Javad Zarif's resignation points to deep disagreements within Irans foreign policy establishment over regional ambitions.
The shock resignation of Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif is said to be part of an ongoing power struggle between those that seek a more assertive regional role for Iran and those who believe the country should compromise with international powers.
In an Instagram post, Zarif wrote: "I extend my gratitude for the generosity that dear and brave people of Iran and its respected authorities have had during the past 67 months."
Without saying exactly why he had resigned, he added: "I humbly apologise for the inability to continue serving and for all the shortcomings during my service.”
Zarif, one of Iran's most famous diplomats, is credited with negotiating the 2015 nuclear agreement between the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council—the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, and China—plus Germany, which ended Iran’s international isolation.
Since then the administration of President Donald Trump has reneged on the agreement, bringing its existence into doubt even as the EU struggles to keep it afloat.
The Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported that President Hassan Rouhani’s Chief of Staff Mahmoud Vaezi said: "Reports claiming that President Rouhani has accepted Mr Zarif's resignation are categorically refuted."
Rumours were swirling in Tehran that if Zarif's resignation was accepted it may result in a cascade of senior resignations at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Zarif, however, has sought to calm such fears and has implored those who are thinking of following him to continue at the ministry, stating: “I’m proud to work with all of you and hope my sudden resignation be a wake-up call for restoring the Foreign Ministry to its real and legal position in foreign affairs.”
Why did Zarif resign?
The resignation is part of an ongoing power struggle within Iran between those that seek a more assertive regional role for Iran, such as Ayatollah Khamenei and the elite Revolutionary Guards, and those like Rouhani and Zarif who believe that there is no option but to compromise with international powers.
This split was brought into stark relief on Monday when Bashar al Assad made his first visit to Iran on Monday, Syria’s closest regional ally, and meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, among others.
However, Assad’s meeting with Rouhani is the one that may have triggered Zarif’s impromptu resignation. Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s powerful general and spymaster was in attendance at the meeting, whereas Zarif seems to have been left out.
In Iranian newspaper Jomhuri Eslami, Zarif was quoted as saying that political infighting was hampering his ministry’s work
"The deadly poison for foreign policy is for foreign policy to become an issue of party and factional fighting," he said.
Monday’s meeting, from which he was excluded, seemed to have been the last straw for the beleaguered foreign minister, who has seen regional foreign policy slip away from his brief.
Iranian parliamentarians came out in support of Zarif, however, whether that will be enough to keep the foreign minister in his role is another matter.
Many Iranian conservatives, including Khamenei have cautioned Rouhani against relying on European countries to save the 2015 nuclear deal.
Moreover, with the US reinstating sanctions on Iran and moving towards cutting the country’s international oil exports, elements within government increasingly believe that the deal is no longer offering the benefits that Iran was promised.
European companies have also increasingly left the Iranian market due to US pressure, even as European governments have promised to shield their companies from US actions.
Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, reacted to the resignation by noting that Rouhani and Zarif were “front men for a corrupt religious mafia”.
He added: “Our policy is unchanged—the regime must behave like a normal country and respect its people.”