Why did Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif resign?

And what happens next?

Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif attends a meeting on forming a constitutional committee in Syria at the United Nations in Geneva
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif posted his resignation on Instagram on February 26 [File: Reuters/Denis Balibouse]

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s resignation took many by surprise. “I warmly apologise for my inability to continue serving [the nation] and for all the shortcomings and negligences during the period of service,” he wrote in a post on his official Instagram account.  

The short resignation letter was posted at night as if to deliberately make it harder for President Hassan Rouhani to dismiss it before the news would set in and thus present him with a fait accompli.

“I hope my resignation will act as a spark for the return of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to its mandated position in [decision-making on Iran’s] foreign relations,” Zarif told colleagues and local journalists the following morning.

Rouhani expectedly rejected the resignation, but this is unlikely to salvage his cabinet from the deepening crisis it has descended into. Even if Zarif chooses to come back, he will not wield the same authority he once had under the first Rouhani administration and the fortunes of the current government will certainly not improve.

Deep fractures and fierce political rivalry in the Iranian corridors of power have given rise to parallel structures, which are undermining Iran’s elected officials and their political power. Zarif’s resignation is a symptom of a larger malaise currently afflicting the Islamic Republic.

Parallel structures of power

The abrupt resignation was reportedly triggered by the foreign minister’s exclusion from an important meeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad held in Tehran during his surprise visit on February 25.

This was likely the last straw that broke the camel’s back and pushed an otherwise patient and experienced diplomat into a rash decision.   

Zarif had reportedly broached the topic of resignation with the president a number of times in the past, as the authority of his ministry was increasingly being attacked and undermined.

Gholamali Jafarzadeh, deputy head of the independent fraction in the Iranian parliament, attributed Zarif’s resignation to “dozens of parallel trips and talks” by state officials “without any coordination” with the foreign ministry.

Over the past year, Iranian officials close to the supreme leader undertook work visits to a number of countries that are key to Iranian foreign policy. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s special adviser on international affairs, Ali Akbar Velayati, travelled to Damascus in April and to Moscow in July last year to coordinate Tehran’s Syria policy with its partners.

A few months later, in November, Khamenei’s aide Kamal Kharrazi, who is also head of Iran’s Strategic Council on Foreign Relations, visited Europe to hold talks on the European Union’s measures to facilitate trade with Tehran after the reimposition of US sanctions.

These visits and negotiations seem to have been conducted independently of the foreign ministry and have effectively enabled the supreme leader to strengthen his control over key foreign policy portfolios, overriding Zarif’s authority and efforts.

At the same time, the Iranian security agencies have continued with their highly problematic subversive pursuits abroad, which have been undermining efforts by Iranian diplomats to contain the fallout of the Iran deal collapse and improve the image of the country.

Perhaps the most disruptive of all of them were the foiled assassination and bombing plots uncovered in France and Denmark and attributed to Iran’s intelligence services.

These revelations eroded confidence among European powers in Iran’s peaceful intentions – which Zarif and his team had put a lot of work into restoring – and ultimately led to the imposition of EU sanctions on a number of Iranian officials and entities.   

Hardliners in parliament opposed to the Rouhani government have also obstructed diplomatic efforts to improve the country’s international standing and strengthen economic ties with the EU that could ease the pressure on the Iranian economy after the reimposition of the US sanctions. They blocked the passage into law of measures proposed by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) aimed at aligning Iranian law with international regulations, seeking to combat money laundering, terrorism financing and transnational organised crime. The stalling of these important legislative changes has constituted a major upset for Zarif’s ministry.

In its latest plenary meeting on February 22, the Paris-based international watchdog once again extended Tehran’s deadline until June to implement these legislative changes; if it fails to, it would be put back on its blacklist of risky countries for business and trade and lose the chance to establish important new financial channels to Europe.

A swing to the right

The parallel networks of power and decision-making undermining Zarif’s foreign ministry are a structural issue that has also affected a number of other state functions, including economic policies, security, intelligence and military affairs.

It is rooted in the Islamic Republic’s complex system of governance and the historical tensions between the elected and non-elected bodies of the state. Zarif’s resignation is yet another sign that the hardliners’ resurgence is skewing the balance of power within the Iranian state in favour of unelected and unaccountable power structures which are dragging the country into further isolation.

If this trend continues, and moderates like Rouhani and Zarif are completely sidelined, Iran’s foreign policy will likely see a turn to a more confrontational stance.

While there seems to be a fragile collective consensus among Iranian leaders and top decision-makers about sticking to the nuclear deal, for the time being, Zarif’s departure can tilt this fine balance towards those who have been seeking to set the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) “on fire“.

If hardliners, who worry about increased transparency exposing the lucrative money-laundering and sanctions-violating schemes of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), have their way, initiatives to build alternative financial mechanisms with EU countries will likely be aborted.

The IRGC, already largely in control of Iranian regional policy on Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, will also be able to pursue its confrontational policies and revisionist ambitions with greater ease, if restraining forces in the foreign ministry are removed.

Thus Zarif’s weakening and potential departure will surely clear the way for hardliners to stir the country away from diplomatic engagement with the West and towards a more confrontational foreign policy. This is definitely bad news for the Iranian people and the international community, as it will likely diminish the EU’s ability to resist the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy against the Islamic Republic and to prevent a regional military escalation.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.