Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Photo: AFP / Don Emmert

The appointment of Javad Zarif as Iran’s foreign minister by President Hassan Rouhani in August 2013 struck a favorable chord with many Iranians who were under the impression that he was distinct from the majority of Islamic Republic technocrats, an ingenious and sincere intellect who was not blighted with the typical kleptocratic tendencies of senior men in suits in an undemocratic setting.

A US-educated university professor and diplomat who had cruised the world in his youth, spoke fluent English, knew most of the top international politicians of his time in person, had high-profile friends such as Joe Biden and Dianne Feinstein, was described by Henry Kissinger as a “respectful enemy” and boasted insider knowledge of the workings of leading foreign-policy think-tanks in the United States and Europe, Zarif was perceived as the celebrity of Rouhani’s cabinet and an ideal pick to be his top diplomat.

In July 2015, he emerged as a national hero patriotic Iranians adulated for his role in sealing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with six world powers, which above everything, heralded the lifting of economic sanctions that had screwed their lives for decades.

Iran gave up critical elements of its nuclear enterprise and in return, was rewarded with the normalization of its trade relations with the international community. The Iranian architect of this indispensable compromise deal was Javad Zarif.

Some newspapers and pundits compared him to Amir Kabir, the chief minister to the Iranian monarch Naser al-Din Shah Qajar. Kabir (1807-1852) was credited as a modernizer and the nation’s seminal reformer, and among his many achievements was the foundation of the first modern university in Iran in 1851, one year before he was assassinated following a malignant contrivance by the Queen Mother Malek Jahan Khanom under the pressure of Russian and British governments.

After the nuclear deal was agreed in Vienna, an impassioned crowd welcomed Zarif at a Tehran airport, and hundreds flocked to the streets to celebrate, waving Iranian flags and portraits of Rouhani and Zarif. They had grasped the significance of the accord and how it could unfetter them from mounting economic hardships, and were acknowledging the eloquent foreign minister for the breakthrough.

Having lived much of my life under the unpitying US sanctions, I was also relieved when the JCPOA was agreed upon and endorsed in a UN Security Council resolution, and I came to regard, like millions of other Iranians, Javad Zarif as the man who had inspired that diplomatic epiphany in lockstep with his US counterpart John Kerry, the EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini, and top diplomats from five other nations.

The post-JCPOA period marked a professional honeymoon for Javad Zarif. He was invited to address international forums and conferences one after the other, voyaging through Asia, Europe and the Americas to meet with leaders and politicians and negotiate lucrative trade deals. He was approached by international media day in, day out to tell the world what he thought of the most pressing challenges ahead of Iran, its neighbors and the community of nations.

The honeymoon, however, was ruinously cut short when in May 2018, President Donald Trump left the world high and dry by ceasing the US participation in the JCPOA and restored the sanctions that had been removed as part of the deal. A new episode of isolation for the Islamic Republic and resurrected economic malaise for 80 million Iranians began.

Zarif, by the same token, was not any more treated as a fixture of European capitals, international broadcasters and eminent think-tanks and diplomatic summits. No more red carpets, no more charm offensives.

As pressure began to pile up against Iran in a cold war of sanctions and diplomatic ghettoization of a country that was just being reconnected to the outside world, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif showed signs of a moral backsliding. He retreated from the position of an open-minded, rational foreign-policy maker with an international reputation into that of a conservative demagogue who even twisted facts and sometimes lied in order to justify his stance and camouflage the failures of his government.

In August 2018, he appeared on state TV for an interview with the popular host Reza Rashidpour. The host asked him why there were so many countries in the world that have robust diplomatic relations, and whose people do not live under pressure, but the people of Iran are constantly told that their country is suffering international pressure and they have to endure.

Zarif responded: “The reason is that we have ourselves made a choice to live in a different way.”

Zarif’s statement outraged many Iranians, who took to social media to hit back against him by trending the hashtag reading “We have not made a choice.”

A year later, during the 2019 Munich Security Conference, when pressed by the BBC correspondent Lyse Doucet about Iran’s human-rights violations and the detention of eight Iranian environmental activists, whom Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence had concluded were not guilty of national-security offenses, Zarif intoned: “I am a human-rights professor, I have taught human rights for over 30 years. I believe human rights for us is a security requirement, not a moral nicety.”

His remarks unleashed a flurry of indignation among Iranians at home and abroad, as well as journalists and rights activists internationally, whose understanding of Iran’s human-rights record stood in contrast to Zarif’s account. They also noted that he was actually an international-relations professor, not a human-rights scholar.

These debacles culminated in a rare encounter with an Afghan media outlet a few weeks back. In the final days of 2020, Javad Zarif gave an interview to TOLOnews, Afghanistan’s first 24/7 news and current-affairs TV station. The interviewer was Lotfullah Najafizada, the 33-year-old director of the privately owned broadcaster.

Conducted in Persian, the language shared by Iranians and Afghans, with English subtitles, the interview was viewed 1.3 million times on YouTube. It was centered on the contours of Iran-Afghanistan relations, Iran’s approach to the Taliban, the discrimination faced by Afghan refugees living in Iran, and Iran’s role in marshaling Afghan fighters for the Syrian war.

The precision and straightforwardness of the young correspondent in asking unequivocal questions, his readiness to challenge a senior diplomat of a powerful neighboring country with ripostes and pungent follow-ups, and his close familiarity with the issues raised during the conversation earned him widespread commendation, both among Afghans and Iranians.

To Afghans, the interview was an opportunity to seek clarifications on the many ambiguities in their relations with a country they are culturally, geographically, socially and politically knotted with, and to Iranians who usually don’t get the chance to ask their officials critical, probing questions, it was a litmus test of integrity and honesty for the nation’s top career diplomat when responding to a foreign reporter.

The program generated a heated debate on social media and in the public sphere, and some observers went as far as asserting that it was the most candid, challenging interview an Iranian official had given to any media outlet since the 1979 revolution.

It is true that on different occasions during the interview, Najafizada interrupted Zarif and didn’t allow him to finish his statements, which to some Iranians implied impertinence and discourtesy.

Yet, as some other commentators opined, Iranians, who throughout the past four decades have been witness to and have cultivated the disfranchisement and alienation of thousands of Afghan refugees in their country, weren’t used to seeing a popular Afghan journalist sitting before one of their senior cabinet ministers, grilling him on a range of issues and at times, embarrassing him by exposing his inability to respond to questions compellingly. That is why the interview came as a surprise to many.

The conversation saw Javad Zarif clearly losing the battle to preserve his ethics and principles as a moderate politician. He found himself stuttering intermittently, peddled untruths about Iran’s relations with the Taliban, and failed to address the discrimination Afghan nationals living in Iran face.

For instance, he couldn’t justify why Afghan refugees in Iran are denied access to bank credit cards, and resorted to prevarication and spurious reasoning to disavow Iran’s role in sending Afghan combatants to Syria.

Many uncertainties were born after the interview was aired, which are still being hashed out. One of them is whether Islamic Republic officials would consider granting such exceptional interviews to Iranian journalists, and countenance being confronted with bitter and uncomfortable questions at home.

Another was whether journalism in Afghanistan could overtake the profession in Iran if it continues making progress so swiftly while Iranian journos and media professionals flounder with censorship and a litany of restrictions.

But perhaps the most valid question is whether Javad Zarif, once eulogized as the nation’s new Amir Kabir, still deserves being hero-worshipped as an upstanding, reliable savior.

Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist based in Iran. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow.