Iran's Man on Wire: Foreign Minister Mohammed Zarif

The country's chief envoy faces a tricky balancing act

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Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP / Getty Images

Zarif at a press conference in Baghdad on Sept. 8.

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The real question," says Ryan Crocker, a veteran of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East who has dealt with Zarif since 2003, "is whether hard-liners in both Tehran and Washington sabotage whatever comes out of this effort to resolve the nuclear issue and improve U.S.-Iran relations."

A host of issues will divide the two nations for years to come. But for the first time in 34 years, Zarif's frenetic diplomacy has spurred talk of détente between Tehran and Washington. When asked in New York City last month about the potential shape of future ties between Iran and the U.S., Zarif invoked the relationship between the U.S. and Russia, in which deep differences remain but communication and occasional collaboration continue nonetheless. It's a model far preferable to the military alternative. "This time," Zarif told me, "I can't afford to fail."n

Wright is a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center

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