Zarif’s stock rises with support from Soleimani

Article Summary
While Iran’s foreign minister carries the day against hard-liners, Israel hopes to exploit possible cracks in Tehran’s Syria policy.

None other than Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force, snuffed the hopes of hard-liners that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif would follow through on his Feb. 25 resignation letter.

As Sinan Toossi reports, “Soleimani backed Zarif as ‘the main official responsible for foreign policy’ and stressed that he has always had the support of senior officials, ‘especially’ Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. His comments echoed President Hassan Rouhani's letter rejecting Zarif's resignation in which he stated that he agreed with his chief diplomat that the foreign minister is the ‘highest official implementing the country's foreign policy.’"

“Soleimani — who is respected across Tehran's partisan divide but especially revered by conservative forces — has great influence over the balance of power in Tehran's contentious domestic politics,” adds Toossi. “His comments diminished the political space for hard-line forces to sabotage Zarif's foreign policy approach and awkwardly positioned them on the same side as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who promptly bid Zarif ‘good riddance.’"

Netanyahu “spared no effort to show his glee,” writes Meir Javedanfar. “To make sure Iranians were aware of how delighted he was, Netanyahu's Persian-language Twitter account on the morning after Zarif’s resignation read: ‘Zarif went. We are rid of him. As long as I am here, the Iranian regime will not acquire nuclear weapons.’”

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Javedanfar said the quick return of Zarif is “bad news for Israel given Zarif’s warm ties with many of his European counterparts. Zarif’s smiling face and veneer of moderation get under the skin of Netanyahu and many in Israel.”

While the catalyst for Zarif’s resignation was his not being informed by Rouhani’s office of a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who made a surprise visit to Iran on Feb. 25, Zarif used the snub as catalyst to re-establish control over Iranian foreign policy, which has come under siege by hard-liners following the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the crown jewel of Iranian foreign policy under Rouhani and Zarif.

“Zarif’s maneuvering is likely the last resort of a man focused on maintaining cohesion in Iran’s diplomatic apparatus — including through the firing of a loud warning shot against the consequences of the fracturing of Iran’s diplomacy,” writes Mohammad Ali Shabani. “For these consequences may include the danger of Iran being perceived as weak and then taken advantage of by outside powers, whether by Russia, China or Europe.”

“As such, what may ultimately be at play is brinkmanship — albeit genuine brinkmanship — by an astute tactician who, having perfected the art in his dealings with Iran’s friends and foes abroad, has finally decided to deploy this same skill set at home,” adds Shabani.

Rouhani moved fast to erase any sense of division with Zarif. “The president said he saw himself in the same boat with the foreign minister as both face domestic pressure, but expressed confidence that 'we will pass through this tough stage,'” according to a Feb. 27 Al-Monitor staff report. “The best proof of Zarif's success, according to Rouhani, was that Iran's ‘sworn enemies’ such as ‘the Zionist regime’ had celebrated his resignation, referencing a tweet by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. … Within an hour of the letter's release to the media, pictures went viral of a smiling Zarif sharing an umbrella with Rouhani as the two waited to welcome a visiting Armenian delegation led by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in Tehran's Sa'dabad Palace.”

Rouhani and Zarif may try to leverage Zarif’s turnaround to thwart opposition to legislation that would make Iran compliant with the Financial Action Task Force, which, as seen in a Feb. 26 Al-Monitor staff report, is “required to keep Western financial transactions with Iran running. Now those bills are gridlocked. For months, Zarif and his diplomatic team have tried to convince Iran's hard-liners to pass the bills and not provide the United States with any more excuses to pressure Iran. In spite of parliament's approval, the legislation is now in the hands of the Expediency Council, whose members are appointed by the supreme leader.”

One early casualty among the hard-line parliamentarians who applauded Zarif’s resignation was Karim Javad Khodoosi, who came under attack by the Islamic Republic News Agency, which operates under Rouhani’s administration, as described in a March 1 Al-Monitor staff report.

Even if Rouhani, Zarif and Soleimani appear to have closed ranks, the whole flare-up may signal cracks in Iran’s Syria policy, according to Javedanfar. There are “distinct signs attesting to the unpopularity of Iran’s Syria policy among the people of Iran — and even among its former and serving officials,” he writes. “Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi, the former mayor of Tehran, was recently sentenced to one year in prison for criticizing Iran’s involvement in the Syria war. The very fact that a former official is jailed for uttering a few lines of criticism shows fear by the regime in Tehran — fear of public opinion. … Another sign attesting to the unpopularity of Iran’s current Syria policy is the absence of debates surrounding this issue in the Iranian press. There are lively debates regarding numerous issues, but not on Iran’s policies in Syria. Iranian reporters could get called up for questioning if they criticize Assad, or worse, have their publications shut down temporarily. This was witnessed on the day of Zarif’s resignation when the Ghanoon daily called Assad an 'Uninvited Guest.'

“Even Maj. Gen. Ataollah Salehi — commander of Iran’s army, the Artesh — distanced himself from Iran’s involvement in Syria,” adds Javedanfar. “After reports that four members of the Iranian army’s special forces belonging to the mythical 65th Airborne Brigade were killed in Syria, Salehi stated publicly on April 20, 2016, that his organization had no role in dispatching them to Syria. He put the responsibility on the shoulders of an ‘unnamed’ organization, meaning the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. … Perhaps the clearest sign that Iran’s Syria policies are unpopular among the people of Iran is the fact that it’s not an election issue. There are no candidates for or against this issue. There are no debates during the elections when many other issues — including relations with the United States — are discussed.”

Iran and Syria were at the top of the agenda when Netanyahu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Feb. 27. “The Israelis reportedly brought updated maps of Iranian positions in Syria to show the Russians,” writes Maxim Suchkov. “This is an important point since a good portion of the discontent between Moscow and Tel Aviv is over Israeli strikes on what it deems Iranian and proxy deployments and infrastructure. ... The strikes put Moscow in an uneasy position vis-a-vis Damascus and raise Syrian complaints over Russia’s inability to deliver on its allied commitments to defend Syria from foreign aggression.”

“Russia and Israel, in turn, have allegedly had their own agreement under which the Israeli strikes would not threaten Assad, while Russia is believed to have promised to curb Iranian influence near the Israeli border,” adds Suchkov. “In this sense, Russia tacitly grants Israel leeway to provide its own security yet has to publicly castigate Tel Aviv for ‘illegitimate strikes,’ as Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov put it.”

In Washington, Laura Rozen reports that while “the Trump administration mocked as basically irrelevant Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s surprise resignation and return to the job this week,” a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told her, “I … do think that Trump’s basic realist ‘let’s make a broader deal’ approach has been hijacked by the regime change people.”

Rozen adds that “some administration officials have recently privately expressed misgivings about how far the policy has strayed from Trump’s stated goal last year — to try to negotiate a broader deal with Iran that would address other concerns not solved in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Trump withdrew from last year — to one that increasingly seems regime change in all but name.”

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