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."
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