ANALYSIS: Why Did Foreign Minister Javad Zarif Resign?

By Roshanak Astaraki

In a surprise move, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif resigned from his post on February 26. On the same day, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei met and held talks with the visiting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Tehran.

The timing of the two events is far from coincidental, especially since Mr. Zarif was conspicuously absent from the high-level meeting. They instead reveal intense infighting among various factions within the Islamic Republic. The juxtaposition of Zarif announcing his resignation on his Instagram account and a photograph of Mr. Khamenei and President Assad embracing exposes a tragic disconnect inside the Iranian regime.

Meanwhile, in a letter to Zarif written on February 27, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said: “I believe accepting your resignation would not be in the country’s best interest; therefore, I reject it.”

We must look for the reasons behind Zarif’s resignation in the complex and complicated political power plays inside Iran.

While projecting a softer version of the Islamic Republic to the outside world, Zarif has also given an image of Mr. Rouhani’s reformist administration as a viable governing system in Iran. However, his resignation sends a clear message to the international community about a deep political rift between the opposing factions in Iran–a fact that became apparent after Rouhani’s recent criticism of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Rouhani has accused the IRGC of “interfering in the country’s economic affairs and preventing the government from doing its job.” Zarif’s resignation clearly indicated to the world that despite the meeting between Rouhani and Assad, there are domestic divisions over Iran’s foreign policy and regional activities.

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The late President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and the reform movement suffered a crushing defeat in the 2015 presidential elections after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the conservatives took over the government. Mr. Rafsanjani and the reformists tried to involve themselves in talks with the U.S. after President Barack Obama and his administration used Oman as an intermediary to send a conciliatory message to Tehran regarding its right to acquire nuclear energy.

By excluding the reformists from the secret nuclear talks, Mr. Ahmadinejad and his administration were trying to streamline the negotiations and eliminate any disruption. That is the principal reason why the reformists mobilized their forces in the 2009 presidential elections. Although they did not win the elections, they prevented the nuclear negotiations from moving forward.

After their costly defeat, the Iranian reformists tried to normalize their relations with the establishment and reenter the political arena. They took full credit for the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal, which they believed would improve the country’s relations with the European governments and revive Iran’s ailing economy.

They also used as their model Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party to improve the country’s economy and consolidate their power at the same time. They viewed the JCPOA as a currency that they could use to make political deals with particular power centers in America.

During the student takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, the late Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri argued in favor of releasing the American hostages while President Jimmy Carter was still in office, because the Democrats had helped the Islamists come to power in Iran. While Mr. Montazeri could not convince the students to release their American hostages during Mr. Carter’s term in office, Rouhani and the reformists signed the JCPOA with a Democratic U.S. administration. In effect, the JCPOA was an agreement between the reformists in Iran, the EU, and the Democrats in the U.S.

The government has failed to deal with the economic crisis that has hit Iran in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018 and the subsequent re-imposition of more stringent sanctions. To ensure the survival of the regime and receive sanction relief, Iran has made concessions to the Europeans including the possibility of ratifying the Palermo bill (United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, UNTOC).

However, for the third time, the Expediency Council on February 16 failed to come up with a definite ruling on whether it supports Iran’s joining the Palermo bill. The complete political defeat of the reformists places the Iranian people in a precarious position of having to choose between bad and worse, meaning between the conservatives and the reformists. The reform movement has been trying to align itself with the EU and the U.S. and to distance itself from the regime.

Mr. Zarif and seven other ministers wrote a letter to Mr. Khamenei recently urging the ratification of the Palermo bill. They threatened to resign if the Expediency Council did not approve the bill. The reformists have lost their European supporters. They also face a U.S. administration which is blatantly hostile to the Iranian establishment. They acutely know that failure to ratify the Palermo bill would prompt the EU to change its policy towards Iran. Zarif’s resignation was, therefore, an attempt to show that the reformists in Iran are supporting the Western propaganda against the regime.

The strategy of the reformists, who aim to perpetuate the status quo, is to differentiate themselves from the regime in the eyes of the Iranian people and the world. Mr. Zarif’s resignation was a tactical move to highlight the division between various factions inside Iran and to convince the Iranian public that the reformists are on their side.

Speaking at the 58th Public Conference of the Central Bank of the Islamic Republic of Iran a day before Zarif’s resignation, President Rouhani stressed the urgent need for signing the Palermo bill. He said: “We must engage with international financial institutions, because that is the only way to sell our oil. We cannot make trades carrying luggage stuffed with cash. We must get our banks involved in business and trades. We cannot do business with the international community if we have no ties to global financial institutions. If there are any banks which disagree with this assertion, then they should speak out.”

Rouhani added: “We cannot entrust the country to a group of 10 or 20 people and abide by their decisions. No. People are the real owners of the country. Our nation, the central bank and all other banks will make their views known.” Almost in the same breath, he said: “The sudden jump in the price of meat results from financial problems we have faced in the past couple of weeks.”

The Warsaw summit, which unified 63 countries against the Islamic Republic and the severe political and economic crisis in Venezuela, has caused concern within the reformist government and its supporters in Iran. Curiously enough, the conservatives can adapt to changing situations much better than the reformists. That is perhaps the reason for the reformists trying so hard to distance themselves from the regime in Iran.

Translated from Persian by Fardine Hamidi