Zarif Suggests He Was Undermined as Iran MPs Ask Him to Stay

(Bloomberg) -- Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who became the public face of his country’s engagement with world powers as chief nuclear negotiator, signaled that his surprise decision to step down came because he felt undermined in his role.

In his first public comments after Monday’s announcement, Zarif said he hoped the move would eventually allow the ministry “to return to its rightful place in foreign policy.” While President Hassan Rouhani hasn’t yet accepted Zarif’s resignation, he commended his top diplomat for being one of the government’s key figures on the “frontline” of battling against U.S. sanctions and pressure.

More than 150 Iranian lawmakers, or a majority of the chamber, have signed a letter addressed to the president petitioning to keep Zarif in his role, according to state-run media. Parliament’s national security committee is also planning to hold an emergency meeting over the resignation.

Zarif’s resignation and subsequent comments, as well as the reaction of a legislature divided between reformists who support him and conservatives opposed to the outreach he championed, highlight the ideological struggle at the heart of Iranian politics, one that has been fueled by the aggressive anti-Iran policies of President Donald Trump.

‘No Unity’

In an interview with a moderate local newspaper, Jomhouri Eslami, just hours prior to his announcement, Zarif said Iran’s foreign policy was at the mercy of “disputes between political groups and factions.”

“Not only is there no unity, but negotiations are now depicted as something bad, as compromise and even treason,” Zarif said. “This is why we aren’t able to turn our achievements into lasting influence and advantage for our country.”

Divisions between Rouhani and his opponents have been apparent on other matters such as the future of the nuclear deal. Rouhani’s government has said the country needs to abide by the accord despite the return of U.S. sanctions, but hardline groups within the ruling establishment are suggesting Iran should free itself from the limitations.

A U.S.-educated career diplomat, Zarif led Iran’s negotiating team during lengthy talks with the U.S. and other world powers that culminated in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which lifted many of the sanctions against the Islamic Republic in exchange for commitments on its nuclear enrichment program.

Brokering the deal made Zarif popular with reformists and moderates in Iran’s fractious political system, but he was also the subject of criticism from the Islamic Republic’s hard-liners suspicious of the West. The U.S. withdrawal has weakened Rouhani, who has been trying to come up with ways to retain some of the benefits of the agreement in negotiations with other signatories.

Zarif’s resignation coincided with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s visit to Tehran, where he met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as well as Rouhani. Pictures posted online suggested Zarif wasn’t present at the talks.

‘Suddenly, Resignation’

The timing led analysts to speculate that Iran’s top diplomat was being sidelined on key foreign policy issues, such as the country’s role in propping up Assad’s government after nearly eight years of civil war in Syria.

The front page of the reformist Shargh newspaper featured a picture of Khamenei and Assad locked in a tight embrace and flashing broad smiles. The headline above it read: “Suddenly, Resignation.”

The Fars news agency suggested Zarif hadn’t been informed about Assad’s visit, indicating that a lack of coordination may have triggered his exit. The news agency, which is critical of Rouhani’s government, also said there had been some differences between Rouhani and his foreign minister.

But Mahmoud Vaezi, who heads the presidential office, dismissed the notion of any rift between the two men.

Vaezi tweeted Zarif’s picture with the president and a caption saying that for Rouhani, “Iran solely has one foreign policy and one foreign minister.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.