On 25 February 2019, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif announced that he would be resigning from his post as the country’s chief diplomat. One Iranian specialist described this process as “foreign betrayal, domestic infighting.” In that context, Zarif’s resignation was a response to the fact that he was not present during the visit to Iran by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, symbolizing the neglect of the Iranian Foreign Ministry in foreign policy making. The resignation was also a response to the U.S. withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal, which was Zarif’s groundbreaking achievement. However, Zarif quickly rescinded his resignation, as none of the political stakeholders in Iran accepted it. This episode is a manifestation of a process in which Zarif is seen as a figure needed to remain in power in order to maintain a balance between three factions in Iran: the moderates, the reformists, and the hardliners.
While in the first decade of the Iranian revolutionary regime (1979-1989), Iranian domestic and foreign policy was marked by the religious fervor of the Iranian Islamic Revolution under the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Khomeini, who passed away in 1989. Since then, the Iranian political arena has been predicated on a balance between the three aforementioned main factions of the Iranian political body.
The first were the pragmatists, or moderates, who believed that the Iranian regime should abandon the idea of spreading a religious revolution internationally. Instead, they should engage with the outside world, particularly the West, based on a pragmatic assessment of interests with the goal of avoiding conflict. This faction was symbolized in the presidency of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) during whose time the relationship between the Iran and the outside world were far from harmonious. However, Iran avoided entanglements in any large-scale conflict with either the West or its Arab neighbors.
The second faction was the reformists, who believed that in order for the Islamic republic to survive, it must be open to reforming internally while seeking a rapprochement with external players, particularly the U.S. This faction was in power and symbolized historically by Mohammad Khatami, who was president between 1997 and 2005. During this era, Iran tried some degree of liberalizing reforms, such as pertaining to free speech, while seeking rapprochement with the U.S.
Lastly, there are hardliners who believe in a firm crackdown on domestic dissent, coupled with a confrontational foreign policy with the likes of the U.S. and Israel. This faction was in power during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the period between 2005 and 2013. During this period, Iran was under heavy international sanctions due to its nuclear programs while also engaged in subversive military operations against the U.S. in Iraq. Moreover, the democratic liberties of the Iranian citizenry were under constant threat by the government and security services.
Above the level of these political divisions in Iran, there are two main centers of powers in Iranian politics who act as unavoidable kingmakers. The first is the most powerful political and religious authority: the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The second is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the most important element of the Iranian armed forces and the national security apparatus. The two practice their influence both through veto power and direct political directives, but also through enforcement, as the IRGC is present on every level of the Iranian political and economic infrastructure, allowing it to arrest and even eliminate anyone deemed a threat to the system. The Supreme Leader and the IRGC have to provide their blessings for political candidates for any relevant office in the country that comes from any of the three factions within Iranian society and the body politic.
For the IRGC, having Zarif available as an option may be even more opportune given that their position in a geopolitical context has become more precarious. Namely, in April 2019, the Trump administration designated the IRGC a terrorist organization. This is the first time that any organization that is part of a sovereign nation’s armed forces has been designated as such, making it now susceptible to U.S. sanctions. This further implies that the U.S. will continue targeting Iran and that Washington will not accept the IRGC as an acceptable interlocutor.
For the IRGC, Zarif might be the one line of communication with the outside world through which conflict can be averted, even though it will not be an easy feat. The IRGC is no longer a group of ideological zealots, as they were in the early days of the Iranian Revolution. Instead, they are holders of tremendous political and economic power. As they feel the heat from Washington, skillful foreign policy steered by an experienced diplomat like Zarif might be their best chance to buy themselves some time in the hope that Trump will either tone down his rhetoric and actions under pressure from the rest of the international community or in hope that new President will enter the White House.
How does Zarif fit into this complex structure of political power? Zarif is considered a top-class diplomat, with a PhD in international law and diplomacy acquired in the U.S. He was also the Iranian representative in the U.N. between 2002 and 2007. Prior to that, as Deputy Foreign Minister, Zarif coordinated with the U.S. post-9/11 in the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. After being sidelined during Ahmadinejad’s years for his past contacts with the West and for not being a hardliner, Zarif was appointed to the position of Iranian Foreign Minister in 2013, when the moderate reformist Hassan Rouhani became president. Zarif was appointed precisely because of his diplomatic acumen and moderation, which made him a perfect figure to spearhead the dialogue with the West.
As the Iranian nuclear deal that Zarif helped negotiate was abandoned by the Trump Administration and Iran found itself under U.S. sanctions again, Zarif was pressured more and more by hardliners. However, while Zarif resigned, giving the impression that the hardliners had won, this did not actually occur. First, President Rouhani turned down Zarif’s resignation, invoking his significance for the country’s foreign policy. More importantly, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei rejected Zarif’s resignation, which was a decisive element as the Supreme Leader has to approve resignations. Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, also voiced support for Zarif and praised him as the central government official in the conducting of the country’s foreign policy. Receiving support from the highest echelons of the Iranian power structure was a snub to hardliners who dreamed of Zarif’s departure. Moreover, it was an indicator that Zarif is deemed as necessary to all major players in Iranian politics.
What helped Zarif come out on top of this ordeal in such an impressive manner? For both reformists and pragmatists, Zarif is seen as a well-trained and respected diplomat -- key to maintaining hope that the current isolation that Iran is facing will not escalate into full-blown confrontation. For pragmatists and reformists, this is a scenario they certainly need to avoid, as its unfolding would pave the way for hardliners triumphing. For the Supreme Leader, the logic is more complicated, as he is aging and it remains unclear who will be his successor. In those circumstances, the Supreme Leader needs a figure like Zarif, who is able to secure the extant balance between different Iranian factions and who is acceptable to different political forces within Iran. For the IRGC, Zarif is also useful as the former dominates not just the Iranian national security apparatus but also has control over some of the largest companies in Iran. As such, due to his more diplomatic image beyond Iran, Zarif is needed for the IRGC to help stave off tensions with the outside world that could endanger its commercial operations.
This is good news for the West, as without Zarif at the helm of Iranian diplomacy, it would be difficult to maintain a viable line of communications with Tehran, and it would almost certainly imply the emergence of hardliners as the new dominant grouping in the country. With Zarif in play as a member of the Iranian foreign policy elites, the Iranian drive to eventually revive the Iranian nuclear deal and lift the U.S. sanctions still has a chance. Zarif is precisely the person on whose ideas the Western businesses should invest its hope as he represents a school of thought within Iran that believes that trade and investment with the outside world are badly needed. This is not just necessary for improving the standard of citizens, but for the social and political evolution of the country. One needs to be aware that as long as the U.S. keeps Iran sanctions in play and targets the Iranian regime, there will not be any hope of Iran opening to Western businesses. What is needed is strategic patience and avoidance of security tensions while awaiting the right moment for economic re-engagement with Iran. As such, Zarif is the right bet to make as a Western investor.
Zarif was close to resigning, but thanks to his ability to gain acceptance from various political shareholders in Iran, his position in Iran is now stronger than ever. This makes him a figure to be reckoned with in Iranian politics, on whom eyes should be kept. Until a genuine process of reforms commences in Iran and the country begins a new phase of engaging with the outside world, there is a need to maintain a delicate and ever shifting balance among various political groups in the Iranian complex power structure. The balance that is especially needed is one that precludes hardliners from emerging victorious. In that context, players like Zarif are badly needed for both Iran and the West.