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.