Former Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif’s fiery speech at the end of a televised roundtable discussion of the pro-reform candidate Masoud Pezeshkian has sparked a lot of pro and con reactions.

Zarif revealed Tuesday morning that he would accompany Pezeshkian to the roundtable discussion at the national TV.

The former foreign minister, who has consistently maintained that he does not belong to either the reformist or conservative/hardliner camps, remained silent for much of the discussion. However, he broke his silence with a fiery speech in defense of Pezeshkian’s proposed foreign policy advocating improved ties with the West aimed at ending sanctions that have crippled the country's economy.

At the same time, addressing the hardliners who have controlled the government since 2021, Zarif asserted that their ability to sell more oil since 2021 was solely due to US President Joe Biden loosening the sanctions.

The hashtag ‘Zarif’ rose to the top of the trending Persian tweets shortly after the speech.

“Today’s foreign policy roundtable, as expected, came under the sway of Zarif and his fiery speech. The text that Pezeshkian read as an introduction, however, also had passages that could help the audience to understand his political vision. Pezeshkian said the goal of his foreign policy was not just survival, but also the country’s development,” Khabar Online, a news website linked to the moderate conservative former Speaker Ali Larijani wrote.

Candidate Pezeshkian and former foreign minister Javad Zarif meeting on June 13, 2024

In his introduction, Pezeshkian said his future government would aim to revive the 2015 nuclear deal to end sanctions and international banking restrictions and accede to the Financial Action Taskforce (FATF) which has blacklisted the Islamic Republic.

The pro-reform candidate stated that he did not consider diplomacy, negotiation, and reaching an agreement with the West as “humiliation” but as a reasonable and low-cost way to attain dignity. “We don’t have time to stand still and linger, in the best-case scenario, when regional countries are rapidly developing,” he said.

“I don’t want people to keep watching the news to find out if more sanctions are meted out to us or not, whether the dollar exchange rate is going up or not. I want foreign policy to give people stability and psychological security so they can plan their lives for the long term without doubts and anxiety,” Pezeshkian said.

So far, he had remained mostly silent about the Iranian regime's foreign policy and its nuclear program, like the other five hand-picked candidates. However, speaking in favor of talks with the West can be an effective way to obtain support by a large segment of the Iranian population whose financial situation has dramatically worsened since the United States imposed sanctions in 2018 and demanded to re-negotiate the 2015 nuclear accord.

Pezeshkian also contended that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei draws the general outlines of Iran's foreign policy but “planning and execution” of such policies is a duty that the president and his government carry out based on Khamenei’s three principles of “dignity, wisdom, and expediency” rather than militancy, sloganeering, and damage to national interests. Iranians want respect and dignity but not militancy, he said.

However, evidence does not support Pezeshkian's optimistic interpretation of Khamenei's stance. The Supreme Leader has consistently spoken against the United States, calling it "the enemy" over the years, demanding its expulsion from the Middle East. He also gave a lukewarm blessing to the nuclear deal and allowed hardliners to systematically criticize it.

Iran's ruler Khamenei has forged a close relationship with Putin's Russia in the past two decades.

“I have just one question for Dr. Pezeshkian. I will vote and collect votes for him if the answer is yes,” a tweet addressed to Pezeshkian asked. "Will he pledge to resign if experts assert that negotiation and interaction with the United States is the only way to save Iran, and the Supreme Leader objects?"

Zarif’s speech came after a pro-Jalili ‘expert’ panel member, Foad Izadi, incessantly attacked Pezeshkian’s views and insisted that the disputes between Iran and the United States over the nuclear issue could never be resolved and sanctions would never be lifted unless Iran surrendered and made huge concessions to the West.

In his speech, Zarif defended the Rouhani administration and his own performance regarding the 2015 JCPOA agreement with world powers and its economic outcome.

He also contended that the administration of Joe Biden was prepared to return to the deal that former US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from in 2018. However, according to Zarif, the opportunity was spoiled by both Israel and Iranian hardliners, who pressured the government to escalate the nuclear crisis.

Referring to Pezeshkian’s hardliner rivals, Zarif contended that the competition in these elections was between the discourse of the reformist former President Mohammad Khatami and that of the “Miracle of the Third Millennium”, a clear reference to the populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad under whose eight years of presidency Iran came under extensive international sanctions.

“No matter how much weaponry you own, you will not attain any results if people are not with you,” Zarif told hardliners while adding that Iran could not “spend $800 billion a year” on its military, a reference to US military spending.

“Zarif led the elections and Pezeshkian to a new stage. The real debate was today’s program, not last night’s,” journalist Reza Ghobeishawi tweeted referring to the lackluster debate of the six candidates Monday evening.

Shortly after the discussion ended, Hassan Rouhani’s minister of communications, Mohammad-Javad Azari-Jahromi released a video on social media urging Iranians not to boycott the elections and to vote for Pezeshkian. “Boycotting means surrendering our share of life to rivals,” he said.

Azari-Jahromi’s tweet was seen 100K times in an hour and is being widely shared by others including Zarif who shared it with the line from a famous song. “Walk along my dear, because this shared pain will never be healed if we go our separate ways,”Zarif tweeted with Pezeshkian’s campaign hashtag “For Iran”.

Other Iranians strongly attacked Zarif, accusing him of trying to "heat up the election" when a large segment of the population has lost trust in the Islamic Republic's stage-managed exercise.

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