Zarif’s resignation could be reflection of Iran infighting, boost for US hawks

“The resignation of Zarif is foremost a blow to the Europeans,” Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, told a panel on Iran in Istanbul on Tuesday.
Tuesday 26/02/2019
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif delivers his statement, during the Geneva Conference on Afghanistan, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, November 28, 2018. (Reuters)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif delivers his statement, during the Geneva Conference on Afghanistan, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, November 28, 2018. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL – The announced resignation of Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif undermines European efforts to engage with Tehran while strengthening Iran hawks in the US administration bent on confronting the Islamic Republic.

Zarif’s announcement has laid bare bitter tensions between rivalling political camps in Tehran and could turn President Hasan Rouhani into a “lame duck” amid growing pressure by hardliners.

“The resignation of Zarif is foremost a blow to the Europeans,” Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, told a panel on Iran in Istanbul on Tuesday. Europe has been working with Zarif to save the international nuclear agreement despite the US withdrawal from the treaty last year. “We are entering a new phase,” Fathollah-Nejad said.

Zarif’s statement, delivered on Instagram late on Monday, came amid signs of an escalating power struggle that pits moderates like the foreign minister and Rouhani against hardliners. Factionalism in Iran’s elite has been sharpened by the worsening economic situation following the re-introduction of US sanctions.

“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 but published only after his resignation. Zarif called on Iran to “remove our foreign policy from the issue of party and factional fighting”.

Rouhani has not formally accepted the resignation of his foreign minister. A majority of Iran’s parliamentarians signed a letter to the president on Tuesday, asking for Zarif to continue his job, Ali Najafi Khoshroodi, the spokesman for the parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission told the IRNA news agency.

Zarif, 59, who served as Iran’s UN ambassador between 2002 and 2007 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.

Zarif, Rouhani and other moderates in Iran 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.

Reuters quoted an unnamed ally of Zarif as saying that that the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal had intensified political infighting in Iran, which led to Zarif’s resignation.

Gerald Feierstein, an analyst at the Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington and a former US diplomat, commented that Rouhani has been weakened by his foreign minister’s decision. “Zarif’s departure will reinforce the impression that Rouhani is seriously wounded and is, in fact, a lame duck president,” Feierstein said in a video posted on the MEI website.

The situation in Syria may also have played a role in Zarif’s resignation, Fathollah-Nejad said in Istanbul.

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 told a panel organised by the Istanbul-based think tank Istanpol and the Heinrich Boll Foundation, a German political foundation close to the German Green party.

As moderates and hardliners faced off, the economy of the country took another hit. Iran’s stock market dropped around 2,000 points on news of Zarif’s resignation.

Tehran’s opponents in the region hope that the Shiite power will be weakened by a governing class that appears to be sliding further into internal clashes. “Zarif is gone. Good riddance,” was the response of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The National Iranian American Council, a US-based advocacy group calling for dialogue between Washington and Tehran, said Zarif’s departure could play into the hands of US President Donald Trump, who argues that a much tougher line is needed in dealing with Iran.

“If his resignation materializes, it would further indicate that the political winds in Tehran are favoring domestic hardliners bent on following the Trump administration’s footsteps and leaving the JCPOA,” council president Jamal Abdi said in a statement.

“Trump’s plan to collapse the deal may indeed be aimed at empowering radicals in Iran,” Abdi added. “Hardliners in the U.S. have long cheered for Iran to be led by radical elements to make engagement difficult and validate calls for sanctions and military action. Should Zarif bow out of Iran’s political theater, Trump and his team may be getting exactly what they wish for.”

The White House National Security Council last year asked the Pentagon to work out plans for a military against Iran, according to media reports. Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton, who chairs the council, openly called for an overthrow of the Iranian regime before he joined the administration.