For all the recent publicity surrounding the possibility of Washington and Tehran opening "interests" sections in each other's country, the fact is, a diplomatic channel has existed between the two capitals for almost 20 years.
That channel is Iran's mission to the United Nations in Manhattan. While its operations are officially restricted to "U.N. business," it often unofficially tackles matters outside the U.N.: All of the mission's last four ambassadors were educated in the U.S. Its current representative, Mohammad Khazaee, previously served at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. and is a graduate of George Mason University. Mohammad Javad Zarif, recently retired from the U.N. post, spent more than 25 years living in the US, attending both the University of Denver and University of San Francisco. His children are American citizens. Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, one of Zarif's predecessors at the U.N., attended colleges in Kansas and the San Francisco-Bay area.
It was Mahalati, who in 1989 said that he thought President George H.W. Bush, was "a man I think I can do business with." That opening led to the establishment of the Iranian U.N. mission as a conduit to Washington.
Mahalati's assistant was given the assignment of opening the "unofficial" channel. His name is Javad Zarif.
In the early 1990s, Zarif returned to Iran while a former university professor, Kamal Kharazi, took over as U.N. ambassador.
Kharazi eventually rose to become foreign minister under reformist president Mohammad Khatami. As Kharazi progressed, so did Zarif, who became deputy foreign minister.
It was in 2002, not long after 9/11, that Zarif was given two new assignments: U.N. ambassador in New York and senior nuclear negotiator. The personable Iranian became the toast of local "think tanks."
Zarif was a frequent and popular guest at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Asia Society and the Manhattan Institute (co-founded by the late CIA director Bill Casey). It was not unusual for him to "entertain" congressmen and senators at his fashionable 5th Ave. townhouse which was once owned by the late Shah.
While well-known on Capitol Hill, Zarif also had numerous contacts with State Department officials including former under-secretary of state for political affairs, Nick Burns and current ambassador to the U.N. Zalmay Khalilzad.
Considered a "moderate" by the State Department, Zarif often told U.S. reporters "unofficially" that he was "confused" by the inflammatory statements of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and really "did not know the man."
As he opted to "retire" in June 2007, Zarif, now a professor at Tehran University, hinted that his diplomatic life may not be over.
The Iranian is thought to be a prime candidate to head Tehran's "interests" section in Washington or perhaps even re-emerge as foreign minister should President Ahmadinejad lose his re-election bid next year.
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