New foreign minister signals potential for Iran to improve relations with the West

Appointment is viewed as a key opportunity to build bridges with Obama administration

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a photograph of the new Iranian foreign minister with a former senior American diplomat may signal a new direction for Iran’s fraught relations with the West over its nuclear programme.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, a former Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, was confirmed in his post as foreign minister earlier this month. On Monday, he was pictured looking relaxed and smiling at a meeting with Jeffrey Feltman, a UN undersecretary-general. Mr Feltman is also the former US assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs who was in charge of US Iran policy from 2009 to 2012. Washington and Tehran have not had diplomatic relations since the 1979 hostage-taking in Iran.

The election of Hassan Rouhani, a pro-reform pragmatist, as Iranian president in June, has raised hopes in the West that the Iranian leadership may be prepared to make concessions in order to obtain relief from sanctions. But it remains to be seen whether the changes will be more style than substance.

One Tehran-based academic who knows Mr Zarif personally, Davoud Hermidas-Bavand, told the New York Times that “our former foreign policy obviously did not yield any results and was clearly doomed.” Mr Hermidas-Bavand described Mr Zarif as “the new face of a new policy”, and said that Iran needed to “soften our stances in order to find a solution to the nuclear problem and reduce the sanctions.”

Mr Zarif, 53,  is a US-educated career diplomat. Although Iran has a mine of savvy and experienced diplomats, many were arbitrarily pulled back to Tehran by former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mr Zarif had been sidelined in recent years, spending his time teaching at the Iranian Diplomatic Training Centre. He was also part of the negotiating team led by Mr Rouhani who reached a deal with the UK, France and Germany in 2003, providing technological and economic incentives in return for freezing sensitive nuclear activities. That agreement collapsed two years later.

Since that time, Iran has continued to insist on its right to enrich uranium and has built up a stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 per cent – a potential pathway to a nuclear bomb – despite the pressure from the increased sanctions. Mr Zarif was also part of the team which drafted an offer of a 2003 “grand bargain”, encompassing all aspects of US-Iranian relations, which was spurned by George W Bush.

Having spent many years in America, and speaking fluent English, Mr Zarif stands for the resumption of relations with Washington. In conjunction with Mr Zarif’s appointment, Tehran today named a disarmament expert as its envoy to the UN nuclear watchdog. Reza Najafi  will be its next ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.

Hardliners in the US Congress – and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – remain sceptical about a fundamental shift in Iranian policy. But the Obama administration would be keen to engage in bilateral talks with Tehran, according to President Obama’s former chief adviser on weapons of mass destruction, Gary Samore. 

The appointment of Mr Zarif, who has been accused of being “pro-West”, could be the best chance in years for an end to the showdown over Iran’s nuclear programme – if the Iranian leadership and the Obama administration can overcome decades of mistrust.

Tehran mulls suing America over 1953 coup

Iran’s parliament has approved fast-tracking a debate on a Bill that seeks to sue the US for its involvement in the 1953 coup that overthrew the country’s democratically elected prime minister.

MPs will begin deliberations tomorrow over how to launch a formal complaint accusing the US government of intervening in Iran’s internal affairs and inflicting damages on the Iranian state.

Newly declassified documents have revealed more details of how the CIA orchestrated the overthrow of the Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh 60 years ago in a coup that restored the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.