Reformists in Iran have mounted a rearguard action to call on President Hassan Rouhani to refuse the shock resignation request of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced late on February 25. Whether Zarif stays on or not may determine whether the hardliners in the country manage to tip the balance in foreign policy and pull Iran out of the nuclear deal.
With Iran under excruciating economic pressure brought about by the sanctions-led economic attack the US has directed at the country, veteran diplomat Zarif and fellow centrist pragmatists in the government are on a daily basis under intense pressure from hardliners and the conservative theocracy led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that vets the Rouhani administration’s decisions.
Although Zarif, popular with voters, has not stated exactly why he asked to quit in an Instagram message posted in the middle of the night, an interview he gave to Jomhuri Eslami newspaper, published on February 24, was telling. In it, Zarif condemned infighting between Iran’s parties and factions as a “deadly poison” and said it was a barrier to devising foreign policy. “We first have to remove our foreign policy from the issue of party and factional fighting,” Zarif said. “The deadly poison for foreign policy is for foreign policy to become an issue of party and factional fighting.”
Nuclear deal fury of hardliners
It was Zarif, who to the fury of hardliners who said that the US could never be trusted, negotiated the late 2015 nuclear deal with Obama administration, France, Germany, the UK, Russia and China.
After Donald Trump in May last year unilaterally pulled Washington out of the multilateral pact and announced he would use the heaviest sanctions ever imposed on the Islamic Republic in a bid to crush its economy to the point that Tehran would come to the table to make concessions on its Middle East policies and activities, the hardliners felt vindicated. Many angry voices demanded that Iran itself should respond by immediately walking out of the accord (formally named the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA), but with the remaining signatories pledging to stay in the agreement and protect it, Zarif and the Rouhani administration have taken the line that the best path remains sticking with the deal in a strategy that involves working to a ‘West minus Trump’ approach.
The strategy does indeed damage the credibility of the US as the world’s foremost power—resistance to Trump’s sanctions approach towards Iran has, for instance, partly prompted efforts by the EU, Russia, China, Turkey and other countries to work towards mechanisms whereby the weight of the dollar in world trade will be reduced—but Iran is hurting; it’s economy is back in recession and it is particularly notable that the EU, as vocal as it has been in opposing Trump’s attempt to bin the JCPOA, has come up with very little to protect trade and investment centred on Iran, with member states and companies fearing US reprisals.
The lack of practical help offered to Iran by the EU, despite promises to the contrary, has incensed the hardliners who are clearly giving Zarif a rough ride as he tries to explain that, on a longer view, the government’s approach to the nuclear deal is wise and can produce a strategic victory for Iran.
On February 24, Zarif criticised the hardliners in a speech in Tehran, saying: “We cannot hide behind imperialism’s plot and blame them for our own incapability. Independence does not mean isolation from the world.”
Rouhani’s chief of staff, Mahmoud Vaezi, on February 25 took to Twitter to strongly deny reports that Zarif’s resignation had been accepted by the president. On Instagram, he later added: “In the view of Dr Rouhani, the Islamic Republic of Iran has only one foreign policy and one foreign minister.”
Zarif in “front line”: Rouhani
The president made a point, on February 26, of praising Zarif for his “resistance” and “capabilities”, while not mentioning the resignation issue. In a televised speech he also remarked that Zarif was in the "front line of the battle" against the US, Tehran’s arch-enemy, and added: "If our foreign ministry is doing something, it is because it is from the people and it represents the people. The government, in general, is elected by the people."
Rouhani supporters, meanwhile, put out an Instagram post with the hashtag #Zarif-is-staying—although Rouhani has neither accepted or rejected Zarif’s resignation—while a majority of Iranian parliamentarians signed a petition and letter to Rouhani calling for him to stay in office, according to a spokesman for parliament’s national security and foreign policy commission.
Ahead of a debate in the parliament on the issue, Ali Najafi Khoshroodi, the spokesman for the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, said: "With attention to the internal and international situation, sanctions and the pressure from America, I emphasize that more than any other time we need internal unity and solidarity."
The worst situation possible for all parties from this point on might be an intransigent foreign minister refusing to go back to his desk despite not being officially fired. It would not be the first time something like this had happened in Iran. Iranian officials are renowned for having tantrums to prove a point. During the famed spat between former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, the former refused to go back to work for several days over the firing of his brother-in-law by the top cleric.
Reports that Iranian diplomats internationally were threatening to resign in solidarity with the foreign minister prompted Zarif—fondly regarded as a far smarter cookie on Twitter than Trump and US hawks, whom he regularly outwits—to put out a statement urging other diplomats not to follow his path. The aim of his resignation was to strengthen his department, he said.
Assad visit snub
Persistent reports in Iran said Zarif was angry at a snub by the supreme leader who had excluded him from a February 25 meeting between the Iranian leadership and the visiting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It was said to be the latest of a series of clashes between the office of the president and the foreign ministry.
Describing the pressure Zarif has been under from hardliners in the past year, one of his allies, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters: “There were closed-door meetings every week, where top officials were bombarding him with questions about the deal and what will happen next and so on. He and his boss [Rouhani] were under a huge amount of pressure.”
Zarif, fluent in English and US-educated, is often thought of as the acceptable face of Iranian diplomacy to the west. However, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s reaction to news of Zarif’s submitted resignation request was scathing. On Twitter, he wrote: “We note @JZarif’s resignation. We’ll see if it sticks. Either way, he and @HassanRouhani are just front men for a corrupt religious mafia. We know @khamenei_ir makes all final decisions. Our policy is unchanged—the regime must behave like a normal country and respect its people.”
Strangling Iranian economy ‘counter-productive’
The EU takes the standpoint that strangling the Iranian economy is counter-productive as it will simply weaken the reformists in Iran and pave the way for a new domination of all the power structures by hardliners that will produce a country far more menacing to the Middle East, Europe and the west in general. Zarif has angrily accused the US and Israel of pushing towards a war situation with Iran rather than being genuinely interested in pursuing a heavy focus on achieving talks in a fair spirit that might resolve some of the differences between the adversaries.
Jamal Abdi, the head of the National Iranian-American Council, a pro-diplomacy advocacy group, said that “Zarif’s resignation is a boon for the radical hardline forces in Tehran who oppose the JCPOA and further engagement with the West. While Zarif is not above criticism, over the past forty years, the US and Iran have had few clear channels for negotiations, and Zarif has long been a major proponent of US-Iran negotiations and deescalation. Trump’s plan to collapse the nuclear deal may indeed be aimed at empowering radicals in Iran”.
A former pro-reform official was quoted by Reuters warning of dire consequences if Zarif’s resignation is accepted. “If accepted, it will have a domino effect ... and others [ministers] and even Rouhani might follow him and this is not something that the country can tolerate when pressured by America and sanctions,” he said, adding: “Hardliners will be strengthened and any kind of reform will be buried for at least 10 years.”