Argument

How to Succeed in Iranian Politics Without Really Resigning

Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif protested his weakness—and became stronger than ever.

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif smiles during a press conference in Tehran on Feb. 13, 2019. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif smiles during a press conference in Tehran on Feb. 13, 2019. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

In the 40-year history of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a span of 40 hours this week will stand out as one of its defining moments. What transpired in those hours encapsulates the power of social media and other digital forms of communication to produce political changes that the Iranian people want—and that the Iranian government has a long history of resisting.

Iran’s urbane foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, began the 40-hour countdown on Monday (at midnight Tehran time) with a resignation from his position that he posted to Instagram, the only major U.S.-based social media platform not blocked in Iran (and one favored by the Iranian leadership, who, unlike millennials in the West, use it solely for selfies in pursuit of political aims). Zarif’s resignation had, for Iranians, as much of an impact as the shock of Brexit has had for Britons. But it didn’t just cause an immediate stir in Iran, as might have been the case in the pre-smartphone age. Zarif is well known and well liked internationally, not just for his role in crafting the Iran nuclear deal but also for representing Iran in a way that doesn’t involve shouting “Death to America”—or to anything else, for that matter.

Unlike former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who fired Zarif from his post as U.N. ambassador—probably because he was too effective in building bridges with the West—Zarif doesn’t have a penchant for denying the Holocaust, or calling for Israel to be wiped from the map, or denying that 80 million Iranians have even one gay person in their midst. He also often admitted to the shortcomings in Iranian social and political life, didn’t wear his religiosity on the sleeve of his impeccably tailored suit, and spoke colloquial English on Western television screens.

To imagine that Iran’s face to the world could now be someone like Saeed Jalili—the nuclear negotiator under Ahmadinejad whose greatest accomplishment as a diplomat was perhaps writing a tome titled The Foreign Policy of the Prophet and whose negotiating style was to lecture his counterparts on their evil ways—was anathema to not just Iranians, who long for better relations and better integration with the world, but also Western politicians who still hope that Iran can be persuaded to never develop nuclear weapons through staying in the 2015 nuclear deal, and perhaps also be persuaded to work more closely with them on other matters of their concern.

Immediately upon Zarif’s resignation, pundits rushed to announce on Twitter that in the great battle between hard-liners and reformists in Iran, the hard-liners had won. Zarif’s resignation, it was reported in the Iranian media, had been precipitated by his notable absence at unannounced meetings of both President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria—and the very notable presence of Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, the elite paramilitary arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), at those meetings. It was a slight, and a devolution of not just Zarif’s position as a minister in charge of foreign policy but of the Foreign Ministry itself. Who was in charge of Iran’s foreign policy, Suleimani or Zarif? The IRGC or the Rouhani administration’s foreign-policy team? That the meetings took place only 5 minutes away from the Foreign Ministry complex in downtown Tehran where Zarif was simultaneously entertaining about 30 American activists—including Medea Benjamin from Code Pink—seemed to indicate that Zarif’s role had been relegated to public relations for Iran.

Presumably fuming at the optics, Zarif did what anyone with an ounce of dignity would do: He resigned. While it has been reported that he has previously offered to resign multiple times in his six years as foreign minister, this was the first time he took his resignation straight to the public. In a typically Persian flourish, he also apologized to the people for his “shortcomings.” This put Iran’s “nezam”, or system, into what can only be described as a tizzy. Should the government accept the resignation, and thus admit to the irrelevance of the moderate faction in Iranian politics, or should it reject it instead, thus admitting its role in the wrongs that Zarif apologized for? The nezam doesn’t do apologies well.

Zarif played it brilliantly. It was hardly a case of his having thin skin and taking offense over a perceived slight, as some opined. It wasn’t a Persian ghar, or sulk, as has been suggested by some. No, it was a unique opportunity that he recognized—after years of tolerating insults; accusations of timidity; “Westoxification,” to use a derogatory pre-revolution term for Iranians enamored of the West; threats of impeachment; and even death threats—for him to finally have redress. And there was only one circumstance under which he could remain in office: a mea culpa from above, along with a public affirmation of his and his ministry’s preeminent role in the execution of Iran’s foreign policy.

He would no longer be the erudite spokesman, traveling the world defending Iran in international forums and to the media; rather, he had to have real authority. More than that, he had to be rid of his—and Rouhani’s—internal enemies, who have caused him more anxiety than former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry or even his successor Mike Pompeo ever could, in order to be effective in his job. To be foreign minister, yes, he had to have the credibility that he spoke with some authority when dealing with other world leaders in their capitals, but those leaders also had to know that half-crazed hard-line Iranian lawmakers, or the various intelligence and military apparatuses, couldn’t or wouldn’t veto his words the minute he’d return to Tehran.

To play it right, Zarif had to go silent after his resignation. It was clear from the handful of leaks and the cryptic messages he purportedly sent to his colleagues and friends that the Assad episode was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and that he believed he was doing his fellow diplomats—and the ministry itself—a favor by refusing to allow it to be irrelevant in what is its stated mission. Now he could wait and see what would transpire.

The morning after his midnight resignation, 150 members of parliament signed a letter asking him to remain as foreign minister. Later that day, the president’s chief of staff, Mahmoud Vaezi, adamantly refuted reports that Rouhani had accepted Zarif’s resignation. Public pressure on social media was building for the authorities to persuade him to withdraw his resignation. Presumably, and as reported in the Iranian media, there were entreaties and emissaries from both the president’s office and, one assumes, the supreme leader’s.

Zarif knew that the saga couldn’t drag on too long—if it did, it would weaken him if he ever did return. The nezam couldn’t let the saga continue either—if it did, at a time when Iran is under intense pressure, the country’s enemies would seek to exploit the government’s apparent weakness. We won’t ever know what was said or promised in the give and take between Zarif and his various interlocutors and friends. What we do know is that sometime Wednesday morning Tehran time, and after praise from Rouhani, Zarif was back at work, photographed beaming while greeting the visiting prime minister of Armenia—in the company of Rouhani.

What we also know is that Qassem Suleimani—the commander of the foreign expeditionary force of the IRGC, and the man credited with defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and ascribed almost mythical powers by Westerners and Iranians alike—posted his own Instagram selfie of him and Zarif in embrace. Suleimani was also quoted as having said that Zarif was the main person in charge of Iranian foreign policy and that he was supported by the supreme leader. If that doesn’t shut up Zarif’s domestic critics—at least for now—and open space for him to be an effective and credible foreign minister, strengthening and empowering him, then it’s hard to imagine what would. For if you can’t take Gen. Suleimani’s word for it, then whose can you?

Hooman Majd, a New York-based writer, is the author of three books on Iran, including the New York Times best-seller "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ." He has also been an NBC News contributor since 2013. Twitter: @hmajd

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