Soleimani’s Support Boosts Zarif, Isolates Iran’s Hard-Liners
Above Photo: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (R) and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attend a meeting with Muslim leaders and scholars in Hyderabad, India, Feb. 15, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
When we were in Iran with a Peace Delegation, the twenty-eight members of the delegation met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Zarif is a long-time Iranian diplomat who was the negotiator of the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiated between China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States plus Germany and the European Union and Iran. Zarif spent 90 minutes with us. He first urged us to ask questions and raise issues we would like him to discuss, then he gave us a detailed 60 minute commentary on US-Iran relations, the more than decade-long negotiation that led to the JCPOA and the impact of the US’ unilateral withdrawal from the agreement. He made the point that US actions against Iran are based on not forgiving the country for declaring its independence from US empire in 1979. After his presentation, he answered more questions.
Zarif understands US politics, government and culture as he went to high school, college, and graduate school in the US as well as earning his Ph.D. in the US. He also understands Iranian politics intimately as he works at the highest levels of government. And, he is an expert diplomat who has been working in the Foreign Ministry since the 1980s in various important roles.
We were shocked that a few hours after meeting with us, Zarif announced his resignation as Foreign Minister. We thought this would be a terrible loss for Iran and the world because he is such a talented and ethical diplomat. Of course, Israel immediately applauded as did some of the conservatives in Iranian government. We watched over the next few days as members of Parliament wrote the Iranian President urging him not to accept the resignation. The Supreme Leader also expressed his support for Zarif as did the presidential office. Two days after the resignation, Hassan Rouhani refused to accept his resignation.
We can understand why some in Iran believe it is a mistake to negotiate with the United States. We have a terrible history with Iran beginning with the coup the US engineered in 1953 with Great Britain deposing the elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, which led to the installation of a monarchy, the Shah of Iran, who was a brutal and repressive ruler until the 1979 Revolution. After the revolution, the US aided Iraq in the 1980-88 war against Iran that led to more than one million deaths. The US provided the ingredients for chemical weapons used by Iraq against Iran as well as other military support and intelligence.
The US has been attempting to cripple the Iranian economy with sanctions for 40 years that have escalated with each president. The US cannot accept Iran is an independent and sovereign nation. With this record, it is understandable that some in Iran oppose negotiations with the US. However, Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear agreement, when everyone agrees Iran has lived up to the agreement, has further isolated the US in the world and shown Iran to be reliable and ethical in its diplomacy. In the end, this will benefit Iran and weaken the United States. It will be one more marker in the end of US empire when it is looked back on in history. KZ
News of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s abrupt resignation late on Feb. 25 spurred celebration and joy among Iran’s powerful hard-liners.
“The disgraceful JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] has reached a dead end. Zarif is like a gambler who gambled his entire existence on trusting [former US Secretary of State] John Kerry and lost,” proclaimed hard-line former member of parliament Hamid Rasaee. Conservative politician Mahmoud Nabavian declared, “The man behind the damaging agreements of Sa’adabad, Paris, Geneva, Lausanne, the JCPOA and FATF [Financial Action Task Force] has resigned. Thank God.” Lawmaker Javad Karimi Ghodoosi handed out sweets to fellow members of parliament, saying he was “certain” Zarif was finished.
As it turned out, confidence in the foreign minister’s departure was premature. He returns to his post with renewed legitimacy and decision-making power after receiving expressions of support from an array of Iran’s ruling elite. Above all, one public figure’s praise has dampened the spirits of Iranian hard-liners and boosted Zarif’s position the most: Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force.
Soleimani backed Zarif as “the main official responsible for foreign policy” and stressed that he has always had the support of senior officials, “especially” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. His comments echoed President Hassan Rouhani’s letter rejecting Zarif’s resignation in which he stated that he agreed with his chief diplomat that the foreign minister is the “highest official implementing the country’s foreign policy.”
Soleimani’s emphatic support of Zarif comes as the US administration’s abrogation of the JCPOA and pursuit of a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran has all but decimated the fragile momentum Rouhani had built in favor of diplomacy and increased openness. Rather than the economic dividends he promised with the nuclear deal, Rouhani has wound up with an economy debilitated by reimposed US sanctions and hard-liners vindicated in their warnings not to trust the United States.
However, Soleimani — who is respected across Tehran’s partisan divide but especially revered by conservative forces — has great influence over the balance of power in Tehran’s contentious domestic politics. His comments diminished the political space for hard-line forces to sabotage Zarif’s foreign policy approach and awkwardly positioned them on the same side as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who promptly bid Zarif “good riddance.”
Despite political limitations and checks on electoral processes by unelected institutions, Iran’s political system is not static or monolithic. To the contrary, politics in the Islamic Republic are marked by intense competition between rival factions that diverge on major foreign and domestic policies. In this political arena, one faction has repeatedly shown it is willing to do anything to bring down not just Zarif, but the entirety of Rouhani’s administration.
The group called the Front of Islamic Revolution Stability — often referred to as the Endurance Front — has for years sought to eliminate Reformists and moderates from Iran’s political scene. Its spiritual leader, fundamentalist Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, rigorously opposes engagement with the West and has been described as seeking an isolationist, North Korea-style model for Iran.
Last August, Mesbah Yazdi warned Iranians against trusting any foreign power — whether Western or Eastern — saying, “We must confess and say God, we made a damn mistake. Please forgive us for being optimistic about the JCPOA and negotiations with the enemy. … Please forgive us for being optimistic toward the Europeans.” He added, “Some have tied their hearts to Russia and China; they are making a mistake as well.”
In recent months, parliament members affiliated with the group have introduced bills calling for the impeachment of Zarif, Rouhani and even centrist parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani. It is no coincidence that the political figures who promptly lauded Zarif’s resignation bid are all part of the Endurance Front.
Last year, the group sparked immense controversy in Iran over a placard raised at a gathering it organized in the holy city of Qom. The sign was viewed as threatening Rouhani’s life if he pursued renewed negotiations with the United States. The infamous placard read, “Oh you whose slogan is negotiations, Farah’s swimming pool is your fate,” apparently referring to former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — Rouhani’s long-time patron — who died mysteriously in January 2017 after allegedly swimming in a former palace of the late shah’s wife Farah Pahlavi.
The Qom rally was denounced by senior traditional clergy, including Grand Ayatollahs Nasser Makarem Shirazi and Hossein Nouri Hamedani. Khamenei has also strongly censured those calling for Rouhani’s removal as “playing a role in the enemy’s plan.” However, as the Zarif resignation saga shows, hard-line ideologues clustered around the Endurance Front will forgo no opportunity to subvert Rouhani and his vision for Iran at home and abroad.
The increased brazenness of Iran’s hard-liners is reminiscent of the final years of former Reformist President Mohammad Khatami, whose efforts to reach out to the United States ultimately proved futile. Iran’s support of the US-led overthrow of the Taliban regime in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks was answered with President George W. Bush’s designation of the Islamic Republic as part of an “axis of evil.” And Tehran’s freezing of its uranium enrichment program in 2003 as part of its engagement with Europe failed to achieve a deal in the shadow of American pressure on London, Paris and Berlin.
Khatami’s downfall led to the rise of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Thus, if past is prologue, it appears that despite their setback with Zarif’s return as foreign minister, the Endurance Front and other conservative factions are poised to make gains in Iran’s next parliamentary and presidential elections in 2020 and 2021 — unless Europe stands up to US pressure and provides the promised dividends of the JCPOA. The outcome of this multidimensional struggle is not yet clear — but it will in all certainty be momentous.