Analysis |

Iranian FM's New Charm Offensive - on Skeptical Domestic Audience

Mohammad Javad Zarif is spearheading Iran’s talks with the world powers in Geneva, but he also needs to watch his back in Tehran.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

GENEVA - Since he began serving as Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif has become a social media powerhouse, both in Iran and abroad. His Facebook and Twitter pages have garnered hundreds of thousands of followers. Even though Iranian citizens do not have free access to social media networks online, many have managed to find technological loopholes to bypass the prohibition and follow Zarif online.

On Sunday, a few hours before the Iranian foreign minister set out for Geneva for talks on Iran’s nuclear program with the P5+1 group (the United States, Russia, China, Germany, United Kingdom and France), Zarif posted a new status on his Facebook page, in Persian. His remark was not aimed at world powers, but rather at influencing Iranian public opinion. “I call on you all to support the delegation, and refrain from quickly jumping to conclusions or political opinions regarding the negotiations,” he wrote.

In recent weeks, amid the thawing of relations with the United States, and the beginning of talks regarding the future of Iran’s nuclear program, Zarif and President Hassan Rohani have been met with staunch opposition and harsh criticism from the Iranian right. Critical remarks from senior officials in the Revolutionary Guard, protests organized by Basij militias, demands made by religious extremists and negative spin from the conservative Iranian media are only some of the examples of what Rohani and Zarif have been up against.

Zarif knew very well why he was writing such a status on his Facebook page. One week prior, the Iranian foreign minister checked himself into a hospital with severe back pain. Zarif’s move was apparently related to an article published by the conservative Iranian newspaper, Kayhan. As its top story, the newspaper featured an article which claimed Zarif had slammed President Rohani during a closed briefing of the parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee, and called Rohani’s phone call with U.S. President Obama a mistake.

Zarif, enraged, denied the story, and even claimed that the article damaged his health. “After I saw the headline, I started to feel sharp pains in my back and legs,” wrote Zarif on his Facebook page. “I couldn’t sit or walk.”

The Iranian foreign minister then decided to clear some of his schedule and rest. But after the pain didn’t subside, he was taken to a hospital.

A few hours after his release from hospital, Zarif made some bitter remarks on his Facebook page, regarding leaks and misconceptions that find their way out of closed meetings. “I’ve learned much from this day,” he wrote. “From this day forward, everything I want to say would best be said in public. Otherwise, the field is open for negative spin.”

Media spin and smearing, however, are only part of the internal struggles currently brewing in Iran. A few weeks ago, as President Rohani was in New York addressing the UN general assembly, an organization was founded in Iran called Committee for the Protection of Iranian Interests.

This new body, reminiscent of right-wing Israeli organizations like Im Tirtzu and Yisrael Sheli, held a press conference, during which it declared opposition to negotiations with the United States, and launched a campaign against Rohani’s diplomatic endeavors. This new organization’s activists were behind the shoes and eggs thrown at Rohani’s convoy after he returned from New York.

Dr. Raz Zimmt, from Tel Aviv University’s Alliance Center for Iranian Studies, was the first to expose the creation of this new organization, and its political leanings.

Zimmt - who publishes a weekly website column for The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center called “Spotlight on Iran” - wrote that after investigating the Facebook and Google Plus pages of those involved with the Committee for the Protection of Iranian Interests, its members hail from a students’ organization belonging to the Basij militias, which have been involved with radical student activities in the past.

Also, two of the new organization’s central figures have previously been involved with Saeed Jalili, who until a few months ago was Iran’s national security chief, as well as chief nuclear negotiator. Jalili was Iranian Spiritual Leader Ali Khamenei’s candidate in the last election, but was defeated by Rohani.

During their press conference, the members of this new opposition group stated that their protest against Rohani is a “friendly warning” to the president. They demanded that Rohani report to the Iranian public on every contact he made in New York, and publish a transcript of the conversation he had with President Obama. The members of the organization criticized Rohani’s recent remarks that the international sanctions are the cause of Iran’s financial woes, and demanded that the government focus on a solution for Iran’s internal problems rather than engaging in negotiations with the United States.

A few days after the press conference, the committee published an open letter to Rohani, criticizing what it called the “policy of concessions” that Rohani employed as lead negotiator with the world powers in 2003. Also, the committee launched a website containing articles and messages criticizing both Rohani and the negotiations with the West. Committee spokesman Vahid Ashtari wrote on the website that protests will soon be held, aimed at “mobilizing the public against putting Iran up for sale.”

“At this stage it seems that the committee’s activities express the political positions of the radical right,” wrote Zimmt. As long as Rohani continues to hold the support of the upper echelons of the Iranian regime, including the supreme leader, “it is doubtful whether this activity can significantly affect Rohani’s ability to advance his political initiatives,” continued Zimmt.

One issue that has become the focus of the dispute between Rohani supporters and detractors is the “Death to America” call, which has become common practice at assemblies, protests and Friday prayers in Iran, and even in the media.

The website Al-Monitor’s Iranian affairs correspondent, Arash Karami, reported that former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani wrote on his private website a few days ago that the founder of Iran’s

Islamist revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, was, in his day, in favor of putting an end to the calls.

Rafsanjani’s remarks were met with harsh criticism from conservatives in Iran. Last Friday, during his sermon at Tehran’s central mosque, cleric Ahmad Khatami - considered a close associate of Ali Khamenei - urged the crowd to shout “Death to America,” and added that doing so “strengthens Iranian diplomats” during their negotiations with the West.

It seems that Rohani is interested in putting an end to the slogan, even if only during official government events and functions. The Iranian president hopes to use this to show goodwill to the Western powers. Cancelling the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s annual anti-Zionism conference (called New Horizon) a few days ago was part of the same trend. At the same time, even though the conference is gone - along with its founder, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - the “Death to America” call remains a central issue within the Iranian political system. If Rohani gets his way, it will be hailed as an important political victory within Iran, and will bolster the Islamic Republic’s negotiations with the United States and the other world powers.

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks to the media at the UN Headquarters in New York, September 26, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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