One of the most significant moves and shifts in policy highlighting Iranian President Hassan Rowhani’s tenure is his decision to upgrade the status of the Islamic Republic’s foreign ministry.
Firstly, his choice of foreign minister is among the best: Mohammad Javad Zarif is a high profile diplomat who is well known in the international community.
Zarif served as Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations for six years when Mohammad Khatami was president. He left following Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency.
With Zarif as U.N. ambassador, Iran had undoubtedly pursued a more active and constructive diplomacy with the U.S. Zarif was also active in academic events in New York City and his relations with elite Iranian Americans made him very popular with the expat Iranian community as well as with American scholars.
Two significant events occurred while Zarif was ambassador. First, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright publicly apologized for the U.S.’s role in the 1953 coup d’état against Mohammad Mosaddegh and the first democratically elected government in Iran.
Apparently, the world wants to continue talks with Iran about their nuclear power ambitions, but the sanctions will remain until a common ground is reached.Camelia Entekhabifard
Secondly, Iran actively engaged with the international community and the U.S. after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. Iran’s significant involvement in intelligence sharing and its granting permission to the U.S. and their allies to use Iranian airspace against the Taliban showcased a new diplomatic approach from the Islamic Republic.
Zarif led all diplomatic talks for Iran at the United Nations.
Zarif’s appointment, I believe, is one of the most important and remarkable decisions President Rowhani has made yet. He killed two birds with one stone. Rowhani’s plan for taking the nuclear file from the National Security Council and giving it to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs meant that a skilled foreign minister will be in charge of nuclear negotiations too. This also means that the file is no longer under the surveillance of the Revolutionary Guards, but given instead to professional diplomats.
Shifts in power
Rowhani explained that his cabinet of veteran politicians, middle aged or older, is deliberately chosen because, according to him, time is too short for Iran to use an inexperienced team.
Appointing seasoned diplomat Zarif demonstrates Rowhani’s aim to improve relations with western countries as well as tackling the nuclear file with P5+1.
All of these changes would not have been possible without the Supreme Leader’s prior approval. Granting more power to the foreign minister means that diplomacy will take the lead in Iran, heralding a new beginning for serious change.
Having dealt with unknown and complicated hardliner Saeed Jalili as the former head of the National Security Council for almost eight years, the international community can breathe a collective sigh of relief knowing that its diplomats will be working with a more predictable and professional team.
The other interesting appointment is the return of Ali Akbar Salehi to his previous position as head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization.
Salehi, former President Ahmadinejad’s best minister, was replaced by hardliner Fereydoon Abassi-Davani in 2011; now Salehi will return to his previous post.
The appointment of Salehi, a pragmatic moderate diplomat, is another signal to the west that Iran wants to make nuclear negotiations work.
As soon as Zarif was appointed as Iran's foreign minister on August 17, 2013, he communicated with Catherine Ashton, the EU lead on nuclear negotiations with Iran.
The two agreed to resume negotiations with P5+1 as soon as possible and will meet on the side of the U.N. General Assembly in September in New York City.
Apparently, the world wants to continue talks with Iran about their nuclear power ambitions, but the sanctions will remain until a common ground is reached. It looks as though Rowhani’s cabinet is focusing on preventing the imposition of further sanctions, since the lifting of sanctions would require enormous work and diplomacy—and that requires time.
However, so far, the nuclear negotiating team is off to a promising start with Zarif and Salehi at the helm. In an appearance on a nighttime TV show on Saturday, Zarif told the presenter that this week President Rowhani will clarify who would be leading the nuclear talk negotiation with P5+1: either the Foreign Ministry or the National Security Council.
Camelia Entekhabi-Fard is a journalist, news commentator and writer who grew up during the Iranian Revolution and wrote for leading reformist newspapers. She is also the author of Camelia: Save Yourself by Telling the Truth - A Memoir of Iran. She lives in New York City and Dubai. She can be found on Twitter: @CameliaFard