Iranian foreign minister Zarif abruptly steps down with vague ‘apology’

Day after saying hard-liners cannot blame all country’s woes on West, chief negotiator in nuclear talks issues cryptic comment about ‘inability to serve’ and ‘shortcomings’

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrives at Rafik Hariri Airport, in Beirut, Lebanon, February 10, 2019. (Hussein Malla/Ap)
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrives at Rafik Hariri Airport, in Beirut, Lebanon, February 10, 2019. (Hussein Malla/Ap)

TEHRAN — Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif resigned late Monday without warning, offering an “apology” to the nation as the nuclear deal he negotiated with world powers stands on the verge of collapse after the U.S. withdrawal from the accord.

The veteran diplomat first offered a vague Instagram post saying “I apologize for my inability to continue serving and for all the shortcomings during my term in office.” The post included a drawing of Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, as Monday marked the commemoration of her birth.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, confirmed to the state-run IRNA news agency minutes later that Zarif had resigned but gave no reason for his departure.

On Sunday, Zarif criticized Iranian hard-liners in a speech in Tehran, saying: “We cannot hide behind imperialism’s plot and blame them for our own incapability.”

“Independence does not mean isolation from the world,” he said.

File: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, left, awards Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif with the Medal of Honor for his role in the implementation of a nuclear deal with world powers, on February 8, 2016, in Tehran. (AFP / ATTA KENARE)

Zarif’s resignation leaves Iran’s relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani without one of his main allies in pushing the Islamic Republic toward more negotiation with the West. Analysts have said Rouhani faces growing political pressure from hard-liners within the government as the unraveling nuclear deal further strains the country’s long-weakened economy.

Prominent members of parliaments immediately called for President Hassan Rouhani not to accept the resignation.

“Undoubtedly the Iranian people, government and state will not benefit from this resignation,” said Mostafa Kavakebian, a reformist MP.

“A great majority of MPs demand that the president never accept this resignation,” he said in a tweet.

The head of parliament’s influential national security and foreign policy commission told ISNA how a planned trip to Geneva with Zarif on Monday afternoon had been cancelled at the last minute with no explanation.

“I suddenly got a text message saying the trip has been cancelled,” Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh told ISNA, adding that this was not the first time Zarif had resigned but “that he has done so publicly this time means that he wants the president to accept it this time.”

The US-educated son of a wealthy family, Zarif overcame hardline objections and Western suspicions to strike the accord with world powers that saw Iran promise to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of crippling economic sanctions.

Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks during the Tehran Security Conference in Tehran, Iran, January 8, 2018. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

The deal, though, later faced a challenge from the administration of President Donald Trump, who pulled America out of the accord, while fueling doubts of those at home still wary of US interests decades after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Zarif himself faced withering criticism at home once for even shaking hands with President Barack Obama.

He was blamed by ultra-conservatives for negotiating a bad deal that had not gained anything meaningful for Iran for all the concessions it had made in its nuclear program.

The faceoff between the minister and his critics only intensified as time passed, with Zarif saying his main worry throughout the nuclear talks had been from pressure from inside Iran.

“We were more worried by the daggers that were struck from behind than the negotiations,” he told a local newspaper on February 2.

“The other side never managed to wear me down during the negotiations… but internal pressure wore me down both during and after the talks,” he said.

There was no immediate reaction from the US However, officials in the Trump administration have increased their pressure on Iran on social media as well, with one State Department official tweeting an unflattering GIF of Zarif saying: “How do you know @JZarif is lying? His lips are moving.”

During his tenure, Zarif has appeared frequently on international media outlets to defend Iran’s foreign policy and with his fluent English has used his Twitter account to hit out at US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

His announcement came hours after state media in Iran and Syria reported Syrian President Bashar Assad visited Tehran in a rare overseas visit to meet Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani, but there was no indication the move was related.

Zarif served as Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations from 2002 to 2007, first under reformist President Mohammad Khatami and then under hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Ahmadinejad wanted him replaced, but Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei intervened to keep him in the position for another two years as Iran soon found itself an international pariah over its nuclear program. Iran insisted its atomic program was for peaceful purposes only, while the West feared it could be used to make nuclear weapons.

Then US secretary of state John Kerry, left, meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at United Nations headquarters on September 26, 2015. (AP/Craig Ruttle)

Secret backchannel talks between the United States and Iran in Oman became full-fledged negotiations over its nuclear program. During the talks, Zarif met with then-US Secretary of State John Kerry more than 50 times — something unimaginable only years earlier.

Kerry and Zarif’s rapport extended beyond just the nuclear negotiations, however. Kerry directly reached out to his counterpart in January 2016 to help secure the release within 24 hours of 10 US Navy sailors seized by Iran after they mistakenly entered Iranian territorial waters.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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