CAMERA Op-Ed: POLITICO’s Softball Interview with Iran’s Foreign Minister

Less than four months ago, Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, used an antisemitic Persian term for Jews — jahood — in a December 9, 2020, interview with Arman TV.

Jahood, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) noted in its translation, is equivalent to “kike.” Yet, in a recent interview with Zarif, Politico failed to take Zarif to task for his — or the regime’s — antisemitism.

Indeed, reporter Negar Mortazavi’s March 17, 2021, question and answer session with Zarif was largely a missed opportunity to hold the regime, and one of its chief interlocutors, responsible.

Politico’s interview — conducted via Skype — focused, as the magazine’s headline suggests, on “what it will take to break the US-Iran impasse.” But Mortazavi’s questions overlooked the nature of the authoritarian dictatorship that Zarif serves.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is a chief state sponsor of terrorism and is responsible for supporting US-designated terrorist groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and others that are hostile to the United States and are responsible for murdering Americans, Israelis, and others. Mortazavi, unfortunately, failed to mention this to readers, much less to ask Zarif how this behavior squares with a supposed desire to “break an impasse” with the US.

In fact, at the time of the interview, the Houthis, a Yemeni Iranian proxy, had been launching terrorist attacks aimed at US allies. As NBC News reported five days prior, on March 12, “Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen ramp up drone, missile attacks on Saudi Arabia.” NBC news reporter Dan de Luce pointed out that the Pentagon told him that “the Houthis launched more than 40 drones and missiles” aimed at the Kingdom “in February alone.” And, as AP and The Times of Israel reported on March 14th, Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu even indicated that he avoided Saudi airspace due to these attacks. Considering that the Houthi’s motto is “Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse the Jews, Victory to Islam,” this might have been a wise choice.

Yet, Mortazavi failed to ask Zarif about the uptick in attacks.

Politico’s interviewer also ignored the regime’s repression of its own people.

Iran, the US State Department noted in 2018, “has an abysmal human rights record” and “targets its own citizens for peaceful civic activities and the exercise of freedom of expression and belief.” The regime routinely murders protesters, journalists, and critics, and has carried out assassination plots against Iranian dissidents far from its own shores. This brutality is extended toward the Lebanese, Yemeni, Syrian, and Iraqi, people who live in states ruled and influenced by the regime’s proxies and supporters.

Indeed, as the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA) recently noted in a Newsweek op-ed, Iranian-backed militias have been increasing their attacks on critics in Iraq. PBS’ “Frontline” even launched a full-length report on the assassinations, entitled “Iraq’s Assassins,” in February 2021.

But instead of asking Zarif to explain Iran’s behavior, Mortazavi allowed him to dissemble. She didn’t challenge the regime apparatchik when he claimed that a Gulf state alliance with Israel would result in “Netanyahu” bringing “war to their [the Gulf state’s] territory.” When asked about Iran’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, he blamed the West for “hoarding vaccines.”

And when Mortazavi — in the most challenging part of the interview — asked, “why are so many dual-nationals in prisons” in Iran, Zarif tried to project the regime’s sins on the West.

Iran’s foreign minister asserted that the US has also imprisoned Iranian Americans and “one is being harassed today and for the past two months treated like a criminal because he wrote articles about Iran and provided consultation to our mission in New York.” That man, Kaveh Afrasiabi, has been indicted by the US for being an unregistered foreign agent. This is hardly the same as innocent Iranian Americans being seized for political reasons by the regime and left to rot in Iran’s prisons.

Iran, of course, has a long history of taking hostages and using them for extortion purposes. A March 9th BBC report noted that one recently released hostage, a British-Australian academic named Kylie Moore-Gilbert, endured “psychological torture.” Iran even tried to recruit her to spy on her own government.

Zarif, however, wasn’t asked about Iran’s treatment of its hostages. Instead, he attempted to strike false equivalency between the US and Iran, asserting, “The United States says that these people violated the law. Our judiciary says that these people violated the law.” So in the twisted world of Iran’s theocracy, arresting alleged foreign agents is apparently the same as holding and using innocent people as bargaining chips and subjecting them to torture.

It is unsurprising that Zarif would engage in obfuscations, false comparisons, and lies. Iran’s foreign minister has often been compared to a Cheshire cat — and, having lived and studied in the US, he is adept at playing a harmless diplomat for naïve Western audiences. But it is deeply regrettable that Politico would provide him with a platform for his propaganda.

 (Note: A slightly different version of this article appeared as an op-ed in the Algemeiner on March 24, 2021)

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