A Black Swan from Tehran, 36 Years On: Javad Zarif, Iran’s ParadigmShifter

By James G. Blight and janet M. Lang

Balsillie School of International Affairs and Department of History

University of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON Canada

“A Black Swan is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. It carries an extreme impact.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, 2007, p.xxii.

“When paradigms shift … it is as if we are suddenly transported to another planet where familiar objects are seen in a different light and are joined by unfamiliar ones as well … After a revolution, we are responding to a different world.”

Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962, p. 111.

A Black Swan Returns to Tehran: “☺☺ Our JZ is as cool as your Jay Z ☺☺”

For many of us who have followed the evolution of Iran’s relations with the West since the Islamic Revolution 36 years ago, it seemed indeed that a Black Swan landed on the streets of Tehran on the morning of 3 April 2015. Here is the scenario: an exhausted Iranian diplomat, who had in 2007 been forced into unwanted retirement by his government, has returned to Tehran. He has been conducting promising, but still far from conclusive negotiations in Lausanne, Switzerland with the world’s major powers. The black SUV in which he is riding is surrounded by a large, voluble crowd, forcing the driver of the SUV to stop his vehicle. The crowd chants; they say they want to shake the hand of its occupant. Tentatively, the reluctant celebrity waves, not wanting to disappoint the fans he seems not to have known he had. As we watch the video of his return, we feel that it is not only we who have the strong impression that this event is a classic Black Swan — totally unexpected — even undreamed of — it is pretty obvious that the man protruding from the roof of the SUV also has this impression.

The improbable object of this apparently quite spontaneous outpouring of affection is the Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif. His fans have come to express their gratitude to him for his major role in Lausanne in beginning to bring Iran in from the cold. If these talks eventually succeed, constraints on Iran’s nuclear program will have been bartered for relief from Western sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy and made daily life difficult for most Iranians. The mood is buoyant.

Many of us in the West grew up with images in our heads of the fierce-looking founder of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Komeini, American flags being burned in public places in Tehran, and surging crowds in the street chanting “death to America.” Against this background, these peaceful, even joyful demonstrations on 3 April were astonishing. The mostly young people who besieged Zarif’s car could be heard chanting their support for the negotiations and their disgust with domestic and foreign hardliners who oppose a nuclear/sanctions deal and rapprochement between Iran and the West. These opponents of a deal on Iran’s nuclear program include the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the hardline Tehran daily, Kayhan. The crowd that gathered around Zarif’s black SUV was not intimidated. In fact, they were energized by the stature of their opposition, as they chanted rhythmically: “Israel, Kayhan, Condolences, condolences! Israel, Kayhan, Condolences, condolences!”

In an ecstatic tweet one young member of Zarif’’s local fan club even compared him favorably on the “cool” dimension via an analogy to Shawn Carter, known as “Jay Z,” the hugely successful American rapper, film star, entrepreneur and spouse of the ineffable R&B singer, “Beyoncé.” This was the tweet: “☺☺Our JZ is as cool as your Jay Z ☺☺”

The ParadigmShifter’s Mission: To Bring Iran in From the Cold

We call Javad Zarif a “ParadigmShifter” (one word, caps on the “P” and the “S”). He is in the front line of the struggle of Iranian moderates to bring Iran in from the cold. Success is far from assured, even on a nuclear deal. But Zarif and his colleagues also have in mind using success in a nuclear deal to begin productive conversations with the West on other contentious issues.

Will the Lausanne process be sufficient, over time, to bring Iran in from the cold? The answer turns on two further questions: (1) Will Zarif prevail in Tehran, so that the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and his hardline base in the Revolutionary Guards, and the Basij irregulars, accept a new status for Iran — not Iran as victim, not Iran as singled out for punishment by the West, not Iran unfairly abused by the great powers — but a nation like other nations, capable of compromise, warranting full citizenship in 21st century global affairs? And (2) Will the U.S.-led West respond to such overtures as Zarif, et al. have made so that Zarif and other ParadigmShifters will not regret having risked their careers in the belief that the West can be made to feel comfortable treating Iran with respect, dignity and fairness. The clock is ticking. The future is now. The Lausanne parameters are on the table waiting to be filled in with details.

You Say You Want a Revolution? A Black Sheep Morphs Into a Black Swan

Prior to the ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program not one Westerner in a thousand would have been able to identify a photograph of any Iranian, past or present, other than Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founding father of the Iranian Revolution, whose followers overthrew the Western-backed Shah of Iran in 1979. To those in the West, the face of Iran has been that of this forbidding, uncompromising theocrat with scary eyebrows and an iron fist.

No more. After Lausanne, the new face of Iran for Westerners is Javad Zarif. For the past few months, Zarif has been inescapable, as has his chief negotiating partner, the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Kerry is well over six feet tall and very lean, with a face that has been described as resembling a piece of silly putty that has been stretched vertically. Zarif, on the other hand, is more than a foot shorter than Kerry, and wears a white goatee and stylish wire-rimmed glasses. One pundit, citing a source who understandably wished to remain anonymous, has referred to them as “Lurch and Colonel Sanders,” a comparison that is endearing and surprisingly apt to those whose brains, like our own, are awash in American pop culture of a certain vintage.

Many forces have been at work to produce what may be a revolutionary moment in the history of Iran’s relations and the West. But the singular role of Zarif on the Iranian side cannot be overstated. His calm but firm demeanor, his excellent grasp of colloquial English, his rare ability to speak extemporaneously in nearly perfectly formed paragraphs, his low-key sense of humor — all have contributed to Zarif’s sudden celebrity status.

He has earned it. During much of the disastrous eight-year presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, 2005–2013, Zarif was treated badly by his own government, living in a kind of “soft” internal exile. He left his post as Ambassador to the UN on 25 July 2007. When he returned to Iran, he kept his head down and stayed out of sight.

Ironically, the international and domestic train-wreck that Ahmadinejad’s presidency became may be a principal reason the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, thought to be a hardline opponent of Iranian engagement with the West, chose to permit the candidacy of the moderate, Hassan Rouhani, who became president in August 2013. Rouhani immediately tapped Zarif to be the foreign minister, the man whose task it would be to convince the world that Iran is not a rogue state, not a theocracy of other-worldly mullahs, but a state wishing to normalize where possible, and to resolve differences peacefully when conflicts of interests arise.

The Lausanne negotiations, and the many months of preparation that made the Lausanne talks possible, cannot be fit into the old paradigm — that Iran and the West are permanent, incontrovertible enemies out to get each other. To rescue the old paradigm, the critics say that Iran cannot be trusted. Hence, they believe it’s principal negotiator, Javad Zarif, cannot be trusted. He may be smooth and polite and a media darling in the West, but he is the smooth, West-friendly tip of the iceberg of a rough, arbitrary regime that thrives on conflict with the West, and which will never keep their end of any bargain with the West. So the hardliners’ advice: keep your powder dry. Iran only understands the language of brute force and intimidation. End the Lausanne process immediately, and bring the regime to its knees via tougher sanctions or, if sanctions are inadequate, go to war to produce the needed regime change in Tehran.

It is worth asking, we think, whether a revolution has begun, a revolution not imposed at the end of a gun barrel, not a violent overthrow of a regime, but a revolution in the self-definition of the Iranian Revolution, and the way revolutionary Iran should henceforth interact with the Middle East and the world. Thomas S. Kuhn famously wrote in 1962 that revolutions occur whenever these conditions are met: (1) a deeply embedded, seemingly unassailable paradigm clashes with an incompatible array of findings, ideas or events; and (2) the new paradigm provides a more satisfactory explanation of the behavior in question than the old paradigm. True revolutionaries, according to Kuhn, act in ways so contrary to expectation that they seem to be coming from some other planet.

As paradigms begin to shift, the interesting questions become more fundamental, more consequential. Does what happened in Lausanne signal a revolution in Iran’s relationship to the international community? Is the paradigm shifting? Are formerly intractable enemies truly open to becoming collaborators with the West and others in their region in determining their mutual fate? Is it now possible that the language of threat and coercion — which has been the argot of Iran and the international community since the 1979 revolution — might be replaced by the language of bargaining and compromise? Might a zero-sum outlook evolve into a positive-sum “game?” If so, the negotiators in Lausanne, and those to whom they report in Washington, London, Moscow, Beijing, Paris and Berlin — the “P5+1” — as well as in in Tehran, may be learning to regard each other in a way so new as to be without meaningful precedent. And that new way is more or less the inverse of the old way. All the established assumptions about Iran’s place in the world suddenly seem shaky. Many still consider this outcome — the Islamic Republic of Iran emerging as a “normal” state — a long shot. But based on Lausanne, it no longer seems to be quite as unimaginable as it used to be.

The Lausanne Multiple Choice Test: (1) Wait and See; (2) Break Off; or (3) Celebrate

Reactions to what was accomplished at Lausanne may be grouped into three categories: (1) wait and see what is eventually agreed to; (2a) negative — the talks should be broken off because Iran will cheat; (2b) negative — talks should be broken off because the U.S. will renege on its pledge to remove sanctions and it remains irremediably hostile to the Islamic Republic; and (3) the process embodied by the agreement on the Lausanne parameters is the greatest thing since sliced bread in Iran’s relations with the West since the 1979 Revolution. Of course, (1) wins at this stage because we all must wait to see what the Lausanne process leads to, and whether any eventual agreement can be sold to constituents in Iran and the P5+1, but particularly the U.S.

Among American rejectionists (category 2a), Senator Mark Kirk, a Republican of Illinois, may be recognized as having one of the most irresponsible, insulting assessments. Kirk, who is preparing fresh legislation to tighten sanctions against Iran, regardless of what happens at the negotiating table, has declared that, “Neville Chamberlain got a better deal from Hitler at Munich,” than the P5+1 got in Lausanne.

Iran — that nascent democracy, wrapped in a Shiite theocracy and steeped in the history of the ancient Persian Empire — also has its rejectionist dark side (category 2b). Our personal favorite comes from a young conservative pundit in Tehran who has declared that, according to the terms suggested by the Lausanne process, “Iran will have just enough centrifuges running to make carrot juice.”

Those believing that the Lausanne process is the new sliced bread of international affairs are nothing if not exuberant (category 3). Some of the cheering has come from the Guardian, which is one of best West-based, English language sources of news from Iran. Guardian columnist Simon Tisdall writes that, “It is time now act to bring Iran in from the cold.” Tisdall advocates re-opening the British embassy in Tehran ASAP. His colleague Julian Borger goes even further. He believes that Javad Zarif and John Kerry are shoo-ins for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize if (as Borger believes) a deal is struck from within the framework developed in Lausanne this year, which he believes is a virtual certainty. Borger also is satisfied that U.S. President Barack Obama has, via engagement with Iran over its nuclear program, retrospectively earned his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.

The Way Forward: For the U.S.-led P5+1, Be David! For Iran, Be Goliath!

The paradigm may be shifting, but it manifestly cannot be said to have already shifted yet in any decisive sense. The process epitomized by the Lausanne talks is fragile. A slip of the tongue here, an unfortunate event there, followed by recriminations, and the process could collapse, as it has always collapsed in the past, in talks over a wide range of issues. Zarif, the ParadigmShifter, seems to have anticipated this moment: hopeful, yet apprehensive, with nothing concrete yet to take to the bank. Zarif has sensed the power of social media, which the Ahmadinejad government tried for eight years to suppress in Iran, with only partial success.

In a revealing 26 May 2014 New Yorker profile of Zarif, longtime Iran-watcher Robin Wright dated the beginning of Iran’s serious pursuit of an agreement trading nuclear constraints for sanctions relief at 4 September 2013. On that day, Zarif joined twitter and tweeted for the first time. This was significant. Hardliners believe that twitter was instrumental in assisting the protesters who took to the streets following the June 2009 “stolen election,” in which the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared by the Supreme Leader to have won re-election as president. We agree with Wright: Zarif’s entry into the social media was an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible change of direction in the elected Iranian leadership, led by President Hassan Rouhani. Those behind the entry of the Rouhani administration into the anarchical world of social media have demonstrated that their desire to engage with the West is stronger than their fear of losing control of what gets said and what doesn’t.

Zarif has also produced two videos of roughly five minutes each, giving what he calls “Iran’s message” involving engagement with the West generally, and regarding Iran’s nuclear program in particular. These videos are well-produced, introduced with soft new age music, and are tightly scripted. Zarif speaks English. Separate posts on his YouTube page provide the same English-language video, but with subtitles in French, German, Chinese and Russian: the languages of the P5+1. In addition, other posts present the same video, but with Farsi and Arabic subtitles — the languages of Iran and the neighborhood in which Iranians live.

In these videos, Zarif identifies the general principles that he says must be followed by the P5+1, or Iran will break off the talks. In the 19 November 2013 video, “There is a Way Forward,” Zarif takes up the issue of applying pressure to Iran via sanctions, and Iran’s defiance in the face of the sanctions, which perplexes many in the West. He asks viewers to put themselves in the shoes of Iranians and ask: “Would you back down? Would you relent? Or would you stand your ground?” In another video, posted on 2 July 2014, Zarif assures his viewers that, “Iranians are allergic to pressure … Pursuing a game of chicken cannot achieve anything … Try mutual respect. It works.”

Zarif invites the P5+1, the world’s major powers — the collective global Goliath — to walk a mile in the shoes of David — of Iran. Ask yourself, he urges citizens of the big powers, what you would do if you were in Iran’s position, facing so much military strength of the U.S., with whom Iran has, for the past 36 years, had contentious relations. Zarif exhorts: Be David! — empathize with Iran, and Iranian behavior will seem a lot less intransigent, less weird, than before. We think this is excellent advice for Iran’s traditional adversaries to follow. Putting yourself in the shoes of others, as Zarif recommends, is a metaphor for empathy, leading to a more accurate understanding of what an adversary believes it is up to, and what it believes you are up to. Psychological fact replaces psychological fantasy; worst-case nightmares give way to realistic analyses.

But empathy must work in both directions if a downward spiral of suspicion, and the heightened probability of crisis and conflict, is to be avoided. We have shown beyond a reasonable doubt, and via a variety of new media, that the absence of empathy between John F. Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro was the root cause of the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, in which the world came within a hair’s breadth of nuclear catastrophe. The talks in Lausanne and since may well be the last chance for the P5+1 and Iran to avoid a deep war-threatening crisis over Iran’s nuclear program.

So we conclude with a piece of advice for Zarif and his Iranian colleagues: Be Goliath! Notice the supreme difficulty in crafting a global policy that enhances one’s interests, without developing some blind spots along the way. Big powers have to deal with a lot more moving parts than smaller powers. So for starters try empathizing with the United States and see if you begin to understand that there is more chaos, and less conspiracy, that you previously imagined.

In addition, try to wrap your minds around this: leaders of global powers are not always lying or stupid when they identify threats to their vital interests from smaller powers, like Iran. Often, the threats are psychologically real to them. Often, leaders of great powers actually believe what they are saying. So David, “be Goliath”: walk a mile in the shoes of the country formerly known in Iran as “the Great Satan,” and in the shoes of its P5+1 partners. You may be shocked to discover that Goliath believes he must be just as vigilant as David, that Goliath is just as prone to spinning worst-case scenarios as David. But if Goliath really believes David is a threat, the solution isn’t for David to gloat or act aggressively. It is a very good reason to try to understand the sources of Goliath’s concern and address them at the negotiating table. It is possible that David just lucked out in the Valley of Elah, and that he shouldn’t push his luck.