As this week’s final nuclear talks got underway, there was one uninvited guest: Maryam Imanieh, the wife of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. She arrived at Vienna’s Palais Saxe-Coburg Hotel with Hossein Fereydoon, President Hassan Rouhani’s brother, adding a new twist to the final days of negotiations. A diplomat with a profound interest in mysticism, it is unclear why she has suddenly appeared on the scene.
Imanieh chairs the Iranian Association of Women Diplomats of the Foreign Ministry, which organizes charity events to raise money for disadvantaged groups in Iran and plans entertainment and tours for visiting wives of foreign diplomats living in the country. The post is routinely held by foreign ministers’ wives. In the past, Zahra Rad and Zohreh Nazari, the wives of former foreign ministers Ali Akbar Salehi and Manuchehr Mottaki respectively, held similar positions in the foreign ministry.
Like others who have held the job, Imanieh has strived to promote a positive image of Iran among foreigners. She has neatly echoed the work of her husband in some ways, striving to establish an image of Iran as a modern, outward-looking country with strong values and a flair for innovation — though she has done so on a modest scale, and with less overtly political overtures.
When Iranian media outlets report on any aspect of Imanieh’s public work or life, they never mention her name. The Foreign Ministry press office refers to her simply the “wife of the foreign minister.” This is not unusual in a country that often sidelines the wives of important officials, but for a woman who has lived in the West off and on for many years, it must seem strange.
In Iran, her activities and habits have not gone unnoticed. Iranian hardliners have reacted negatively to published photographs of Imanieh alongside female singers and musicians — women are not allowed to perform on stage in Iran, except occasionally in groups — or with her husband attending a music concert.
But Maryam Imanieh is less known for her diplomatic efforts than she is for her other interests and pursuits. Originally from Isfahan, she is fan of poetry and mysticism. She has become a social figure over the last decade, and regularly attends domestic and international conferences and gatherings, especially in India, that explore mysticism.
She and Zarif were married in the summer of 1979. “I returned to Tehran in the summer of 1979,” Zarif has written. “I had talked to my mother and had told her that I wanted to return to Iran and get married. My sister [who was living in Isfahan] suggested the sister of a friend of hers, saying she was a religious and revolutionary young woman. One day my sister invited them both to her home. Two young women arrived, but I did not know which one of them was the girl she had mentioned. My parents were still in Tehran. So I asked their permission to go, along with my sister and her husband, and ask her for hand in marriage. She was as religious and as revolutionary as I had hoped. When I met her, I recited passages from the Koran and quotations from the Prophet, which she liked. When I returned home I asked my mother to come to Isfahan for the ceremonies. Our engagement coincided with the Ramadan mourning period. When we married, she was 17 and I was 19.”
“My wife had a revolutionary spirit from the beginning of our marriage,” Zarif wrote in his memoirs. “She was quite inflexible. We did not even have a TV in our home in the US. After a while and after a lot of begging, I managed to buy a used TV to watch the news.”
Both were raised in strict households. Even though Zarif's family could afford it, they did not have a television because of religious beliefs. “I had not seen a movie until I think I was about 15. There were no newspapers in our house. And my parents did not allow me to socialize.”
These restrictions continued until Mohammad Javad Zarif left home to go to the West. And now it appears his wife’s stance has also changed.
Zarif describes the changes in his memoirs. “My wife was the pupil of the late Haj Esmail Dulabi, one of the masters of that time, for 10 years.”
Mohammad Esmail Dulabi, a renowned Shia mystic in Iran who died in 2003, wrote that he found his mystic powers in a spiritual revelation when he was just an adolescent. “I was returning to my room when the curtains over the doorway lifted and I experienced a revelation. I was standing still for 20 minutes holding the tablecloth. I saw that I was standing over the shrine of [the Shia saint] Imam Hossein, peace be upon him. They made me understand that from that moment I would get what I wanted. The two seyeds [descendants of the Prophet] were talking. They were saying that I was in rapture. It was then that it started.”
Maryam Imanieh regularly interprets the poems of Jalal ad-Din Rumi, the great Iranian poet and Sufi. She does not hold a permanent or official job according to her husband. “My wife speaks at women’s gatherings and takes part in diplomats’ wives activities,” Zarif has said of her. Many of these meetings focus on her personal interests, from classes for interpreting poetry by Rumi’s poetry to lectures on mysticism, inspired by her guru Dulabi. Mohammad Javad Zarif’s Facebook page features poems by Rumi and passages from Dulabi, selected by his wife.
While Maryam Imanieh’s attendance at official meetings is not an unusual sight, the fact that she is there for the final days of what could be a historic agreement — and what will certainly be a sensitive moment in Iran’s international engagement — is bound to attract attention. She has become the most interesting figure on the negotiation sidelines. When and if a nuclear deal is reached, Maryam Imanieh and Zarif will have no time for a vacation, but she will be witness to whatever happens, one half of Iran’s happiest diplomatic couple, a unique testament to the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
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