Then there is the also-obvious. Talks like these are a great boon to rogue regimes — just ask North Korea (which has parlayed two decades of nuclear freeze deals into time and resources for three nuclear tests, and appears to be preparing its underground nuclear test site for a fourth detonation). Iran’s regime is a terror-sponsoring government under sanctions for its rogue nuclear weapons program, and in theory its rulers are being shunned and “isolated” — or so we’ve been told. But there in Geneva is Iran’s foreign minister, so completely un-isolated that in the diplomatic world he has become the celebrity of the hour, surrounded by envoys of the UN Security Council’s Permanent Five members plus Germany, all focused on what he has to say. Negotiations such as these, especially if they lead to a deal, serve as credentials, painting a veneer of legitimacy on regimes that deserve none (just ask North Korea).
And then there are the less obvious reasons why Zarif might be smiling. This is a man with a history that someone in his position today might well gloat over. He is intimately acquainted with the U.S., where he spent years as a student and served in various positions at Iran’s Mission to the UN in New York, including a stint from 2002-2007 as ambassador to the UN. During his time as ambassador, he charmed quite a number of American politicians and foreign-policy types, including then-Senators Joe Biden and Chuck Hagel. While he was doing that, however, he was also grossly abusing his diplomatic privileges by secretly directing a sanctions-violating multi-million dollar money-laundering operation out of Manhattan, to the benefit of the Iranian regime, and the enrichment, in particular, of Iran’s state-owned Bank Melli — which has been blacklisted by Treasury for its links to Iran’s missile and nuclear programs, as well as its banking services to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. So say the court documents of the Alavi case — for details on that, here’s a link to my article in The Weekly Standard on “Iran’s Chief Negotiator.”
Whether Zarif, while ensconced at the Geneva bargaining table, is giving any conscious thought whatsoever to his years of snookering U.S. law enforcement officials in the heart of Manhattan, who knows? By now, those years as envoy to the UN may be the furthest thing from his mind. Nonetheless, his years of successful double-dealing in New York are part of the context in which he arrives at the bargaining table — with that smile. It’s an expression that seems to conjure great delight among his world-power interlocutors. It shouldn’t.