Iran’s Non-Resignation Achieves Nothing

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- After a 48-hour farce, it appears Javad Zarif will remain as Iran’s foreign minister after President Hassan Rouhani rejected his Instagram resignation. Photographs of the two men greeting the Prime Minister of Armenia in Tehran this morning are circulating on social media platforms, where Zarif’s legions of admirers are proclaiming victory on his behalf.

If it a victory, it is at best pyrrhic. The argument that the foreign minister is now stronger for having proved he is indispensable to the Iranian government ignores the political conditions that led to his resignation in the first place – they have not changed.

Hardliners in the regime, who regard Rouhani and Zarif with open contempt, are on the ascendancy, empowered by U.S. economic sanctions that have severely constrained the government’s ability to address acute economic problems. It’s no wonder Rouhani pleaded with Zarif to stay: he needs all the allies he can get.

It is hard to see what Zarif has gained, in real terms. In a statement, again on Instagram, he declared: “As a modest servant I have never had any concern but elevating … the status of the foreign ministry.” No such elevation is remotely likely. There is no expectation that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps will give up its authority to dictate foreign policy wherever and whenever it chooses. Responsibility for relations in the Middle East will remain the domain of the IRGC’s Major General Qassem Soleimani.  

Recall that the precipitating cause of Zarif’s resignation was the fact he was left out of the guest list at Khamenei’s reception for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Soleimani was very much in attendance. After his display of pique, Zarif may be allowed in the room the next time, but it will be strictly as a spectator.

Zarif’s responsibility will remain unchanged from what it was last May, when President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear deal: to try and persuade the other signatories to find ways around American sanctions. In this, he may already have achieved the maximum possible: the Europeans have created a “special purpose vehicle” to evade the sanctions. But while this may allow some trade in humanitarian supplies, it is unlikely to tempt foreign investors to return to Tehran, or persuade buyers to increase orders for the country’s main export, oil.

That leaves Zarif with the thankless task of defending the Iranian regime’s abuses at home and abroad. He has expressed frustration at this role, and must now brace himself for more of the same.

It's a safe bet Zarif will soon find himself at the limit of his tolerance once again – when the hypocrisy of putting a smiling face to the regime becomes unbearable, or the interference of hardliners in his ministry becomes suffocating, or when he's left out of an important meeting. When that happens, he will find that a social-media resignation is a tactic of diminishing effectiveness.

If Zarif remains boxed-in on foreign policy, it is not clear that the resignation drama will have gained him any more political space. While the president was scrambling to keep him, the man with ultimate authority in Tehran was conspicuously silent. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ignored the social-media frenzy over Zarif’s resignation, instead tweeting about his favorite subjects – the perfidy of capitalists, Americans and Zionists.

This is a reminder that Zarif is Rouhani’s man, not Khamenei’s: the minister political fortunes are tied to the president’s. This can hardly be reassuring. Rouhani is himself is under near-constant attack and faces strident calls for his resignation. As the sanctions bite deeper into the economy, the president’s position will continue to weaken.

Indeed, any day now the roles could be reversed: Zarif could find himself pleading with Rouhani to remain.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

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