Zarif Resignation May Bolster Iran’s Hardliners and Trump’s Hawkish Policies [updated]

Update (3/1/19): Javid Zarif’s resignation has since been rejected by President Rouhani, keeping him at his post as foreign minister. Read more about Zarif’s resignation saga in this week’s Iran Unfiltered

Javad Zarif’s pending resignation as Foreign Minister reflects a hardening posture in Iran following the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). President Rouhani now has to decide whether or not to accept the resignation—and it remains entirely unclear if he will do so. If Zarif reverses his decision in the wake of public outcry over his resignation announcement, which was made on Instagram, he could return with increased legitimacy and decision-making power.

The forthcoming decision on whether or not to accept Zarif’s resignation comes as the Rouhani administration has been warding off hardliners in order to preserve the nuclear deal in negotiations with Europe. As the chief negotiator on the Iranian side, and one of its biggest proponents domestically, Zarif’s resignation would be a boon for radical forces in Tehran who oppose the JCPOA and further engagement with the West. If his resignation materializes, it would further indicate that the political winds in Tehran are favoring domestic hardliners bent on following the Trump administration’s footsteps and leaving the JCPOA. It would also be a major signal that Zarif believes there is little room for a diplomat with his depth of knowledge of the United States and its political system, as there are likely to be no negotiations between the U.S. and Iran until 2021 at the earliest.

Zarif’s resignation also occurs in the midst of a contentious domestic debate over legislation to increase the transparency of Iran’s banking sector and to bring it in line with global standards. However, the bills have been opposed by domestic hardliners affiliated with the IRGC and others who benefit from an opaque banking sector and a sanctions economy. These actors recently threatened to impeach Zarif for linking opponents of the banking reforms to corruption. Zarif’s departure would better enable these elements to keep Iran’s banking system in the dark—ensuring that this key obstacle to Iran’s engagement with the world remains in place for the foreseeable future.

As Foreign Minister, Zarif has defended or deflected many of the most objectionable policies of his government—including the arrests of dual nationals and the country’s backing of the brutal Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who visited with Iran’s Supreme Leader and IRGC Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani today. Any review of Zarif’s tenure as Foreign Minister cannot overlook the abuses of the government that he represented.

However, over the past forty years, the U.S. and Iran have had few clear channels for negotiations, and Zarif has long been a major proponent of U.S.-Iran negotiations and deescalation. Trump’s plan to collapse the deal may indeed be aimed at empowering radicals in Iran. Hardliners in the U.S. have long cheered for Iran to be led by radical elements to make engagement difficult and validate calls for sanctions and military action. Should Zarif bow out of Iran’s political theater, Trump and his team may be getting exactly what they wish for.

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