A 15-minute stroll in Switzerland with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has landed Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in hot water.
The two men took a stroll in downtown Geneva and along the Rhone River on January 14 as part of bilateral talks to reach a lasting deal over Iran's nuclear program.
Iranian hard-liners say the stroll was a grave mistake and that it damaged Iran's authority. Hard-liners are also irked over a short trip Zarif took to Paris last week to meet his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, to narrow the differences over Tehran's nuclear activities.
The pictures of the stroll, which could give the impression of friendliness and closeness between Kerry and Zarif, were widely shared on social media and news sites.
The head of Iran's paramilitary Basij force, Mohammad Reza Naghdi, said by walking with Kerry and sharing a friendly moment with an "enemy of humanity," Zarif showed disrespect to tens of thousands of Iranian soldiers killed in the Iran-Iraq War.
"Zarif's walk with U.S. Secretary of State [Kerry] was a [violation] of the blood of the martyrs," Naghdi said in an interview with the conservative Dana.ir site.
In the January 21 interview, Naghdi said he'd lost respect for Zarif over some of his recent actions, including the infamous stroll and last week's trip to Paris that came following the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and the magazine's latest issue that is deemed insulting by many Muslims.
"Traveling to Paris on the same day when the French prime minister showed the insulting cartoon of Prophet Muhammad in front of cameras, was even worse and even more unforgivable [than the stroll]," Naghdi was quoted as saying.
Naghdi was referring to the January 14 cover of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo that features Muhammad shedding tears while holding a sign that says "Je suis Charlie." Over the weekend, Iranian hard-liners protested against the cartoon in front of the French Embassy in Tehran, while some of them accused the government of having a weak reaction to the controversy.
The Basij commander said Zarif's "repeated mistakes" had called under question his ability to defend the rights of the Iranian nation. Naghdi said he had so far refrained from publicly criticizing Zarif because he didn't want to weaken his stance in the nuclear talks. But he said some of his mistakes were unforgivable.
Iranian hard-liners appear to generally support a nuclear deal with the United States that would give Iran relief from economic sanctions. But they've made it clear that they strongly oppose normalization of ties with "the Great Satan," which they see as a threat to their authority.
Naghdi said Zarif's recent "amateurishness" demonstrated that the Iranian foreign minister, who is widely praised for his diplomatic abilities, doesn't know "the ABC of diplomacy." "No justification or excuse is accepted in this matter," he said, adding that Zarif had to apologize to Iranians and commit himself not to repeat such behavior.
Criticism also came from hard-line lawmakers, including Javad Karimi Ghodousi, who warned Zarif he could be questioned by the conservative-dominated parliament over his stroll and his Paris trip.
"We are preparing a motion for intensive questioning of the foreign minister, over his walk with the U.S. secretary of state, and his visit to France given the insult to the Prophet. We will submit this to the presidium [on January 25] with a large number of signatories," Ghodousi told the Fars news agency on January 21.
His colleague, Javad Naghavi Hosseini, the spokesman of parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, was also critical of the stroll. "What does it mean to take a walk with the foreign minister of a country that, in the history of our nation, has only committed crimes and treason?"
Government spokesman Mohammad Baqer Nobakht dismissed the criticism in his weekly briefing with reporters. "What's wrong with Zarif taking a walk in Geneva with Kerry? Did you object because they didn't get into a car after the stroll?" he asked.
"People don't accept these talks. Some say these things because they see that the [nuclear] talks are making good progress," Nobakht was quoted as saying by domestic media.
Nobakht also dismissed criticism of Zarif's trip to Paris and said that the Iranian foreign minister had taken a "decisive" stance. Iran has condemned the attack on Charlie Hebdo while also denouncing "insults" against religious teachings and beliefs.
In response to a question about the new Charlie Hebdo cover, Zarif said last week, "We believe that sanctities need to be respected."
Zarif had also come under hard-line criticism in the past for some of his comments regarding Iran's national security, including for saying that the United States could destroy Iran's defense system with a single bomb.
Despite the criticism, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has publicly praised the Iranian nuclear team headed by Zarif. Khamenei has the final say in the Islamic republic.
-- Golnaz Esfandiari