A US-educated career diplomat versed in the stock phrases of international institutions, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zariff is adept at framing Iran’s positions in language that sounds plausible to international audiences. He gets a warm reception just about everywhere he goes outside Iran, from the stages of foreign policy think tanks to the political talk show circuit, and is also a welcome novelty to outsiders used to the bizarre bluster of Iran’s hardline clerics and politicians.
But there is a chink in his armor: Iran’s human rights record. When pressed on human rights, Zarif is gaffe-prone. In 2015, he told PBS’s Charlie Rose that Iran doesn’t imprison people for their opinions, a statement ridiculed and refuted by numerous former prisoners of conscience. Sometimes, he takes on the air of a blackmailer, as when he told an audience in New Zealand that criticism of Iran’s human rights record had encouraged Iranian economic migrants to seek refugee status in Australia. More recently, at an event hosted by US think tank the Council of Foreign Affairs, he was asked about Iranian-Americans in Iranian jails and whether Iran might release them on humanitarian grounds. "As a foreign minister, I’ve always tried, on humanitarian grounds, to help people who are in custody," he said, while insisting that the country's judiciary is independent. "But we have followed their cases, and we hope that an acceptable resolution can be found," he said. This calm, evasive manner has become a Zarif trademark.
On the sidelines of this year's United Nations General Assembly, Foreign Minister Zarif met with the UK's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. They discussed the situation in Yemen, Syria and the wider Middle East, as well as the importance of maintaining the nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. But it is not clear whether the subject of human rights was discussed.
Curiously, few journalists have pressed Zarif very hard on this obvious weakness. Many have been put off or satisfied by trivial evasions. The first great Zarif interview has yet to be done.
Seeking the First Great Zarif Interview
Journalists have fallen well behind the human rights community in their conversations with Zarif. Speaking to three human rights activists specializing in Iran for this article, IranWire found their frustration with Zarif’s responses on human rights in Iran, and in some cases with the journalists who have interviewed him, pronounced. What follows is a guide for journalists based on those conversations.
1. Let Zarif worry about image and “access.”
“Zarif is a good diplomat,” says Roya Boroumand of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation. “But it is easy to get caught in a diplomatic ballet.” The excitement surrounding nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West, she says, has caused some journalists to mistake themselves for diplomats, and to become reluctant to embarrass Zarif in public. Moreover, most journalists worry about their ability to secure access to a high-profile figure from a semi-closed society. But access, she says, should really be Zarif’s concern. “I would say, remember that he needs you as much as you need him, if not more. Can Zarif do without being interviewed, and his message being carried in the international media? I don't think so.”
2. Pin down Zarif’s relationship to Iran’s judiciary.
“When it comes to Iran’s human rights record, Zarif mirrors the rhetorical style of Mohammad-Javad Larijani, who represents the judiciary,” said Mani Mostofi of Impact Iran. “He denies and deflects.” Iran’s judiciary, which routinely holds prisoners of conscience in solitary confinement without access to lawyers, and carries out more executions than any country other than China, is widely seen as unaccountable to Iran’s executive branch. But Zarif plays a double game, sometimes defending the judiciary’s actions — which he could simply avoid doing — and sometimes citing its independence.
“The claim about the Rouhani government’s hands being tied could perhaps be accepted as genuine if Zarif first recognized the seriousness of human rights challenges in Iran,” Raha Bahreini of Amnesty International said in 2016. “But he has denied that there are any political prisoners in the country, and has claimed that those held in prisons have committed national security offences and have received fair trials.”
3. Come prepared with case studies.
“Don't you find it astonishing,” says Boroumand, “that during all these years of discussing the nuclear issue with Zarif, no one has publicly asked him about Omid Kokabee?” While few journalists can be experts on all of Iran’s ongoing prosecutions, she says, they can always consult human rights experts, who can, in turn, tie human rights cases to wider issues on the international agenda. Kokabee, an experimental laser physicist who refused to assist Iran’s nuclear program, is a perfect example. He was arrested on a family visit to Iran from the US in 2011. He spent nearly five years in prison, where he suffered from kidney cancer. Iran charged him with “communicating with a hostile government.”
“Journalists should know a few cases of high-profile prisoners really well,” Mostofi says. “They should know why they are in prison, why the government says they are in prison, and what the court verdicts are. They should press Zarif on narrow points he can’t sidestep.”
4. When Zarif talks about “dialogue,” ask about the results of past dialogues.
“Anyone who has done their homework knows that Zarif is going to say that Iran is interested in dialogues on human rights, not monologues,” Mostofi says. “He is going to say that Iran doesn’t believe in preaching and finger-pointing.” But Iran has engaged in international human rights dialogues for years, particularly with the European Union, and these have not produced results. “Iran had a dialogue with the EU that lasted from 2000-2005,” Mostofi says. “The EU published reports on the outputs of those dialogues, which were abysmal. Not a single agreed-upon benchmark was even close to being met within that period. European officials say dialogue is all these talks are – just hypothetical conversations that never turn into policies.” Zarif, Bahreini points out, has even argued that Europe should thank Iran for executing large numbers of alleged drug offenders whose product might otherwise have ended up in Europe.
5. When Zarif talks about double standards, ask about Iran’s double standards.
“Zarif and other Iranian officials like to say that the US criticizes Iran on human rights, but doesn’t criticize Israel or Saudi Arabia,” Mostofi says. “But while the ‘double standard’ critique is a true critique of the human rights system, it's not one that people are oblivious to. It's a problem that everyone has to work to alleviate.” What journalists should ask, he says, is why Iran is part of the problem and not the solution, since Iran focuses selectively on adversaries like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. While much of what Iranian officials say about those countries may be true, he says, and Iran has every right to make those critiques, journalists ought to ask Zarif why Iran’s criticisms of other countries are any less hypocritical than other countries’ criticisms of Iran.
6. Ask Zarif what he means by “respect.”
“Zarif says Iran is willing to talk about human rights as long as Iran is respected,” Boroumand says. “If I were a journalist, I would ask what he means by ‘respect.’” Zarif’s predecessors, she says, have typically used the word ‘respect’ to mean that Iran need not act as if human rights are universal since it is an Islamic country. “What Zarif means is that Muslims, because of their culture and beliefs, do not have to abide by international conventions on human rights, and that these conventions have been imposed on the international community by the West.” But, she says, Iran has willingly signed up to these conventions, and there is no disrespect in asking about how Iran treats prisoners of conscience. “The hundreds of activists in Iran who assert that human rights are universal did not invade Iran from Brussels and Geneva.”
7. Ask Zarif why Iran makes it so hard for the UN to observe its human rights situation.
“When Zarif says that the human rights approach to Iran is politicised and selective,” Bahreini says, “he specifically cites the appointment of the United Nations special rapporteur on Iran as an example.” Ahmed Shaheed, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011, but has never been allowed to visit Iran. Iran has not allowed a special rapporteur into the country since 2005. “Iran also hasn’t signed any international protocols or international conventions that would allow individuals in Iran to make complaints to a UN human rights body when domestic avenues have been exhausted.”
8. Link human rights to Zarif’s main interest: Iran’s “brand.”
The Rouhani government’s primary focus is not human rights,” Mostofi says. “It’s making good with international markets, and international markets are about the Iranian economy’s ‘brand.’” But international discussions of Iran’s human rights record affect Iran’s "brand," and especially its appeal to investors. While it is logical for Zarif to want to improve Iran’s economic standing, journalists should ask where specific human rights reforms and government programs fit into that picture. “Zarif talks about international standards in telecommunications, in transportation, in technology and know-how. But the one thing he doesn’t want to import is a legal system that guarantees judicial accountability and human rights, and meets international standards.”
If Zarif and his government can satisfy these points, he could go down in history as a great statesman, rather than a skilled cosmetician.
This article was originally published in May 2016.