By Edward Carny
On Tuesday, less than a day after Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s surprise announcement, via Instagram, of his resignation, more details came to light which potentially explained his decision. These details were accompanied by extensive speculation regarding the circumstances and potential consequences of the move, which had not yet been formalized and may not actually result in Zarif’s departure from his position as the nation’s top diplomat.
As well as noting that President Hassan Rouhani had not yet accepted the resignation on Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that 150 Iranian lawmakers – a majority of the national parliament – had signed a letter urging him to retain Zarif in the role. Meanwhile, Agence France-Presse reported that the foreign minister followed up on his informal resignation by urging fellow diplomats not to follow suit with their own resignations.
It is not clear whether Zarif’s input was necessary to prevent massive changes in diplomatic staffing, but rumors immediately began to swirl of supporters planning to resign in solidarity or in protest against the same issues that led the foreign minister to his decision. It remains somewhat unclear what those issues were, but many have connected the announcement to Zarif’s absence, earlier on Monday, from a meeting between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who traveled to Tehran for his first publicly-acknowledged state visit since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War nearly eight years ago.
According to one Iranian newspaper, when Zarif was reached for comment in the wake of that meeting, he complained that his absence from photos had robbed him of credibility. But others disputed the notion that Zarif would have resigned over such a singular event. The Washington Post quoted Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, as saying that “the Foreign Ministry has long been ornamental in such debates” as the meeting between Khamenei and Assad.
“The power broker of Iran’s regional security policy has always been the IRGC, not the Foreign Ministry,” Taleblu explained, suggesting that Zarif was well aware of this fact and could not have realistically expected to have been given a meaningful voice in the meeting. Nevertheless, it is possible that his absence was the result of more deliberate and visible exclusion by the supreme leader, the IRGC, or both. And this may have been regarded as significant in its own right, because of what it says about underlying factional feuding inside the regime.
This is the very issue that Zarif highlighted in his first public remarks since his ostensible resignation, although many of these were recorded prior to his announcement. Just hours beforehand, he told a moderate local newspaper that Iran’s foreign policy is at the mercy of “disputes between political groups and factions,” according to Bloomberg. And AFP quoted him as follow up on Tuesday with the Islamic Republic News Agency by expressing hope that his resignation (or threat thereof) would allow the foreign ministry to “regain its proper statutory role.”
But it is not clear what this restoration is supposed to look like, and whether it would involve the Khamenei and other hardliners granting a role to an alternative representative of the so-called moderate faction or Iranian politics, or whether it would involve the Rouhani administration simply ceding foreign policy to the IRGC.
Reuters quoted one official as describing his vision for something like the former scenario: “If [Khamenei] publicly backs Zarif and Rouhani, this crisis will be over in a good way and it will narrow the gap between different political camps in the country.” But considering that the official was identified as being close to the hardline camp, this “narrowing” is presumably seen to involve the “moderates” drawing closer to the hardliners.
In this sense, both of the above-mentioned scenarios may be functionally identical, especially considering that many critics of the Iranian regime insist that there are few real differences between the two factions. Under fire from hardliners in the weeks leading up to his resignation, Zarif defended the Rouhani administration’s record before parliament by saying, “It is not true that we acted against the will of the supreme leader… We can do nothing in this country without having to report it.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a rather similar message via Twitter on Monday, in response to Zarif’s resignation announcement. The president and foreign minister, he said, “are just front men for a corrupt religious mafia” in which the supreme leader makes all real decisions. He went on to say of the US government, “Our policy is unchanged—the regime must behave like a normal country and respect its people.”
But Pompeo’s message was quoted in a Wall Street Journal article that began by suggesting that Zarif’s announcement could signal a “victory” for the hardline faction at a time when tensions between Iran and the US have already been sharply escalating. The article said that Zarif “was consistently seen as a government figure who Iranians and foreigners alike could approach to discuss grievances against the regime involving human-rights violations, business deals and foreign policy.”
However, this description is much disputed, and Zarif has been ridiculed and condemned by opponents of the regime for spreading its message abroad while leading a “charm offensive” both during and after the nuclear negotiations that led to the 2015 nuclear deal with six world powers. On the cusp of that agreement in April 2015, Zarif famously said in an American television interview, “We do not jail people for their opinions,” even as the regime held several foreign nationals on trumped-up national security charges.
Those who see little difference between the two factions whose competition may have fueled Zarif’s resignation will likely see no further threat in the possible “domino effect” that could result from that move. This is the outcome that is expected by one pro-reform official quoted by Reuters, if Rouhani accepts the foreign minister’s resignation. A separate Reuters report noted that rumors erupted almost immediately of the planned resignation of Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh, although his office denied that they had any validity.
Still the pro-reform official said that other ministers “and even Rouhani might follow [Zarif], and this is not something that the country can tolerate when pressured by America and sanctions.” But this was not the first suggestion of Rouhani’s possible departure. On Sunday, the Associated Press published a report examining that potential outcome, emphasizing the pressure that the president is facing not just from hardliners but from much of the civilian population over his failure to address the nation’s economic crisis.
At the same time, Rouhani has also lost much of his support among advocates of reform, due to the lack of progress on any of his key campaign promises regarding a freer and more open Iranian society. In 2017, during his campaign for reelection, activists associated with the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran organized a boycott of the polls, urging Iranians to “vote for regime change” and emphasizing the perception of a lack of serious differences between the hardline and “reformist” factions of mainstream Iranian politics.