What Zarif's non-resignation says about the state of Iranian politics today

What Zarif's non-resignation says about the state of Iranian politics today
Comment: Zarif-gate, to paraphrase Shakespeare, is a tale 'full of sound and fury, signifying nothing', writes Tanya Goudsouzian
6 min read
05 Mar, 2019
Zarif's resignation sparked many questions, but left most unanswered [AFP]
Rumours had been swirling for months that Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had either resigned or was planning to resign.

These rumours, it would appear, were greatly exaggerated and the foreign ministry issued an official statement last October claiming they were spread by "some illusionary and sick-minded dreamers".

So when news broke shortly before midnight on 25 February that Zarif had actually resigned from his post - made public on Instagram - millions of people around the world exchanged incredulous text messages: Was this fake news, or was it for real this time? 

The news spurred speculative theories from a range of self-styled Iran experts, which one Iranian blogger derisively called "abgooshti analysts" - likening the popular Iranian meat and vegetable stew to the plethora of commentators who routinely and repeatedly regurgitate the same tropes over and over, such as "it's a clear sign of regime in-fighting", "it's a clear sign the regime is imploding", or "it's only a matter of time before the people rise up".

But some also remembered Zarif's impassioned speech at the recent Munich Security Conference and wondered whether Iran's top diplomat had finally reached boiling point. With uncharacteristic emotion in his voice, Zarif had told the audience: "We have long been the target of an unhealthy fixation, let's say an obsession, which continues to this very day. The demonisation of my country has been a convenient cross for seven consecutive American presidents to bear, and an even more convenient smokescreen for America's regional clients to hide behind."

Was Zarif's show of emotion a touch of drama, or was it a crack in his armour? Was Iran's top diplomat, described variously as "smooth", "polished" and "jovial", succumbing to the pressures of US-led opposition and economic sanctions? Or, was this a strictly internal Iranian affair worthy of House of Cards?

Intended for a domestic audience

The truth about #Zarifgate, as it has become known on social media, may not be so obvious. As the Iranian foreign minister made his announcement in Persian, most Iran watchers appeared to agree it was likely intended for a domestic audience rather than international consumption.

Zarif's ultra-conservative critics may have hoped this marked the end of the career of the man widely seen as the country's most effective "weapon" against the West. They have always viewed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with suspicion and derision and warned nothing good would come of it. They were arguably vindicated when US President Donald Trump pulled out.

As Zarif's resignation came on the heels of a visit to Tehran by Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad orchestrated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and presumably unbeknownst to Zarif, pundits were quick to draw a correlation. Why was the IRGC bypassing the country's foreign minister, and might this indicate a division in Tehran over foreign policy leadership?

Was the powerful Qassim Soleimani making a move towards replacing Zarif? Were there irreconcilable policy differences between Zarif and the clerical establishment? The abgooshti analysts were in high gear, wildly spinning out speculative scenarios.

But to the dismay of most social media analysts, the nefarious theories were proven incorrect. On 28 February, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, a senior policy adviser to Iran's parliamentary speaker vehemently ruled out any linkage between the Assad visit and Zarif's resignation, dismissing it as media speculation.

More significantly, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani acknowledged Zarif's concerns, praised his achievements, - and refused to accept his resignation, saying it went against the country's interests. Zarif also received the emphatic support of Soleimani, who called him "the main official responsible for foreign policy", supported not only by senior officials but Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Given this, Zarif could well be more secure in his role than ever before.

So, what to make of Zarif-gate? Frustration and pique? An opportunity to set the ambitious Soleimani back on his heels? Political survival at a time when the JCPOA nuclear deal has failed to deliver the promised "better life" for Iranians? Or none of the above?

Confusion, too, inside the bureaucracy

In fact, it may be several of the above. According to a source close to the foreign ministry, "it was not acceptable for [Zarif] to see a foreign president meeting with Iranian officials on TV without any information about this in advance".

"He felt that the Supreme Leader and his team didn't trust him. And due to the pressures he had in the past regarding the JCPOA… this was a very good excuse to resign. But I think his resignation and then staying on has damaged his credibility in Iran and outside."

A source close to the Supreme Leader was more generous: "Zarif's critics are more sceptical about negotiating with the US, and the JCPOA made them [even] more sceptical. So right now negotiations with the EU are not going well. Sanctions are still in place. Zarif is under a lot of pressure and these people want him gone. But I still think that Zarif's diplomacy is the best way forward.

"But this is not the reason why he resigned. It's not over the hard-liners. It was a mix-up in the presidential office. When Assad came, he was brought secretly for security reasons. He quickly went to the leader's office, then to the president - and the offices are right next to each other - and there was a mix-up in protocol in the president's office."

Further, the source close to the Supreme Leader likened the incident to "turf wars".

"These are nothing more than turf wars like in the US between State Department, Pentagon, CIA and the White House. Those don't mean the US is imploding," he said.

Who knows? Does it matter?

Zarif-gate, like much in Iranian politics, remains opaque to most and transparent to very few. It resembles Churchill's "riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma".

Nonetheless, Zarif remains Iran's foreign minister. Despite the pundits, he seems to have weathered this storm, whether real, imaginary or invented. Likewise, the direction of Iranian foreign policy in the near term appears unchanged either by his resignation or rehiring. It is unlikely Iranian policy towards the JCPOA, Syria, Yemen or Iraq will be altered or modified anytime soon.

So, what to make of Zarif-gate, its causes, and its consequences? It's unlikely we'll ever get the full story, but perhaps the best explanation comes from the mouth of Shakespeare's MacBeth: "It is a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing."

Tanya Goudsouzian is a Canadian journalist who has covered Iraq and Afghanistan for over 15 years. She is former Opinion editor of Al Jazeera English Online. Follow her on Twitter: @tgoudsouzian

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.