On 14 July, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif arrived in New York to take part in the annual session of the United Nations Economic and Social Council.
During the week of his visit, much happened from a meeting with US Senate member Rand Paul of Kentucky to the UK oil tanker seized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in the Strait of Hormuz.
Zarif left New York for Caracas in Venezuela on Friday, but the public is still uncertain if the foreign minister secured a channel of negotiation with the US before he left. His request to travel to New York was a gauge of the depth of the crisis dominating Iran-US relations.
The UN hosts numerous small and large gatherings every week, with prominent foreign diplomats arriving mostly in September when the United Nations General Assembly holds its annual meeting.
It is not unprecedented for foreign ministers to visit New York for different reasons, such as to take part in Security Council meetings over key issues.
But the UN Economic and Social Council’s annual meeting with the theme “Empowering People and Ensuring Inclusiveness and Equality” is not a priority for Iran and does not make Zarif’s presence necessary.
Having lived in the US for many years and served as Iran’s ambassador to the UN, Zarif is well aware of the importance of visiting the US, considering the grave state of affairs between Iran and the US and the intensifying sanctions against Iran.
By the same token, the request by Iran’s foreign minister to travel to the US showed that Iran is still pursuing dialogue with it.
Zarif’s visits to the US must be viewed through the lens of providing possibilities to engage in talks and exchange views with US officials, rather than his interest in participating in UN summits.
In a visit to New York in April, Zarif managed to meet and have dinner with Senator Dianne Feinstein of California.
The latter is a critic of US President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, particularly towards Iran. For Iran, it is important to keep open communication channels with US politicians who could support Tehran in the current difficult situation by preventing the possibility of war and ceasing any increase in the sanctions.
Quoting Feinstein’s office about the meeting and dinner, the US journal Politico said that it was “arranged in consultation with the state department”.
On the anniversary of the Iran nuclear deal of 2015, the New York Times said on 14 July that Zarif’s visa to take part in the UN summit was issued with the agreement of Pompeo.
Even if Pompeo himself did not directly meet Zarif during the latter’s visit to New York, there would have been members of the foreign relations committees of both the Senate and the House willing to meet him and provide the state department with firsthand accounts of possibilities for talks between the two countries and Iran’s demands and conditions for such talks.
Zarif’s request to travel to the US also gave Iran the guarantee that by keeping open this diplomatic channel with American politicians, he could return to New York in September in the company of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for the UN General Assembly.
However, the Zarif who was in talks with the former US Obama administration and former secretary of state John Kerry represented more than 20 million people who had voted for Rouhani to normalise relations between Iran and the rest of the world and to reach an agreement with the West.
The Zarif who was in the US recently represents Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei and therefore may have more authority, a point the Trump administration has not overlooked.
Perhaps it will take more days before it is known whether Zarif seized any opportunities during his five-day stay in New York.
As the tension is rising in the Gulf, equally the potential for direct talks between Iran and the US is also emerging despite Iran’s provocations as various mediators make efforts to persuade it to come back to the negotiating table.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Zarif today and yesterday