Five lessons from the Iranian foreign minister’s video asking for peace

November 19, 2013

Whether you think that Iran's outreach for a nuclear deal with the West is a good-faith effort to end the years-long standoff or a cynical ploy to weaken Western sanctions, there's no question that Tehran is pushing hard. The latest gesture comes from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, whose office has just released this English-language video explaining his country's position.

The video is posted up top. Here are a few thoughts.

1. It's easy to snicker at the production quality; the syrupy music, the excessive fade-cuts. Even the U.S. government is known for producing less-than-Hollywood-quality videos. But it's a reminder that the Islamic Republic doesn't do this kind of thing very often. Soft power, except perhaps in reaching out to Shiite communities elsewhere in the region, is not a frequent practice. That's worth keeping in mind.

2. Zarif has a triple-underlined message that he repeats over and over: You have to treat us with respect. "We expect and demand respect for our dignity," he says, frequently mentioning phrases like "equal footing" and "mutual respect." He doesn't mention sanctions even once. He discusses nuclear development only as a function of the Iranian quest for the world's respect. There is good reason to suspect that Iran's nuclear activities may be about a lot more than just "dignity," but Zarif's framing of the issue here is significant for understanding his approach to negotiations.

3. Zarif does make appeals for peace, but even these are couched as just a component of his larger demand that Iran be treated with respect. "To seize this unique opportunity, we need to accept equal footing and choose a path based on mutual respect and recognition of the dignity of all peoples," he says.

4. When Zarif talks about peace, he frames it as a goal of not the Iranian government but the Iranian people as a whole. "This past summer, our people chose constructive engagement, through the ballot box," he says. "The Iranian people are determined to explore this path. Join us in ending an unnecessary crisis and opening new horizons." This is potentially significant not just as a way of playing up Iran's outreach to the West, but perhaps as a message to Tehran as well. As in the United States, Iranian politics is somewhat divided over the question of whether to pursue a deal. It's controversial, and there are plenty of Iranian hard-liners who might try to block any deal. Perhaps we are hearing part of a campaign by Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani to entrench the idea that Iranians want peace, and thus preempt internal political opposition.

5. Zarif's English, you can probably hear, is both very good and American-accented. That's significant. He spent five years in New York, after all, as his country's ambassador to the United Nations. During that stint, he helped author a 2003 proposal to the Bush administration for a far-reaching detente (it was rebuffed). It seems fairly clear that Rouhani picked him for his ability to speak to Westerners and especially Americans. This video is a reminder of that. It's also probably a decent approximation of what American diplomats see and hear when they meet with Zarif, as they will do again on Wednesday.

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Max Fisher · November 19, 2013