The offer of resignation from Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, is of great importance to Iran and the outside world. His departure will significantly weaken the reformist government of Hassan Rouhani, strengthen the country’s hardliners and help the Trump administration’s quest for regime change in Tehran.
The grave concern about what is unfolding was shown by 150 out of 290 members of the Iranian parliament signing a petition urging Zarif to stay within hours of him announcing, via Instagram, he was leaving, and other MPs saying they too will be putting their names on it.
The Tehran Stock Exchange index fell 1.1 per cent in 24 hours, and the country’s business people and bankers’ association expressed anxiety about the reaction of foreign investors – whose numbers are already dwindling after the reimposition of American trade sanctions – to the news.
Zarif was the key architect on the Iranian side of the agreement with international states over its nuclear programme – an agreement which took years to negotiate and one which five of the signatories (Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China), as well as the UN, stressed was working and making the world a safer place.
However, the sixth signatory, the US, egged on by Israel and a group of Sunni Gulf states, is trying to wreck the deal.
Western European states have taken measures to protect the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), to the ire of the Trump administration.
But American punitive measures have meant that commercial benefits which were supposed to come with the deal are drying up, and within Iran the hardliners are advocating the country should return to developing its nuclear programme.
Zarif has been fighting hard to prevent this, and remains the country’s interlocutor with the west. The pressure the Rouhani administration faces on this should not be underestimated.
Reporting on the last parliamentary and then presidential elections in Iran, I recall the constant charge from the hardline opposition candidates and parties that the west cannot be trusted, and that the nuclear deal was a grave danger to national security.
Zarif spoke about the internal pressures in an interview with the newspaper Jomhouri Eslami, following his resignation. “We first have to remove our foreign policy from the issue of party and factional fighting. The deadly poison for foreign policy is for it to become an issue of this party and factional fighting,” he said.
There are claims that the foreign minister felt he was being sidelined, during a recent visit to Tehran by Bashar al-Assad. The supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei, met the Syrian president with general Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guard, a force heavily deployed in the Syrian war, but not Zarif.
The question now is whether president Rouhani accepts the resignation and the loss of one of his main allies or, indeed, whether Ayatollah Khamenei would want such a high-profile example of internal divisions at a turbulent time.
The external divisions over Iran were laid bare at the meeting this month of the annual Munich security conference.
US vice president Mike Pence launched an attack on Nato allies, saying: “The time has come for our European partners to withdraw from the disastrous Iran nuclear deal and join with us as we bring the economic and diplomatic pressure. The time has come for our European partners to stop undermining US sanctions against this murderous revolutionary regime.”
Some of the vice president’s remarks were met with whispered mockery. When Pence stated that Iran was the chief state sponsor of terrorism there were sotto voce comments about Gulf state clients of the US supporting Islamist extremists, and the name of the murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi came up a number of times.
Angela Merkel, in her speech, staunchly defended the Iran deal and spoke up for multilateral agreements and institutions under attack from the Trump administration. The German chancellor spoke before 30 heads of government and 90 ministers. Her speech was greeted with a prolonged standing ovation in the packed auditorium.
Zarif, speaking at Munich, accused the US of having a “pathological obsession” with Iran ever since the Islamic revolution four decades ago, and “that animus is now reaching new extremes”. Senior members of the Trump administration, he maintained, were seeking to overthrow the Iranian government.
Zarif wanted to point out that US national security adviser John Bolton had told an Iranian exile group, the Mujahedin Khalq (MEK), once designated as terrorists in the US and Europe, that the Trump administration should fully back their goal of immediate regime change and recognise the group as a viable alternative.
“John Bolton is now angry because he said he would celebrate with MEK in Tehran in 2019 and that is not going to happen,” said the foreign minister.
Europe, said Zarif, must resist Washington’s pressure to jettison JCPOA and strengthen a payment mechanism under which businesses and banks would, in theory, be able to trade with Iran without incurring American sanctions.
But Zarif himself may not be around now to protect the deal. And although Bolton may not be celebrating with the MEK in Tehran this year, Iran’s adversaries were certainly celebrating the prospect of him leaving the government.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, welcomed the foreign minister’s departure, tweeting: “Zarif is gone. Good riddance.” Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, also went on Twitter to say: “We’ll see if it sticks. Either way he and Hassan Rouhani are just front men for a corrupt religious mafia.”
Zarif – urbane, US-educated with a degree in international law from Denver University – has always been a problem for the Trump camp and its international allies in portraying the Iranian government as a bunch of barbaric religious fanatics. The fall of reformists like him and rise of the hardliners will help with this narrative.
The course of this could lead to a government in Iran which will leave the deal and restart its nuclear weapons programme, which in turn will allow the US to take even more forceful action. The people of Iran will suffer deeply and the world will become a more dangerous place.
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