The abrupt resignation of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has sparked debate in the regional media over the balance between hardliners and moderates within Iran. Considered one of the major forces behind the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Mr. Zarif has been a staple of Iran’s foreign policy establishment since the election of President Rouhani. But regional observers have long argued that Mr. Zarif’s Foreign Ministry has become severely constrained, with hardliners gaining more control over Iranian foreign policy. While Mr. Zarif’s resignation has not been accepted by Iran’s president, many now wonder how much longer the “moderates” will hold influence.
The Tehran Times was quick to dismiss any rumors of discontent by publishing a statement from Iran’s president rejecting the resignation and highlighting Mr. Zarif’s contributions to his country’s international efforts: “‘Since according to the words of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution I consider you trustworthy, brave, courageous and faithful and in the forefront of resistance against widespread pressure by the United States, I believe your resignation is against the country’s interests and don’t agree with it,’ Rouhani wrote in a letter released on Wednesday.... Rouhani said the successes of the Foreign Ministry just over the last few months are noticeable, citing Iran’s legal victories against the United States in the International Court of Justice, the failure of the U.S.-organized conference in Warsaw which was intended to demonize Iran, and Zarif’s reasonable and logical speech at the Munich Security Conference as examples.”
Considering the timing of Mr. Zarif’s announcement, which coincided with an unannounced and uncoordinated visit by Syria’s president Bashar Al Assad, many have suggested that the foreign minister had simply had enough of being ignored. Again, on this matter, government officials used the Tehran Times to deny such possibilities: “A senior foreign policy advisor to the Iranian parliament speaker has ruled out any link between Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s resignation and Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s Monday visit to Tehran. Hossein Amir Abdollahian said the rumors in this regard are merely media speculation which aim to diminish the impact of Assad’s visit to Tehran, ISNA reported on Wednesday. He also said the Syrian president’s trip to Tehran carried a meaningful message in the current time. Amir Abdollahian added the Islamic Republic supports the Syrian government and its legal government.”
However, according to Al Jazeera’s Maysam Behravesh, Iranian foreign policy has been suffering from deep fissures and competing approaches for some time now, and Mr. Zarif’s resignation, whether it goes through or not, signals a clear dissatisfaction with the status quo: “Even if Zarif chooses to come back, he will not wield the same authority he once had under the first Rouhani administration and the fortunes of the current government will certainly not improve. Deep fractures and fierce political rivalry in the Iranian corridors of power have given rise to parallel structures, which are undermining Iran's elected officials and their political power. Zarif's resignation is a symptom of a larger malaise currently afflicting the Islamic Republic.... Gholamali Jafarzadeh, deputy head of the independent fraction in the Iranian parliament, attributed Zarif's resignation to 'dozens of parallel trips and talks' by state officials "without any coordination" with the foreign ministry.”
In an op-ed for Arab News, Majid Rafizadeh points out that there has been a retrenchment in Iranian aggression and confrontation, which may also underline Mr. Zarif’s declining influence: “Whenever Tehran used to encounter serious international pressure, it would tactically and temporarily tone down its provocative and aggressive rhetoric in public in order to deter the threat.... Surprisingly, instead of publicly backing off from its aggressive stance, the Iranian regime has become more aggressive, belligerent, and defiant.... Despite the robust pressure from the Trump administration, the regime has been defiantly unveiling new and advanced weaponries. Most recently, the regime conducted a massive, public navy drill near the Strait of Hormuz.... There appears to be a shift in the way that the Iranian regime reacts to pressure publicly. As the pressure mounts against Iran, the rulers become more violent, aggressive, militarized and belligerent, both domestically and regionally.”
Writing for the Jerusalem Post, Yonah Jeremy Bob suggests that, regardless of whether Mr. Zarif backs down or not from his resignation, his announcement “likely signals either the end or the last-minute saving of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.... For Tehran, firing Zarif could be its final act before leaving the deal. Then again, Zarif could be the sacrificial lamb that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has offered up to those opposing the deal in order to protect the agreement and his own power somewhat longer. Forcing Zarif out could also give the hard-liners greater control over negotiations with the EU and others and give them a chance to vent and threaten more directly in an effort to extract concessions. Either way, Zarif’s resignation is a turning point – and the nuclear-standoff ride just got a lot bumpier.”
There is a sense that the Iranian foreign minister’s tenure was already coming to an end, and that any attempts to prolong his tenure are unlikely to alter the ongoing re-orientation of Iranian foreign policy. A recent The National editorial characterized Iranian policy as undergoing a “sea change”: “An architect of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which US President Donald Trump pulled out of last May, Mr Zarif has frequently drawn the ire of hardliners in Tehran. His resignation may indicate a sea change in the corridors of power, which could pose an even greater threat to this region. Given where power lies in the Iranian regime – firmly with Ayatollah Khamenei and Soleimani – the idea of a moderate government in Tehran was always a facade. But Mr Zarif’s imminent departure underscores the immense danger Iran continues to pose to Middle Eastern stability – and the imminent need for Arab-US co-operation to curtail it.”