Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has often found itself on the regime’s sidelines. To be sure, its diplomats have done their part: They tirelessly distribute anti-American and anti-Semitic propaganda, provide diplomatic pouches and logistical assistance to Iranian operatives, and deny and whitewash deadly operations. Yet Westerners have usually been willing to exempt Iranian diplomats from damning censure if they seem “moderate” in manner. Shaking a woman’s hand, a smile, a bit of wit, a willingness to be in the presence of alcohol—Americans and Europeans appreciate it when Islamists behave.
That forgiving disposition has never been more egregiously on display than in the way Western VIPs treat Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who has proved a faithful factotum of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and a handmaiden to terrorism. Typical was Mr. Zarif’s response to French accusations that a thwarted bombing of an Iranian opposition group’s large June 2018 rally in a Paris suburb had been planned in Tehran. Mr. Zarif claimed the regime “unequivocally condemns all violence and terror anywhere, and is ready to work with all concerned to uncover what is a sinister false flag ploy.” This after an Iranian intelligence officer under diplomatic cover had been arrested for complicity and European security officials pinpointed the Internal Security Directorate of the Iranian Intelligence Ministry as headquarters for the operation.
Now we find ourselves in Mr. Zarif’s sights. The Foreign Ministry declared on Saturday that the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and Mark Dubowitz personally, are guilty of “designing, imposing and intensifying the impacts of economic terrorism against Iran” and “seriously and actively trying to harm the Iranian people’s security and vital interests through measures such as fabricating and spreading lies, encouraging, providing consultations, lobbying, and launching a smear campaign.” FDD is “subject to the penalties that are allowed by the ‘Law on Countering the Violation of Human Rights and Adventurous and Terrorist Activities of the United States in the Region.’ ” On Wednesday, the Iranian Foreign Ministry threatened sanctions against people of “various nationalities who are “working with FDD.” It declared that “this foundation is in fact the designing and executing arm of the U.S. administration.”
The penalties are unspecified, but the ministry’s first statement adds: “Needless to say this measure will be without prejudice to any further legal measures that the other administrative, judicial or security institutions and organizations may take in order to counter, prosecute or punish the above-mentioned persons or their other Iranian and non-Iranian collaborators and accomplices.” We don’t think Mr. Zarif plans to sue FDD or send a letter to Interpol. Technically, according to the law cited against us, Mr. Zarif has already coordinated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Iran’s Intelligence Ministry in developing sanctions against FDD.
The Islamic Republic isn’t the first dictatorship to try to intimidate think tanks and scholars. And Mr. Zarif is hardly an all-powerful figure at home. We suspect his decision to threaten FDD was to show some revolutionary rectitude to those in the ruling elite who aren’t enamored of him. Many are angered by his failure to understand the American political system, which knocked down President Obama’s nuclear deal.
Mr. Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani had sold that accord as a victory: In exchange for short-term, limited nuclear constraints, the West would lift sanctions and Tehran would gain immediate access to tens of billions of dollars in hard currency and longer-term access to global markets worth hundreds of billions. Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s MIT-educated nuclear guru, well understood the enormous nuclear concessions Washington was making in the agreement, but Mr. Zarif didn’t understand America and the nature, depth and bipartisan politics of U.S. sanctions against Tehran.
Since 1979, Democrats and Republicans alike have been confronting and engaging Iran’s theocracy. If Mr. Khamenei wants Mr. Zarif as his foreign minister, the U.S. will deal with Mr. Zarif. But it’s long past time for the Washington foreign-policy community to stop indulging him. Think tanks and other nongovernmental organizations should stop giving him a podium and refrain from their see-no-evil, unofficial “Track II” diplomacy with Iranian emissaries.
We remain hopeful. Although many on the left have defended FDD on Twitter and in the press, for which we are grateful, we haven’t yet seen their dismay focus on the foreign minister. Too many desperately want a moderate alternative within the Islamic Republic. They are anxious to avoid war and to thwart President Trump. So they bend the truth about Messrs. Zarif and Rouhani.
But the foreign minister isn’t their ally or a world-wise fallen revolutionary quietly trying to advance pragmatism. Real Iranian moderates got stuffed in the 1990s, when the regime beat the Iranian left senseless. Mr. Zarif was then on the regime’s side, where he has steadfastly remained. When an Iranian foreign minister threatens an American think tank engaged in national-security research, analysis and policy recommendations, common sense ought to sound a warning.
Suzanne Maloney of the left-leaning Brookings Institution tweeted that “all academic and research organizations should seriously reassess their engagement with Iranian government institutions.” Radioactive conspiracies aren’t the other side of thoughtful diplomacy. They are sometimes lethal.
Mr. Dubowitz is chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Mr. Gerecht is a senior fellow at FDD.