When Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tried to quit last week, the move looked like another troubling defeat for his country’s beleaguered moderates. Highly intelligent, sophisticated, and U.S. educated, Zarif always made an unlikely chief diplomat for the world’s most anti-American regime. Totalitarian governments, wrote Hannah Arendt, “invariably replace all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.” Zarif defied that mold, and Western officials and analysts feared that his departure would sever Tehran’s last link to the West.
In fact, he wasn’t going anywhere. Iran’s revolutionary elite, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, quickly rejected Zarif’s resignation. The foreign minister was soon back on the job, raising once again the question of what role an urbane functionary really serves in an autocratic regime.
To his admirers, Zarif is a skillful diplomat and fierce nationalist in constant danger of hard-line domestic adversaries. To his detractors, he is a pathologically dishonest, powerless apparatchik used by Tehran’s theocratic elite to manipulate credulous Americans and Europeans. To Khamenei, Zarif’s enormous utility derives from the fact that he is both of these things, a sympathetic figure who can soften the edges of Iranian policy without actually changing it. Just as Leonid Brezhnev had Andrei Gromyko, Saddam Hussein had Tariq Aziz, and Muammar Qaddafi had Moussa Koussa, Iran’s autocrats understand that sending a moderate emissary out in the world protects their own power, rather than undermining it.