Analysis

Iran's (Relatively) Moderate Foreign Minister Javad Zarif Could Be on His Way Out

Not only Trump is irked by Javad Zarif's conciliatory remarks: The minister's ouster might be on the horizon, as protests continue and Iran's elections loom

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Tehran, February 3, 2020
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Tehran, February 3, 2020Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“No thanks,” was the cynical response of U.S. President Donald Trump to the conciliatory remarks by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in an interview with the German newspaper Der Spiegel, on Friday. Zarif told the paper that he would "never rule out the possibility that people will change their approach and recognize the realities." And, the minister added,"the Trump administration can correct its past, lift the sanctions and come back to the negotiating table. We're still at the negotiating table. They're the ones who left."

Iran’s conditions for renewing negotiations with the United States have not changed since the latter walked away from the 2015 nuclear agreement in May 2018. It was in fact Trump who had pressured, coaxed, encouraged and sent emissaries to reopen negotiations but without offering anything real in exchange or any sort of carrot that would tempt Iran to return to the diplomatic channel.

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To Trump's negative tweet, Zarif replied on Sunday: “realdonaldtrump is better advised to base his foreign policy comments & decisions on facts, rather than @FoxNews headlines or his Farsi translators.”

The minister also tweeted that “we have a lot of patience,” but it’s not at all certain that he has time. Zarif is now facing a tough Iranian parliament, some 38 of whose members have signed off on a demand to question him ahead of possible dismissal from office.

Any willingness to negotiate with Washington is now a red line for Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who, after the assassination by U.S. forces of Revolutionary Guards Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani, has made it clear that there will be no more contact with “Soleimani’s murderers.”

Iranian demonstrators burn the U.S. flag in Tehran, to show their anger at Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif for suggesting possible negotiations with the Americans, Jan. 27, 2020
Iranian protesters burn the U.S. flag in Tehran, to show their anger at Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, for suggesting possible talks with the Americans, last week.Credit: Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA/Reuters

“With what goal are you pursuing talks with the murderer of martyr Soleimani?” Hossein Shariatmadari, editor of the conservative Iranian newspaper Kayhan, asked Zarif in a sharply worded editorial. "With those who defined Soleimani as a terrorist leader?"

Shariatmadari added that even if the United States returned to the negotiating table it would want to discuss the ballistic missile program “without which Iran would turn into dust.”

For his part, Ebrahim Raisi, chief justice of Iran, has vowed that “sooner or later we will meet Soleimani’s murderers, but not for negotiations, rather for trial and punishment.”

In that same vein, Tehran has been pressuring Iraq to file a suit at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, accusing the United States of killing Soleimani in Iraqi territory, in a breach of its sovereignty.

This is not the first time that Zarif, architect of the nuclear agreement, has faced tough criticism by conservatives in the Iranian government. A year ago he was planning to resign – because of the involvement of the Revolutionary Guards in conducting the country's foreign policy – but he quickly backtracked. This time, however, the closer Iran comes to its parliamentary elections, set for February 21, the sharper the criticism is becoming. It could lead to the successful ousting of Zarif as a symbol of the opposition to the government of Iranian President Hassan Rohani.

Zarif himself referred to this political embroglio when he said that Iran is now divided into two camps, those who support talks with the United States and those who oppose them. The dispute, he noted, is political and not material in nature, and could hurt Iran’s national interests.

The elections are taking place against the backdrop of major protests in which, so far, an estimated 1,500 people have been killed, thousands injured and hundreds arrested. Diverting public discourse to focus on the struggle against the United States is an essential goal of the government in Tehran, which fears that the protests could have an impact on the makeup of the new parliament. Iran is thus striving to silence voices critical of the brutal conduct of its security forces, to blur the affair of the downing of the Ukrainian passenger jet last month, and to emphasize the nuclear issue.

But protest continues to roil the country. If not as mass demonstrations in the streets, it surfaces at cultural events such as Iran’s Film Critics’ Award ceremony, which took place Friday in Tehran.

“Iranian artists must not remain silent in the face of the massacres of 2019-2020,” filmmaker Homayoun Ghanizadeh said at the ceremony. “Silence in the face of a catastrophe such as what happened in November [i.e., mass protests against fuel hikes] looks ugly. Artists should not leave the people alone.”

Popular Iranian actor and singer Hamed Behdad, who has won awards for appearances in a number of films, read out to the audience a WhatsApp text he had received from his mother calling on him not to celebrate his birthday when young men and women are risking their lives in the name of price hikes and economic turmoil. According to the opposition Radio Farda, many Iranian artists have been asked to boycott the Fajr International Film Festival in Tehran later this month.

The protests by artists do not threaten the regime per se, but they are indicative of a mood that has not dissipated even after the violent suppression of the demonstrations. Rohani, who lost a good deal of his legitimization even among reformists when he failed to keep his election promises – especially regarding the war on corruption – will not be running in the next presidential election, in 2021, but continues to attack the leadership and the Revolutionary Guards in their soft underbelly, the place where corruption is rife.

In November Rohani delivered an aggressive speech aimed squarely at the judicial and law enforcement authorities which he believes have been negligent when it comes to investigating and trying those suspected of graft to the tune of millions of dollars. The government television station refused to broadcast the speech, but it went viral on social media.

Ultimately, Trump could have done his part and encouraged negotiations, and thus helped the moderates increase their representation in the elections. But after all, it's Trump we're talking about here.

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