I have seen Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif speak in person three times. To his credit, I guess, he waxed agnostic on the historicity of the Holocaust on only one of those occasions, nearly 12 years ago. Perhaps his thinking on the topic has evolved since then, in which case it would be maybe the only sign of moral or intellectual growth Zarif has ever betrayed. His appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations Monday evening was almost indistinguishable from his discussion at the Asia Society back in September, which was itself reminiscent of his New America Foundation-sponsored talk at NYU in April of 2015. (I was unfortunately waitlisted for Zarif’s talk at CFR and had to watch a webcast of the event, but what’s just as well—others should get the chance to bask in the foreign minister’s presence.)
Zarif is still a dissembler and a double-speaker, and he still spent seemingly a third of his talk stewing over the particularities of the Iran-Iraq War, a conflict that concluded 30 years ago. This time around, the biggest howlers included: “In Iran, the judiciary is independent from the executive,” “We are in Syria to prevent a takeover of Syria by the extremists,” and “our economic indicators are good.” Orwellian is an overused descriptor these days, but what other adjective to use here? “Only in the Middle Ages could you have wars with winners and losers. In the war of the 20th and 21st century there are no winners,” said Zarif, whose government has behaved in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq as if wars are very much winnable or losable. He let a detectable anti-Arab chauvinism slip through: “We need to have a strong region, not to be the strongest in the region,” Zarif claimed, drawing a supposed contrast between Iran and its Gulf neighbors. “We are big enough, old enough, mature enough to appreciate this reality.”
It’s dumb to expect absolute candor out of any official of any government—the best thing that can be said about Zarif is that he’s an effective diplomat who has advanced the interests of the regime that employs him. One should keep one’s expectations reasonable regarding the Zarifs of the world, but as a purely factual matter, no, Iran’s economic indicators are not good. Something closer to the opposite is true. And no, there isn’t much ambiguity as to who’s repeatedly dropped chlorine canisters on Syrian civilians from helicopters for the past few years. “Usually the culprit used chemical weapons in desperation, when they are desperate. Saddam Hussein did not use chemical weapons when he was advancing, he used them when he was being defeated,” Zarif lectured. “The two times Syria had been accused of using chemicals was when they were advancing, or even after they had won.” This is trutherism, regardless of who’s saying it and why.
Zarif’s fluent dishonesty didn’t mean his talk at CFR was a totally pointless exercise. Sinister, yes—but not pointless. Lies from powerful people are valuable because they expose the thinking that produced the lie, which is often a more honest reflection of their states of mind than the truth would have been. When the truth itself slips out, it’s a nasty and astonishing thing to behold. On Monday, Zarif did something that this amateur Zarifologist has never seen him do in front of an American audience. He revealed, through a thought process more coherent and systematic than he likely intended, what he actually believes and why he believes it. For a moment, audiences got an explication of Zarif’s political philosophy, in English.
About halfway through the talk, moderator Stephen Hadley, who served as national security advisor for the entirety of George W. Bush’s second term, asked Zarif about human rights within Iran. The Iranian regime discriminates harshly against the Baha’i faith, executes homosexuals, and imprisons women who refuse to wear the hijab in public. “Do you support the death penalty and imprisonment [for homosexuals], and what would you say to one of the women jailed for not wearing hijab if she were in the front row here?,” Hadley asked.
Zarif began his answer by explaining that the Iranian legal system is explicitly rooted in Islamic jurisprudence, something that makes the Islamic Republic less duplicitous than western democratic governments: “Many codes in Judeo-Christian civilization are based on a religious concept but they are not transparent in your society because they have become secularized,” Zarif said. “In our society, which is not a secular society, it is transparent.”
This was a disarmingly blunt admission of the revolutionary regime’s self image. One of the Islamic Republic’s key assertions—which isn’t necessarily incompatible with liberal democracy—is that secularism is a pernicious lie meant to occlude the ultimately metaphysical architecture of human social organization. In contrast, one of the major claims of American democracy is that secular government is a prerequisite for spiritual flourishing: As Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Religion chapter of the Notes on the State of Virginia, “Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error. Give a loose to them, they will support the true religion, by bringing every false one to their tribunal, to the test of their investigation.” Khomeinism inverts the relationship: In revolutionary Iran, clerical governance is the basis for social flourishing because theocracy is the only means of government that acknowledges society’s true reasons and methods for being, which are religious in origin.
Thus in the Islamic Republic, it is the joining of religion with the earthly power of the state that acts as Jefferson’s “effectual agent against error.” During his answer, Zarif helpfully explained what this requires. It means the government can decide which religions are and aren’t entitled to civil rights: Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians get official recognition and seats in Iranian parliament, but “if you want to afford such exceptional treatment to religious minorities you cannot provide it to anyone who claims they are a religion,” Zarif said of Iran’s Baha’is. It means the government can decide what people can wear. “Every country has a dress code,” he said of the hijab question. “We may like that dress code, or we may dislike that dress code…if somebody goes out naked in the streets of Canada they’ll be charged with, what’s the name for it, indecent exposure.”
The state can can claim absolute regulation of self-expression and even of personal identity: “People have specific traditional cultural values,” said Zarif. “We do not, again, punish or criminalize anybody for their activity at home. What is important is what they do in the street, what they do in the society, and we have a different set of norms than western societies when it comes to sexual preferences exhibited in the street, not in their personal lives.” Although Zarif didn’t say this outright, his government has almost unlimited latitude, backed by actual religious authority, in deciding where the home ends and the world begins.
This is ugly stuff. Zarif equates uncovered female hair with nudity, and was helpfully frank in saying the he doesn’t believe that sexual and religious minorities should have an equal place in society. Zarif lived in the United States for decades and speaks perfect English; surely he knows that bigotry is the one thing that an American audience won’t countenance. For a host of complex social and historical reasons, testing a nuclear-capable ballistic missile or running an international child soldier trafficking ring are somehow easier to rationalize than the naked dehumanization of minority groups, at least for American listeners. But Zarif couldn’t help himself. He’s a true believer in the Iranian revolutionary project and someone who can explain its mission and real-world requirements in his own words, without hesitation, apology, or discipline.
In fifty or even five years, Zarif’s serial appearances at mainstream American foreign policy institutions might be looked back upon as an embarrassment. That an Iranian regime henchman could get a hearing from the country’s ostensibly most serious people as his regime maimed Syria, massacred protesters, and ransomed American citizens is, perhaps, proper cause for self-reflection. But the CFR talk also showed why these forums are still worth having. Even someone as controlled as Zarif can’t help but commit honesty every once in awhile.