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Explainer: What We Know About The Shock Resignation Of Iran's Top Diplomat

"I apologize for my inability to continue to serve and for all the flaws and shortcomings during my sincere years of service," Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in announcing his apparent departure. (file photo)

Iran's foreign minister of five years, Mohammad Javad Zarif, abruptly announced his resignation via social media on February 25, taking many Iranians and foreign diplomats by surprise.

But one day later, with calls among lawmakers and many moderates mounting for Zarif to stay on the job, his fate was still unclear.

In a cryptic televised address on February 26 that did not explicitly mention the resignation, President Hassan Rohani cited Zarif's place at "the front line of the battle" against the United States. In a hint at possible infighting of the sort that has pitted hard-line conservatives against Zarif for years, the president sought through an aide to beat back perceptions that rivals were foisting their policies on the country's Foreign Ministry. Later in the day, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said that the president had not accepted Zarif's resignation.

Top Iranian officials, including Rohani, have suggested that Iran is facing its toughest economic situation in 40 years, due in part to the resumption last year of U.S. sanctions. It is also trying to juggle its support for combatants in a number of conflicts around the region, including Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

Here are some of the most significant aspects of Zarif's shock announcement and the ripples it is sending through Iranian and global politics.

Why all the confusion?

Zarif, a veteran diplomat and active social-media user with a mastery of English, abruptly resigned via Instagram, one of the only social-media sites that remains unblocked in Iran.

The U.S.-educated Zarif made the announcement after offering greetings on the birthday of Fatima Zahra, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, which is being celebrated in Iran as Mother’s Day. In it, he thanked the Iranian people and officials for their support and then announced he was resigning after serving the country as foreign minister for the past five years.

"I apologize for my inability to continue to serve and for all the flaws and shortcomings during my sincere years of service. Be happy and proud," Zarif wrote in brief, late-night Instagram post.

The surprise resignation was soon confirmed by a Foreign Ministry deputy spokesman, who told the official government news agency IRNA that Zarif’s Instagram post was authentic. It was not clear if the Iranian foreign minister had also submitted an official letter of resignation.

Minutes later, Rohani chief of staff Mahmud Vaezi "strongly" rejected unspecified reports that Rohani had accepted Zarif's resignation.

On February 26, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghassemi said that "any interpretations and analysis about the reasons behind the resignation of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, beyond what he posted on his Instagram account, is not accurate and, as the chief of staff of the president of Iran said today, the resignation has not been accepted," according to the semiofficial ISNA news agency.

Years Of Hard-Line Pressure

Zarif's offer of resignation followed weeks of rumors that he had resigned or was planning to resign due to pressure from Iranian conservatives. The speculation even prompted a reaction from the Foreign Ministry, which said in November that "some illusionary and sick-minded" circles were spreading the reports.

One day after his resignation offer, Zarif appeared to suggest that he had made the decision because he was being undermined in his job. He urged Foreign Ministry staff not to quit over his presumed departure, adding, "I hope my resignation will act as a spur for the Foreign Ministry to regain its legal role in the conduct of foreign affairs."

In an interview published in the conservative daily Jomhouri Eslami on February 26, Zarif was quoted again hinting at political infighting, which, he said was a "deadly poison." The interview was reportedly conducted the week before his resignation offer.

"A deadly poison for foreign policy is that it becomes the subject of factionalism and parties' quarrel," Zarif was quoted as saying. "There should be trust toward servants of foreign policy on the national level. Without trust in them, everything will go with the wind."

Zarif worked closely with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (left) during negotiations to clinch the Iran nuclear deal in 2015.
Zarif worked closely with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (left) during negotiations to clinch the Iran nuclear deal in 2015.

The Fars news agency, which is affiliated with the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), quoted an "informed source" within the ministry as saying that Zarif's exclusion from a meeting between Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and visiting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had triggered his resignation. Zarif's was absent from photos of the February 25 meeting issued by Iranian news sites. Qassem Suleimani, the head of the IRGC's elite Quds Force, attended the meeting. The unnamed source was quoted by Fars as saying that Zarif "is likely to return to the government."

Reformist lawmaker Elias Hazrati also suggested that the exclusion from the meeting with Assad had led to Zarif's rush for the door.

"It's very bad for a foreign minister not to be informed of a special move in foreign policy. Bashar al-Assad has traveled to Tehran but the foreign minister doesn’t know about it! It’s very bad," Hazrati was quoted as saying by IRNA.

Hazrati added that Zarif had been also upset about "different institutions" that are involved in foreign policy.

"In our country, the foreign minister is not the first man in the field of foreign policy," Hazrati said, without elaborating.

In Iran, the Quds Force is said to play the leading role in Iran's involvement in countries such as Syria, where Iranian and Russian forces have played a key part in propping up Assad against antigovernment militants. The IRGC is also in charge of Iran's missile program.

Zarif was considered the public face of Rohani's détente policy with the West, opposed by conservative hard-liners who have sought to apply greater pressure on the Iranian president and his allies. He has faced hard-line pressure ever since the 2015 nuclear deal with the United States and other world powers, as well as over his dealings with former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Observers have wondered aloud whether a May exit from the nuclear deal by U.S. President Donald Trump strengthened Iranian hard-liners who had long argued that Washington should have never been trusted.

In recent months, Zarif had been working to salvage the deal, under which Iran significantly limited sensitive nuclear work in exchange for sanctions relief.

Zarif also came under pressure from the right last year for saying publicly that money laundering was a reality in Iran and that unnamed institutions that relied on such activities were behind efforts to block legislation against money laundering and terrorism financing as required by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which promotes policies to protect the global financial system from money laundering, terrorist financing, and the financing of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Hard-line conservative have opposed the measures, saying they undermine Iran's support for militant groups in the region such as Hamas and the Lebanese Hizballah.

A small group of conservative lawmakers even moved to impeach Zarif over his comments, which they said were against national interests. The motion was later dropped after about 15 lawmakers withdrew their support for it.

Domestic Reactions

Zarif's resignation offer sent shock waves through Iran, where the diplomat had won some respect for negotiating the 2015 nuclear deal -- which many Iranians hoped would lead to economic improvements. So his resignation raised questions about the future of the deal, which has effectively been on life support following the withdrawal by the Trump administration and with European states struggling to balance their reluctance to do the same with their desire to display unity with Washington.

Zarif speaks during the 55th Munich Security Conference in Munich on February 17.
Zarif speaks during the 55th Munich Security Conference in Munich on February 17.

Beyond Rohani's words of praise in his televised speech, Iranian news agencies reported that more than 160 lawmakers reportedly signed a letter calling on Zarif to remain in his post. Some, including Hazrati, urged Rohani to reject Zarif's resignation.

For their part, Iranian hard-liners who oppose engagement with the West are rejoicing over Zarif's decision to quit.

"I’m happy that Zarif resigned, but I’m upset that he won’t be put on trial," Amir Hossein Sabeti, a member of the paramilitary arm of the IRGC, the Basij, said via Twitter. “It’s not fair for you to escape after telling people lies for five years about the removal of sanctions and after destroying Iran’s nuclear capabilities."

Meanwhile, pro-reform lawmaker Parvaneh Salahshuri suggested that two groups would welcome Zarif's resignation: “The America-Zionist lobby and domestic hard-liners who benefit from a crisis in Iran."

International Reactions

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said via Twitter that Washington had taken note of Zarif’s move but added that his resignation would make no difference. “Either way, he and @HassanRouhani are just front men for a corrupt religious mafia," Pompeo wrote.

Pompeo also said of Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who is ultimately in charge of political and religious affairs but who has so far remained silent on the Zarif resignation: "We know @khamenei_ir makes all final decisions. Our policy is unchanged -- the regime must behave like a normal country and respect its people."

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu welcomed word of Zarif's resignation, saying, "Zarif is gone. Good riddance."

There was no official reaction from EU officials, who have been negotiating with Zarif to find ways to keep the 2015 nuclear deal alive.

But Nathalie Tocci, a special adviser to EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, called Zarif’s resignation a "huge loss" for Iran and for the EU in a tweet posted shortly after the news broke on February 25.

She posted an update on February 26 saying she was "happy" to have awakened to reports that the resignation had not been accepted by Rohani.

What’s Next?

Sanam Vakil, a senior consulting research fellow in the Middle East North Africa Program of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, called Zarif’s resignation "a back-to-the-future moment" if it were accepted by Rohani and Khamenei.

"It could suggest a shift from a strategy of compromise to confrontation similar to what we observed during the transition from [reformist Mohammad] Khatami to [the hard-line Mahmud] Ahmadinejad presidency in 2005," Vakil told RFE/RL. "The consequence of this shift could be evidenced in more resistance and leverage on building tactics to up the ante in the current standoff with the U.S."

Ali Vaez, the director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group (ICG), told RFE/RL that Zarif's resignation would not necessarily mean a shift in policy.

"If it is up to Rohani, he’d either tap his chief of staff, Mahmud Vaezi, or Zarif’s deputy, Abbas Araghchi [to replace Zarif]. Both men would bring more continuity than change to style and substance of Iran’s foreign policy," Vaez said.

"However, if a hard-liner like former Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian is imposed on the president by the deep state, it could augur a hardening of Iran's outlook on the outside world," he added.