Iran’s Zarif Can’t Catch a Break

By designating the IRGC a terrorist group, Trump has put the heat on the United States’ one potential ally in Tehran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gestures during a press conference in Tehran on Feb. 13. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gestures during a press conference in Tehran on Feb. 13. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

On April 8, the Trump administration designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran’s elite military force, as a foreign terrorist organization. The reaction in Tehran was stern and swift. From Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who called the designation evidence of American “rancor” and helplessness against the IRGC, to members of the Iranian parliament who put on IRGC uniforms to show solidarity with the organization, the authorities in Iran have leaped to show unity in the face of a historic U.S. decision.

Even Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a man with a tense relationship with the IRGC, came to the corps’ defense. Zarif openly suggested that Iran should retaliate by declaring U.S. Central Command to be a terrorist entity, a decision that was announced by Tehran a few hours later.

But put aside the rhetorical solidarity for a moment, and it is clear that the Iranian regime is still divided. Zarif’s loud support for the IRGC comes just six weeks after his failed attempt to resign from the Rouhani government. The designation of the IRGC might put him in an even tougher spot. Indeed, the rest of Zarif’s tenure will be guided by two realities: His increasing frustration as a member of President Hassan Rouhani’s cabinet and the inability of the various power centers within Iran to reach a consensus and pursue a single foreign policy. Iran is structurally split into networks of pressure groups that put narrow factional ambitions over the national interest. This condition is as old as the Islamic Republic. And the Rouhani administration’s puny efforts to protect his erstwhile allies from unelected rival branches of the regime only weaken an already fractured policymaking process.

Earlier this year, Zarif resigned in protest of the fact that he had been kept in the dark about Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s visit to Tehran. Assad met Khamenei and the famed IRGC general Qassem Suleimani. But there was no sign of the foreign minister. Nor was Zarif asked to sit in on a meeting between Rouhani and Assad. The snub was a bridge too far. His absence from the two meetings, Zarif lamented, had damaged his credibility as Iran’s top diplomat. “My office is five minutes away from the presidential palace.”

Since taking over as foreign minister in 2013, Zarif has threatened to resign on a number of occasions. The specifics of the disagreement might have changed, but the identity of his enemies has not. “Go back to America, Yankee,” read some of the most vicious comments on social media after he posted his resignation on Instagram. Such taunts come from the most xenophobic corners of the regime, which never miss an opportunity to remind Zarif that he spent nearly half his life in the United States, either as a student or as part of Iran’s diplomatic mission.

Zarif is also enraged by attempts by unelected branches of the regime to sabotage his foreign-policy agenda. In recent months, for example, he has made no secret about the fact that he sees the opposition among hard-liners in the government and the IRGC to Iran’s bid to join the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)—a body created by the G-7 to fight money laundering—as a grave threat to the country’s ability to rejoin the global economy.

Zarif’s enemies accuse him of having been the main architect of a rotten nuclear deal in 2015, when from their perspective Tehran gave up its nuclear program in return for token gestures from the West and ultimately a U.S. betrayal in May 2018. Now, they charge that Zarif’s support for the FATF amounts to another disastrous concession. Ever since he stated in a national television interview in late 2018 that Iran has a money laundering problem, hard-liners in parliament and allied media have been attacking him for siding with Iran’s enemies.

There is no doubt that parts of the judicial branch and the IRGC are behind the smear campaign. The role of the powerful judicial branch is obvious. The head of the judiciary until very recently, Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, gave Zarif a 10-day deadline to produce evidence of money laundering or face the consequences for making the charges. In fact, Zarif’s comments were a direct jab at the judiciary. Larijani himself has been implicated in financial irregularities for years, a reality that was no doubt a factor in his own announcement in March that he would step down.

The role of the IRGC is clear, too. The organization, which also organized Assad’s secret trip to Tehran, is widely suspected of involvement in money laundering and clearly viewed itself as a target of Zarif’s comments. Senior generals within the IRGC would of course not come out publicly against Zarif. When the foreign minister resigned on Feb. 26, Suleimani was among the first to ask him to stay on the job. On a public level, the two call each other “brothers,” but this is a difficult tango. Zarif hates his depiction in the Western media as the regime’s smiling apologist, while Suleimani and others in the regime are perceived to be the ones really setting Iran’s often militant foreign-policy agenda in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere.

Zarif’s anger, in other words, does not mean the Western depiction of him is wrong. And soon he might find even less political space in which to operate should the designation of the IRGC be seen as evidence supporting the hard-liners’ case that Zarif’s compromise-seeking style is the wrong fit for Iran.

In all this, Rouhani has routinely failed to come to the rescue of his foreign minister. Perhaps the president does not believe the charges against Zarif deserve a public response. Many commentators in Tehran, however, believe that his silence undermines the government’s reputation but also damages Iran’s broader reformist movement. There are domestic political calculations at play as well. Painting Zarif as a weakling in the face of Western pressure would hurt the embattled foreign minister should he decide to run for the presidency in 2021. (Many in the Rouhani camp view Zarif as his most natural successor.)

Despite his repeated denials of having any presidential ambitions, Zarif could easily decide to throw his name into the hat. He gave an impassioned speech to a gathering of members of the reformist Iranian political party Nedaye Iranian, in which he said that hard-line camp’s “obsession” with the United States could lead to conflict and bring about the end of Iran as one country. Zarif’s key point was as follows: The United States is no longer the only dominant international player, and dealing and working with international organizations is not the same as making concessions to the Americans. He accused the hard-liners of seeing the rest of the world as “controlled by America,” which he said is not true. On the question of FATF, both Zarif and Rouhani have said that joining the treaty is good for Iran, not a concession to Washington.

In the short term, however, Zarif can continue to expect mostly benign neglect from his boss. He is, after all, not the only one whom the president has backed away from. Other top lieutenants who speak for economic reform and a more moderate foreign policy have also fallen victim in this intra-regime battle for the future of Iran. Take Massoud Nili, Rouhani’s top economic advisor and an advocate for free economic policies, who in November 2018 resigned under pressure. Other moderates, such as Oil Minister Bijan Zangeneh, should not expect Rouhani to fight for them as they battle it out with the hard-line camp either.

Rouhani is, of course, no innocent. He sold himself as the man who could save Iran from economic disaster—the one who would return Iran to international respectability. Instead, he is a weak president under attack from all sides. The reformists and moderates who voted for him see him as a political opportunist with no genuine desire to bring about serious change. Today, Iran is as much of a police state as when Rouhani came to power in 2013. Meanwhile, the hard-liners see him as obsessed with the West and untrustworthy. And yet Rouhani’s hands are tied.

In Khamenei’s momentous speech on Aug. 13 last year, he blamed Rouhani for having acted naively in dealing with Washington in signing the nuclear deal of 2015. But more bitingly, Khamenei has now also openly begun to blame Rouhani for economic and other mismanagement. As Khamenei put it in his last speech: Sanctions do hurt, but Iran’s problems are about bad internal policy management. There is no doubt that Rouhani is guilty of overseeing an elitist, and often corrupt, government that is detached from the people.

But the sudden turnaround in Iran’s fortunes is still hugely linked to Tehran’s problems with Washington, which are a result of Iran’s behavior in the Middle East. In other words, Rouhani dislikes the fact that his political prospects are hugely damaged by policy decisions (such as Iran’s involvement in Syria) that are not necessarily under his control. How long will his administration be able to accept being the scapegoat instead of speaking up against some of his toughest critics?

Rouhani’s actions show that he, too, is happy to play the blame game and redirect public anger at some of his government officials rather then pick a fight with Khamenei or even the generals in the IRGC. For the remainder of his time in office, other officials in the Rouhani government will be sacrificed to protect the president against his critics.

Such bureaucratic fights are not unique to Iran. What stands out here is how deep, vicious, and costly they are in this case. As long as narrow factional interests prevail, the Iranian people will continue to suffer.

Alex Vatanka is the director of the Iran Program and a senior fellow at the Frontier Europe Program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. His forthcoming book is The Battle of the Ayatollahs in Iran: The United States, Foreign Policy and Political Rivalry Since 1979. Twitter: @AlexVatanka

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