Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s sudden offer to step down has shocked Iran’s political establishment and people, with many expressing worry the move could derail efforts to save a landmark nuclear pact.
Zarif announced late on Monday he would resign amid quarrels over Iran’s foreign policy as well as a global struggle to preserve the 2015 nuclear deal, in which Tehran agreed to curb its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.
Fighting between parties and factions in Iran is a “deadly poison” to formulating foreign policy, Zarif said in an interview published by the Jomhuri Eslami newspaper on Tuesday, suggesting he may have resigned over pressure from hardline elements opposed to his role in negotiating the nuclear deal.
“We first have to remove our foreign policy from the issue of party and factional fighting,” Zarif said in the interview. “The deadly poison for foreign policy is for foreign policy to become an issue of party and factional fighting,” he added.
Many in Iran were caught off-guard by his offer to resign, adding to the country’s state of uncertainty following Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear accord in May last year.
“I extend my gratitude for the generosity that dear and brave people of Iran and its respected authorities have had during past 67 months,” Zarif wrote on his Instagram page on Monday.
“I humbly apologise for the inability to continue serving and for all the shortcomings during my service.”
Speaking to the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) on Tuesday, Zarif urged his colleagues at the foreign ministry not to quit.
His offer to resign was confirmed by deputy spokesperson for the foreign ministry, Seyyed Abbas Mousavi, IRNA reported. However, the presidential chief of staff, in a tweet, “strongly denied” that President Hassan Rouhani had accepted the resignation.
The president, in remarks on Tuesday, did not directly address Zarif’s resignation. Instead, Rouhani thanked the minister, describing him as at the front line of the battle against the US, according to IRNA.
Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, responded to Zarif’s move, saying: “We’ll see if it sticks”. He added in a Twitter post: “Our policy is unchanged – the regime must behave like a normal country and respect its people.”
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the move, writing in a Twitter post: “Zarif is gone. Good riddance.”
Zarif’s offer to stand down came a few hours after an unprecedented visit of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Tehran and a meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, followed by a visit to President Rouhani.
Zarif’s absence at the heavily-publicised meetings caught many by surprise.
Entekhab news website, which is believed to be close to Rouhani’s political camp, quoted Zarif as saying in a text message that “after the photos of today’s meetings, Javad Zarif will no longer have credibility in the world as the Foreign Minister”.
Entekhab also quoted an “informed source” as saying Zarif had not submitted his resignation formally and that talks were under way to dissuade him from the decision.
“Shock of Zarif’s resignation,” read the headline in big yellow letters on the front page of the reformist Arman-e Emrouz daily’s Tuesday issue.
The newspaper referred to a prolonged procedure in Iran’s Expediency Council to pass bills to reform the country’s anti-money laundering and terror financing regulations.
The international Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recently extended the deadline for Iran to fix its rules until June. Passing the bills is crucial for the establishment of international banking ties, notably with Europe.
In an effort to save the nuclear deal, Germany, Britain and France recently launched a financial entity to facilitate trade with Iran; it also hinges on FATF regulations.
Two remaining FATF bills have been stalled due to a seemingly unending debate between moderates and the hardliners both in parliament and the Expediency Council.
The FATF bills have put Zarif at odds with a part of the conservative camp, which the foreign minister has implicitly accused of being engaged in money laundering activities.
Coupled with crippling US sanctions, these efforts have slowed down the economic benefits of the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA.
Iran’s economic indicators have been generating nothing but concern over the past months. Growth is dismal, the national currency has depreciated substantially and prices have soared.
‘Horrified and upset’
Many Iranians see Zarif’s resignation as yet another blow to the country’s struggle to overcome the sanctions.
Sepideh, 24, said she was “horrified and upset” when she heard the foreign minister had stepped down.
“I don’t have a good feeling,” she told Al Jazeera. “I worry that people, including my family, could fail to make ends meet in this situation.”
This comes at a time of growing pressure on Rouhani’s administration and his willingness to engage with the international community.
Hardline voices have been getting louder, calling for a change in political approach.
Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, the founder of Europe-Iran Business Forum, told Al Jazeera that if Zarif’s resignation were to be accepted, the functions of diplomacy could still be capably handled by his deputy at the foreign ministry, Abbas Araghchi, who has overseen much of the technical workaround implementation.
“But if Zarif’s departure signals that political tides within Iran are turning against the JCPOA in a more dramatic way, then this continuity may not matter,” Batmanghelidj said.
“However, the JCPOA is not a deal among governments but among states. The European parties to the deal will need to signal to Iran that they will stand by the deal even if Zarif departs, so long as that departure does not mean Iran’s own commitment is wavering,” he said.