Javad Zarif Returns—to a Foreign Ministry Still Out in the Cold

Iran’s Top Diplomat Vies for Authority

Javad Zarif in Geneva, Switzerland, November 2018 POOL / REUTERS

“Considering that state affairs are not carried out in an optimal way free from the meddling of irresponsible persons, I am forced to resign my post to warn of potential dangers. I do not see it fitting to stay on as a cabinet member without being able to introduce any fundamental changes in the current system.” 

These were the departing words of Karim Sanjabi, Iran’s first postrevolutionary foreign minister, who resigned on April 15, 1979, after serving only fifty-five days in office. Iran’s current foreign minister, Javad Zarif, expressed similar frustrations when he tendered his resignation last week, after being excluded from an unannounced meeting with the visiting President of Syria. Referring to pictures of the meeting from which he was conspicuously absent, Zarif announced on social media, “After the photos of today’s meetings, [the notion of] Javad Zarif as the foreign minister has no credibility around the world.” Two days later, President Hassan Rouhani rejected his resignation letter and Zarif was back on the job.

Forty years separate these two resignations, but they both point to the fact that the ministry supposedly in charge of steering Iranian foreign policy is structurally in competition with powerful coteries that encroach upon its territory. These institutional rivals have no qualms about leaving the drudgery of consular affairs and public diplomacy to the foreign ministry, as long as the ministry’s leaders understand that they need to bend the knee on certain weighty issues pertaining to national security. While many in the West see Iran as a disciplined adversary that has methodically expanded its footprint and leverage in the Middle East and beyond, the view from a more intimate vantage point seems remarkably different. Thanks to his brinksmanship, Zarif may have regained his position, but the ministry he leads is still not guaranteed a seat at the table.

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