Zarif Invokes US Media to Win Trump’s Attention

ByNaveed Ahmad

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif sat down with Chris Wallace of Fox News to speak directly to US President Donald J Trump. Zarif also gave an interview to CBS host Margret Brennan. Let’s discuss his appearance at Fox News first.

Speaking to Trump’s favorite channel, Zarif mentioned President Trump by name about a dozen times and mostly in a positive manner as well as with a reconciliatory tone. Iran’s top diplomat was, however, sternly critical of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US National Security Advisor John Bolton. For the Gulf Arab nations, he preferred using the term ‘B-Team,’ mentioning Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates only once. The message of reconciliation was directed solely at Trump and not at any of Iran’s neighboring Arab Gulf states.

Zarif controlled the narrative throughout the 10-minute long interview while uncharacteristically Chris Wallace did not ask challenging questions about Iran’s destabilizing role in Bahrain, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The sole question about Tehran’s financial and military support for Hezbollah and Hamas was combined with another on Iran’s alleged use of ballistic missiles (by trying to launch a satellite into space).

For Zarif, the airtime should have been used to highlight three points: US withdrawal from the JCPOA was a wrong decision which isolated Washington from its allies, US-led sanctions are counter-productive and in fact they strengthen the resolve of the Iranian people, and the United States must not let itself be dragged into a war with Iran while there is more of a convergence.

Zarif’s other interview with CBS host Margret Brennan was livelier. However, the only difference was that there was less possibility that Trump watched his second sit-down with Ms. Brennan. Zarif not only spoke of Iran’s readiness to negotiate with the United States but also of its willingness to engage in a prisoner exchange. However, he clearly stated that back-to-back humiliating sanctions against Iran were not conducive to a trustworthy atmosphere.

To another question, Zarif stated, “We do not want conflict, we do not want confrontation […] We resist, but we are not seeking confrontation. We don’t believe that President Trump wants confrontation. But, we know that there are people who are pushing for one.” He alleged that John Bolton and the ‘B-team’ who have “always tried to create tension, whose continued existence depends on tension.” According to Zarif, one ‘B’ is Bibi Netanyahu, the second ‘B’ is Bin Zayed, and the third ‘B’ is Bin Salman.

The passive-aggressive tone did not continue when Zarif was asked about Iran’s willingness for a one-on-one meeting between Donald Trump and Hassan Rouhani. He ruled out any such rendezvous without a change in US attitude towards Iran.

Zarif’s initiative to sit down with two mainstream US media outlets was due to Tehran’s realization that the Republicans may win the White House race again in 2020 as the Democratic party has yet to prove itself as a formidable challenger. In Iran’s view, directly addressing Trump and making a plea for negotiations may work. Thus, the cautious and engaging tone used by Zarif towards Trump. However, the interviews failed to bring to the table the issues that Iran’s opponents raise in Washington. Even the question of Iran’s willingness to renegotiate the JCPOA with the United States wasn’t raised. The proliferation of Shiite militias, Iran’s threats to block the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab al-Mandeb as well as Iran setting up arms production factories in Syria and Lebanon were not raised.

The smart move of seeking Trump’s attention comes too late and brings too little to the table. The accusations against US officials and the ‘B-team’ sounded more like scapegoating than a convincing argument. Zarif expressed readiness to return to the negotiating table with the United States but without offering any confidence-building measures. Alerted to the weak bid for rapprochement, Tehran’s rivals whom Zarif vehemently criticized will most likely be launching a more coherent response. The White House will see the Iranian initiative as a positive outcome of its maximum pressure strategy culminating in it not renewing its waivers for eight countries importing Iranian oil in the hope of reducing Iranian oil exports to zero.

Naveed Ahmad
Naveed Ahmad
Research Fellow (Strategic Affairs)