“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.

Khamenei Strengthens His Hand

Since becoming the supreme leader in 1989, Ayatollah Khamenei has profoundly strengthened his position by expanding his slice of the state bureaucracy and the remit of the security forces, including the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). He has also manipulated informal political networks in his favor. Khamenei may have felt the need to assert such control because each of the four presidents—Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Rouhani—with whom he has had to share the stage has tried to outshine him. Today the Office of the Supreme Leader is a parallel government that is powerful, resourceful, opaque, and unaccountable.

Khamenei has a number of political and institutional instruments that he can use to bring foreign-policy making under his own tutelage rather than that of the foreign ministry. Not only does he have the authority to personally approve the choice of foreign minister (along with the ministers of intelligence, interior, and culture) but he also has a foreign relations bureau in his office and personal representatives in a number of foreign countries (such as Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom). The leader views himself as the ultimate arbiter of such sensitive foreign policy issues as the nuclear negotiations, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria.

Consider the role of some of the members of Khamenei’s kitchen cabinet when it comes to foreign policy. The presence of Major General Qassem Soleimani in the meetings with President Bashar al-Assad was emblematic of the crucial part he has played in masterminding Iran’s overseas military policy. In 1997, Khamenei appointed Soleimani as the commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, the branch responsible for foreign operations. Since then, Soleimani and his lieutenants have essentially called the shots in every major conflict. Indeed, in 2008 it was Soleimani who informed General David Petraeus that “I [Soleimani] … control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan.” Khamenei, who has referred to Soleimani as “a living martyr,” has given him carte blanche to devise and advance Iranian strategy in Yemen and Syria as well. It is no accident that Iran’s current ambassador to Iraq is a former senior adviser to Soleimani, and that the one before him was also an IRGC official.

Khamenei has not limited his incursions to the security side but has hemmed in the foreign ministry politically as well. In 1997, just eighteen days after the reformist President Khatami assumed office, Khamenei appointed Ali-Akbar Velayati to the newly created post of “supreme leader’s international affairs adviser.” Given Velayati’s hefty credentials as postrevolutionary Iran’s longest-serving foreign minister (he occupied the post from 1981 to 1997), his appointment signaled to Khatami that the important foreign policy portfolio was not going to be left in the president’s hands alone. Velayati has made trips as Khamenei’s representative to such countries as China, Iraq, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. He plays the role of back-channel envoy and go-between. In February 2007, one month before Iran was to bar IAEA inspectors from entering the country, it was Velayati who met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. Similarly, in July 2018, two months after Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), it was again Velayati, not Zarif, who was dispatched to Moscow to meet with Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss sanctions, Russian investment in Iran’s oil sector, and the situation in Syria.

If Khamenei distrusted the Khatami administration to handle matters of foreign policy, he was hardly readier to cede the field to Khatami’s successor, Ahmadinejad, who put Iran on a path to confrontation by restarting enrichment-related activities and calling for Israel to be wiped from the map. Early in Ahmadinejad’s first term, Khamenei created the five-member Strategic Council on Foreign Relations (SCFR) to engage experts, devise foreign policy approaches, and facilitate decision-making. The leader appointed yet another former foreign minister as SCFR’s chief: Seyyed Kamal Kharrazi, whose niece is married to one of Khamenei’s sons, explained that the SCFR would address the deficiency the supreme leader sensed in foreign-policy making, and that all such issues would now be handled by his council and have “nothing to do with executive matters.” Kharrazi twice served as Zarif’s immediate boss in past positions.  Over the last two years, he has intruded on the responsibilities of Zarif’s ministry, for example by leading delegations to Afghanistan, China, France, Iraq, and Syria.

Khamenei made another heavyweight foreign policy appointment in 2013, shortly after Rouhani and Zarif assumed office. Ali Shamkhani had previously served as deputy commander in chief of the IRGC, commander of Iranian Navy, and minister of defense. Khamenei made him his personal representative to—and secretary of—the influential Supreme Council for National Security, the highest body responsible for the country’s intelligence, military, and security policies. Under Shamkhani, the council played an active role behind the scenes in negotiating the JCPOA. The current Iranian negotiations with the Taliban are also conducted through Shamkhani’s shop rather than Zarif’s office.

At a time when Iran’s foreign minister has the highest international profile of any in recent memory, the presence of so many cooks in the back kitchen is spoiling the stew. The cumulative effect of all this competition is no doubt to perplex Iran’s interlocutors and irritate Zarif.

Factional Lightning Rod

Zarif’s problems are not just structural but also political. Henry Kissinger may have autographed his book on diplomacy for Zarif with the dedication “To my respectful enemy,” but the foreign minister’s Iranian antagonists clearly do not hold him in such high regard. Today the conservatives refer to him as a “yankee.” Zarif’s parents were religiously devout. They did not have a television in their home and forbade him to listen to music or go to a movie theater until he was fifteen. However, the thirty years Zarif spent in the United States, from 1977 to 2006, made him suspect in the eyes of some of his compatriots. As far back as 1988, the radical interior minister Ali-Akbar Mohtashamipur opposed Zarif’s appointment as chief of the Iranian mission to the United Nations by labeling him “an American.” Now conservatives object that he did not serve in the Iran-Iraq War, that he is too Western in his demeanor, and that he lobbied forcefully behind doors for Iran to accept the terms of the JCPOA.

Zarif has made public statements that have further inflamed his adversaries. In 2013 he suggested that the United States could easily destroy Iran’s military; in 2018, he stated that money laundering was rampant in Iran. In the last year, Zarif has advocated legislation that would bring Iran into compliance with Financial Action Task Force (FATF) requirements for the curbing of money laundering and terrorism financing. The conservative faction in parliament has opposed this initiative. Legislators have summoned Zarif for questioning more than any previous foreign minister and even unsuccessfully tried to impeach him in December 2018 over the FATF reforms. A body that arbitrates internal disputes has met four times to discuss the reforms but has postponed rendering a judgement until after the Iranian New Year, in late March.

Zarif’s political enemies have telegraphed to the world that the foreign minister is embattled and that the lines of authority are not altogether clear. To the extent that improving relations with the West has been Zarif’s signature achievement, the security establishment has sought to undermine it by arresting Iranian dual nationals and foreign citizens. According to the governments of France, Denmark, and the Netherlands, Iranian agents have plotted attacks on dissidents on European soil. The European Union responded with sanctions targeting the Iranian Intelligence Ministry. Inside Iran, mobs animated by conservative vigilantes attacked Saudi diplomatic missions in 2016, making the matter of who controls Iranian foreign policy even murkier.

Ultimately, the target of these power plays is not just Zarif as an individual but Rouhani’s administration as a whole. The president has not shown the determination to stand up to the supreme leader or his underlings. Instead, he has retreated again and again, emboldening his opponents to act more audaciously each time.

Does the urbane, U.S.-educated foreign minister, with a Ph.D. in International Relations, have the guts not only to stand for his country but also to stand up to its decision-makers for their ill-advised and chaotic policies? By announcing his resignation over Instagram in a midnight post, Zarif demonstrated brilliantly that diplomacy is as much theatrics as it is dialogue. But by quickly withdrawing that resignation, apparently without securing any solid promises to protect the “integrity and position” of the Foreign Ministry, he has also shown the weakness of the cards he holds.

Zarif may no longer suffer the affront of being excluded from a photo op with a visiting head of state, but he will not be in the driver’s seat of Iranian foreign policy either. The nuclear issue, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and relations with the United States will continue to be the domain of the supreme leader, while this skilled diplomat will be instructed merely to defend the leader’s policies with his charm and flawless English.

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