December 15, 2013


7 days in Iran : How a possible thaw with the West is viewed in Iran - on the factory floor, at Friday prayers, and in government suites. (Scott Peterson,  December 15, 2013, CS Monitor)

For a journalist, getting onto the Tehran University campus usually requires letters of approval from authorities, and perhaps an official guide. Or it just requires walking past the guards already overwhelmed by crowds clamoring to hear a speech by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

He is the rock star they want to see, the new Elvis of Iranian diplomacy. The goateed, American-educated Mr. Zarif might seem an unlikely hero for students who were barely teenagers when he finished his tour as Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, and then was relegated to the political wilderness during the presidency of archconservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But today Zarif is the chief diplomat for a president whose election prompted jubilant street celebrations across Iran. And here, in person, is the man who negotiated - during three rounds of marathon talks in Geneva - a nuclear deal that has spurred new hope, by breaking a decade-long deadlock that at times for Iran has risked war and economic ruin. Tougher negotiations await a final accord that will prevent Iran from ever acquiring nuclear weapons, in exchange for lifting crippling sanctions.

Hard-liners are deeply skeptical of the deal, castigating it as a capitulation to the West that endangers Iran's national security. But for most of the students trying to force their way into a packed auditorium, Zarif has brokered a deal just in time to stave off disaster.

On the leafy campus, latecomers cluster tightly at the sliding glass door that leads to the central library, where security guards are trying to prevent more from entering. The door opens slightly, letting in one or two, and those outside surge ahead, forcing the glass facade to bow.

I hold up my camera and press card, like a handful of other journalists who have misjudged the fervent desire of the students to hear Zarif's justification of the Geneva deal, as its salesman in chief.

Guards herd most of the students into a spillover venue with a live video feed. But my interpreter and I join the battle at the door. We finally pop through, finding ourselves at the back of the auditorium. Zarif is just beginning his remarks, making jokes to those standing in the aisles, fanning themselves from the rigors of just getting in.

For their exertion, the diplomat treats them to a discourse on a changing world, and how Iran could take advantage of this "transition time." He says the Geneva deal shows how the government was being successful at "creating security and creating power."

Cheers erupt as Zarif speaks about how military power is giving way to "actual power" of the kind that Iranian voters had shown in electing Rouhani. He also explains why Iran doesn't need nuclear weapons to be strong.

"It is not an honor to be able to destroy the world 100 times," says Zarif, referring to the US nuclear arsenal and the size of its defense budget. "That's why they called it mutually assured destruction: They wanted to create security through lunacy."

A bomb is "not useful" for Iran, says Zarif, but notes that the country will never compromise on its "rights" to peaceful nuclear power.

"We don't even imagine the Islamic Republic with a nuclear weapon," Zarif says, his voice rising. "Even if someone put a nuclear weapon on a platter and gave it to me, I would say, 'I don't want it'.... A nuclear weapon does not create security for us ... it only creates problems and harm and threat for the Islamic Republic."

After two hours, Elvis leaves the building. The case is made. One Iranian security guard apologizes to me for his forceful pushing. As we leave, workmen are already trying to realign the glass door.

Posted by at December 15, 2013 7:51 AM

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