As foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif was the “moderate” face of Iran that President Hassan Rouhani, a comparative reformer, wanted to show the world.
His resignation holds two important lessons for the West: First, that the Revolutionary Guard in Iran is taking on a greater role in the political decision-making process; second, that Tehran has a new foreign policy agenda. Where the Islamic Republic’s founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini once characterized his policy as “neither East nor West,” it is now “East more than West.”
Zarif, who was a popular figure among Iran’s foreign service, symbolized the promise of a new chapter for Iran. As negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program intensified, it was Zarif — cultured, articulate and reasonable — who took center stage. With his short kempt beard and impeccable Western-style suit (though of course never a tie, that sign of Western decadence and oppression), Zarif schmoozed the media, who mostly greedily gobbled up the pronouncements and geopolitical aphorisms he let fall from his lips with regular aplomb.
If the media is a game, Zarif played it superbly. Indeed, he even announced his resignation on Instagram, that most millennial of platforms.
His decision prompted a mixture of despair and outrage among Iranian diplomats, and many threatened to resign in solidarity. He responded by calling on them to “continue their duties” and wrote in a staff memo: “Hopefully my resignation will serve as a spark to bring the Foreign Ministry back to its mandated position in foreign relations.”
In that final statement lies the key to the thinking behind his resignation: Zarif clearly felt that his brief strayed from its “mandated position.”
He had been gradually sidelined since U.S. President Donald Trump pulled Washington out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed in 2016 — the so-called “Iran nuclear deal” intended to address the country’s nuclear program.
But the final straw for Zarif came when he was excluded from a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that was attended by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Rouhani, according to reports. Iranian newspaper Entekhab reported Zarif as saying he now has “no credibility in the world as a foreign minister.”
The truth is that Zarif has long been caught between two opposing sets of inexorable forces. On the one hand are the Iranian hard-liners who see the nuclear deal as the thin end of the wedge. Détente with the West is something they reject under all circumstances. They saw Rouhani and his point man, Zarif, as the harbingers of this possibility.
As Clement Therme, a research fellow on Iran at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, notes, conservatives warned Rouhani about the risk of signing an agreement with the U.S. and prevented him from negotiating with the Obama administration on issues besides the nuclear program, such as Iran’s regional policy, its ballistic missile program and the re-establishment of diplomatic relations. Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and reimposition of sanctions proves them right and shifts the internal balance of power in their favor.
Meanwhile, Zarif was under pressure from the other side. The P5+1 — the five United Nations Security Council powers and Germany — were pushing him to ease Iranian support for the Assad regime in Syria, cease expanding the country’s ballistic missile program and crack down on the country’s colossal money laundering industry. These were all things that were well beyond his remit to reasonably achieve.
All in all, the fact that this push-and-pull has now come to a head is bad news for the West — particularly for Europe.
Senior theocratic decision-makers such as Ali Akbar Velayati and Ali Larijani rather than Zarif now have the power, Therme said. They believe that it is futile to forge trade alliances with European economies that did not resist U.S. pressure to boycott doing business with Iran.
We are left with a supreme leader adamant in his ideological refusal to talk directly to the U.S. and eager to turn toward the Russian, Chinese and Indian economies. Brussels’ strategic proximity to the United States — despite recent rhetorical clashes — also continues to be a determining factor in shaping European policies toward the Middle East, including Iran.
Russia, meanwhile, appears to have become the mediating power in the region once again — and the only real block to a military conflict between the U.S. and Iran.
All in all, things are looking gloomy for those who had hoped for a rapprochement that could stabilize an ever more chaotic region.
But this is Iran: One never truly knows. Rouhani has so far refused to accept Zarif’s resignation. He is not done fighting yet.