Tensions would have likely grown between Iran and its regional foes if Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s resignation had gone through. Zarif, who has been serving as the Foreign Minister of Iran since 2013, announced his resignation in an Instagram post Feb. 25. In the post, Zarif thanked the Iranian people and apologized for "all his shortcomings" during his tenure without providing any reasons as to why he was quitting. However, on Feb. 26, President Hassan Rouhani rejected Zarif's resignation. Zarif’s exit would have enabled Iran's political hardliners - the clergy and the military establishment - to implement the more aggressive foreign policy they desire. These hardline groups have mistrusted Zarif because he was educated in the US, and is aligned with Iran’s reformists and moderates.
Zarif’s Influence on Tehran
Zarif's resignation Feb. 25 coincided with his apparent exclusion from a high-level meeting between Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Zarif reportedly said that he would have no credibility once the pictures from that meeting were made public. However, the reality is that hardliners have regularly criticized Zarif and taken issue with his policy positions, especially with regard to Iran's relations with the US and other Western countries. That Zarif was not present, likely because he was not invited, in meetings between Assad and the Supreme Leader of Iran indicates that hardliners attempted to further deprive him of his decision-making powers. While Zarif was not being forced out of office, many within Iran's religious and military establishment wanted to curb his influence in Tehran, essentially relegating the foreign minister's office to a largely symbolic role.
The pictures that Zarif complained about showed Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani in attendance at the meeting. Soleimani is the main architect of Iran's military adventures in Syria and Iraq; the Quds Force is the external wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and focuses on special and clandestine operations outside Iran. Soleimani enjoys extremely close ties with the Khameini and plays a major role in Iran’s activities in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Soleimani’s presence at the meeting demonstrates the IRGC’s already considerable influence over Iranian foreign policy.
Hardliners Power in Iran
Hardline elements have always held significant power in the Iranian policy-making world. However, the 2013 election and 2018 reelection of President Rouhani - a moderate politician – appeared to usher in a new era of Iranian politics. Many Iranians and outsiders hoped that Rouhani’s election would sideline hardliners and allow serious reforms of both internal politics and foreign policy matters. The signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) - as the Iran 2015 nuclear deal is known - between Iran and the US as well as China, France, Germany, Russia, and the UK further advanced the idea among Iranians and outsiders that the hardliners' grip on power was loosening. Zarif, who was Iran’s central participant in the nuclear deal, was widely celebrated by Iranians for easing US economic sanctions on Iran. However, after the US withdrew from the nuclear deal in May 2018, hardliners escalated their questioning of Rouhani and Zarif and are blaming them for Washington's renewed sanctions on the country.
Iran’s Economic Mismanagement
Zarif's resignation came as the impact of US economic sanctions has become more pronounced. Months of political paralysis and uncertainty have nearly collapsed the Iranian economy. The Iranian rial continues to depreciate against the US dollar and other major currencies. Inflation is extremely high, prompting protests almost daily throughout the country. People from across the country regularly take to the streets to protest corruption, economic mismanagement, and the government's continued support of countries like Syria. As life for ordinary Iranians worsens, the government's extensive investments in foreign conflicts have become increasingly unpopular. The government continues to face growing calls to abandon its efforts in these conflicts and instead focus on building infrastructure and improving the economy at home.
What to Expect Next
Hardliners are unlikely to cease their support for military adventures in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen despite growing public frustration at home. Instead, the hardliners will continue to pursue domestic and foreign policies that will further isolate Tehran politically and economically. If President Rouhani had accepted Zarif's resignation, hardliners would have established even more control over Tehran's foreign policy matters.
However, now that President Rouhani has rejected Zarif's resignation and Khameini did not veto it, Zarif may be able to limit interference at the foreign ministry from the IRGC and other hardline challengers.
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