Will Iran Lose Its Last Link to the West?
If accepted, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s resignation may open the door to a new Iranian radicalism.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, a devout and faithful servant of the Islamic Republic, was always a suspect quantity in the eyes of the West—and yet it is somewhat odd that Iran’s foreign minister, who tendered his resignation Monday, was even more suspected by the radicals in his own country.
Zarif just had too many friends and admirers among the unbelievers abroad. He was too worldly. His English was too good—it was perfect, in fact, wonky, witty, and unnervingly fluent, albeit spoken with a disarming lisp, a facility honed during Zarif’s graduate studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He was too convivial, often inviting Western interlocutors and journalists into his spacious office at the United Nations, where he would serve them sweet tea and luscious Persian pistachios.
Zarif was also a masterful diplomat, a man who knew how to work every advantage for his isolated country, and yet who found himself defeated in the end not by the resistance of his own countrymen but mostly by the Westerners who could not see their way to finding a middle path with him. And nothing hurt Zarif more than the painstakingly negotiated 2015 nuclear deal that he, more than anyone, helped to orchestrate with the promise to Iranians of a way out of the West’s crushing sanctions—and yet which crushed him in the end.
For nearly 20 years, first as Iran’s deputy foreign minister, then its United Nations ambassador, and finally as foreign minister, the 59-year-old Zarif played a central role in Iran’s attempted accommodation with the West, and each time he found himself rebuffed, outflanked, and humiliated by Washington. The final blow to his fortunes may have come from Iran’s ailing economy, which is suffering from renewed U.S. pressure.
For those U.S. diplomats who dealt with Zarif most and know his history, his apparent departure from the scene is a dire sign that, nearly a year after U.S. President Donald Trump’s abrupt withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord, relations between the United States and Iran are about to take a dramatic turn for the worse.
“He has been critical to keeping Iran in the JCPOA [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the formal name for the Iran nuclear deal]. If that changes, we will face a new crisis in the region,” said James Dobbins of Rand Corp., a former U.S. diplomat who worked closely with Zarif in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. “He is a skilled diplomat, a reliable interlocutor, and an amusing companion. Not, unfortunately, what the current U.S. administration was looking for. His departure is not a good sign.”
Others who were more skeptical of the Iran nuclear pact agree that Zarif’s resignation could signal an end to Tehran’s position of abiding by the agreement—a position recently affirmed by key American officials such as Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats—in the face of U.S. withdrawal and the reimposition of U.S. sanctions.
“Zarif was both the JCPOA negotiator who ran circles around then-Secretary of State John Kerry and the chief salesman who sold the fiction to the West that the JCPOA cuts off all pathways to nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles,” said Mark Dubowitz, the head of the hawkish Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei would be wise to maintain this fiction, though others inside Iran may not have the patience to take the patient pathways to nuclear weapons negotiated by Zarif. Their impatience may be the death blow to the JCPOA.”
Other experts in the region suggested that Zarif was ultimately unsuccessful in reconciling the irreconcilable—the fundamental differences between the Western world and a regime whose founding ideology consisted of antipathy to the “Great Satan,” the United States. Iran also remained unwilling to work within the international system and drop its persistent threats to Israel, as well as its support of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah. “Zarif may have been charming and quite effective with Western audiences, but he has never done anything in his career that put him at odds with the perpetuation of a very authoritarian system in Iran or in any way demonstrated opposition to Iranian policies across the region,” said Suzanne Maloney, a scholar at the Brookings Institution.
The actual reason for Zarif’s abrupt resignation is not clear. Asked to comment, a source with the Iranian government noted that President Hassan Rouhani “has not accepted it yet,” and there were indications that Rouhani, a longtime Zarif ally, may refuse to do so. Pressed further, the source pointed to a report from the Al-Monitor news site that Zarif had “expressed indignation that his ministry had not been informed” of the recent visit by Assad, and that Zarif had “been left out of Rouhani’s meeting with the Syrian leader.” Al-Monitor quoted Zarif’s remark in Entekhab, a Persian language news outlet, saying he had “no credibility in the world.”
Based on recent events, it is very possible that Zarif genuinely feels just that way. As Tehran has tightened its relationship with Assad—another international pariah—and renewed its hostility with Washington, there appeared to be little room left for negotiation, despite Zarif’s frenetic efforts late last year to wean Europe away from the United States and set up an alternative source of funding for his country in the face of the Trump administration’s recent effort to isolate the regime once again.
Last September, Trump informed a silent U.N. General Assembly that not only was he killing the “horrible” Iran nuclear deal, but he was also imposing major new unilateral sanctions that appeared designed to cause regime collapse. In his speech, the U.S. president all but called Iran’s leaders illegitimate, saying they do nothing but “sow chaos, death, and destruction.”
“We ask all nations to isolate Iran’s regime” and to deny it “the funds it needs to advance its bloody agenda,” Trump said.
For Zarif, it was the abrupt end to a half-decade of diplomatic exertion. It was somehow fitting that he announced his resignation in a very Western way, writing on his Instagram page: “Many thanks for the generosity of the dear and brave people of Iran and its authorities over the past 67 months. I sincerely apologise for the inability to continue serving and for all the shortcomings during my service. Be happy and worthy.”
Zarif’s efforts to work with the West date back to the earliest days after 9/11, when, as Iran’s deputy foreign minister, he took part in a late 2001 conference in Bonn on the governance of post-Taliban Afghanistan. Zarif regularly met with the American delegate, Dobbins, who later recalled that Zarif made some surprising suggestions during the meetings.
“Once, in late November, we were having coffee in one of the sitting rooms after [the U.N. representative] circulated a draft of the agreement laying out the new Afghan government,” Dobbins told me in an interview in the mid-2000s. “Zarif said, with a certain twinkle in his eye: ‘I don’t think there’s anything in it that mentions democracy. Don’t you think there could be some commitment to democratization?’ This was before the Bush administration had discovered democracy as a panacea for the Middle East. I said, ‘That’s a good idea.’” The Americans put in the provision. “Then he said, ‘It also doesn’t mention international terrorism. Don’t we think the new Afghan government ought to be committed to fighting international terrorism?’ As far as I know, that was put in too,” Dobbins said.
Zarif later told me in interviews that after 9/11 moderates within the Shiite regime in Tehran—which was no great friend to the Sunni Islamists of al Qaeda—were seeking to find a common ground with Washington. Other Iranian sources confirmed this view at the time, and then-Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, who was considered a reformer, issued a communique to that effect. Mohammad Hossein Adeli, a deputy in the Iranian Foreign Ministry, told Newsweek in the mid-2000s: “We insisted that the president should condemn the attacks as fast as possible.” The supreme leader, Khamenei, was chronically suspicious of the United States, but even he agreed. Some U.S. officials were pleasantly surprised at the outreach from Tehran. “We were having good contacts with the Iranians in the period of 2001 and into 2002,” former Secretary of State Colin Powell told me in an interview after he left office.
But all those hopes were dashed by George W. Bush’s infamous “Axis of Evil” speech in late January 2002, when the U.S. president linked Iran with Iraq and North Korea, saying “states like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.”
As Zarif described it to me in a later interview, the speech was a death blow to moderates in Tehran. “It destroyed the position of those who believed that helping the U.S. would pay off,” he said.
Nonetheless, Zarif was instrumental in a secret attempt in the spring of 2003, using the then-Swiss ambassador to Tehran as a back channel, to start up broad-based talks with the United States on major outstanding issues, including Iran’s then-infant nuclear program and Iranian support for Hezbollah. The talks went nowhere—they were rejected out of hand by the Bush administration—but they eventually laid the basis for Zarif’s attempts a decade later to negotiate a nuclear compromise.
That deal, which even some Israeli security experts praised as a serious effort to curb Iran’s nuclear program—and which allowed international inspectors to verify the halt to Tehran’s uranium enrichment program—was the high point of Zarif’s diplomatic career. It was also, perhaps, the beginning of the end for him. Because when Trump withdrew last year—contending that Iran’s continuing support of Assad and Hezbollah meant that the regime must be defeated, not negotiated with—it was once again a signal to the radicals inside Tehran that the West could never be trusted.
But for hawks in Washington, Zarif’s seeming departure from the scene is only another sign that the Islamic Republic of Iran can never be trusted. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who along with National Security Advisor John Bolton has led the effort to isolate Iran, tweeted on Monday night that Zarif and President Rouhani were nothing but “front men for a corrupt religious mafia.”
For many hawks in Washington, that will likely be Javad Zarif’s final diplomatic epitaph, and they are not mourning for him. “Best news I have heard in a long time,” said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a Mideast expert and Iran hardliner. “The Islamic Republic has neither produced a more mendacious official nor one who touched the gullibility of Westerners, especially John Kerry, more effectively. The Supreme Leader finally withdrew his blessing and protection.”
For others, Zarif’s resignation is a sad and dangerous warning of what may be to come.
“Zarif was useful for two primary reasons—first, his knowledge of the U.S. system; and second, his skills as a negotiator,” said Maloney, the Brookings scholar. “Both of these assets proved insufficient to managing the Trump era.”
Foreign Policy reporter Robbie Gramer contributed to this report.