In an interesting story in Bloomberg entitled "Iran's Charmer in Chief Wins Again," Eli Lake discusses the "charm" of Iran's top nuclear negotiator and foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif.
It's peculiar, the way charming spokesmen for the worst regimes can win fans in the West. As Lake's story explains, Zarif is not a decision maker and often cannot deliver on promises he makes. But he knows Americans well—having studied here, and lived in New York for five years serving as Iran's UN ambassador. The one time I saw him in action, he was clearly very smart, has perfect English, and is a master of saying what Americans want to hear.
Zarif has many fans, and one of them appears to be Secretary of State Kerry. But we must recall that Kerry was also a fan of Bashar al-Assad, who in those days was taking essentially the same line as Zarif with Americans: I want change, I want reform, help me modernize. Zarif no doubt is saying (to Kerry, and the Europeans as well) that this nuclear deal will help him and other reformers change Iran, open the country up, and begin the transformation of the Islamic Republic into a normal country.
The problem is that there is no evidence Zarif is a reformer, rather than an immensely skilled defender of the regime, so it is remarkable that Western diplomats are moved by him as an individual. This is predictable, and happens with regimes good and bad. I remember when the Reagan administration sent a pretty hardline guy to represent us at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, and he began to argue against the tough positions Washington wanted to take. Why? He had become friendly with and very respectful of the British aristocrat who was the UK ambassador, Lord Somebody-or-Other, and didn't want to disappoint the guy. I recall our man saying on the phone that if we persisted in our Reaganite position, "Lord X will be so upset." That's a normal human reaction, but it is striking that personal influence can overcome policy and facts when the other diplomat represents not the UK but some awful tyranny.
I much prefer Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov to the Zarif types. Lavrov was also his country's UN ambassador (for ten years, twice as long as Zarif) and knows the U.S. well; he also speaks perfect English and is very smart. But he's not the same kind of charmer, and his demeanor and negotiating style often reflect a much harder shell, a sort of "like it or lump it, we are Russia, we do what we want" approach. Like Zarif he is not a top decision maker; in the end power resides with Putin in Moscow, as it does with Ayatollah Khamenei in Tehran.
What's striking is not differing approaches and personalities but the Western reaction. The charm offensive works, far more often than it should. The reality of the country—Soviet Russia, Communist China, the Islamic Republic—fades and instead the country comes to be viewed as a vague background to the lovely, lively man sitting across from our negotiator. It would be churlish, even crude, to keep reminding him of the crimes being committed by the regime he represents; it would make him sad. He would be disappointed in us. We would appear so much less sophisticated than we are. There is a particular danger here when a country’s negotiator is its foreign minister. When a lesser negotiator falls into the trap, the minister can simply say "knock it off" and pull him back; that's what happened in the Reagan case mentioned above. When the minister is the negotiator, as Kerry is for us in Lausanne, which lowly staffer will say, "Boss, he's twisting you around his little finger, wake up!"
The lesson, perhaps, is to send off nastier negotiators, people unconcerned about their personal relationships with representatives of evil regimes. That "The Charm of Mr. Zarif" should affect the outcome of our nuclear negations with Iran is a lesson in how not to conduct diplomacy.