from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Shouting at Kerry

February 19, 2015

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

A remarkable news story today reveals that throughout the nuclear negotiations, the top Iranian negotiator has been shouting and screaming at Secretary of State Kerry, and that he has sat there and taken the abuse.

Here’s a piece of the story, from the Washington Free Beacon:

Iran’s foreign minister and lead negotiator in nuclear talks with the United States has been ordered by the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader to stop shouting and yelling at Secretary of State John Kerry during negotiating sessions.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told his country’s state controlled media in a recent interview that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has instructed him to stop yelling at Kerry and other top U.S. officials during the talks.

Reports about Zarif’s temper first emerged in the Iranian press last November, when the United States and Iran agreed to extend talks through June of this year.

Zarif is said to “frequently shout at Western diplomats” with such force that bodyguards have been forced to enter the negotiation room.

Why does this matter? As someone who worked for Secretary of State George Shultz, and for Condoleezza Rice (at the National Security Council), I am absolutely sure that neither of them would have put up with this for a split second. They would have told the Iranian to pipe down, and if he did not they’d have left the room. It undermines the dignity of the individual American negotiator, and of the position of Secretary of State, and of our country when such conduct is regularly aimed at us--and we do nothing. It suggests to the Iranians not only that the individual negotiator will countenance such misconduct, but that in the substance of the negotiations our country will as well-- allowing cheating, for example, because we lack the backbone to call it by its proper name.

This may all seem petty but I do not think it is. If the Iranian negotiator can intimidate our negotiator, if decent behavior is not demanded, the lesson we teach Iran is dangerous.

I’d like to have seen a Soviet negotiator try some of this on Shultz, an ex-Marine who fought in the Pacific in World War II, or on Rice, whom I’ve seen put down obstreperous diplomats with a raised eyebrow. If the lessons Kerry learned in all those years in the Senate taught him that when being shouted at repeatedly by the Iranian across the table he should just grin and bear it, those were dangerous lessons when carried into the realm of diplomacy.

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