Zarif’s attempted resignation was ‘cry for help’ amid pressure by hardliners

President Hassan Rohani rejected Zarif’s resignation as being “against national interests."
Thursday 28/02/2019
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaking at a news conference in Tehran, Iran. (AP)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaking at a news conference in Tehran, Iran. (AP)

ISTANBUL - The announcement by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif that he was resigning his post could undermine European efforts to engage with Tehran while strengthening Iranian hardliners battling moderates for control of the Islamic Republic.

Zarif’s sudden announcement February 25, after months of pressure from hardliners, was prompted by his indignation over being excluded from meetings in Tehran between top Iranian officials and Syrian President Bashar Assad, an aide told Reuters.

The news agency quoted a senior official as saying that Zarif’s resignation was a “cry for help. To tell officials and people that his hands were tied.”

Iranian President Hassan Rohani rejected Zarif’s resignation as being “against national interests” and Assad, in an apparent effort to ease tensions, invited Zarif to Damascus.

Senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qassem Soleimani said Zarif was the main person in charge of foreign policy and he was supported by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As a result, Zarif was back on the job 48 hours after he took to Instagram to say he was resigning.

Even though Zarif ended up back in office with fresh endorsements from Rohani, moderate lawmakers, Soleimani and -- indirectly -- Khamenei, his initial announcement showed how weak his position had become.

The episode also laid bare bitter tensions between rival political camps in Tehran and the pressure hardliners put on Zarif and other moderates who argue Iran should seek better ties with the West. Factionalism among Iran’s elite has sharpened during the worsening economic situation following the re-introduction of US sanctions.

“The resignation of Zarif is foremost a blow to the Europeans,” Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre, said February 26 at a panel discussion on Iran in Istanbul, before Zarif returned to his post. Europe has been working with Zarif to save the international nuclear agreement despite the US withdrawal from the treaty last year.

“The deadly poison for foreign policy is for foreign policy to become an issue of party and factional fighting,” Zarif told the Jomhuri Eslami newspaper in an interview conducted several days before his announcement. Zarif called on Iranian leaders to “remove our foreign policy from the issue of party and factional fighting.”

Zarif, 59, who served as Iran’s UN ambassador from 2002-07 and became foreign minister in 2013, has been the smiling face of Iran abroad and a key negotiator on talks leading to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the 2015 deal designed to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons is formally called.

Iran’s moderates have been under fire domestically because the JCPOA has not unlocked the economic and political benefits promised by its proponents. High inflation and unemployment, as well as mismanagement and corruption, triggered widespread protests a year ago.

The situation in Syria may have played a role in Zarif’s resignation, Fathollah-Nejad said. He noted that a military confrontation between Iran and Israel in Syria had become more likely following repeated Israeli air strikes on Iranian assets there.

“Perhaps that is something that was seen by Zarif and his school of thought to be very much undermining any hope for good working relations with the West,” Fathollah-Nejad said at an event organised by the Istanbul think-tank Istanpol and the Heinrich Boll Foundation, a German political foundation close to the German Green party.