The Plot Against Zarif – and How Iran's Hardliners Failed

A foreign minister's resignation doesn't usually create shock waves. But the dichotomy through which the West views Iran meant Zarif's was perceived as an earthquake

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Iranian President Rohani and Foreign Minister Zarif.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani, left, and Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif in Tehran in 2016. Last week Rohani refused to accept Zarif's resignation as foreign minister.Credit: Vahid Salemi/AP

There was no official announcement, no confirmation or denial, but Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who submitted his resignation last week, is still on the job as foreign minister. Two days after Zarif’s dramatic statement that he was stepping down “to maintain the standing of the Foreign Ministry,” Iranian media published smiling pictures of the minister with the visiting prime minister of Armenia, Nikol Pashinian.

Iranian media also reported on long telephone conversations between Zarif and his Syrian counterpart, Walid Moallem and a published report that Syrian President Bashar Assad had invited Zarif to visit Damascus. That would be contrary to protocol, to the extent that such protocol exists.

Twice, in January and in October, rumors spread that Zarif intended to resign. Both times the reports were denied, but this time he seriously intended to take that exceptional step.

>> Read more: Zarif’s exit is good news for Iran’s radicals, bad news for the West

The immediate explanation linked his decision to a personal affront – that he had not been invited to a summit with the Syrian president, who had come to Iran for the first time in eight years. According to reports from Iranian sources quoted in opposition media outlets, it was actually Iranian President Hassan Rohani who should have been insulted, because Assad had been invited to meet with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, without Rohani’s knowledge, at the initiative of Qassem Soleimani, the chief of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force.

It was only at the last minute, while the visit was underway, that Rohani was summoned to Khamenei’s office. Soleimani, Khamenei and Khamenei’s bureau chief were the only ones who had known about the Syrian president’s visit.

Rohani declined to accept Zarif’s resignation — on the grounds that it was contrary to the country’s interests. The praise that he heaped on his foreign minister and a letter from 150 Iranian lawmakers demanding that the president decline to accept the resignation seemed to have done the trick. Khamenei’s apparent realization of Zarif’s importance as the architect of Iranian foreign relations with the West also carried weight. That is particularly true when it comes to the European Union, which is trying hard to maintain Iran’s nuclear agreement with the major powers following the withdrawal of the United States from the pact.

Iran’s display window had cracked a bit, but it had not yet shattered. A foreign minister’s resignation does not usually create shock waves. U.S. President Donald Trump has gotten the world used to the idea that members of his cabinet aren’t gods. They can be replaced with a tweet.

Israel has been operating for years without a real foreign minister. In Arab countries, foreign ministers, as opposed to defense ministers, are high-level bureaucrats at most, and even in Iran, foreign ministers have been fired and the earth did not shake. But Zarif’s resignation was perceived as an earthquake mainly because of the dichotomy through which the West views Iran.

The routine and misleading divide between reformists and conservatives, between “moderates” and “extremists” — the only yardstick by which to gauge Iran’s intentions and the magnitude of the threat it poses — is based on the ideological makeup of the government and the parliament. Therefore when a “moderate” minister resigns from a “moderate” government, there is increased anxiety that the government is becoming more extreme — meaning a return to uranium enrichment, increased military activity in Syria and involvement elsewhere in the world.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on a visit by the Syrian president to Iran, February 2019.Credit:

All of a sudden, another knee-jerk interpretation is forgotten, the constant refrain that the sole and last word rests in the hands of the supreme leader, no matter who his president or foreign minister is. In fact, Zarif could not have conducted the nuclear negotiations without Khamenei’s express authority. Another supreme leader may have ordered a resumption of uranium enrichment after the United States withdrew from the agreement last May. So does Iran’s continued adherence to the agreement demonstrate that Khamenei is “moderate” or “extreme,” “rational” or “messianic”?

Zarif’s resignation was not the result of personal insult or ego games. It stemmed from long, heated power struggles between various segments and interests of the regime and Rohani’s government. Such conflicts are nothing new and they show that the country’s hierarchical structure is not necessarily set in stone or that it can guarantee unity.

During the summer of 2016, for example, Zarif fired his own deputy, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, in connection with a dispute between them over Iran’s ties to the Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia. Abdollahian supported the Revolutionary Guards’ position that Bahrain and Saudi Arabia should be cautioned not to send forces to Syria, while at the time, Zarif wished to promote reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Shortly before Abdollahian was dismissed, Qassem Soleimani, the Quds force commander of the Revolutionary Guards, threatened Bahrain that it “and the entire regime would go up in flames if Bahrain exceeded the Revolutionary Guards’ red lines.”

With this threat, which came in response to Bahrain’s decision to strip the senior Shi’ite religious leader Isa Ahmed Qassim of Bahraini citizenship, Soleimani stepped on Zarif’s toes over what the Iranian foreign minister considered blatant interference in Iranian foreign policy. Abdollahian, who was subsequently appointed diplomatic adviser to the speaker of the Iranian parliament, paid the price.

The president vs. the Revolutionary Guards

A year prior to the dismissal, in January 2015, President Rohani’s battle with the Revolutionary Guards over the nuclear agreement reached its height. In a particularly venomous question, Rohani asked: “Are we strong because we have all kinds of weapons, but we depend on others to supply us with wheat, meat, oil and sugar? Some among us think that because we have missiles, we are strong.”

The response came from Ali Said Nazik, a senior figure in the Basij militia, which answers to the Revolutionary Guards: “Our missiles frighten Israel. They are what strengthen the Syrians, the Palestinians and the Hezbollah resistance.”

The commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds force, Qassem Soleimani.Credit: Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader

Rohani did not hold his tongue. “We cannot grow when we are isolated.... The world revolves around interests, and at the negotiating table, we don’t discuss ideology. Our ideology does not rely on [nuclear] centrifuges,” he said.

The conflict that the Revolutionary Guards had with Iran’s president also prevailed when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is far from being a reformist, held the position. In 2012, long before the disagreement over the nuclear accord, when he was criticized for the economic crisis in Iran, Ahmadinejad demanded knowing why economic institutions owned by the army and the Revolutionary Guards weren’t paying taxes as any other corporation would. He also suggested that the Revolutionary Guards sell the land on which the Tehran area’s Doshan Tappeh airbase was built.

“An area of 650,000 square meters in the heart of the city, which could be used for the country’s benefit” is how Ahmadinejad described it at the time.

Rohani’s and Zarif’s recent efforts to promote an anti-money-laundering and anti-terrorism financing law have encountered a solid wall of opposition from interest groups including members of parliament, military figures and heads of the Revolutionary Guards. In Zarif’s view, the law is essential to help the European Union develop a way of getting around American sanctions. But opponents of the law, who fear it will stop the flow of illegal money, bogged the legislation down in a committee that must decide whether the law violates the constitution.

It’s a dispute over strategy, not ideology, as was the invitation to Syrian President Assad to visit the country, through which Soleimani sought to dictate Iran’s policy towards Syria, bypassing the president and the Foreign Ministry.

No friends of Russia’s

Decision makers in Iran are also split over reports that Trump has promised Assad that he would maintain the Syrian president’s regime in power if Syria expels Iran from its territory. Another concern involves military coordination between Russia and Israel and the nature of Iran’s coordination with Russia.

The chairman of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, has said: “If the S-300 missiles were working properly, Israel could not easily attack Syria,” a reference to Russian missiles in Syria. That was a fairly blatant hint that Russia is not only allowing Israel to stage attacks, but is even “sabotaging” the Russian air defense systems in Syria to allow harm to be done to Iranian targets.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told CNN a month ago that Israel’s security was “one of the top priorities of Russia,” and that Iran and Russia are not allies in Syria but have rather simply worked together — and “do not see at any given moment completely eye-to-eye on what happens.” That further heightened the dispute in Iran between those who want to condition further involvement in Syria on economic assistance that would allow Iran to recover some of the huge investment Iran has showered on Assad.

Supporters of this position, including Iran’s president and reformist parliamentarians, believe that Russia is the big winner from the civil war in Syria and that Iran must either take a rational economic stand that would ensure it a stake in the rehabilitation of Syria or quit the effort. By contrast, the command of the Revolutionary Guards and the conservatives say Iranian military involvement in Syria should continue because of the strategic advantages that the Iranian presence in Syria provides it.

The invitation to Assad and the embrace by Khamenei were therefore intended to make it clear to the Russians that Assad is not their exclusive property and that Iran does not intend to give up its foothold in Syria. In this dispute, Soleimani was able to score political points. For a moment, he could bask in glory over the success of his maneuver vis-a-vis Rohani and Zarif and that ostensibly Khamenei had adopted his strategy toward Syria, particularly following the criticism that he was subjected to for his poor handling of the war in Syria.

But then came Zarif’s resignation, which upended Soleimani’s calculations. The minister who was resigning had again become “the national hero,” who was much more essential at this time than the commander of the Al Quds force. But this was just another round, and certainly not the last, in the boxing match that Iran has been waging.