Diplomacy with Iran: Who Would We Be Talking To Anyway?

Much to the dismay of Iranian-Americans and everyday Iranians in Iran, a steady smoke has been rising from the heat of US-Iran relations over the past few months. For the time being, it remains to be seen whether this smoke is rising from the embers of war, or as smoke signals of diplomacy. As the global community awaits news with bated breath, it is worth asking: who would we be talking to anyway? In this regard, it is worth examining the profiles of Iran’s most senior foreign diplomats: Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and UN Ambassador Majid Takht-Ravanchi. 

Foreign Minister Zarif is by now well known to Americans attune to US-Iran trade relations. He was the primary JCPOA negotiator on behalf of Iran, and is a career diplomat and academic. He previously served from 2002 to 2007 as Iran’s Ambassador to the UN, and has served as Iran’s foreign minister since 2013. Recently, he has been making rounds on a number of major media outlets to expound the virtues of diplomacy while holding fast to Iran’s rights to self-defense and autonomy, including two widely observed interviews with Margaret Brennan of CBS’s “Face the Nation” on April 25 and with Charles Wallace of “Fox News Sunday” on April 28.

Ambassador Takht-Ravanchi is no stranger to the JCPOA, and also served as one of Iran’s top negotiators. He previously served as Deputy Chief of Staff for Political Affairs to President Rouhani, and served as Iran’s Ambassador to Switzerland from 2002 to 2006. Last month, and after a five month vacancy, President Rouhani appointed him in his new role as Iran’s Ambassador to the UN. The position is considered Iran’s most important foreign diplomatic posting, and makes Ambassador Takht-Ravanchi the highest-ranking Iranian official in the United States.

Both of these Iranian diplomats share the hallmarks expected of top international diplomats – such as foreign language skills, legitimate standing within their governments, and relative international astuteness. But these characteristics are not what makes them interesting for purposes of dialogue with the United States. Rather, both men share robust educational backgrounds from the United States. This aspect of their characters significantly changes – and strengthens – the orientation of diplomatic dialogue with the U.S.

At age 17, Javad Zarif left Iran for the United States, where he attended Drew College Preparatory School, a private high school located in San Francisco. He then attended San Francisco State University, graduating with a B.A. in 1981 and M.A. in 1982, both in international relations. Zarif then continued his studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, where he graduated with a second M.A. in international relations in 1984 and a Ph.D. in international law and policy in 1988. Takht-Ravanchi has a similarly extensive Western education. He graduated from the University of Kansas with a B.S. and M.S. in Civil Engineering. He then received a M.A. in International Political Economy from Fordham University in New York. Outside of the U.S., he received a Ph.D. from the University of Bern in Political Science.

Education matters because language matters. The Obama Administration learned that the otherwise innocuous political science phrase “carrots and sticks” would undergo a “cultural” translation in Farsi that amounted to calling Iranians donkeys, animals which are in colloquial Farsi associated with a lack of intelligence. More and more Americans today are coming to understand that the Persian expression “marg bar” (literally, “death to”) is one of frustration more so than an indication of murderous intent. (The author of this article admittedly barks “marg bars” with some frequency to Miss Siri of the iPhone). Farsi is after all, a colorful language – where the equivalent of “shutup” literally translates to wishing someone the “poison of a snake”.

Familiarity matters because small talk matters. Where tensions are high, diplomatic strides often come in the smallest of packages. Careful observers of US-Iran trade relations may have drawn parallels between Ambassador Takht-Ravanchi’s years of experience in Kansas, and that of Mike Pompeo, who moved to Kansas in 1998 and represented Kansas’s fourth congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2011 to 2017. If the smoke signals clear the way for dialogue, it stands to reason that U.S. diplomatic endeavors would fall on linguistically and culturally capable ears.

by USIRCC Staff

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