by Farhang Jahanpour
After Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced his resignation via Instagram shortly before midnight local time on February 25, many foreign pundits and officials celebrated his departure. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response was “Zarif is gone. Good riddance.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used even more insulting and undiplomatic language, and dismissed both Zarif and President Rouhani as “front men for a corrupt religious mafia.” Of course, one may be tempted to use such terms about a number of governments, but it is unacceptable for this kind of language to come from someone who serves as the chief statesman and diplomat of a superpower.
Zarif’s letter of resignation to the president, which had been written shortly before his Instagram message, revealed the pressures that he had been under. He faced challenges not only because of the U.S. violation of the landmark nuclear agreement but also domestic efforts to marginalize the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and exclude it from many important areas of foreign policy.
The main reason for his resignation seems to have been his exclusion from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani’s meetings with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during his surprise visit to Tehran. Although Commander of the Quds Force General Qasem Soleimani, Ayatollah Khamenei’s special foreign policy advisor Ali Akbar Velayati, and the president’s chief of staff Mahmoud Vaezi took part in those meetings, Zarif was conspicuously absent because he had not been invited.
Zarif told the reformist newspaper Entekhab: “After the photos of today’s meetings [are published], Javad Zarif as the foreign minister has no credibility around the world.” It seems that certain areas of foreign policy are supervised directly by the Supreme Leader’s office and the Revolutionary Guards from which the minister of foreign affairs is excluded.
The newspaper Ghanoon (Law), which published photographs of Assad’s meeting with Rouhani under the headline “Uninvited Guest,” has been temporarily banned because, according to a former judge for the press court, “Bashar al-Assad was Ayatollah Khamenei’s special guest.” According to Ghanoon, Ayatollah Khamenei praised Assad as the “hero of the Arab world” who had given the “resistance” more power and more prestige.
As soon as Zarif’s resignation became public, it generated thousands of comments, most of them supporting him and begging him to change his mind. Also, 150 Majles deputies signed a letter calling on Rouhani to reject Zarif’s resignation. Many senior staff at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had also made it known that if Zarif left they would also leave their posts. This prompted Zarif to write on a staff memo quoted by several news agencies: “I am calling on all of my brothers and sisters in the Foreign Ministry and our representative offices to continue their duties.”
However, the memo also contained an ominous message, which reveals the reason for his frustration and resignation: “Hopefully my resignation will serve as a spark to bring the Foreign Ministry back to its mandated position in foreign relations.” He added that his sole concern had been to “strengthen the credibility of the Foreign Ministry as the driver of policy and protector of national interest on the international scene.”
This gamble seems to have paid off, and the president and others have recognized that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs must be in charge of foreign policy. Soleimani referred to Zarif as “the main person in charge of foreign policy.” He said: “Mr Zarif has always enjoyed the support of the senior members of the government, especially the leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.” He expressed hope that Zarif’s resignation would restore the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to “its legal status.”
Shortly after Zarif’s resignation, Rouhani’s Chief of Staff Mahmoud Vaezi wrote on Instagram: “According to Rouhani, Iran only has one minister of foreign affairs and one foreign policy.” Some of the comments on Vaezi’s message were very interesting. One comment by a cleric read: “Without Zarif, Rouhani is a lame duck president. He should either keep Zarif or he should resign too.” Another wrote: “Without Zarif, the government will be meaningless. Zarif’s departure would mean the end of a liberal regime in the country.”
In response to Zarif’s letter of resignation, President Rouhani described him as a “faithful, brave, valiant and pious individual,” adding: “You are on the front line of resisting the U.S.’s extensive pressures.” Therefore, he said Zarif’s resignation was against national interests and that he would not accept it.
He went on to say:
I am well aware of the pressures put on the country’s diplomatic apparatus, the government and even the elected president. However, we will remain faithful to the end to the commitments that we have made to God and to the nation. I am confident that, with God’s grace, we will also pass through this difficult phase.
On Wednesday morning, Zarif accompanied the president to the ceremonies welcoming the Armenian president to Tehran.
U.S.-educated Zarif has devoted his entire career, when he was working as Iran’s permanent representative at the United Nations from 2002-2007 under President Khatami and especially during the six years that he has served under President Rouhani as minister of foreign affairs, to bringing about reconciliation with the West. He achieved that goal with the landmark nuclear deal that he reached with the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany, and which the Security Council and the EU endorsed unanimously.
As Zarif has often said, that remarkable agreement was the base and not the ceiling of Iran’s cooperation with the West. Had it been honored, it could have acted as a first step to raising all the other outstanding issues between the West and Iran and resolving some of the intractable problems and disputes in the Middle East. Even Ayatollah Khamenei, who has always been suspicious of the United States, said that the nuclear agreement could act as a test case and, if successful, could help reach other agreements with the West.
Opposition to Rapprochement
However, the neoconservatives and other anti-Iran forces in various U.S. administrations have always been opposed to any rapprochement between Tehran and the West and have worked hard to block it. When Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani was elected president (1989-1997), he tried to rebuild the war-shattered economy. As a gesture of goodwill, he gave a $1 billion oil contract to the American oil company Conoco to show that after 10 years of revolution and war, Iran was open to interaction and collaboration with the United States. Unfortunately, pro-Israel officials who had achieved prominent positions in the Clinton administration rebuffed his olive branch.
Conoco was forced to cancel the deal. Rafsanjani, meanwhile, was rewarded with the “dual containment policy” courtesy of Martin Indyk, a former head of the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) who was serving as senior director of Near East and South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council.
President Mohammad Khatami subsequently went even further. He strongly condemned the 9/11 terrorist attack and called for a “dialogue of civilizations.” He made a remarkable offer to the United States through the Swiss ambassador in Tehran to resolve all the issues of contention between the two countries, including Iran’s nuclear program and its approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict . He appointed Hassan Rouhani as the head of the team negotiating a nuclear deal with the European Troika (Britain, France, and Germany), and reached a deal to reduce Iran’s activities to research and development and very limited low-level enrichment. This time, President George Bush responded to Iran’s gesture by including Iran in an “axis of evil” with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Kim Jong Il’s North Korea.
When Rouhani was first elected president in 2013, he appointed Zarif, who had worked with the initial Iranian nuclear team, to be in charge of negotiating a new deal with the West. After two years of intense negotiations with the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany, they reached the landmark nuclear deal. When the agreement was reached, celebrations broke out in Tehran and Zarif was welcomed back as a hero for having opened a new era of cooperation between Iran and the United States.
Dealing with the Hardliners
President Trump’s irresponsible withdrawal from the nuclear agreement pulled the rug from under Zarif’s feet. It also emboldened hardliners who accused him of having been deceived by the Americans when he gave up Iran’s nuclear program, which had cost billions of dollars and many years of hard work, in exchange for empty promises.
The Iranian government should use the shock of Zarif’s resignation to push back against the hardliners and take charge of both the domestic and foreign affairs of the country. Also, Iran’s foreign opponents should consider the risks of destabilizing the government under the current critical situation.
The Middle East is still reeling from two decades of constant wars and massive destruction. At a time when nuclear-armed India and Pakistan may be on the brink of a new war, when the multi-faceted wars in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere have not been resolved, when the Arab-Israeli conflict seems to be in a state of permanent stagnation, and when the wave of refugees to Europe is still continuing, it is highly irresponsible to add yet another major conflict to the list.
Let’s hope that saner heads will prevail both in Iran and Europe and especially in the United States to push Iran towards greater democracy and human rights through dialog and cooperation, rather than through blind regime-change policies that thrust the region into even greater chaos.
Farhang Jahanpour is a former professor and dean of the Faculty of Languages at the University of Isfahan, and a former Senior Research Scholar at Harvard. For the past 30 years he has been teaching courses on the Middle East at the Department of Continuing Education and is a member of Kellogg College at the University of Oxford.