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Zarif’s future uncertain despite Iran’s rejection of his resignation

The Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif last week announced his resignation on the social media platform Instagram, although his decision was quickly rejected by the regime’s leadership. 

The announcement of Zarif’s resignation came hours after Syrian President Bashar Assad arrived on an unannounced visit to Tehran, during which he met with President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Only the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) elite Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, and Khamenei’s political adviser and former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati were invited to attend the official reception ceremony.

Many suggested that the decision to sideline Zarif during this ceremony was the root cause of his resignation announcement — a suggestion that was rejected by Rouhani, and his analysis was validated by Assad’s subsequent invitation to Zarif to visit Syria. In reality, what happened during Assad’s visit was the tipping point.

By following Zarif’s comments during the week prior to his resignation announcement, whether at the Munich Security Conference or at other forums, one could see that he was going through a period of unprecedented dissatisfaction and resentment. Furthermore, before Assad arrived in Tehran, Zarif had been scheduled to head to Geneva to deliver a speech on behalf of Iran’s regime at the UN Human Rights Council’s 40th Regular Session. According to leaked reports, however, he abruptly cancelled this visit, which was planned for last Tuesday. He informed the Chairman of the Foreign Policy and National Security Committee in the Islamic Consultative Assembly, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, who was planning to accompany him during the visit, that he had decided to cancel. 

Meanwhile, multiple leaked reports indicated that Zarif had submitted his resignation on at least three previous occasions, but each time his attempts were rebuffed by the regime’s leadership. Many analysts believe that these previous rejections led him to take the unusual step of announcing his resignation publicly via his Instagram account. 

Why did Zarif take this step and what could the consequences be for his political career?

An accumulation of factors led him to submit his resignation, the main one being his severe differences on policy with the regime’s leadership. This is especially true after the failure of Zarif and Rouhani to maintain the landmark 2015 nuclear deal and reap its benefits, such as salvaging Iran’s deteriorating economy and preserving foreign investments that, for a time, flowed into the country, as well as those that were planned to be pumped into the Iranian market. Despite all these potential benefits, there were serious disagreements between the government and parliament regarding the government’s accession to international agreements on countering the financing of terrorism and money laundering. Zarif viewed his role as foreign minister as being increasingly marginalized when it came to discussions surrounding these agreements. Meanwhile, hardline conservative officials such as Velayati, who is known as Khamenei’s shadow foreign minister, and Soleimani are dominating the decision-making process in Iranian foreign policy, with the government and the foreign ministry powerless to stop them.

Some analysts have suggested that Zarif took the step of submitting his resignation in order to gauge his public popularity at home and see the reactions abroad. Others argue that he is seeking to run in the upcoming presidential elections and, by casting a stone into the still political waters to find out how far the ripples spread out, he could tell how well his candidacy might be viewed within different groups in Iranian society. All these analyses may be correct in one way or another. The more significant point, however, is the consequences of Zarif’s resignation attempt on his future political career, whether within the current government or in the future if he wishes to quit his post again. 

There is no doubt that Zarif has gained popular sympathy at home, especially among young Iranians. The Iranian lobby has also contributed to boosting his popularity by promoting him as the best option when compared with possible alternative candidates, most of whom will be close to the hardline conservatives. The other side of the story, however, is that the hardliners and the IRGC have clearly conveyed their message that they can impose their agenda and directives at will, and whoever doesn’t want to work for them must go. 

It is common knowledge in Iran that Soleimani has always simply disregarded Zarif. Following Zarif’s latest resignation attempt, however, Soleimani issued rare comments praising Zarif, his work in favor of the Islamic Republic, and his loyalty to Khamenei. This was a very obvious message to the foreign minister that his continuing political career hinges on the approval of the strongest and most influential figures in the country, of whom Soleimani is one. 

Lastly, Zarif gained significant public support when he announced his resignation. However, his decision to publicly announce his resignation, as well as its subsequent rejection by the regime’s leadership, may ultimately put a gradual end to his political and diplomatic career in Iran. It is possible that, in the future, whether through another resignation attempt or following the end of the current government’s tenure, Zarif may be promoted and will leave the country in order to join any of the regime’s educational organizations or think tanks in the West. He could then continue to serve the Iranian regime, as is the case with the former Iranian ambassador to Germany, Seyed Hossein Mousavian, who is currently a visiting professor at Princeton University in the US. Many Iranians view Mousavian as the regime’s unofficial ambassador to the US, although he introduces himself as one of Tehran’s opponents.