Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a quiet diplomat, seasoned politician, and one of the soft faces of Iran's foreign policy, submitted his resignation on February 25, 2019. It is known as political wisdom that Zarif could bring Iran an acceptable nuclear agreement. Henry Kissinger, the dean of diplomacy of the 20th century, even gave him a copy of his book dedicated with the phrase “to my enemy who deserves respect."
Zarif’s political independence offered him a margin for diplomatic maneuvering that former Iranian foreign ministers rarely had. But the mentality of the revolution seems to be dominating the mentality of the state of Iran. As a result, Zarif announced his departure. The resignation was rejected by President Rohani, a reformist like him.
The possibility of political transformation in Iran is closer to speculation than expected. We can’t analyze Iran's foreign policy without Zarif, as long as today’s Iran seems to disregard the consequences of confrontation with the international community.
President Rouhani himself may be subject to a scenario similar to Zarif. Eventually, questioning in parliament and the call of former Iranian President Ahmadinejad for his impeachment could lead to the formation of a transitional government to continue confrontation with the US.
According to the reformist movement in Iran, the conservatives and deep state clerical establishment are convinced that the next president will be from the military if internal and external matters continue as they are. The new Leader could be a strategic military figure such as Qasem Soleimani (Commander of the Quds Force) or Mohsen Rezai (former Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the current Secretary of the Expediency Discernment Council). General Qasem Soleimani will remain a key figure because of his associations with the deep state and with various political and military movements in the Middle East connected to Iran, including Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.
Despite the many background reasons that prompted Zarif to resign, the resignation indicates substantial dissidence in the Iranian political system. When Zarif called for Iran to deal with European conditions more seriously, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued his most critical words to the Europeans, considering them as partners with the US in an attempt to destroy Iran.
The main reason behind Zarif’s resignation is the nature of dealing with the bilateralism that has characterized Iran's foreign policy since 1979. The Iranian political divergence has caused significant paralysis and raised skepticism from the international community. When Foreign Minister Zarif uses the language of diplomacy with others, we find the generals of the Revolutionary Guard and the advisers of the Supreme Leader using language of threats and intimidation.
Zarif's continued attempts to set forth an independent foreign policy apart from the conservative and reformist conflict in Iran did not succeed either. Each faction has a particular view on Iran's foreign priorities, which in turn restricted many of Zarif's foreign efforts. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards returned the nuclear negotiations to the Supreme National Security Council of Iran and withdrew the file from the Iranian Foreign Ministry.
The Supreme Leader and Revolutionary Guards want the end of Trump’s presidential term, without any concessions. A successive foreign minister cannot change anything. As long as the Advisers of Khamenei are the planners of Iran's foreign policy, military diplomacy will be the shape of foreign policy.
In his 2013 memoir entitled Mr. Ambassador, Zarif wrote, "You should always smile in diplomacy. But you should never forget you are talking to an enemy." He was very realistic regarding the nuclear agreement and thought that it could not be perfect, as an ideal agreement for one party would be catastrophic for the other.
Zarif continued to be attacked from both sides, namely conservatives in his country and some US officials. Iranian conservatives described Zarif as a coward because he studied in the United States rather than defend his country during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988. US Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican who opposes the nuclear deal, wrote a tweet about Zarif in 2015 saying, “you hid in US during Iran-Iraq war while peasants & kids were marched to die.” Zarif responded by congratulating Senator Cotton on the birth of his son!
Considering how much we need an experienced diplomat like him in our world today, Zarif would be missed not only in Iran, but in all global diplomacy.
Bakhtyar Aljaf is Director of IFIMES - International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (consultative status with the UN)