The pending resignation of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif—which the diplomat announced on Instagram Monday but has not yet been accepted by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani—has sparked international alarm over the future of the Iran nuclear deal, which Zarif and European leaders have been trying to save since U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned the agreement and reimposed economic sanctions last year.
"[If] Zarif reverses his decision in the wake of public outcry over his resignation announcement... he could return with increased legitimacy and decision-making power."
—Jamal Abdi, NIAC
"While Zarif is not above criticism, over the past forty years, the U.S. and Iran have had few clear channels for negotiations, and Zarif has long been a major proponent of U.S.-Iran negotiations and deescalation," noted National Iranian American Council (NIAC) president Jamal Abdi. "Hard-liners in the U.S. have long cheered for Iran to be led by radical elements to make engagement difficult and validate calls for sanctions and military action. Should Zarif bow out of Iran's political theater, Trump and his team may be getting exactly what they wish for—and the world will be worse for it."
The U.S.-educated Zarif, a longtime critic of hard-liners in both the United States and his own country, was instrumental in securing the landmark 2015 nuclear deal, officially titled the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which Iran has continued to comply with despite Trump's withdrawal—along with other moves by the administration to ramp up tensions—and mounting frustration among the Iranian people over the impact of U.S. sanctions.
The vague Instagram post—in which Zarif offered an "apology" for his "inability to continue to his service" but didn't detail the reasoning behind his decision—came just hours after he met with a delegation of peace activists with the U.S.-based group CodePink. Medea Benjamin, the group's co-founder, and U.S. Army veteran Ann Wright wrote that they were "deeply saddened" by the development but also shed some light on the frustrations he shared with them.
During their meeting, Benjamin and Wright explained,
Zarif talked at length about how dissatisfied the Iranian people had become with the Iran nuclear agreement, and the pressure this put on him... Now just 51 percent of Iranians think the nuclear agreement is a good idea because it has brought no economic relief to the Iranian people. Jarif expressed frustration with the Europeans, who say they want to salvage the deal but refuse to provide real economic relief.
We left the meeting feeling so impressed by the depth of Zarif's knowledge, his diplomatic skills, and his commitment to finding peaceful ways to deal with conflicts—including his efforts to solve the crisis in Yemen. We also left understanding the difficult position he was in, having staked his reputation on the success of the nuclear deal.
An ally of Zarif who spoke with Reuters on the condition of anonymity also suggested the resignation was tied to public unrest over JCPOA and American sanctions, explaining that "there were closed-door meetings every week, where top officials were bombarding him with questions about the deal and what will happen next and so on... He and his boss [Rouhani] were under a huge amount of pressure."
Citing Iranian news sources, The Associated Press reported Tuesday on political divisions within Iran that likely contributed to Zarif's decision:
The state-run IRNA news agency said Zarif told colleagues his resignation would aid in "restoring the ministry to its legal position in foreign relations."
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Zarif elaborated in an interview published Tuesday by the daily Jomhuori Eslami.
"A deadly poison for foreign policy is that it becomes the subject of factionalism and parties' quarrel," Zarif reportedly said. "There should be trust toward servants of foreign policy on the national level. Without trust in them, everything will go with the wind."
While warning that Zarif's pending resignation "reflects a hardening posture in Iran following the U.S. withdrawal" and "would be a boon for radical forces in Tehran who oppose the JCPOA and further engagement with the West," NIAC's Abdi also emphasized that if "Zarif reverses his decision in the wake of public outcry over his resignation announcement... he could return with increased legitimacy and decision-making power."
NIAC founder Trita Parsi concurred, pointing out in a series of tweets that support from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could "give him an important layer of protection" against hard-liners who want Zarif out of the position for his deal-making with the West:
2. If Ayatollah Khamenei refuses to accept his resignation, Zarif will be serving BECAUSE of Khamenei's insistence. This will give him an important layer of protection against his hardline critics.
— Trita Parsi (@tparsi) February 26, 2019
4. Also critical to understand that had Trump not waged a war on the #IranDeal and deprived Iranians of the economic benefits they were promised, it would have been much harder for the hardliners to attack and corner Zarif. Trump enabled the hardliners.
— Trita Parsi (@tparsi) February 26, 2019
The majority of Iranian lawmakers on Tuesday joined with international observers to call on Rouhani to reject Zarif's latest resignation—which, a Tehran-based political analyst told the AP, is the third time he's tried to step down within the past year.
Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, chairman of the Parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, has called an extraordinary session to address the matter, PressTV reported Tuesday, and committee spokesman Ali Najafi Khoshroudi has collected signatures from about 160 parliamentarians for a letter to Rouhani urging him to rejected the resignation.
Rouhani has not yet addressed Zarif's announcement but praised him in a speech on Tuesday. Rouhani Chief of Staff Mahmoud Vaezi, in an Instagram post, highlighted that praise as "a clear sign of the satisfaction of the representative of the people of Iran about the wise and effective positions and work of Dr. Zarif and a tough response to some biased and incorrect analyses," according to a translation from PressTV. As Vaezi put it, "In the view of Dr. Rouhani, the Islamic Republic of Iran has only one foreign policy and one foreign minister."