Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, resigned yesterday. His resignation sent shockwaves of terror and grief through many Iranians, me included. I doubt that there is any other foreign minister in the world whose departure would have such dire consequences, from instantly plummeting the stock market to inspiring many Iranians to worry about the future and see it as an ominous sign. BBC Persian has started its programming sooner to cover Zarif’s resignation, quite a rare event. That’s because Zarif was not merely a technocratic diplomat who could be replaced easily, but a symbol, the manifestation of a movement. Masoud Behnoud, an Iranian journalist, once said that Zarif was Rouhani’s Prime Minister, and I believe that this is an apt way of putting it.
Zarif was only 20 years old when he was appointed to Iran’s delegation to the UN, right after the 1979 Revolution, and back then he was merely a young revolutionary with radical ideas and no idea how diplomacy works. But he transformed throughout the years, changing into post-revolutionary Iran’s most competent and respected diplomats, receiving accolades from diplomats from all political stripes in the world, receiving high praise about his competence from people like Jack Straw, Joe Biden, Kofi Annan, John Kerry, and even Henry Kissinger and John Bolton (who described Zarif as a respectable and competent “enemy”).
Zarif went on to serve as Iran’s UN ambassador and Rouhani’s right hand man during the first round of nuclear negotiations in 2000s, and he proved to be the most natural choice for Rouhani’s foreign minister when he became president. He went on to successfully negotiate the nuclear deal, and in the meanwhile he became Rouhani’s most important minister, and the very symbol of Iran’s pragmatic faction and diplomacy and rapprochement with the west. That is why, after the reimposition of sanctions, the downfall of Iran’s economy, and no sign of pragmatism on the behalf of Iran’s regime, people are interpreting Zarif’s departure as an ultimate defeat and a final blow to the pragmatic faction of the regime.
Zarif’s departure was caused by Bashar Assad’s visit to Iran, who was taken to visit Khamenei and Rouhani without involvement from the Foreign Ministry, completely coordinated by the Quds Army of the Revolutionary Guards. This visit and its clear implied insult to Iran’s diplomatic establishment seems to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. He remarked after his resignation that “I hope that my resignation is an incentive to restore Foreign Ministry’s legitimate role”, lamenting that “some consider negotiation to be betrayal” and “people who condemn [our own] democratically elected president rather than Trump”. Therefore, we can conclude that his resignation is basically a protest against radicalism, militarism, and the continued erosion of pragmatism and competence in Iran’s foreign policy, especially its regional policy.
Of course, there are many other interpretations about his resignation. Some believe that Zarif is preparing to run for president in 2021, and thus is trying to distance himself from Rouhani, whom people (wrongly, in my opinion) blame for the economic fallout. Some believe that he is not going to step down, and he is just pressuring the regime to take some positive steps. These people are beseeching Rouhani to not accept his resignation. There are also less optimistic ideas out there: that he knows Iran is not going to comply with FATF, which would result in Iran’s complete economic isolation, or that Iran is going to violate the nuclear deal, and he doesn’t want to partake in these developments. Only the future can show if any of these ideas are correct.
As a final word, the main thing I want to say is that although I’m saddened and devastated to see Zarif go, in the end I’m very grateful to him. He was a symbol of reform and pragmatism and reconciliation, he broke many historical records in his term, from shaking hands with Obama to meeting with an American Secretary of State, appointing the first women in post-revolutionary Iran to high positions including ambassadorship, but even more importantly, he showed a different, but real, face of Iran to the world, a man with an infectious smile who advocated for dialogue and peace and was besieged by radicals and extremists from both Iran and the West. Nothing is a greater testament to a man’s greatness but the nature of those who are happy to see him go, and people who are happy to be rid of Zarif’s departure are Mike Pompeo and Benjamin Netanyahu and extremist Islamists in Iran.
If Zarif stays, I’ll be delighted. But if this resignation is final and absolute, then I bid him a heartfelt, sorrowful, and yet proud farewell. Iran’s history will remember Mohammad Javad Zarif as one of its greatest sons, and he will forever have a place in my heart as one of the many citizens who who were proud to be represented by him. Farewell, you the one who smiled.
Update: Few hours after I wrote this piece, Rouhani rejected Zarif’s resignation, and he has agreed to stay on. Zarif’s return is quite powerful, as he was consoled and coaxed by all the players in this game: Ghassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Army, issued a conciliatory statement, recognizing him as the sole driver of Iran’s foreign policy. In the end, this resignation ended up being a power move and a success.