By Mahmoud Hakamian
The controversy surrounding Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s surprise resignation ended almost as quickly as it began, when President Hassan Rouhani rejected the announcement, declaring that Zarif’s departure would not be in the interest of the country. This sentiment was expressed in a letter that Rouhani presented on Wednesday, approximately 36 hours after Zarif made the Instagram post describing his supposed intention to step down.
The letter was preceded by rumors that Rouhani would be rejecting the resignation, and Reuters consequently issued a premature report to that effect, based on another Instagram post, this one belonging to supporters of the current president who run an unofficial page in his name. This final instance of confusion was indicative of a broader pattern of rumors that swirled throughout the less than two days of uncertainty about Zarif’s future. Among those rumors were suggestions that other Rouhani administration figures, like Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh, would be following him out. These have, however, been denied.
As of late Wednesday, the country’s politics seemed to have returned to the status quo, although questions linger regarding the exact reason for Zarif’s announcement and the exact circumstances of the apparent resolution that prompted him to withdraw it. There is little reason to assume that complete answers to these questions will ever be forthcoming, although Zarif’s move was reportedly connected in some way to his absence from Monday’s meeting between Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
In response to the supposed snub, Zarif was quoted as saying that he felt undermined in his position and hoped that his Instagram post would help to restore the proper role of the Foreign Ministry. In the immediate aftermath of the resignation announcement, various commentators observed that this incident seemed to point to escalating factional feuds, and specifically to the possible loss of legitimacy for the ““moderate “” Rouhani administration in the face of challenges from hardliners associated with Khamenei.
Chief among those hardliners are the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the commander of that organization’s foreign expeditionary division, the Quds Force, was notably present in the Assad meeting that Zarif did not attend. Whatever political dialogue led Zarif to rescind his resignation, it seemingly involved this figure, Qassem Soleimani, who boosted the Foreign Ministry in public statements on Wednesday, affirming that it remained the primary driver of Iran’s foreign policy, and was supported in that role by the supreme leader.
Rouhani’s letter similarly name-checked Khamenei, who is the ultimate authority in virtually all affairs under Iran’s theocratic system. There was no indication that the supreme leader personally weighed in on the subject of Zarif remaining in his post, but Rouhani’s letter claimed that the supreme leader had described the foreign minister as a “trustworthy, brave and religious person on the front lines of resistance against widespread US pressures.”
This framing of Zarif’s foreign policy leadership is at odds with much of the public discussion that credited him with a “moderate “ track record and suggested that his decision to remain on was a defeat for hardliners in the wake of ongoing escalation of tensions between Iran and the US. In recent weeks, and in line with the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, the IRGC and the regular Iranian military have been engaged in a public build-up and demonstrations, with some officials even going so far as to declare that they were ready to dispatch warships to the Atlantic Ocean as an explicit counterbalance for American regional power.
It is certainly true that Zarif has taken a pragmatic approach to foreign policy that avoids most of this sort of provocation. But there has been much dispute over whether this, or his role in negotiation a nuclear agreement with the US and five other world powers, is sufficient to qualify him as a “moderate “. The same doubts have been cast upon the entirety of the Rouhani administration, especially in light of its failure to follow through on campaign promises such as the release of political prisoners, the lifting of restrictions on the internet and social media, and guarantees of safety for Iranian expatriates who choose to return home.
Doubts about the administration’s “moderate“ credentials may only intensify in the wake of whatever process of reconciliation led to Zarif remaining in his position. After all, one Reuters report referred to the possibility that the entire resignation scenario was orchestrated as an act of political theater. And although that report cites the foreign minister’s supporters as saying that the incident would leave Zarif with more leverage in competition with hardliners, it is equally possible that the schism was never genuine in the first place.
Contrary to Reuters, the Independent envisions two potential outcomes from the foreign minister’s gambit. On the one hand, it could signify his acceptance within the overwhelmingly hardline establishment – a possibility that may be strengthened by Soleimani’s expression of support. On the other hand, it could lead hardliners to view Zarif as weak and “thin-skinned,” thereby setting the stage for further moves against him or other figures in the Rouhani administration.
In either case, the ultimate outcome may be pretty much the same. That is to say, either the ““moderate “” faction will enjoy more cooperation with the hardline establishment, compromising its pragmatism in the process, or it will continue to be overridden by the IRGC and other allies of the supreme leader. President Rouhani himself seemed to be pointing to one or both of these prospective outcomes on Wednesday when he welcomed Zarif’s return to service by stressing the need for “full coordination” between the Foreign Ministry and all state institutions.