Beirut: The surprise resignation of Iran’s foreign minister last week was a rare public display of the jockeying between hardliners and the more moderate camp within the clerical leadership, a divide that has been exacerbated by the country’s deepening economic crisis, analysts said.
Hardliners have long had the edge. But Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s open show of frustration was a sign that he and his ally, President Hassan Rouhani, find themselves further weakened after the collapse of their biggest foreign policy project - the 2015 nuclear deal with the United States and other world powers.
The further empowerment of the hardliners could presage even more tense relations with the United States and worsen Iran’s economic crisis, fueling instability.
“Since the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal, Zarif is suffering,” said Talal Atrissi, a sociology professor at the Lebanese University in Beirut who studies Iran and its regional allies. The foreign minister, he said, “strongly believed in dialogue and negotiations with US, but the cancellation of the deal showed that the strategy that Zarif was following wasn’t correct.”
At issue is which camp within the clerical leadership has more clout in foreign affairs.
Under Zarif, the foreign ministry has advocated greater engagement with the West as the key to Iran’s future, a view opposed by hardliners who see the West as an irredeemable enemy that must be challenged.
Competition between the two camps has grown since President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the nuclear agreement last year and reimposed sanctions on Iran, setting off steep inflation and a rise in unemployment.
Ali Vaez, the director of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group, met with Zarif last month before his resignation and said he seemed frustrated that initiatives that he cared about appeared blocked. That frustration boiled over last week, when he was not informed of a state visit by President Bashar Al Assad of Syria until it was over.
“I think he was looking for a pretext and I think the way he was treated with the Al Assad visit was quite insulting for any foreign minister,” Vaez said.
“This was the last straw for Zarif. It was an emotional reaction.”
The president rejected Zarif’s resignation, leaving the foreign minister in his post for now. But the issue cropped up again on Tuesday when a foreign ministry spokesman said the resignation had been intended to protest the sidelining of “the diplomatic system.”
Al Assad, making the first visit by one of Iran’s closest Arab allies in nine years, was granted an audience with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - the most powerful figure in the country.
Another leading hardliner, Qassem Soleimani, was also in the room. He is the head of the Quds Force, the foreign branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Zarif resigned soon after in a lyrical post on his Instagram account, apologising “for all the shortcomings during my service.”
In rejecting the resignation, Rouhani said it was “against national interests” and hailed Zarif as a “trustworthy, brave and religious” person.
Soleimani also issued a rare statement saying Zarif’s absence had been because of a “bureaucratic” mistake.
That appeared to put the issue to rest until Tuesday, when the Foreign Ministry spokesman, Bahram Qassemi, said that the ministry had had no knowledge of Al Assad’s trip until it was over.
Among the reasons for Zarif’s resignation was “this type of lack of coordination,” Qassemi said, adding that the move was intended as “a positive effort to return the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the diplomatic system of the country to its main place,” according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency.
Zarif and Soleimani represent two different streams in Iranian foreign policy that often overlap but sometimes compete.
Zarif was educated in the United States, speaks fluent English, served as the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations and regularly appears at international conferences to defend his country and its policies.
He has pushed for greater ties with the West and was one of the main architects of the Iran nuclear deal.
Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement was a blow to relative moderates like Zarif and Rouhani.
But Zarif has worked to maintain as much of the deal as possible with Europe while also advocating for moves that would give Iran greater access to the international financial system, efforts that now appear to be in jeopardy.
Soleimani has long been a shadowy figure in charge of Iran’s often secretive military operations abroad.
These include maintaining ties with Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group and political party, and other militias in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.
Soleimani’s star has risen as Iran has exploited the chaos that followed the Arab Spring uprisings to expand its influence.
Photos of the silver-haired general now pop up regularly on social media, showing him visiting Iranian-aligned forces in different conflicts across the Middle East.
Iran and the militias it backs played a critical role in helping Al Assad turn the tide against rebels seeking to oust him in the early years of Syria’s civil war.
And Soleimani visited Russia in the summer of 2015, before Russia also intervened militarily in the war, leading to a string of rebel defeats and strengthening ties between Russia and Iran.
The inner workings of Iran’s government are often opaque.
Some analysts suspected that Zarif’s resignation was a gambit to strengthen his position by forcing public endorsements from the country’s other top power brokers.
But those statements of support are unlikely to restore Zarif’s clout on key foreign issues, said Henry Rome, an Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group, a Washington-based political risk consultancy.
And Zarif’s move has little chance of meaningfully improving his ministry’s stature in foreign policy decision-making - especially in Syria, which has long been outside of the diplomats’ remit, he said.
While the office of the foreign minister has never been very powerful in Iran, it is less likely to be so during a time of multiple crises, said Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who studies Iran.
“As long as the Islamic Republic is faced with internal and external insecurity, the security forces of the country will be in the driver’s seat, not civilians,” Sadjadpour said.