New Foreign Minister Signals Potential for Iran to Improve Relations with West

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Appointment is viewed as a key opportunity to build bridges with Obama administration

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a photograph of the new Iranian foreign minister with a former senior American diplomat may signal a new direction for Iran's fraught relations with the West over its nuclear programme.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, a former Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, was confirmed in his post as foreign minister earlier this month. On Monday, he was pictured looking relaxed and smiling at a meeting with Jeffrey Feltman, a UN undersecretary-general. Mr Feltman is also the former US assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs who was in charge of US Iran policy from 2009 to 2012. Washington and Tehran have not had diplomatic relations since the 1979 hostage-taking in Iran.

The election of Hassan Rouhani, a pro-reform pragmatist, as Iranian president in June, has raised hopes in the West that the Iranian leadership may be prepared to make concessions in order to obtain relief from sanctions. But it remains to be seen whether the changes will be more style than substance.

One Tehran-based academic who knows Mr Zarif personally, Davoud Hermidas-Bavand, told the New York Times that "our former foreign policy obviously did not yield any results and was clearly doomed." Mr Hermidas-Bavand described Mr Zarif as "the new face of a new policy", and said that Iran needed to "soften our stances in order to find a solution to the nuclear problem and reduce the sanctions."

Mr Zarif, 53, is a US-educated career diplomat. Although Iran has a mine of savvy and experienced diplomats, many were arbitrarily pulled back to Tehran by former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mr Zarif had been sidelined in recent years, spending his time teaching at the Iranian Diplomatic Training Centre. …