Analysis

Zarif’s Exit Is Good News for Iran’s Radicals, Bad News for the West

The Iranian foreign minister’s resignation could take pressure off President Rohani to step down, or it might intensify it

Outgoing Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks at the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, February 17, 2019
Kerstin Joensson,AP

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s terse resignation statement ends a six-year tenure for a man considered the moderate face of Iranian foreign policy. 

Zarif, who was appointed shortly after Iran’s president, Hassan Rohani, took office in 2013, headed Iran’s nuclear negotiating team with the major powers and managed to get an agreement signed despite strong and unrestrained opposition from conservative and radical movements in his country.

Until recently, Zarif also managed the talks with countries from the European Union about establishing a mechanism to circumvent American economic sanctions against Tehran. He had also hinted at a desire at reconciliation with the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia.

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Zarif, who had the full backing of Rohani and the conservative speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Larijani, was on the front lines when it came to attacks by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards against Rohani’s government, and served as a lightning rod that blunted direct criticism of the president himself.

Recently, however, pressure has increased on Rohani to resign due what critics said was his responsibility for the serious economic crisis prevailing in Iran, a crisis that conservatives attribute to the nuclear agreement and what they have characterized as groveling to the West, particularly the United States.

Members of the Iranian parliament signed a petition calling either on Rohani to resign or for the elimination of the post of president, to be replaced by a parliamentary system in which the legislature rather than members of the public chooses the president. It could be that Zarif’s resignation was meant to throw a bone to the radicals and the Revolutionary Guards to allow Rohani to serve out the rest of his term, which ends in 2021. 

Zarif had considered resigning last month as a result of the confrontation with the Revolutionary Guards and their terrorist activity in Europe, which led to the imposition of additional sanctions on Iran and made it difficult to advance a mechanism to bypass the sanctions. Recently Zarif spoke of a limit to the economic difficulties that the people can endure. That followed a statement by Rohani that Iran was facing its worst economic crisis since the revolution.

The statements created a storm in the court of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and among the conservatives and Revolutionary Guards, who viewed the remarks as an accusation against the senior leadership and a call for new negotiations with the Western powers.

It will soon be clear whether Zarif’s resignation has actually rescued Rohani from the pressure to resign or intensifies it, and it remains to be seen who will replace him and whether his replacement will be approved by parliament. 

The assessment is that, as has happened in the past, Khamenei will dictate the appointment to Rohani, thereby deepening the supreme leader’s control over the Iranian government and his ability to direct its foreign policy.

That is certainly not good news for the EU, which is trying to preserve the nuclear agreement, but not just for the Europeans. The departure of an important minister who was trying to counterbalance the policies of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards could also spell changes for the worse when it comes to Iranian activity in Syria and the Gulf.