by Dina Esfandiary
When Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif announced his resignation through a cryptic post on Instagram, everyone was taken by surprise. This was a risky but clever ploy for a vote of confidence at a time where both he and his ministry were suffering from being ignored, attacked, or kept out of the loop. Today, Zarif is back at work, and with a stronger hand to tackle upcoming regional and international issues.
Zarif announced his resignation through a surprise post on Instagram—not yet blocked in Iran—on February 25, apologizing for the “shortcomings.” This followed a day of meetings between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani, IRGC General Qasem Soleimani, and President Bashar -al-Assad in Tehran. Zarif was nowhere to be seen. The Iranian new outlet Entekhab quoted Zarif as saying that his absence at those meetings stripped him of his credibility as a foreign minister.
Although Syria was the excuse, it certainly wasn’t the only reason behind Zarif’s move.
The 2015 nuclear deal was popular at first, but the lack of dividends and President Trump’s decision to pull out and reinstate sanctions on Iran made the Rouhani administration, and by extension Zarif, the target of a virulent hardliner campaign to discredit them. As the face of the Rouhani administration’s policy of openness to the West, Zarif regularly came under attack by hardliners as a spy and a traitor. The government’s push to implement the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) regulations on terrorism financing also faced a great deal of push-back in Tehran. Fearing that this would open the country up to Western scrutiny, parliamentarians tried to put a stop to the process in November 2018 by impeaching Zarif. Although their efforts failed, it further weakened the foreign minister who found himself increasingly having to defend himself and the Rouhani administration instead of doing his job.
The foreign ministry also grappled with the uneasy balance it had to strike on the control of regional security files. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards under General Soleimani have greater say on Iran’s involvement in countries like Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. This prompted legitimate criticism by Iran’s Gulf Arab neighbors that engaging the Rouhani administration was pointless because it didn’t represent the whole country. Generally, the foreign ministry worked reasonably well with the Guards, but it rarely led on these issues, and its directives were often ignored.
Tehran will face many tests in the coming months. The Trump administration is hell bent on squeezing Iran, and Europeans are faltering in their obligations in the face of U.S. pressure. The upcoming departure of European Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini, an advocate of engagement with Iran, will also add to the difficulty.
As a result, Assad’s meeting with all the leading figures in Tehran but Zarif—the only person whose mandate actually focuses on dealing with Iran’s foreign relations—was the last straw. Zarif used it as an opportunity to strengthen his position within the system and force the Supreme Leader to step in.
And it worked.
After the initial surprise, the system scrambled to keep one of its most astute diplomats. Zarif has always been a popular figure in Iran. He’s also been popular abroad, viewed as an easy and capable interlocutor for negotiations. After his surprise resignation, Iranians created the hashtag #Zarif_stay, other diplomats threatened to resign in solidarity, and a majority of parliamentarians called for him to remain in the job.
As a result, on February 27, referring to a statement made by the Supreme Leader, President Rouhani rejected the resignation and showered Zarif with praise, calling him “honest, brave, courageous and religious (…) at the forefront of resisting the intense pressures from the United States.” Even General Soleimani—the man running Iran’s presence in the region—praised Zarif, reiterating that only he was in charge of the country’s foreign relations and blaming his absence from the meetings with Assad on a simple mix-up.
Today, Zarif returns to work with a stronger hand and with the public support of a range of stakeholders within the system. He took the fight out into the public sphere, and he won. This will give him greater political capital to tackle upcoming challenges. And importantly, it might even allow the foreign ministry greater say on contentious regional security issues. It remains to be seen whether he makes good use of this newfound political capital.
Dina Esfandiary is an International Security Program Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, a fellow in the Middle East department of The Century Foundation, and an adjunct fellow in the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Middle East Program.