“TEHRAN’S PROMISE — The revolution’s midlife crisis and the nuclear deal.”
THE NEW YORKER this month features an excellent and well written article by Robin Wright on the Iranian Nuclear deal. I’m bringing it into my blog, and particularly into this series on human relations, because it’s about the personal relationship between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, a relationship that, in my opinion, was made in heaven for the specific purpose of bringing about this Nuclear deal with Iran—and more. It opened a window to the world through which the promise of a new relationship between the people of Iran and the rest of the world can be clearly seen, even through the distracting and manipulative cloud of propaganda Washington Conservatives have been putting before the American people via the media.
The relationship between these two men had its beginnings back in 2003 when Zarif was Iran’s United Nations Ambassador. Kerry and Zarif “played pivotal roles in getting the process (of the Nuclear deal) started, through back channels: in 2003, as Iran’s U.N. Ambassador, Zarif orchestrated a secret overture, nicknamed ‘the grand bargain.’” This initiative is what set things in motion and led to an unannounced trip in 2011 by John Kerry, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “to explore an offer by the Sultan Oman to host covert diplomacy. That led to five secret rounds of lower-level U.S.-Iran talks, in Muscat, in 2013.”
Here’s what really piqued my interest in this relationship.
The most serious diplomacy since Washington severed relations with Tehran, in 1980, began shortly after Kerry and Zarif were appointed as their nations’ top diplomats. Their first meeting, in September, 2013, was supposed to be a handshake and an exchange of pleasantries in a United Nations hallway. The idea was to “get out without causing any incidents and build from there,” a Kerry aide recounted. But, at the last minute, Kerry decided to pull Zarif into an empty office, near the Security Council chamber, for a substantive conversation.
“Kerry’s whole approach to diplomacy . . . is premised on the belief that personal relationships matter, because they enable you to get things done, even in very difficult situations,” the aide said. “It was Kerry’s belief that this was going to be a relationship that would really matter.” Zarif was willing. The two men talked, alone, for almost thirty minutes.
The rest of the story is now copy for the history books. “The Iran deal, announced on July 14th, capped a dozen years of secret overtures, false starts, clandestine meetings, and unpublished correspondence between Washington and Tehran.
THE POLITICS OF THE PEOPLE
A huge transition is underway in Iran between the old revolutionary leadership and the new generation. The article’s parallel and probably more significant theme is about the people of Iran, the next generation of young people who represent more than sixty percent of Iran’s eighty-million people, “A baby-boom generation, born after the revolution, (that) doesn’t share all of its priority.” Iran’s youth are not so enamored by the hard-liners’ religious fanaticism over an ideal Islamic state. They are more interested in pursuing and engaging the rising tide of modern technologies flooding Iran via the internet. Wright offers a canny insight into the climate being generated by Iran’s public that “clearly wants reentry” into the larger world of commerce and culture they have been insulated against for decades by their revolutionary elders, the majority of which are “over the hill” in age and soon to be on their way out literally. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, himself turns seventy-six this month.
“The original generation of revolutionaries will disappear in the next ten years,” Saeed Laylaz, an economist and a former adviser to President Khatami, said. Laylaz, who was imprisoned for a year after the 2009 election, added, “The new assembly [the Assembly of Experts, a group of eighty-six theologians] will reflect the new generation.”
All of Khomeini’s grandchildren—there are fifteen—back reformers. . . . Half a dozen of the grandchildren were educated in the West. Some of the grandchildren have considered running for parliament of the assembly. . . . A loose coalition of reformers, moderates, and centrists hopes to flood the field with candidates, so that even if they are disqualified in large numbers many of them can still compete.
As Robin Wright describes the rising tide of liberal youthful energy,
“It’ a tsunami,” Said Rahmani, the C.E.O. of Sarava, Iran’s first venture capital fund, told me. “This generation is worldly. They’re educated. They work. They have spending power. They’re not dependent on anyone. They have a different range of thinking.”
These days, the energy—and the locus or charting Iran’s future—is less in heady debates about the ideal Islamic state than in a practical scramble to exploit twenty-first-century technology to change society. More than a third of the population uses the Internet. Giant billboards for a new smart-phone model were plastered across Tehran this summer: “NEXT IS NOW.”
Iran has its Amazon.com in Digikala, which accounts for more than eighty percent of online retail, valued recently at a hundred-and-fifty million dollars, started up by a set of thirty-six year old twins. Online commerce is increasingly defining market prices in Iran.
“America, particularly, haunts Iran,” Robin writes. “. . . After decades of living is a pariah nation, Iranians seem to crave normalcy—but on their own terms. Figuring out their relationship with the outside world is a big part of the transition. They have tried repeatedly and failed.”
The chant “DEATH TO AMERICA!” we hear so much talk about in the arguments against the Iranian Nuclear Deal in the halls of Congress and in Western media propaganda is limited only to Friday night Islamic prayer meetings. It is not the cry of the people.
“’Death to America’? This is politics and not related to people’s thinking,” Elnaz Mobahat, the owner of Manhattan Grill, one of Tehran’s chic new restaurants, told me. The place is adorned with American kitsch. One wall features photographs of sports stars, including Tiger Woods. “There are fourteen million people in greater Tehran, and maybe one hundred thousand attend Friday prayers,” she said. “Most people say we should talk to the Americans and solve our differences. We can both benefit. There are many investments opportunities in the oil and food industries.” She pointed to the ketchup bottles on every table. “Look, we use Heinz!”
A RELATIONSHIP FORGED IN FIRE
John Kerry and Mohammed Karif brought to the negotiating table the raging undercurrents of their nations’ turbulent warring histories and deeply scarred collective psyches conditioned by a track record of dishonesty, deception and consequent mistrust and paranoia. They were thrust by the gods of fate into a crucible together to process the relationship between their respective nations and between Iran and Israel and all the other nations in the world. And that crucible served its purpose by giving space for the many factors that make up human relations to be brought forth and released under pressure into the cauldron of heated debate and negotiation. The Iranian Nuclear Deal was not made in peaceful interchanges. It was forged in fire. Robin Wright tells how it went down in all of its emotional and frustrating details.
It got much harder over time. The world’s five other major powers—Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia—were technically equal players. But the United States increasingly took the lead in one-on-one meetings with the Iranians. More than a year after that first encounter, the chasm on core issues was still deep, despite an interim Joint Plan of Action, a confidence-building step that curtailed Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for modest sanctions relief. It did not address long-term limits or rewards.
As the original deadline for a final deal loomed, last November, Kerry and Zarif met in Oman. The senior State Department official described the meeting as “extremely contentious.”
Kerry’s aide said, “Both sides left thinking that we had just spent a lot of hours and a lot of time under very tense conditions and in very tense conversations that made little progress.” A deal looked doubtful. A few days later, the six powers agreed to extend the deadline until June 30th.
In February and again in March, Kerry was on the verge of backing away from the conversations entirely, US officials told me. On February 21st, as Kerry was scheduled to fly from London to Geneva, Wendy Sherman, the Under-Secretary of State and chief nuclear negotiator, called him to say, “We are nowhere.” Iran was backtracking. “I really don’t think you can come under these circumstances,” she said. Kerry instructed her to tell the Iranians that he would skip Geneva and fly home. The next morning, Iran was more forthcoming, and Kerry subsequently flew to Switzerland.
On March 27th, in Lausanne, tempers flared three nights before the deadline of a so-called Framework to define what each side would accept in a final deal. At the last minute, negotiating with the Americans, Iran took an important matter off the table. The five other major powers were supposed to show up within a day, but there was so much left unresolved that Kerry decided he might have to abort. He arranged to go to Zarif’s suite. At 10 P.M., they met alone. Kerry’s style is to coax rather than threaten. But this time, two US. officials told me, Kerry was blunt. He told Zarif that unless there was progress the sessions were “basically done.”The next day, the issue was back on the table. Six days later, the major powers and Iran
announced the outlines of a potential agreement.
“There were moments when you just had to push through,” Kerry’s aide said. The most confrontational exchange took place on May 30th. The talks were “brutal, just brutal,” the State Department official recalled. According to Kerry’s aide, “It was a lot of the two sides banging their heads against each other.” At one point, Zarif got up, walked around the room, and announced, “I have to leave.” He then sat on a chair against a wall and put his head in his hands.
Kerry, known for being unflappable, lost it, too. Toward the end of six difficult hours, he slammed his hand down on the conference table so hard that his pen flew across the table and hit one of the Iranians. “It stunned everyone, because it was so out of character,” the State Department official said.
Both sides left Geneva feeling deeply pessimistic. The next day, Kerry vented his frustration by taking a vigorous ride from Geneva into France on his racing bike, which he often brings on trips. As he was starting up the challenging Col de la Colombiere, he rode into a curb and flew off the bike. His right femur was badly broken, and he had to be medevaced to Boston for surgery. After the news broke, one of the first e-mails he received was from Zarif, wishing him well.
Love and mutual respect held these two men together through thick and thin. Few if any in our halls of Congress know what took place at these negotiations. Nor do they seem to care. Who among them takes into account that in ten years when this deal expires the old hard-line leaders in Iran will have been replaced by the younger generation of reformers who want more than anything to be in a peaceful and fruitful working relationship with the other nations of the world, particularly with America? And I don’t think they want to annihilate Israel, nor develop nuclear bombs. We simply need to trust that the process that brought these two men together will help us forge a new relationship with Iran. An irresistible force was set in motion based on mutual love and respect. And love never fails. It’s at the heart of all meaningful relationships.
I will share more from this important article in a couple of weeks. I hope you have enjoyed reading about this historical and significant development in the Middle East as much as I did. Until my next post,
Be love. Be loved
Anthony Palombo, DC
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