Zarif’s Resignation: What Next for Iran’s Policy?

Javad Zarif (Gabriel Petrescu via Shutterstock)

by Shireen T. Hunter  

On February 25, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, announced his resignation via an Instagram  message. It is not yet clear whether President Hassan Rouhani will accept the resignation. But Zarif was not present in the meetings that took place between Rouhani, Ayatollah Khamenei, and visiting Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, which suggests that his resignation will be accepted.

Because of Zarif’s resignation. pressures by hardliners on Rouhani himself might increase in coming weeks with the aim of forcing the president’s resignation or rendering him even more powerless. In addition to Zarif, Rouhani’s minister of communications, Azeri Jahromi, has also been under attack for not controlling the Internet and thus allowing religious extremists to recruit disenchanted Iranian youths. He has thus far refused to resign, and Rouhani has supported him.

Zarif’s resignation, although regrettable, was not a total surprise. In the last few months, he had become the subject of attacks by hardliners. A few months ago, some hard-line Majlis deputies tried to gather enough signatures to question him in the parliament. Their efforts failed. More or less at the same time, rumors of his resignation also spread, which Zarif categorically denied. Resignation would allow him to avoid further pressure and the possible humiliation of being questioned in the parliament. Furthermore, in the last few months, Zarif has had a punishing schedule of trips and negotiations. Thus, there could also be valid personal motives for his decision.

But it’s more likely that hardliners, dissatisfied with his and President Rouhani’s foreign policy, have forced him to resign. A major blow to Rouhani and Zarif was the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the re-imposition of sanctions. The hardliners who opposed the JCPOA from the start could not hide their pleasure at the American action. They targeted Zarif in particular, given his close identification with the JCPOA.

Another blow was the late and highly inadequate special purpose vehicle that European states created to maintain at least a minimum level of trade with Iran. Again, Zarif was blamed for this. He also came to personify the more open, moderate foreign policy based on international engagement that the Rouhani administration has advocated. When this policy did not pay off, Zarif suffered. Additionally, in recent weeks Zarif had been advocating for Iran’s adherence to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which attempts to prevent money laundering and terrorism financing. He had warned of the negative outcomes for Iran if it did not join.

Yet, the powerful Expediency Council, which is supposed to resolve conflicts between branches of government and provides advice to the Supreme Leader, has refused to approve the Majlis bill that would allow Iran to join the FATF. Hardline council members and other hard-line elements argue that doing so would adversely affect Iran’s economy. However, their real concern is about Iran’s ability to provide funds for groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Thus, the debate about the FATF is at heart about the kind of policy that Iran should pursue in its foreign relations, especially whether it should gradually  disentangle itself from Near East problems or at least reduce its engagement in controversial issues.

Zarif’s resignation could also be the tip of the iceberg. Deeper problems plague the Iranian political leadership, especially disagreements over the future of the Islamic revolution and the country more generally. As public dissatisfaction with the state of the economy and culture increases, hardliners are growing anxious about their own future. For example, hard-line cleric Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi recently said that the future of the clerical establishment is tied up with that of the revolution. In other words, the revolutionary discourse and behavior must continue for the clerics to retain their favored position. More liberal and progressive clerics, however, do not share his opinion. They believe that in Iran only a more reformed and liberal Islam can secure the religion’s position and that of the clerics.

Sadly, the Supreme Leader seems to be siding with the hardliners. There are rumors that Raisi will become the head of the powerful judiciary. This is bad news indeed. In a recent meeting, the Supreme Leader attacked those who recommend lifting some cultural restrictions regarding music and entertainment. He said that some people equate happiness with dancing and corrupt music on radio and television. He made it clear that he opposes such liberalization. He also criticized officials for their lack of patience and hope.

It is too soon to predict which direction Iran’s politics and foreign policy will evolve. But the latest developments are not encouraging. In the face of growing challenges,  hardliners have chosen to double down on ideological orthodoxy and resist any liberalization. Yet, such a policy will only exacerbate the system’s contradictions and increase the risk of a crisis that will claim the hardliners themselves as the first victims.

In any other country, Zarif would have been thanked for his stewardship of foreign policy, especially in international fora. For the first time in many years, Iran had a representative who could converse eloquently and knowledgeably with other diplomats and present Iran’s views effectively. At a time when Iran’s rivals are using their best available diplomats to spread their messages and explain their policies, Zarif’s departure no doubt will undermine Iran’s position in international diplomacy.

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. I hope Foreign Minister Zarif (his resignation has been rejected by President Rouhani) continues to represent the Iranian nation. He is a gem who can hold his own against other adversaries. In every forum he has been able to hold the higher moral ground. Yet he does so respectfully and courteously. He is one in a million and I hope he continues to contribute to the success of Iranian nation whether in the government or outside.

  2. Madam Hunter: You don’t have to be a “hardliner” to be disenfranchised with Rohani and Zarif foreign policy. What do you think has been accomplished?

  3. Considering the complexity of Iranian politics, it won’t be surprising if Mr Zarif is getting ready to run for the president’s office!
    Although Zarif’s resignation has been rejected as of today.

  4. Dear Ms. Hunter I respectfully disagree with your comments. The JCPOA if anyone bothered to read the full 150 page document was known up-front to provide no benefit to Iran. Unfortunately, this information was not provided to the Iranian public by Iran’s FM, nor President Rohani’s Administration, until the US published the English version. Many false hopes were given to the Iranian people, that All Sanctions Were to be REMOVED – while in fact the US said that US Sanctions will not be removed and the US has the right to reimpose additional sanctions at its free will. Please don’t keep saying hardliners – anyone with a bit of intelligence would have picked these up.

    The loopholes and the ability for the US to renege on its obligations were clearly in the provisions. The ability of the US to be the judge and to veto were included in the JCPOA. When the Agreement was not presented by President Obama to the Senate and the House of Representatives, it naturally gave the next US Administration the levay to get out of the deal. Iran gave up all of its rights to a civilian nuclear program in return for “hopes” and “maybes”, and “wishes” that the US would not renege, while in fact this was tried in 2003 with President Khatami’s admin. when he negotiated for two years with the EU-3 and after two years of full stop of Iran’s nuclear program the EU-3 couldn’t produce nil, because the US was absent. So obviously, it was a known fact that the Europeans are at the beck and call of the US. Iran has undergone the most stringent inspection in IAEA’s history, go anywhere, see anything, when no other NPT member has signed up to such an agreement.

    The Europeans are under pressure from the US not to do business with Iran. This SPV that is being established in certain European countries is a means of capturing Iran’s oil wealth sitting in banks in China, India, and elsewhere and transfer them to a European country, where a barter system is created – i.e. oil money for medicine and food. So there will be no money transfer to Iran. There is alot more to say about this. But your analysis unfortunately, does not cover why this was and is a poor deal for the Iranian nation.

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