Just weeks into one of the world’s toughest diplomatic jobs, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, is showing signs of strain.
He went for a hospital check-up late on Tuesday because of severe back pains he said were brought on by a hardline newspaper that “misquoted” him as saying President Hassan Rouhani’s historic phone call with Barack Obama was a mistake.
Iran’s moderate president has tasked Mr Zarif, a US-educated career diplomat, with improving relations with the West and heading nuclear talks with six world powers, including the US, which are due to resume in Geneva next week.
The hawkish daily Kayhan claimed that Mr Zarif had told a closed-door session of parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee that Mr Rouhani’s chat with his American counterpart was “inappropriate”.
Implausibly, the newspaper also quoted Mr Zarif as saying that his own landmark meeting with John Kerry, the US secretary of state, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York last month, had been overlong.
Kayhan, an influential newspaper that often reflects the views of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appeared to be making malicious mischief.
It was the ayatollah, not Mr Zarif, who intimated last weekend that the first phone call between an Iranian and American president since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution was “not appropriate”. But Mr Khamenei otherwise voiced vital if cautious support for Mr Rouhani’s attempt to build bridges with the West.
“It’s unsurprising that some outlets in Iran would try to undermine the engagement efforts of Rouhani and Zarif. What is more significant at this point is that, with the supreme leader still backing his president, Kayhan appears to be fairly isolated in its campaign,” Scott Lucas, an Iran expert at Birmingham University, said.
Mr Zarif vehemently denied the veracity of the Kayhan report and accused it of being more conservative than Ayatollah Khamenei.
“It is interesting that those who claim loyalty to the supreme leader are moving ahead of the leadership,” an infuriated Mr Zarif wrote. “Doesn’t it occur to them that if he wanted, he would have made his position more clear?”
Kayhan’s report had affected him physically.
“This morning, after seeing the headline of one newspaper, I got severe back and leg pain. I couldn’t even walk or sit,” he said.
Hospital doctors assured him his “problem was more due to nerves and a muscle spasm and will be solved through exercise”.
The spat highlights a heated debate within the Iranian establishment over how to deal with the US. For the time being, Ayatollah Khamenei has given Mr Rouhani the green light to explore the possibility of a detente with Washington in the hope of easing crippling international sanctions against Tehran imposed over its nuclear programme.
The ayatollah, however, does not appear optimistic. At the weekend, he said he “trusted” Iran’s diplomats but branded the US government “untrustworthy, supercilious and unreasonable”.
Nevertheless, analysts said, the chances of a breakthrough on Iran’s nuclear programme are greater than they have been for a decade. Tehran insists its atomic ambitions are solely peaceful while the West believes they are aimed at achieving a weapons capability.
Mr Rouhani’s outreach has already paid some dividends. Britain said this week it is working towards resuming full diplomatic ties with Iran after severing relations two years ago when Iranians rioters ransacked the British embassy in Tehran.