In Defense of Foreign Minister Zarif
Diplomacy is the Art of Resolving Disputes
Diplomacy is not simply war by other means, it is also war-aversion and the art of possible. Crafting a 'smart diplomacy' requires skillful diplomats who combine diplomatic niceties with resolute pursuit of their respective nation's interests, often relying on a mix of shifting and evolving tactics as called for by the exigencies of the moment.
Yet, the spectacle of the current criticisms of Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in Iran consists of a fundamental oversight of the intricacies of 'smart diplomacy'. This is clearly reflected in the allegation of "two diplomatic errors" leveled against Dr. Zarif by some members of the Parliament (Majlis) who are adamant that Zarif should not have taken a brief stroll in Geneva along with the US Secretary of State John Kerry or visited Paris in light of the insult to the Prophet by a satirical newspaper -- that was the target of takfiri terrorists, condemned by Iran.
First, there is a long list of diplomats from hostile countries taking the liberty of outside walk often as a breather from their hectic and intense negotiations. Certainly, that was the case with Kerry and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, in London last year after the onset of the Ukraine crisis. Yet, no one in Russia ever questioned Lavrov why he spent hours with Kerry walking around in a compound, or ever inferred that that was a sign of Russia's capitulation to the other side. Similarly, when one reviews the old photographs of various US and Soviet leaders strolling around in the midst of their crucial negotiations, we realize how normal that practice is in the annals of diplomacy, contrary to how it has been misinterpreted in Iran today, partly as a result of insufficient attention to the issue of diplomatic style.
Modern diplomacy has, in fact, accelerated the knowledge of style and communication as key components of diplomacy, complementing the substantive process - of 'give and take' that transpires in negotiations. Diplomatic interactions carry both direct as well as indirect (symbolic) significance, depending on the context. A diplomatic handshake, for example, can be interpreted as a friendly, warming relations or cool farewell. Following a long-established sociological school of thought on symbolic interactions, events such as the Zarif-Kerry walk are socially constructed, laden with meaning (e;g., status, prestige, attention, symmetry of relations). The range of interpretations is not unlimited however and can be evaluated as apt or inapt by examining the coherence and validity of the arguments presented in each interpretation. Thus, for example, an interpretation that might suggest that this walk harmed Iran's interests one way or another may be questioned by posing the simple criterion of role and purpose of diplomacy. The latter is a means to an end, namely, the pursuit of national interests, which must be flexible and dynamic in situations of complex negotiation, otherwise it is doomed to failure.
Indeed, the advantage of Zarif's bold diplomatic style is that it conveys confidence and open-ness, thus complementing the important public diplomacy dimension of the on-going negotiations. In turn, a careful examination of this issue requires a basic awareness of the nature of connection and relationship between public diplomacy and formal diplomatic exchanges. Unfortunately, in Iran not enough attention has been paid to public diplomacy, which is in fact an essential component of modern diplomacy and raises a myriad of variables including symbolic interaction and the role of image-setting through the media. Needless to say, the agenda-setting and image-setting of public diplomacy tied with diplomatic negotiations are distinct and should not be confused. This issue warrants serious attention by the Iranian government today, in light of the distinct possibility of lack of a breakthrough, which will likely lead to Western governments' 'blame game' vis-a-vis Iran. Already, the US government is preparing the ground work for this scenario by claiming to be giving the talks 'every opportunity to succeed' when, in reality, the US's excessive demands continue to pose a formidable obstacle that could derail the talks in the future. Rather, the world should be convinced that it was Iran that exceeded the other side in terms of flexibility and mood for compromise, not the other way around.
As for Zarif's other alleged 'diplomatic mistake' of visiting Paris on a previously scheduled itinerary, the critics of Foreign Minister ought to give priority to Iran's anti-Daesh efforts that have now found a more sympathetic ear in Paris as a result of the takfiri terrorism, rightly condemned without any hesitation by Iran. The national security requirements of doing whatever possible to bolster the international cooperation to defeat Daesh terrorists have top priority in Iran today and, therefore, Zarif's trip to Paris must be viewed as timely and in parallel with those requirements.
Of course, this is not to say that the critics of Zarif are necessarily wrong in insisting that the Foreign Minister should have publicly denounced the insults to Prophet during his Paris trip, which would have received global attention and reassured the Muslim World that Iran is at the forefront of opposition to acts of blasphemy against the Prophet. But, as Dr. Zarif has explained, he had conveyed his strong objections to the French officials and, again, what matters most about that trip is that Iran made a presence at the scene of global focus, in light of Iran's initiative of a world without extremism and the related Iranian criticism of failed European policies in Syria that have had the opposite result of feeding the menace of terrorism.
In other words, Zarif's Paris trip served this important foreign policy consideration of the Islamic Republic, which is supporting the Iraqi government against Daesh. A step in the right direction, Zarif's brief Paris visit reminded the French and Europeans that Iran is a bulwark of anti-terrorism that represents an enlightened and progressive version of Islam that is an ocean away from the barbaric distortions of takfiri groups, that is, an Islamic 'pivot' that has been a source of emulation for an Islamic 'awakening' that is rational, modern, pluralistic, and tolerant. This is the true Islam that Iran's Supreme Leader has called attention to in his recent letter to the youth in the West, some of whom are poisoned by the takfiri indoctrinations that are a throwback to the dark ages and therefore destined to the dust bin of history sooner or later.