Iran's Big Resignation Is Just Too Late

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In its simplest sense, the Iranian tradition of etiquette known as “taarof” is a form of insincere abnegation: When offered a sweetmeat by your host, you say ‘No’ several times, in the safe knowledge that your host will keep insisting until you change your mind. That may be the most useful way to think of Javad Zarif’s dramatic resignation as Iran’s foreign minister.

It’s especially telling that Zarif, who signaled that he had been undermined at home in his role as the nation’s top diplomat, chose to announce his retirement on Instagram. Plainly, he wanted as much public attention as possible before his bosses – Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani – had a chance to respond. Zarif, the architect of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with the U.S. and other world powers, was counting on widespread dismay among his followers and fans, at home and abroad. Sure enough, there ensued a chorus of “Don’t go!” on social media, as well as a petition from some members of Iran’s parliament.

In some situations, a skillful practitioner of taarof will carry self-denial almost to the point of self-punishment. After providing a service for which you’re expected to pay, they will pretend to demure by saying their service was somehow inadequate. “I don’t deserve to be paid for my deficiencies,” they will aver. The appropriate response is to insist on paying, while throwing in some effusive praise: “What deficiencies? Nobody in the world could have provided the service as well as you!” 

Zarif’s Instagram resignation came with the requisite faux-humility: “I am apologizing to you for all the shortcomings [in] my time as foreign minister.” On cue, there emerged a flurry of paeans to his excellence as a diplomat and negotiator. In a speech on Tuesday, Rouhani praised Zarif for his front-line role in the battle against Iran’s sworn enemy, the U.S.

In another variation of taarof, the practitioner wants it to be regarded as an act of martyrdom, of taking one for the team. To get the most credit for the sacrifice, they want to be the only person doing the sacrificing. Zarif has expressed hope that “my resignation will lead to a return of the foreign ministry to its legal place in foreign relations,” and has called on his colleagues not to quit in sympathy.

In short, Zarif’s public resignation was calculated to place Khamenei in the most awkward position possible, requiring the Supreme Leader, like the proverbial host, to insist he stay on – that he accept the sweetmeat.

But even the most adroit exponents of taarof can get it wrong if they miscalculate their timing, or the extent to which their interlocutor will play along. Zarif has chosen a strange hill on which to make his stand. He let it be known that he was miffed at being left off the guest list when Khamenei met Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad on Monday. That makes him look petty, and his enemies in the regime will be able to characterize his resignation as an act of pique, not principle.

Zarif may also have erred by trying to reassert himself at the moment when he was at his weakest. Hardliners have been in the ascendant in Tehran since the collapse of Zarif’s greatest achievement, the nuclear deal. There are at least three previous occasions when playing resignation-taarof would have left him stronger.

Had he offered to quit back when the nuclear deal was agreed, he would have been able to claim that his work was done, and that he deserved the hero’s ride into the sunset. Khamenei would have insisted that he stay, to see through the deal’s implementation; in exchange, Zarif would have been able to demand more authority in foreign policy, and insulation from hardliner interference.

Had he put in his papers in May last year, when U.S. President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal, Zarif would have been able to play the “I’ve failed you,” card. His bosses would have insisted that he stay, to try to persuade the European signatories, along with China and Russia, to abide by the terms agreed.

Or he could have quit on January 31st this year, when the Europeans announced their “special purpose vehicle” to circumvent the U.S. sanctions. By this point, Khamenei may not have seen much use in keeping Zarif, but the foreign minister would at least have a legitimate claim for pulling off a successful rearguard action.

It’s not yet clear whether the Supreme Leader will play his role in the taarof game. But even if he does insist on Zarif staying, Khamenei will feel little need to rein in his hardliners – and the minister will have no cards left to play. Even in Iran, taarof only takes you so far.   

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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