideas of balancing power in the short term with idealistic notions of moderating a stalwart enemy through engagement in the long run.

This Iranian strategy serves a related purpose: to feed the progressive narrative that there are moderates in the regime with whom Washington can engage to moderate the Islamic Republic. Read all of Obama and Kerry's interviews during nuclear negotiations with Iran and try to argue they do not believe that narrative. The problem is that these moderates, of whom Zarif is the poster boy, agree wholeheartedly with Khamenei on the issues that matter most for the regime: ensuring the Islamic Republic's survival—which means preserving a theocratic system in which a supreme leader has ultimate political and spiritual authority—and bringing about its preeminence in the Middle East. Again, look no further than Zarif, who seeks to preserve, rather than transform, the cruel and oppressive theocracy in Iran. "We have also defined a global vocation, both in the constitution and in the ultimate objectives of the Islamic revolution," Zarif states in his memoir. "I believe that we do not exist without 
our revolutionary goals." As Ali Alfoneh and Reuel Marc Gerecht noted in 2014, Zarif was probably referring to article 154 in the Iranian constitution, or the "export-of-the-revolution" clause, which states that the Islamic Republic "supports the just struggle of the mustazafun [the oppressed] against the mustakbirun [the arrogant] in every corner of the globe."

"From a theoretical point of view, I believe utopian interests can be aligned with national interests," Zarif adds. "Interests, which others considered utopian, allowed us to become an influential state in Iraq and Lebanon." That sounds more like a revolutionary soldier than a sophisticated diplomat. But as long as Zarif charms and speaks flawless English, much of Washington's elite will ignore what they do not want to see. Until of course the regime is done with its Westernized, technocratic weapons and casts them aside, as they do not make the important decisions in Tehran anyway.