Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif smiles during the annual Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany Feb. 17, 2019. Image Credit: Reuters

Dubai - Mohammad Javad Zarif’s engaging personality was never enough to neutralise conservative clerics at home, who accused him of selling out his country. Hardliners threatened him with bodily harm when the agreement was signed after years of arduous negotiations.

When President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the pact in 2018 and reimposed sanctions to cripple Iran’s oil industry, Zarif faced a storm of criticism in parliament.

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on the other hand, was restrained in his approach to the masterful diplomat with a long record of handling Tehran’s Western foes.

Zarif has spent almost all his diplomatic life outside Iran and has a good grip on international affairs — but this is his weak point, too.

- Hussain Rassam, Former Iran adviser to Britain’s Foreign Office

“You should always smile in diplomacy,” Zarif wrote in his 2013 memoir “Mr. Ambassador”. “But you should never forget you are talking to an enemy.”

Zarif’s familiarity with Western culture helped him forge close working relationships with American officials, who have long memories of the occupation of the US embassy in Tehran, in which hardline students held diplomats hostage for 444 days during the Islamic Revolution that toppled the Shah.

Zarif lived in the United States, from the age of 17 as a student of international relations in San Francisco and Denver, and subsequently as a diplomat at the United Nations in New York, where he was Iranian ambassador from 2002 to 2007. He developed contacts with US officials which served him well in the 1990s, when he was involved in talks to free US hostages held by the pro-Iranian Hezbollah group in Lebanon.

The bespectacled diplomat was born in Tehran to a conservative merchant family. Mastery of English helped him build a rapport with then US Secretary of State John Kerry, with whom he was on first-name terms during the intensive nuclear talks. Zarif’s email exchanges with Kerry at critical moments, including during the arrest of 10 US marines in Iranian waters in 2016, defused tensions between the two countries that have had no political ties since 1980.

Zarif’s direct line between Tehran and Washington was lost when Trump entered the White House. Zarif showed his tough side. “Trump’s ignorant hate speech belongs in medieval times - not the 21st Century UN - unworthy of a reply,” Zarif tweeted a few hours after Trump’s first speech at the UN General Assembly in which he called the nuclear deal an “embarrassment” and “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into”.

Zarif’s seeming ease with Western ways made him a divisive figure in Iran, and conservatives lined up to criticise him for speaking so directly to Tehran’s enemies. Secretly filmed footage emerged in May 2015 of Zarif arguing furiously in a closed session of parliament with a lawmaker. “Zarif has spent almost all his diplomatic life outside Iran and has a good grip of international affairs - but this is his weak point, too,” said Hussain Rassam, former Iran adviser to Britain’s Foreign Office.

While the US decision to abandon the nuclear deal tarnished Zarif, Iran still managed to spread its influence through proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Syria.

Some hardliners called Zarif a coward for studying in the United States, rather than defending his country in the 1980-88 war with Iraq which claimed a total of one million lives.

US Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican who opposed the nuclear deal, tweeted at Zarif in 2015: “You hid in US during Iran-Iraq war while peasants & kids were marched to die.”

Zarif responded by congratulating him on the birth of his son, adding: “Serious diplomacy, not macho personal smear, is what we need.”