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muhammad javad zarif

Mohammad Javad Zarif

On 25 February 2019, taking by surprise those who are interested in Iranian affairs, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif filed his resignation letter from the post he has held since 2013. The man who had negotiated the 2015 nuclear agreement, the moderate voice in the country's international relations suddenly decided to leave the political scene. However, the resignation was dismissed by President Hassan Rouhani and Zarif remained in place. The gesture was motivated by a series of internal and international events.

International events

The US decision to invalidate the agreement on the Iranian nuclear program was the classic straw that undermined and challenged Zarif's moderate foreign policy. It was, in the eyes of his detractors, a delegitimization of his work. That this agreement is still considered valid by the other signatory countries, such as the European Union, does not change the substance of the event, since the United States is still the most important country sitting at the negotiating table.

Since he took office in the White House, President Donald Trump has carried out an aggressive policy towards Tehran. He did so verbally, systematically, trying to demonize the Iranian theocracy in the eyes of the world. He also did so by announcing and implementing sanctions and threatening the countries that had violated them by continuing to trade, especially oil, with Iran. He also did this by organizing, in Warsaw in February, an international conference generically aimed at the "stabilization of the Middle East", but who was instead dedicated to trying to coagulate international consensus against Iran. He has done so recently by putting the Pasdarans on the list of terrorist groups.

To all this then we must add the continuous visits to the Gulf and the declarations of the various US personalities and envoys. Also in terms of regional foreign policy, Israeli threats and under-the-counter agreements with the Sunni Gulf countries have also raised the level of the threat to Iran.

So many provocations could not come without consequences, even domestically.

The domestic situation

Iran's foreign policy has always fluctuated between two opposing positions: a moderate one, open to dialogue with the outside world; the radical one, therefore more aggressive, aimed at playing and relying on the balance of power in the relationships with other countries. The point of balance between these two trends is the Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei who, from time to time, according to his own assessment of the risks and benefits, obviously based on social stability of the regime, opts to favor or oppose moderate or conservative stances.

It is clear that, by increasing the tension with Israel and neighboring countries and after assessing the danger from American threats, the reaction of Iranian foreign policy can only become a more radical. Zarif became the predestined victim of this tendency.

Another circumstance which should be taken into consideration are the Iranian victories in Syria and against Sunni terrorism, its political-military expansion in the Middle East; all these have certainly fueled the ambitions of those who, domestically in Iran, sympathize with more radical positions both in foreign and domestic politics.

The person who today personifies more than others the extremist wing of Iranian foreign policy, in virtue of the military conquests that have accompanied the struggle against ISIS and the support for the regime of Bashar al Assad, is General Qasem Soleimani, who commands the Al Quds Brigades of the Pasdarans abroad.

Victories on the ground have fueled the prestige of the General who, at least on regional military questions, has become the privileged interlocutor of the Russians, the Turks, the governments of Iraq and Syria and even the Americans. In fact, he represents a parallel diplomacy that for a certain period has been both in agreement and in competition with the diplomacy of Zarif, but which lately seems instead to have entered a collision course with the latter.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Zarif's resignation preceded a State visit to Tehran by Syrian President Bashar Assad – an important event that had been in the wait for 7 years – in which the Supreme Guide Khamenei would be joined by General Soleimani, but not Mohammad Javad Zarif. An institutional rudeness that the Minister of Foreign Affairs perceived as a de-legitimization of his role at the very moment when, after the military defeat of ISIS, the Syrian issue became more political and diplomatic.

hassan rouhani

Hassan Rouhani

The Supreme Council for National Security

Iran's foreign policy is drawn up within this body which is chaired by the President of the Republic Rouhani, a moderate just like Zarif, but who is ultimately subject to the decision of the Supreme Guide who endorses or amends his decisions. There sits the Minister of Defense, the Foreign and Interior Ministers, two representatives of the Guide, the Chief of Staffs of the Armed Forces and that of the Pasdaran, the Parliament Speaker, the Minister of Intelligence, the Head of Justice and, depending on the topics, other ministers.

Security issues dictate foreign decisions and therefore, when these "necessities" prevail, the balance shifts from diplomacy to military or intelligence issues. American threats have certainly pushed Iran in this direction.

The elements of Iranian foreign policy

Since the advent of Khomeini, Iran's foreign policy reflects a country living under siege, surrounded by hostile regional rivals with whom it competes not only for the leadership of the Middle East, but also for religious issues. The competition between Sunnis and Shiites is a push towards extremism.

The situation has worsened with the growing hostility of the US administration which therefore increased the fear of international isolation in Iranian authorities. The war in Iraq and the Syrian crisis have, on the one hand, increased the risks to regional stability, but also provided opportunities for an expansion of Tehran's sphere of influence in the Middle East. Indeed, Iran develops its own foreign policy based on a pragmatism influenced by events.

ayatollah khomeini

Ayatollah Khomeini

Iran under threat

Zarif's reappointment can therefore be read as Khamenei's will to leave the moderate option open. On the one hand, the Supreme Guide supports the growing domestic radicalization of Iranian politics, on the other it leaves room for a moderate foreign policy. This political balancing act is also dictated by prudence in view of next year's parliamentary elections. The vote determines a growing clash between the two souls of Iranian politics and therefore it is not excluded that the country's foreign policy, with or without Zarif, will be affected.

The greater the perception of an external threat, the more Iranian public opinion tends to shift to radical positions.

The US Administration, through a series of statements by President Trump, has also tried to support Iranian opposition in its attempt to get rid of the current theocratic system. A hope that does not take into account the fact that the Iranians, when faced with an external danger, have the capacity to come together under the banner of nationalism.

In this regard, it would be enough to take a look at the recent history of the country: in February 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini arrived in Tehran in the wake of a revolution that saw the overthrow of the Shah after a series of rallies, clashes and attacks. A country weakened by the aftermath of a revolution and civil war suffered, a year later – we are in September 1980 – the military attack by Saddam Hussein. Faced with such a threat, the Iranian people regroup, forget divisions and resentments. The war will last for eight years and will cost nearly one million victims on the Iranian side.

Furthermore, apart from Iranian nationalism, we must not forget another detail: the United States had initially tried to support Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and supported Saddam Hussein in the war against Iran. If the US continues to define Iran a "Rogue State", the Iranians have all the reasons to continue labeling the United States as the "Great Satan".

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