The Cable

Can This Man Bring Iran to a Nuclear Deal?

The negotiations had been dragging on for days, and no deal was in sight. It was December 2001, and Afghan leaders were deadlocked over how to share power in post-Taliban Afghanistan. The victorious Northern Alliance insisted on taking 18 of the country's 26 ministries, a demand immediately rejected by all of the country's other factions. U.S. officials worried that the fragile calm in Afghanistan would unravel if no agreement was reached.

It was just after 4 a.m. when an unlikely savior emerged. Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's deputy foreign minister, had watched as Western officials spent two hours unsuccessfully pressing the Northern Alliance's representative, Yunus Qanooni, to accept fewer ministries. Zarif finally took him aside and whispered in his ear for a few minutes. Qanooni then came back to the table and said the Northern Alliance would accept five fewer ministries. James Dobbins, who had represented the U.S. at the negotiations, recalled in 2007 Congressional testimony that Zarif had almost single-handedly saved the talks.

"Zarif had achieved the final breakthrough without which the Karzai government might never have been formed," Dobbins said then.

President Obama's Friday phone call with Iranian President Hasan Rouhani made headlines worldwide, but Zarif, now Iran's foreign minister, will be the one actually leading the negotiations with the U.S. over his country's nuclear program, including the high-level negotiations scheduled for next month in Geneva. The success of those talks, like the ones in Bonn more than a decade ago, will depend on how successfully Zarif -- an American-educated diplomat whose children were born in the U.S. -- can bridge the seemingly intractable differences between the two sides.

"Zarif has a deeper understanding of America, and American politics, than any senior Iranian official since the 1979 revolution," said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "He's one of the only Iranian officials whom I've met whom I think would be well-qualified for his position even in a truly democratic, meritocratic Iran."

Sadjadpour, who has made numerous trips to Tehran, said Zarif once intervened on his behalf when Iranian security personnel were threatening to arrest him.  He describes the diplomat as a pragmatist who is genuinely interested in coming to an agreement with the U.S.

Still, Sadjadpour cautioned that it was unclear whether Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would actually give Zarif the authority to strike a deal that would be acceptable to the U.S. Such a deal would likely require Tehran to agree to halt its production of highly enriched uranium and to potentially close at least one of its nuclear facilities.

Zarif's growing prominence highlights a pair of unexpected shifts within Iran over the past six months. First, Rouhani, a relative moderate, won Iran's presidential election by a surprisingly large margin despite early projections that a more conservative candidate would triumph. He appointed Zarif, formerly Iran's U.N. ambassador, to his new post shortly after taking office. Perhaps most importantly, responsibility for all negotiations over Iran's nuclear program was taken from the Supreme Council for National Security, which reports directly to the Office of the Supreme Leader, and given to Zarif's Foreign Ministry.

The diplomat has followed an unusual path to his current post. Born in Tehran, he attended San Francisco State University as a graduate state and did his Ph.D. in international law and policy at the University of Denver. As a young diplomat in the 1990s, Zarif helped negotiate the release of Western hostages in Lebanon. Zarif's children were born in the U.S., and the diplomat used his time at the U.N. to get to know then-Senators Joseph Biden, now the vice president, and Chuck Hagel, now the secretary of defense. A fluent English speaker, Zarif appeared on Charlie Rose and gave speeches at think tanks and universities like the Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs.

Despite Zarif's pro-Western credentials, it would be wrong to assume that his time in the U.S. means that he will be a pushover in the upcoming talks with the Obama administration. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hardliner who denied the Holocaust and called for Israel's destruction, kept Zarif at the U.N. for nearly two years after taking power in 2005. That is a clear reminder of the diplomat's loyalty to his government and his willingness to use his considerable charm to advance its interests even in the face of Western opposition. Moreover, Zarif will have to tread carefully to ensure that he doesn't cross any of the red lines set by Khamanei, who ultimately has the final say on the Iranian nuclear negotiations.

Still, Zarif has taken great pains to make clear that he doesn't share the Iranian regime's more extreme views. Last month, just before the Jewish New Year, Zarif tweeted out "Happy Rosh Hashanah," using the Hebrew words for the holiday.

Christine Pelosi, the daughter of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, tweeted back that "the New Year would be even sweeter if you would end Iran's Holocaust denial."

"Iran never denied it," Zarif responded. "The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone. Happy New Year."

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

Syria Has to Open Up Its Chemical Weapons Sites By Tuesday

The Syrian government is required to provide international chemical weapons inspectors "immediate and unfettered" access to any site in Syria starting Oct. 1 and complete the destruction of its chemical weapons production and mixing equipment by Nov. 1, according to a decision to be voted Friday afternoon by the executive council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

The arrangements and timetables are part of a U.S.-Russian proposal to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons program by the middle of 2014. The U.N. Security Council is expected to endorse the technical procedures on Friday night.

The deal marks the culmination of several days of intensive negotiation between Washington and Moscow over the details of a chemical weapons inspection. It sets the stage for a dramatic scene in the U.N. Security Council, where U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will cast their vote on the first major Security Council resolution to be adopted by the Security Council following more than two years of violence in Syria.

Under the terms of the deal, Syria is required to provide the Hague-based disarmament agency with a complete list of all chemicals, precursors, toxins, and munitions in its chemical weapons stockpiles within seven days. In addition, Syria has a week to provide the agency with "the location of all of its chemical weapons, chemical weapons storage facilities, chemical weapons production facilities, including mixing and filling facilities, and chemical weapons research and development facilities, providing specific geographic coordinates." Syria must allow international inspectors to visit locations where those materials are contained within 30 days.

The OPCW's council is scheduled to produce by Nov. 15 a timeline that details a series of disarmament milestones that Syria will be required to meet in order to "complete the elimination of all chemical weapons material and equipment in the first half of 2014."

The arrangements were finalized as a separate team of U.N. weapons inspectors are finalizing investigations into seven incidents where chemical weapons are alleged to have been used in Syria. Those include three strikes that allegedly occurred after the massive Aug. 21 attack in the Damascus suburbs that triggered worldwide outrage and led to the deal for Syria to give up its chemical stockpile.

The inspectors, who began their second fact-finding mission to Syria on Wednesday, are scheduled to leave Syria on Monday and present a final, comprehensive report on their findings to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon by the end of October.

The U.N. team, which is led by Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, is operating under a mandate that's separate from a new U.N. inspection team that the U.N. Security Council is expected to mandate tonight to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons.

"Since its return to Syria on 25 September, the mission under professor Ake Sellstrom has been able to resume its fact-finding activities related to all pending credible allegations of the use of chemical weapons," said the U.N.'s chief spokesman, Martin Nesirky.

Sellstrom's team has already produced a report proving definitively that the nerve agent sarin was used in the Aug. 21 attack -- and providing compelling circumstantial evidence implicating Syrian forces in launching the strike. But Syria and its key U.N. patron, Russia, have challenged those claims, saying that the rebels carried out the attack.

The team is examining American claims that President Bashar al-Assad's government used chemical weapons in an April 13 attack in the town of Sheikh Maqsud, as well as British and French assertions that the Syrian regime used a nerve agent in the town of Saraqeb on April 29.

The other sites under investigation include four towns where Syria claims to have been targeted with nerve agent by rebels, including Khan al-Assal, a village on the outskirts of Aleppo where Syrian troops were exposed to a toxic agent. Syrian, Russian, and European officials all agree that Syrian forces were exposed to poison gas in Khan al-Assal, but British and French authorities claim that they were caught in a friendly fire incident.

The Syria government claims that Syrian rebels also fired chemical weapons against Syrian authorities outside Damascus in the villages of Bahariye on Aug. 22, Jobar on Aug. 24, and Sahnaya on Aug. 25.

Follow me on Twitter: @columlynch