Bottom Line Up Front
- The announced resignation of Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, reflects a growing domestic power struggle over the 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement.
- The resignation, which President Hassan Rouhani rejected, could have been an effort to appease hardliners critical of Iran’s continued adherence to the agreement.
- Rouhani’s rejection of the resignation might signal that hardliners lack a realistic alternative to his foreign policy approaches.
- Hardliners escalated their challenge to Iran’s moderates as re-imposed U.S. sanctions deprive Iran of the economic benefits of the accord.
On February 25, 2019, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced his resignation on Instagram, referencing ‘shortcomings’ in his performance. It is highly unusual for an Iranian official to announce their resignation over a U.S.-based social media network such as Instagram (which is owned by Facebook, Inc.), given the regime’s avowed hostility toward the United States. The resignation was announced after Zarif was excluded from high-level official meetings with visiting Syrian President Bashar Assad. Zarif’s absence from the meetings confirmed longstanding speculation that his position in the regime has been deteriorating as U.S. sanctions—re-imposed by the Trump administration in November 2018— begin to take a severe toll on Iran’s economy. Zarif, who spent a significant amount of time negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with then-Secretary of State John Kerry, is singularly identified with the nuclear agreement. The Trump administration’s abrogation of the accord has reinforced arguments by Iran’s hardliners that Zarif and Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, were naïve enough to believe that the United States could be trusted to follow through on and uphold any agreements with the Islamic Republic.
The hardliner attacks on the accord come as European Union (EU) countries have struggled to identify mechanisms that can continue to provide Iran with the economic benefits of the JCPOA. Just recently, the EU countries announced the formation of a ‘special purpose vehicle’ to circumvent U.S. sanctions and continue economic engagement with Iran. But Zarif, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Rouhani, and many other Iranian leaders criticized the European step as insufficient. Some hardliners want the country to abrogate the JCPOA outright and resume all aspects of Iran’s nuclear program, although Rouhani appears to want to remain party to the agreement as a means of dividing Europe from the Trump administration.
Yet, Rouhani posted a message on his Instagram account on February 26 noting that, ‘Zarif is staying,’ after the National Security and Foreign Policy committee of Iran’s parliament began meeting to discuss the resignation. Moreover, the maneuvering within the regime that led to the resignation announcement remains opaque. Zarif might have viewed his exclusion from the Assad visit as a final confirmation of his marginalization. A resignation would then help him to avoid further embarrassment. It is likely that Rouhani evaluated the political reaction to the resignation before deciding to reject it, amid reports he has rejected previous offers by Zarif to resign.
Another explanation is that Zarif and Rouhani jointly decided on the resignation as a means of demonstrating that the hardliners lack a realistic alternative to the existing policy toward the JCPOA. Rouhani can potentially argue that abrogating the JCPOA would almost certainly cause the EU to cease all efforts to circumvent U.S. sanctions, thereby worsening Iran’s economic situation further. In this case, Rouhani’s refusal to accept Zarif’s resignation might strengthen Zarif’s standing. Another alternative is that Zarif offered his resignation to appease the hardliners. According to this hypothesis, Zarif’s resignation could represent an admission by Rouhani that he placed too much faith in U.S. adherence to the JCPOA. If hardline agitation against the JCPOA is assuaged by Zarif’s offer to resign, Rouhani might be able to continue adhering to it. An additional possibility is that the resignation offer symbolizes the degree to which the hardliners in the regime have succeeded in undermining Rouhani and can potentially prevail in causing Iran to abrogate the JCPOA.