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Zarif’s resignation highlights Iranian regime’s fragility

In a sudden move, Iran’s top diplomat Mohammed Javad Zarif on Tuesday made the surprise announcement that he has offered his resignation from his post as foreign minister. 

He revealed the news on his Instagram page, stating: “I am apologizing to you for all the shortcomings... in the past years during my time as foreign minister... I thank the Iranian nation and officials.”

As an ambitious politician and academic, Zarif should not be regarded as a renegade, but rather as a regime insider. During the Iranian revolution of 1979, he became infatuated with the revolutionary principles of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. 

He was capable of proving his loyalty to the Islamic Republic, and he was appointed as a member of the Iranian delegation to the UN in 1982. By continuing to show his determination to serve the Islamic Republic, Zarif rapidly climbed the political ladder and served as Iran’s Permanent Representative to the UN from 2002 to 2007. In 2013, President Hassan Rouhani chose Zarif as his minister for foreign affairs.

The 59-year-old was, and continues to be, a great asset for the Islamic Republic. He is considered one of the few technocrats and insiders who is deeply familiar with Western diplomacy. 

He is fluent in English and is cognizant of the intricacies of the cultural, social and political landscapes in the West. He attended Drew College Preparatory School in San Francisco, gained a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in international relations at San Francisco State University, and a doctorate in international law and policy from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

It is important to point out that the position of foreign minister in Iran is mainly ceremonial due to the fact that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has the final say on the country’s major domestic and foreign policy issues. Nevertheless, it does not follow that Iran’s foreign minister does not play any role in advancing the interests of the Islamic Republic. In fact, in order to achieve the regime’s foreign policy objectives, the foreign minister sets the tone on the regional and international stage.

For example, in 2013, the Iranian government desperately needed to reach an agreement with the West because the UN’s four rounds of sanctions had economically weakened the regime to such an extent that the power of the ruling clerics was under threat. As a result, Zarif, the Western-educated politician who was familiar with Western diplomacy, was appointed as foreign minister to strike a deal and lift the crippling sanctions.

Without the blessing of the supreme leader, Zarif would not have pursued the nuclear negotiations with the West. He ultimately succeeded at rescuing the Islamic Republic for a short period of time and advancing the parochial interests of the theocratic establishment by having the UN lift the sanctions and by reaching an agreement with the West, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the Iran nuclear deal.

When Iran’s foreign minister offers his resignation, it is the president who must either accept or reject it. Nevertheless, it is difficult to believe that Zarif offered his resignation without the knowledge and blessing of the supreme leader. The major question to address is: What does Zarif’s resignation mean?

First of all, Zarif’s offer to resign is considered a victory for Iran’s hardliners, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the judiciary system. It is also a message from the Islamic Republic, particularly the hardliners, to the international community that Tehran will be pursuing more aggressive policies.

Secondly, Zarif’s resignation is a tactical game by the regime to ostensibly appease and placate the disaffected, frustrated and disenchanted public in Iran, rather than adequately address the underlying issues and problems. The Iranian government promised people that the nuclear deal would improve the economy and their living standards. However, Iran is now facing its worst economic crisis in four decades and the flow of funds and revenues has not trickled down to the ordinary people. Instead, the increasing revenues have been channeled into the pockets of the IRGC and Iran’s militia and terror groups across the Middle East.

Third, the supreme leader and the senior cadre of the IRGC frequently use the so-called moderate politicians as scapegoats. Khamenei often attempts to evade accountability by blaming the moderates, who have accepted this role because the objective of Iran’s politicians across the political spectrum is to strengthen the power of the supreme leader and the revolutionary ideals of the Islamic Republic.

In a nutshell, Zarif’s resignation indicates that the regime is intending to pursue more aggressive policies domestically, regionally and globally. It is also a tactical move by the Islamic Republic to ostensibly placate the Iranian people over their economic grievances.