The strange tale of the Iranian foreign minister’s resignation

Zarif can be sure of one thing: As the Iran nuclear deal gradually collapses, the regime’s hardliners will scapegoat him for the defeat.
Sunday 03/03/2019
Time up? Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif checks his watch during a news conference in Tehran, February 13.  (AFP)
Time up? Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif checks his watch during a news conference in Tehran, February 13. (AFP)

Called upon in the hour of need, forgotten in victory and scapegoated in the face of defeat. Such is the unenviable destiny of the technocratic elites in Iran, as demonstrated by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s attempted resignation.

Iran’s top diplomat unexpectedly announced his resignation February 25 on Instagram, apologising “for my inability to continue serving and for all the shortcomings during my service.”

Zarif’s resignation surprised most observers because he had survived several attempts to remove him through parliamentary no-confidence votes. Zarif has also demonstrated an indefatigable spirit in the face of increased pressure from hardliners who accuse Zarif and Iranian President Hassan Rohani of selling out the country’s national interests in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal.

However, there appears to have been a specific reason behind Zarif’s attempted resignation. Syrian President Bashar Assad visited Tehran on February 25, his first since the war in Syria began, but no one bothered to inform Iran’s foreign minister.

Worse, both Rohani and Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the extraterritorial al-Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, were present at Assad’s meetings with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The Entekhab news site asked Zarif why he had resigned and the foreign minister responded in a text message: “Following [release] of today’s meetings, Javad Zarif no longer enjoys any credibility in the world.”

In the first reaction to Zarif’s resignation, Rohani’s Chief of Staff Mahmoud Vaezi said on Twitter that the president had not accepted it but Abbas Mousavi, deputy spokesman of the Foreign Ministry, confirmed Zarif’s resignation. In a second statement released on Instagram, Vaezi reiterated his statement about Rohani not accepting the resignation: “In Hassan Rohani’s view, Iran has only one foreign policy and only one minister of foreign affairs.”

Zarif received moral support from Soleimani, who said the foreign minister was the “main authority responsible for Iran’s foreign policy” and his absence at the meetings with Assad was not “intentional” but due to “poor coordination” at the office of the president. Soleimani said Zarif’s work has always been “approved by the highest levels of the regime, in particular Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.”

Rohani, too, was out defending Zarif. He said he was aware of the “pressure” on Iran’s diplomatic apparatus but believed the obstacles could be surmounted.

Even more remarkable, the reformist media quoted “a high-ranking authority of the regime” — usually a reference to Khamenei — sending a supportive message. It said the high-ranking authority “has, in a written message to Zarif, considered his resignation contrary to the expediency of the state.”

Zarif appears to remain in his position for now but the humiliation he suffered during Assad’s visit demonstrates how Tehran behaves towards the regime’s technocratic elites.

In its hour of need, the US-educated and soft-spoken Zarif has been called upon to present a smiling face of Iran to the world. It was Zarif who negotiated the nuclear deal with the world powers. He offered Tehran’s response as it faced the pressures of multilateral sanctions. However, no one bothered to inform Zarif once the regime celebrated Assad’s visit to Tehran.

Zarif can be sure of one thing: As the Iran nuclear deal gradually collapses, the regime’s hardliners will scapegoat him for the defeat. Perhaps it would have been wiser for the hapless Zarif to resign and leave office.

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