Diplomatic Exit

Javad Zarif, Iranian envoy to the United Nations, was widely welcomed last month while in Washington.
Javad Zarif, Iranian envoy to the United Nations, was widely welcomed last month while in Washington. (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

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By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 15, 2007

Javad Zarif, the highest-ranking Iranian diplomat in the United States, made a rare trip to Washington last month. The timing could not have been worse.

Five days earlier, Iran's Revolutionary Guard had seized 15 British sailors in the Persian Gulf. The U.N. Security Council had just imposed new sanctions on Iran for failing to ensure that its nuclear energy program could not be subverted to make the world's deadliest weapon.

Yet Zarif, whose five-year stint as Tehran's ambassador to the United Nations is about to end, was widely welcomed here, getting access that would make envoys from America's closest allies green with undiplomatic envy.

He was even invited to Capitol Hill to chat with with presidential hopefuls from both sides of the aisle.

"Zarif is a tough advocate but he's also pragmatic, not dogmatic. He can play an important role in helping to resolve our significant differences with Iran peacefully," Democrat Joe Biden said afterward. Noting his previous talks with the Iranian envoy, Republican Chuck Hagel called for "direct engagement" between Washington and Tehran. "Isolating nations does not fix problems," Hagel said.

During Zarif's talk with Democrat Dianne Feinstein, Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican John Warner of the Armed Services Committee dropped by to have a word. "I find him to be a positive, reasonable figure, and it would be useful if he could stay at the U.N.," Feinstein said later.

Similar encomiums were heard as Zarif made the rounds of Washington think tanks. At a luncheon hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations, Martin Indyk, the former ambassador to Israel, turned to the Iranian envoy and said, "We're going to miss you."

At a dinner hosted by the Nixon Center, its president, Dmitri Simes, introduced Zarif as "one of the most impressive diplomats I've met anywhere. He obviously is a strong spokesman for his country, but he knows how to do it with eloquence and credibility."

All this transpired in just over 24 hours -- the time limit dictated by a special State Department permit that allowed him to leave the 25-mile quarantine imposed on Iranian diplomats at the United Nations.

* * *

Ever since the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, relations between Washington and Tehran have devolved into a bizarre mix of non-communication, misunderstanding and occasional farce. With Iran's history of arming Iraqi, Lebanese and Palestinian militias, seizing British sailors, refusing to support Arab-Israeli peace, allegedly having a nuclear weapons program, and swinging from revolutionary to reformist back to hard-line politics, both Republican and Democratic administrations have struggled with whether there is any Iranian official that the United States can talk to -- and actually believe.

Some U.S. foreign policy experts say Zarif may be one of the few.


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