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Iran's foreign minister abruptly resigns

February 25, 2019

Iran's US-educated foreign minister, Javad Zarif, has announced his resignation on social media. Shortly after, an aide to President Hassan Rouhani denied that Zarif's resignation had been accepted.

Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks in Switzerland, 2015
Image: Getty Images/AFP/B. Smialowski

Iran's top diplomat, Mohammad Javad Zarif, a close ally to moderate President Hassan Rouhani, unexpectedly announced that he was stepping down in a social media post on Monday. 

"I sincerely apologize for the inability to continue serving and for all the shortcomings during my service. I thank the Iranian nation and officials," the 59-year-old diplomat wrote on Instagram.

"Be happy and worthy," he added.

The withdrawal would only become valid if accepted by the president. Following Zarif's post, Rouhani's chief of staff, Mahmoud Vaezi, "strongly denied" the reports that Zarif's resignation had been accepted.

Read more: Iran, Israel trade rebukes at Munich Security Conference

On Tuesday, a majority of parliamentarians signed a letter to Rouhani asking that Zarif stay in his post. Ali Najafi Khoshroodi, spokesman for parliament's national security and foreign policy commission, told Iranian news agency IRNA that he was still collecting additional signatures.

Unusual move

Instagram is one of the few social networks still legal in Iran. Even so, it is highly unusual for a senior Iranian official to resign on social media. Zarif gave no explanation as to why he had issued a resignation.

Experts on Iran speculated that the move could be rejected by Rouhani to signal trust in the diplomat, which could also be interpreted as a demonstration of power aimed at his critics.

"In the recent past, other government ministers have resigned only for Rouhani to reject their resignation — compelling them to stay onboard," Sina Toossi, a research associate at the National Iranian American Council, told DW. "If Rouhani were to reject Zarif's resignation, he could return with renewed legitimacy and decision-making power." 

On the other hand, "if Zarif's resignation materializes, the balance of power in Tehran will shift substantially further to the favor of hard-liners," he added. 

Return of sanctions sparks anger

Though the reasons for the resignation were not immediately clear, both Zarif and Rouhani have been facing a storm of criticism from hard-liners who opposed the 2015 nuclear deal with the West. Now, conservatives feel vindicated in their distrust of the United States following the partial breakdown of the deal and the return of sanctions.

Read more: Iranians feel the pressure of new US sanctions

Zarif served as one of the main architects of the 2015 accord, which involved the US, UK, France and Germany, as well as Russia and China. The deal imposes limits on Iran's nuclear program in exchange for easing sanctions on the Iranian economy.

Since Donald Trump took over the presidency in 2017, however, Washington has attempted to dismantle the deal and force other participants to reimpose economic restrictions on Iran. An ongoing currency crisis and economic slowdown in Iran has been fueling anger against Rouhani and his allies.

The US-educated Zarif has been a smooth English-speaking voice and Iran's primary interlocutor with the West at a time when Europe is trying to keep the nuclear deal alive despite US sanctions.  

If he departs, it could signal that reformist factions represented by Zarif and Rouhani have been weakened, with major implications for maintaining the nuclear deal and relations with the West.  

Read more: 1979: A fateful year for the Middle East

Hard-line elements "do not place value in an engagement track with Europe and wish to pursue a tit for tat strategy against the United States," Toossi said. 

"If hard-liners attain even greater influence, it is likely Iran will take steps to expand its nuclear program in violation of the nuclear deal — in order to boost its bargaining chip vis-a-vis potential future negotiations," he said. 

The Trump administration, led by Iran hawks such as national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have vowed a "maximum pressure" campaign against Tehran and hinted the goal is regime change. 

If hard-liners gain greater control in Iran, the Trump administration may get what it has sought to achieve, "for Iran to be led by radical forces that make engagement difficult and validate calls for sanctions and military action," Toossi said. 

Responding to the resignation news on Twitter, Pompeo accused Rouhani and Zarif of being "just front men for a corrupt religious mafia" in which all decisions are made by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

"Our policy is unchanged — the regime must behave like a normal country and respect its people," he said. 

Iran revolution anniversary

cw, dj/cmk (AP, Reuters)

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