Muhammad Javad Zarif, Iran's foreign minister, tried to concoct a new text centered on the illusion that the European Union will rein in the Trumpian bull and allow the Islamic Republic to pursue its shenanigans at no cost to itself. In every speech, he used the word "Europe" as a talisman while heavily courting Federica Mogherini, the EU's foreign affairs tsarina who has been nursed on the bitter milk of anti-Americanism. (Photo by Lennart Preiss/Getty Images)
Though it is too early to assess the impact of President Donald Trump's decision to harden US policy towards the Islamic Republic of Iran, one thing is already clear. Trump's rhetoric and the reactivation of sanctions suspended by President Barack Obama, plus new measures against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are making it harder for the leadership in Tehran to pursue its forked-tongue diplomacy designed to hoodwink bleeding heart liberals in the West while fanning the fires of hatred in the global anti-West constituency.
The ventriloquist running that diplomacy used loudmouths like Dr. Hassan Abbasi (aka the Kissinger of Islam) to peddle a pseudo-Islamicized version of the anti-American narrative created by people like Noam Chomsky and Louis Farrakhan in the United States and Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen in France.
At the other end of the spectrum, the ventriloquist used people like Muhammad Javad Zarif to deceive East Coast liberals and Europe's "soft" anti-Americans. Zarif was the ideal dummy to play the role.
Having spent nearly half of his life in the United States, part of it as a student in a provincial college in the Wild West, he has mastered the vocabulary to reassure audiences in the Council on Foreign Relations branches from New York to Peoria, if such a branch exists. He knows how to use American clichés such as "give-and-take", "win-win" "the roadmap" and "dialogue of civilizations", whatever that means.
In his long stint heading the Iranian delegation at the United Nations in New York, he also learned how to use ghostwriters to pen op-eds designed to hoodwink the Americans.
For many years, he shortened his first name to Javad, thinking that Muhammad would be too provocative. He also signed himself "Ambassador of Iran", no mention of the Islamic Republic, and tried to sound as sweet and reasonable as a Swedish foreign minister discussing the Nobel Peace Prize. Obama and his sidekicks John Kerry and Joe Biden helped the son of the carpet merchant from Isfahan to sell his bill of goods.
Trump's entry into that idyllic scene was as comforting as a bull piercing his way into a china shop. The hapless dummy's script began to sound like the soured text of a fading stand-up comic.
The ventriloquist tried to concoct a new text centered on the illusion that the European Union will rein in the Trumpian bull and allow the Islamic Republic to pursue its shenanigans at no cost to itself. In every speech, he used the word "Europe" as a talisman while heavily courting Federica Mogherini, the EU's foreign affairs tsarina who has been nursed on the bitter milk of anti-Americanism.
Last week, however, the penny dropped as Zarif realized that even if the EU could forge a coherent foreign policy, it could not defy the United States solely to help the mullahs "export" their revolution through murder and mayhem.
A slanted indication came in the communiqué of the G7 ministerial meeting in Dinard, France, in preparation for the summit to be hosted by President Emmanuel Macron in August.
Put briefly, the communiqué endorsed the 12-point desiderata fixed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo without naming him.
Worse still from Tehran's point of view, the communiqué breathed some life back into United Nations resolutions concerning Tehran's missile project and violent involvements in other countries. The dummy quickly tried to readjust his text. In a series of tweets and settlements, Zarif more than implied that he had shed his European illusions.
"We no longer can count on Europeans," he lamented. He also warned the EU of unspecified "retaliation". Abandoning the New York lexicon of black-tie liberalism, he started using the vocabulary of fire and brimstone in the tradition of the Akhund of Swat, Zarraq Khan, and the "Mad" Mullah Hassan, not to mention our own "Imam" Khomeini.
But don't rush to congratulate Zarif for abandoning his European illusion. Minutes after he had done so, he adopted a fresh illusion: creating a new anti-West coalition with China, Russia, Turkey, and Iraq. Noting that Iran's exports to Iraq were 10 times more than to the European Union, he also boasted that China and Russia would "always help us" while Turkey is supposedly abandoning Washington to get closer to Tehran. Zarif's hare-brained analysis would be hilarious had it not been dangerous for Iran's national interests and security.
Iraq, annually, imports around $10 billion from Iran, including $2 billion in electricity and gas which it hasn't paid for yet. It also profits from the collapse of the Iranian currency by importing goods that Iran itself buys from Europe and China at an artificially low exchange rate fixed by the government for the US dollar.
That crazy system has also led to massive shortages in Iran itself, driving prices of such things as onions and potatoes through the roof. (Last week government banned all exports of those items.) In what resembles a fire-sale, Iran has also increased its exports to Turkey and Afghanistan.
China and Russia are likely to back the mullahs in Tehran with their UN vetoes if necessary. But they are careful not to let the mullahs get too big for their slippers. China still refuses to release $22 billion in Iran's frozen assets, insisting that Iran buy Chinese goods instead. Beijing is also sore that Tehran has teamed up within India to develop an Indian Ocean trade "hub" to rival the one that China is building in Gwadar, Pakistan.
As for Russia, it has imposed the Caspian Convention it dictated, but vetoes Iran's membership in the Euro-Asian "economic family" and the Shanghai Group. Russia's interest is keeping Iran out of the international gas market, thus holding Moscow's Damocles Sword above the EU's head.
As for Turkey, its chief interest in the Islamic Republic is to secure support for killing Kurds, something that runs counter to Iran's own national interests.
Zarif's first illusion was the "fresh start" with Obama. He then switched to the Mogherini illusion. Now he is getting high on a new "coalition" illusion.
The poor guy isn't all to blame. He is desperately trying to play the diplomat on behalf of a regime that loathes diplomacy. As long as the Islamic Republic believes that it can do whatever it likes without risking any punishment it would make little difference through which dummy the ventriloquist utters his text.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.