Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif waits to deliver his speech on March 2, 2015, at the opening day of the UN Human Rights council session at the United Nations offices in Geneva. Photo: AFP/Fabrice Coffrini

The report was both surprising and alarming. Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif announced his resignation from his post the same day Syrian President Bashar al-Assad paid an unannounced visit to Tehran to meet Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani.

As the country’s top diplomat, Zarif was not invited to any of Assad’s meetings, giving rise to speculation that his exclusion from the planning of the trip by a foreign head of state offended him and persuaded him to step down.

The Iranian daily Ghanoon was closed down on Tuesday for publishing a photo of President Assad cordially hugging Iran’s Supreme Leader with a two-word headline: “Uninvited Guest.”

Iran’s English-speaking foreign minister publicized his resignation through a post on his Instagram page, apologizing to the Iranian nation for his shortcomings and thanking the people and officials for their support over the course of the past 67 months he was in office.

Although Javad Zarif’s resignation needs the approval of President Hassan Rouhani to be confirmed, it has already sent his colleagues in the cabinet and the Iranian people into a frenzy.

A Farsi hashtag reading “Stay, Zarif” is trending on Persian Twitter and thousands of Iranian users have expressed their solidarity with a diplomat who some say is the last and only hope of the people in difficult and challenging days when Iran is targeted with crippling economic sanctions imposed by the United States and once again under pressure over its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs and regional policies.

The Twitter account attributed to the president’s chief of staff, Mahmoud Vaezi, strongly denied the rumors that Rouhani had accepted Zarif’s resignation. However, this is not the first time the foreign minister submitted his resignation. He had previously signaled his willingness to quit his job over the interference of shadow organizations in the responsibilities of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Trouble with hardliners

Zarif has been under the weight of harsh accusations and attacks by the hardliners since he secured the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal, in cooperation with the top diplomats of six world powers and the European Union. This could have been a good reason for Zarif to leave a thankless job that was only awarding him tensions and skirmishes.

Perhaps the most blunt reaction to the resignation of  Zarif came from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who tweeted in his Persian account: “Zarif is gone. We are relieved. As long as I am here, the Iranian regime will not obtain nuclear weapons.”

Netanyahu, whose country is the sole possessor of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, knows well that Iran does not have nuclear weapons and that the JCPOA is designed to keep it from obtaining one for the coming 15 years.

However, the Israeli premier’s brazen tweet underlines the depth of his contentment and joy over the presumed departure of a politician considered by many Iranians as a savior and the smartest member of Hassan Rouhani’s administration and the most intelligent foreign minister of Iran after the 1979 revolution.

Some 150 members of Iran’s parliament, which is divided between hardliners and reformists, have asked President Rouhani in a letter to turn down Zarif’s resignation.

Why is Zarif popular?

Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is not simply popular among Iranians because he is the first major politician since the 1979 revolution who speaks fluent English and speaks to his foreign counterparts and international media without interpreters.

He was close to such policy think tanks as Chatham House and the Asia Society since a young age and many journalists and pundits have lauded him for his familiarity with international organizations and his close personal relationships with distinguished foreign policy experts, world leaders and intellectuals.

Zarif is also well aware of the working and structure of the United Nations since he was the permanent representative of Iran to the UN from 2002 to 2007. Zarif was educated at San Francisco State University and the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once described him as a “respectful enemy.”

He had developed such a close personal relationship with former US Secretary of State John Kerry that the two diplomats were on a first-name basis.

But it was not always this way. During the tenure of ultra-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, from 2005 to 2013, Zarif was stripped of government positions and said he was “confined to home.”

When Hassan Rouhani was elected president in 2013, however, Zarif saw his political career take off, gaining popularity in his new appointment as foreign minister.

Loathed by some

Under Rouhani, Zarif negotiated with the United States and other world powers an agreement that drew an end to almost two decades of controversy and dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. The Iran nuclear deal, which constituted the basis for Security Council Resolution 2231, terminated all UN sanctions targeting Iran over its nuclear activities and paved the way for Iran to be reconnected with the international community.

The nuclear deal was loathed by hardliners and neoconservatives in Tehran, Tel Aviv, Riyadh and Washington for a variety of reasons. In Iran, extremists despised the JCPOA because it ended their monopoly and that of their allies over the country’s economy and opened Iran’s doors to the international community, something they have always feared.

In Israel and Saudi Arabia, hardliners opposed the nuclear deal because it ended Iran’s isolation and gave it the impetus to emerge as a regional superpower through the new international partnerships it was able to forge in the JCPOA era. The neocons in Washington were unhappy about the deal for almost the same reasons: an emerging, empowered Iran could potentially undermine US interests in the Middle East.

All of these hardliners mobilized their media wings in recent years to launch verbal attacks against Zarif and discredit him. However, the Iranian people gave him an unprecedented hero’s welcome at Tehran airport in July 2015 when he returned to Iran from Austria following the conclusion of the nuclear talks that resulted in the signing of the JCPOA.

It was at that time when the moderate diplomat emerged as a national hero, credited with rescuing his country and people from the burden of the hard-hitting economic sanctions that had dilapidated their livelihoods. Following the implementation of the JCPOA, Zarif was summoned by the conservative MPs to parliament scores of times to explain different aspects of the nuclear agreement and assure the lawmakers that the deal would not undermine Iran’s national security and nuclear capability.

Zarif was most recently embroiled in bitter clashes with hawks in parliament and conservatives at the Expediency Council over his push for Iran to comply with the anti-terrorism financial measures of the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force. The task force, known as FATF, now blacklists Iran as one of the “Non-Cooperative Countries or Territories” that does not collaborate with the organization in the global fight against money laundering and terrorist financing. The organization had given Iran a grace period to comply.

Zarif argued that Iran should meet the FATF requirements in order to evade its punitive measures and to make sure its links with the international banking system was not entirely cut off. The parliament jingoists and hardliners at the Expediency Council did not agree, citing concerns that support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestine’s Hamas might be limited if Iran approved the relevant parliamentary bills.

Zarif’s explicit reference to the existence of prevalent money-laundering in Iran had severely infuriated some of the detractors of the Rouhani administration.

Life after Zarif?

It is difficult to imagine Iran’s foreign ministry being spearheaded by a diplomat other than Zarif. Zarif is articulate, experienced and has established a strong international reputation as a moderate politician who knows the art of diplomacy well, even though some of his remarks about Iran’s domestic issues were criticized by Iranians online and off.

If his resignation is approved by the president, there is no guarantee that his successor will follow the same path and implement the policies he has been pursuing, including close engagement with the West.

This also means the fate of the JCPOA might be at stake when its architect is not in office anymore.

There is a slim possibility that Zarif’s resignation could be rejected by President Rouhani, under which circumstances, the diplomat would likely be granted greater jurisdiction in his work and not compelled to tolerate exclusion from critical meetings.

In the wake of his resignation, the official Islamic Republic News Agency quoted the top diplomat saying he hopes his resignation “serves as a prod” for the foreign ministry to return to its rightful, legal position in foreign relations.

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