On the Choice of the New Secretary General for the United Nations: Dr. Javad Zarif - A Man for All Reasons

On the Choice of the New Secretary General for the United Nations: Dr. Javad Zarif - A Man for All Reasons
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"Never, 'for the sake of peace and quiet', deny your own experience or convictions"Dag Hammarskjöld

Introduction and Background

Nearly every ten years the world goes through the ritual of selecting a new Secretary General (SG) for the United Nations (UN); as the UNSG, by tradition, is allowed to serve for up to two five-year terms.

Twenty-five years ago, as a concerned observer, I followed my own conviction and weighed in on the process by publishing a letter in response to a biased editorial in the New York Times,"The Right Choice for the U.N." (October 4, 1991). This editorial strongly promoted the candidacy of Dr. Boutros Boutros Ghali, who was later on appointed as UNSG (on January 1, 1992). Using the same criteria in the editorial, I demonstrated that Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, a luminary in diplomatic circles, a prominent international statesman and the longest-serving United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (for 12 years), was a stronger and more qualified candidate for the post of UNSG. The letter was adorned with an eye-catching graphic in the NYT ("Experienced Insider", October 26, 1991) had good traction and generated tons of mostly supportive reactions from all over in forms of letters, faxes and phone calls (at that time there was no email).

Mr. Aga Khan, a most qualified candidate for the post of the UNSG in the history of the Organization, was passed over twice for this job. The first time in 1981, when Mr. Kurt Waldheim tried unsuccessfully for a third term as UNSG, Mr Aga Khan "drew more positive votes in the Security Council than anyone else, but was blocked when the Soviet Union, which thought him too pro-Western, cast a veto" (New York Times, May 15, 2003, Section B; Page 11). "Around that time stories circulated that the prince was a secret agent for the British, using his job as a cover for intelligence gathering. It was almost certainly nonsense, but the Russians may have believed it. Sadruddin insisted that he had equal sympathies with eastern and western peoples... His description of himself as "a citizen of the world" was a fair one"" (Economist, May 22, 2003). He died at the age of 70 on May 12, 2003.

Dr. Boutros Ghali, a decent Egyptian professor and statesman who got the job thanks to heavy lobbying by his friend, President François Mitterrand of France, had a tumultuous tenure at the UN. He was criticized for both his style and substance: his misconceived notions concerning preventive diplomacy, preventive deployment, misunderstanding of his role as a UNSG, and leadership style. He became "radioactive" on Capitol Hill (Madam Secretary: A Memoir, Madeleine Albright, HarperCollings, 2003, p. 262), ended up serving only one term (to December 31, 1996), and "many delegations and Secretariat officials privately expressed considerable relief when he was gone." [Edward C. Luck in Secretary or General: The UN Secretary-General in World Politics, Simon Chesterman (ed.), Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 221.]

I believe now, as I did back then, that the role of the UNSG is a crucial one for the whole world; it will certainly affect the life and well-being of our and the future generations on this planet. The UN, as Hammarskjöld once said, was "created not to take humanity to heaven but to save it from hell." [Secretary or General: The UN Secretary-General in World Politics, Simon Chesterman (ed.), Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 240]. There are many truly global problems that only the U.N. could undertake the needed process of finding solutions for. A few of the myriad of such international problems include: climate change, peacemaking/peacekeeping, nation building, terrorism, and refugees.

The Nature and Idiosyncrasies of the UNSG's Job

One of the prominent scholars of international organizations and the UN, Dr. Edward C. Luck, in his noteworthy analysis of "the office of secretary-general: Catalyst or lighting rod?", considered the office of UNSG as the only "bully pulpit for enunciating the organization's multilateral purposes, above the interests and perspectives of individual member states." (p. 303). Another eminent scholar, Professor Simon Chesterman, whose rich 2007 aforementioned edited book, "Secretary or General: The UN Secretary-General in World Politics" (which also includes an excellent Chapter 11 by Luck on the SG in a unipolar world) further elaborated on those themes in a cohesive fashion noted that:

"The Secretary-General of the United Nations is a unique figure in world politics. At once civil servant and the world's diplomat, lackey of the UN Security Council and commander-in-chief of up to 100,000 peacekeepers, he or she depends on states for both the legitimacy and resources that enable the United Nations to function. The tension between these roles of being secretary or general - has challenged every incumbent... [T]he fact that the Secretary-General is asked both to follow states and to lead them, and that the person tasked with these extraordinary responsibilities is chosen through a process geared to select only the least objectionable candidate." (p. 1 & 10).

According to an insightful analysis, entitled, "Pope Kofi's Unruly Flock", by the Economist magazine (August 8, 1998):

"The job of secretary-general at the United Nations is not unlike that of a medieval pope. In one sense, you are the leader of Christendom. Yet, at the same time, your power is limited: you have no battalions of your own (all those peacekeeping troops are only on loan); your own organization is a hotchpotch of feuding bishoprics, most of whom feel more loyalty to temporal rulers than to you; and you are normally broke...In such a job much depends on character and momentum."

The position of the UNSG, according to the first secretary-general, Trygve Lie, is "the most difficult job in the world." According to Ms. Inga-Britt Ahlenius, a senior Swedish official who served seven years with the UN, of which five as the Under-Secretary-General for Internal Oversight Services (USG/OIOS), who wrote a comprehensive 50-page End of Assignment Report (July 14, 2010), and later went on published an acclaimed book in Swedish (co-authored with journalist Mr. Niklas Ekdal) entitled "Mr. Chance: - FN:s förfall under Ban Ki-moon [Mr Chance--the UN's decay under Ban Ki-moon, Stockholm 2011]:

"The [UNSG] position also takes unusual commitment, persistence, perseverance, patience - because finally all 192 Member States will have to be on board in the way forward. I could add a fourth P-word - Passion. To lead the Organization, you have to love it; you have to have passion for it. Exceptional leadership is required - strong, charismatic, enlightened leadership... What is expected from the Secretary-General and the United Nations is that the Organization has such a standing that it is seen as and really constitutes a relevant and even a necessary partner in solving complex issues in the world, issues that otherwise would not be addressed. The organization is established to serve the world community and must be properly organized and led in order to be that relevant partner for the Member States (emphasis added, p. 3).

However, this time, the world cannot afford to be only a passive observer of the smoke raising over the U.N. building indicating a choice being made. The selection of the new Secretary General is too important to be left to some compromises taking place behind the closed doors of the Security Council or the General Assembly. The importance of this decision, plus the above tasks facing the new SG, call for a person with vision, managerial skills, seasoned diplomatic subtlety, and courage to take on challenges.

New Process and UNSG Selection Criteria Fortunately, this time around (unlike in 1991), the UN General Assembly (UNGA) at its sixty-ninth Session, 103rd Meeting (AM) on September 11, 2015 adopted a resolution "aimed at fostering greater transparency in the selection of the next Secretary-General." According to the Resolution 69/321, which was adopted without a vote, "the Assembly emphasized that the process of selection of the Secretary-General shall be guided by the principles of transparency and inclusiveness, building on best practices and the participation of all Member States." It also requested "the Presidents of the General Assembly and the Security Council to start the process of soliciting candidates for the position through a joint letter addressed to all Member States".

On December 15, 2015, the President of the UN Security Council (UNSC), H.E. Ms. Samantha Power (US), and the President of the UN General Assembly (UNGA), H.E. Mr. Mogens Lykketoft, issued the aforementioned "joint letter", promised to follow "the principles of transparency and inclusivity", and outlined criteria for the role of the UNSG and invited Member states to present candidates. The following are a few noteworthy points from this important letter:

  • "... the process of selecting and appointing the next United Nations Secretary-General, in accordance with the provisions of Article 97 of the Charter of the United Nations and guided by the principles of transparency and inclusivity." (emphasis added);
  • "The position of Secretary-General is one of great importance that requires the highest standards of efficiency, competence and integrity, and a firm commitment to the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations. We invite candidates to be presented with proven leadership and managerial abilities, extensive experience in international relations, and strong diplomatic, communication and multilingual skills." (emphasis added); and
  • "The President of the General Assembly and the President of the Security Council will offer candidates opportunities for informal dialogues or meetings with the members of their respective bodies, while noting that any such interaction will be without prejudice to those who do not participate. These can take place before the Council begins its selection by the end of July 2016. (emphasis added).

Why Dr. Javad Zarif?

One can logically contend that Iran's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Javad Zarif is a qualified and strong candidate and without "prejudice" should seriously be considered for the post of the UNSG.

Extensive Experience in International Relations

Dr. Zarif has a deep and intimate understanding of and a firm commitment to the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations. In fact his PhD dissertation research in International Relations, which was entitled, "Self-defense in International Law and Policy" (University of Denver, 1988, 346 pp.), extensively analyzed the UN's Charter and its implications for self-defense; its noteworthy Chapter 3 (The Charter of the UN, p. 94-122) and Chapter 4 (the UN Practice, p. 125-206) provided a cogent analysis and very relevant to this context. [It is noteworthy that he received his doctorate from the University of Denver, Josef Korbel School of International Studies in 1988; the alma mater of two remarkable American ladies who both became Secretary of State: Dr. Madeleine Korbel Albright (daughter of School's distinguished namesake) and Dr. Condoleezza Rice.]

Zarif is a career diplomat whose entire 34-plus year career has been associated, one way or another, with the UN system. He started his career by serving as a young 22-year old diplomat working mostly at the UN Headquarter in New York City in July 1982 and then rose to the rank of Permanent Representative and Ambassador of Iran to the UN, a post which he held for five years until 2007. [A UN diplomat once uttered: "Amb. Zarif knows the layout and ins and outs of the UNHQ better than the architects who have designed this building!"]

Dr. Zarif also has extensive experience in international relations, and strong diplomatic skills. He has been a professor of international relations at the University of Tehran and has written many scholarly articles which are published in prestigious archival journals, such as the Journal of International Affairs (Colombia University). He has authored several seminal graduate-level textbooks on multilateral diplomacy (in Farsi, published in Iran) which include a single volume, Multilateral Diplomacy: Conceptual and Functional Dynamism of Regional and International Organizations, (co-authored with Dr. Kazem Sajjadpour, published by the Center for International Research and Education, 2012, 910 pp.) and the three-volume Multilateral Diplomacy: Theory and Practice of Regional and International Organizations (co-authored with Dr. Kazem Sajjadpour, published by the School of International Relations, 2008, vol. I-III, 1041 pp.).

In fact Chapter 9 of the latter book (vol. II) which is entitled: "Global Multilateral Diplomacy: The United Nations", provides a refreshing analysis of function of the UN system and its challenges and potential. The lengthy Chapter includes a cogent evaluation of former secretary generals' performance and legacy, as well as a lucid, insightful account of the behind the scenes deals, "complex, tedious, and difficult" mechanism of the UNSC for narrowing the list of UNSG candidates through multiple rounds of vetting which are essentially tantamount to "beautify contests" to come up with a finalist who is "acceptable" to the five permanent members of the UNSC to be recommended for the UNGA for receiving their final stamp of approval.

Strong Diplomatic Skills

Even before the hard and protracted process of nuclear negations with the P5+1 countries which successfully resulted in the JCPOA agreement in July 2015 and its implementation on January 16, 2016 - often referred to as "the deal of the century" - Dr. Zarif's superb diplomatic skills have been noticed and admired by many seasoned world-class diplomats, such as Ambassador James Dobbins. In his testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs on November 7, 2007, Amb. Dobbins noted with admiration Zarif's instrumental role in the difficult and unprecedented post-invasion negations at "the Bonn conference" in December 2001, which led to creation of the government of Afghanistan. He concluded that, "Zarif had achieved the final breakthrough without which the Karzai government might never have been formed" (RAND, CT-293, November 2007, p. 5). Zarif's instrumental role in bring Afghanistan's fractious warring factions to an agreement in Bonn is comparable to remarkable performance of legendary U.S. diplomat, the late Richard Holbrooke's in Dayton which lead to the Dayton Peace Accords, in November 1995.

Moreover, in the last thirty years, Dr. Zarif has been active on the international stage. He has been closely involved in and has played instrumental leadership roles in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), "which is a group of states which are not formally aligned with or against any major power bloc" and as of 2012, the movement includes 120 members. After the 16th NAM summit which took place in Tehran, Iran, in August 2012, Iran assumed the leadership of the NAM. In September 2015, he represented and spoke on behalf of the NAM before the UNGA Meeting to Promote the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.

Final Words - Without Prejudice...

Dr. Javad Zarif's and other candidates' qualifications should objectively be evaluated, based on the principles of transparency and inclusivity and without prejudice or unduly preference for ethnic, geographical, and gender orientation. And this analysis of knowledge, skills, and abilities of candidates should be purely based on individual's hard tangible outcomes: such as professional experience, achievements on the global scale while practicing multilateral diplomacy, and relevant publications record. Candidates should not be judged by the color and insignia of their national passports, but by the content of their professional portfolio.

It would indeed be ridiculous - rather, a travesty and disservice to the world - to use other special considerations such as a candidate's birthplace, religion gender, or his/her country's policies/politics as disqualifying criteria. However, if this turn out to be the case in this round of UNSG selection, then it would become one of those unfortunate instances, as the US Ambassador to the UN, Ms. Samantha Power has noted in her August 2013 speech, that "there are times when the Organization has lost its way, when politics and ideology get in the way of impact."

As the aforementioned senior Swedish official, Ms. Ahlenius warned us in 2010, continuing with the business as usual and not choosing the most qualified SG, "inevitably risks weakening the United Nations' possibilities to fulfill its mandate. Ultimately that is to the detriment of peace and stability in the world. This is as sad as it is serious" (p. 50).

To paraphrase the late Richard Holbrooke, who also served as the US Ambassador to the UN, insightful 1999 lines about the UN: a strong Secretary General is in the world's best interests; a demeaned, weak and unqualified SG only undermines collective security and institutional diplomacy. With this (and all foregoing compelling facts) in mind, "it would be a tragedy if 21st-century policy makers continue to fail those who assembled in San Francisco" 71 years ago. (The Unquiet American: Richard Holbrooke in the World, edited by Derek Chollet and Samantha Power, 2011, New York: Public Affairs, p. 262).

The world needs and deserves the best candidate for the post of UNSG - Dr. Zarif, who posses the right stuff plus both the "character and momentum" for such a job; or an equally qualified person....

--------------Author's note for the record: The author is neither aware if Dr Javad Zarif is being nominated or "in running" for the post of UNSG, nor has he asked/lobbied the author to write this piece. Therefore, this essay, just like the aforementioned 1991 letter in the New York Times, which is solely based on the author's own experience and conviction, could be considered either as an endorsement or pulsing the respective Member State to initiate the nomination process.


Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of engineering and international relations at USC, has been conducting research on complex and High Reliability Organizations (HRO) organizations and also on the U.N. system and its specialized agencies for the last 30+ years. He was invited and testified before the U.S. Commission on Improving the Effectiveness of the United Nations, which was formed by President George H. W. Bush, on February 1, 1993.

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