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Who’s Afraid of Mohammad Javad Zarif?

The United States killed Qassem Suleimani. Why can’t it silence his defenders?

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif speaks at an international conference.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks at the annual Munich Security Conference in Germany on Feb. 12, 2016. Lennart Preiss/Getty Images

This week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo chided a group of American reporters for taking the pronouncements of his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, too seriously, describing him as a “propagandist of the first order.”

It was meant as an insult, but it could just as well have been a tribute.

As the United States and Iran exchange missiles and drone strikes, the countries’ top diplomats are fighting a global public relations campaign aimed at convincing the world they are in the right. And Zarif is proving a formidable adversary.

In the past week, Zarif has tried to portray Iran as the victim of a reckless American president on U.S. news outlets and parried U.S. attempts to isolate him—even as reports emerged that Iran allegedly shot down a civilian airliner hours after its missile strike at the height of tensions with the United States. Since the killing of Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani on Jan. 3, he has received an invitation from the European Union’s foreign-policy chief, Josep Borrell, to discuss Tehran’s tensions with Washington and made plans to lobby ministers and world leaders on his country’s behalf at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, later this month. U.S. President Donald Trump is also expected to attend. 

“Zarif is a very effective propagandist,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, an expert on Iran at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “He carries the regime’s message effectively and … he’s cognizant of fault lines both of international institutions against America and fault lines in American politics that align against current [U.S.] policy.”

The U.S.-educated Zarif—he has a Ph.D. in international law and policy from the University of Denver—has been aided by the fact that he has likely cultivated a more extensive network of contacts with opinion-makers in the U.S. media and foreign-policy establishment than Pompeo, who has largely limited his public outreach to Sunday talk shows and conservative think tanks and news outlets, including many in his home state of Kansas. 

Zarif also has far more diplomatic experience than Pompeo, having worked closely with the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama in forming an Afghan government after the fall of the Taliban and negotiating the 2015 Iran nuclear deal with then-Secretary of State John Kerry, who was on a first name basis with Zarif.

But critics counter that Zarif’s diplomatic skills mask the malign conduct of a repressive theocracy that brutally cracks down on political freedom at home, killing hundreds of anti-government protesters in recent months, while bankrolling, training, and directing the activities of a broad network of extremist militias that commit atrocities. Zarif’s latest remit—explaining away the alleged Iranian downing of a Ukrainian commercial jet and defending the legacy of Suleimani, a man with an international reputation for promoting terrorism throughout the region—is unlikely to generate much sympathy from world leaders. The Pentagon claims that Suleimani — who directed the Islamic Revolutionary Corps’ Quds Force — is responsible for the deaths of at least 600 U.S. soldiers and the wounding of thousands more in Iraq.

“Nobody wants to be an advocate for Suleimani because he was so demonstrably behind a trail of blood and destruction throughout the Middle East,” said Robert Danin, a former State Department expert on the Middle East and a nonresident senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Still, Danin suggested that the U.S. decision to block Zarif from entering the United States this week to make his case before the U.N. Security Council, apparently in violation of U.S. treaty obligations, didn’t help its efforts to win broader international support for its actions.

“It looked petulant and small,” he said.

Trump also threatened to target Iranian cultural sites with strikes if escalations continued, a measure that provoked outcry from international law experts who consider targeting such sites a war crime. Both Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper later insisted that the United States would follow the laws of armed conflict in any future response.

Both incidents gave Zarif more ammunition in his global PR campaign, who contended that America “displays utter contempt” for the U.N. and international law more broadly.

In the wake of the strike that killed Suleimani, Pompeo engaged in a flurry of diplomatic calls and meetings with his European, Middle Eastern, and Chinese counterparts to explain U.S. justification for the strike. 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson rallied behind the American flag, even while he sidestepped the question of whether Washington’s assassination of a senior Iranian official was legal.

“That man had the blood of British troops on his hands,” Johnson told the British Parliament. 

“Clearly, the strict issue of legality is not for the U.K. to determine since it was not our operation,” he added. “But I think most reasonable people would accept that the United States has the right to protect its bases and its personnel.”

But it wasn’t enough to placate some European officials, officials and experts say. Some were privately furious at the administration for carrying out the strike without any advance warning to allies and fearful the latest round of escalation could spiral into an all-out conflict. They also fear it could further undermine hopes of salvaging the Iran nuclear deal. Following the killing of Suleimani, Tehran decided to end all restrictions on the enrichment of uranium, a key provision of the landmark 2015 deal that Trump abandoned. 

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the killing of Suleimani had “not made it easier to reduce tensions” in the region, but he acknowledged that the United States had acted following “a series of dangerous provocations by Iran.”

The president’s action has even put some anti-Iran hawks in the Persian Gulf on edge. Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, dispatched his brother Prince Khalid bin Salman to Washington to appeal for calm. In a tweet, Prince Khalid sought to assure Iraq that his government would “do everything in its power to spare it the danger of war and conflict between external parties,” an apparent reference to the ongoing fight between the United States and Iran.

Pompeo’s case has been made all the more difficult because he serves a president who is unpredictable and polarizing, and he has struggled to build trust with the media, foreign governments, and the U.S. Congress. 

“Killing Suleimani was the embodiment of [the Trump administration’s] approach: shoot first and ask for allies later,” Danin said.

The biggest challenge for American partners in the Middle East is not that the United States has shown a willingness to strike Iran but that they don’t know what Washington wants to do in the region. For instance, at a time when Trump is advocating a military drawdown in the region, he proposed on Wednesday a new role for NATO, the U.S.-led military alliance, in the Middle East.

“For me, it’s no surprise that the United States is calling for NATO to do more, because that has actually been the message from the United States for a long time,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Thursday.

But NATO officials had no advance warning of Trump’s pronouncement on Wednesday, several U.S. and NATO officials told Foreign Policy, and quickly dispatched a delegation to Washington to hash out next steps. 

“There is confusion and an inability to anticipate or understand what the administration wants, especially among allies who say, ‘We don’t understand what the policy is, where it is going, and what role we can play,’” Danin said.

Pompeo has strained to overcome doubts from Democratic lawmakers, allies, and regional experts that the assassination of Iran’s top military official, which accelerated the current crisis, was justified without congressional consultation and might lead the United States into a war that could pitch the region into chaos. 

A briefing of congressional leaders by Pompeo and other senior administration officials on the Suleimani killing did little to allay any misgivings, with the House of Representatives adopting a war powers resolution limiting the president’s authority to fight Iran. 

“I thought we did a dynamite job. I mean that in the truest sense. We did our level best to present them with all the facts that we could in that setting,” Pompeo told Fox News in an interview on Thursday.

Pompeo’s defense came after Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah angrily emerged from the classified briefing, saying it was one of the worst briefings he had ever been in and vowing to support a war powers resolution in the Senate. 

Pompeo insisted in a follow-up press briefing at the White House on Friday that an attack was imminent. “I don’t know exactly which minute,” Pompeo said. “We don’t know exactly which day it would have been executed, but it was very clear: Qassem Suleimani himself was plotting a broad, large-scale attack against American interests, and those attacks were imminent.”

Some lawmakers remained unconvinced. “They keep suggesting there is an imminent threat,” Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told MSNBC. “But when you press them on the question of immanency, there is no clear definition of what they consider imminent.”

“Pompeo is primarily playing to an audience of one, which is Donald Trump, and Congress is bitterly divided on the issue of Donald Trump and just about everything he does,” said Aaron David Miller, a former advisor on Middle East policy to six U.S. secretaries of state. “There is no rally-around-the-flag effect.”

In contrast, Zarif can tap into a wide network of international opinion-makers in the United States and abroad and marshal the traditional constituencies that have invested in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. 

“That gives him an inherently distinct advantage: He is pushing an open door of a large number of foreign-policy elites in the world who are against military conflict,” Miller said. “Even our adversaries, the Russians and Chinese, don’t want a military conflict, even at the expense of embarrassing the United States.”

The latest round of tensions between Pompeo and Zarif began last summer, after the Iranian diplomat rebuffed an invitation to travel to Washington to meet with Trump.

In July, the State Department imposed restrictions on Zarif during his visits to the United States, limiting his movement to a few blocks between the Iranian mission and U.N. headquarters and denying him access to many television network studios, the Council on Foreign Relations, and others.

So, the opinion-makers came to him at the Iranian mission during the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September. One foreign official recalled showing up for a meeting with Zarif and having to wait in line with other notables, including Dennis Ross, a Middle East advisor to Democratic and Republican presidents, and Robert Malley, the president and CEO of the International Crisis Group.

But in the end, Zarif’s gift of the gab may not matter that much.

“To be frank, if you want to say who is the winner, the winner is the United States,” said Gérard Araud, a former French ambassador to the United States and the United Nations. “Not only did the Americans kill a major Iranian official, they have said, ‘We killed him, and what are you going to do about it?’ And basically the Iranians did nothing.”

So far, the reaction in the United States and abroad has been colored by people’s disdain and distrust of Trump. “It is a reflection of the hysterical polarization of the public,” he said. 

“Zarif is benefiting from his own qualities, because he is good on TV, but it is also because the credibility of Trump and Pompeo is very low and very low among experts and the journalists,” Araud added.

The trust deficit has provided “an incredible opening to the Iranians. It allows Zarif to play the game he is playing very well. As you know, Suleimani was a terrorist, and Iran really has been conducting malign activities throughout the Middle East.” 

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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