Iran’s Rouhani backs foreign minister, has not accepted resignation

A majority of Iranian MPs sign letter calling for top diplomat Zarif to stay on after surprise resignation seemingly tied to Assad visit

In this photo from November 24, 2015, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, listens to his Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif prior to a meeting in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)
In this photo from November 24, 2015, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, listens to his Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif prior to a meeting in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Tuesday appeared to throw his support behind ally Mohammad Javad Zarif, rejecting his resignation as Iran’s foreign minister and setting up a potential showdown with regime rivals.

Zarif’s surprise resignation announcement Monday sent shockwaves through Iran, where tensions are already running high over America’s withdraw from the nuclear deal he helped negotiate with Rouhani.

The US-educated foreign minister has not given an explicit reason for his decision, but it came after he was not included in meetings Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei held with with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi said Rouhani had not accepted Zarif’s resignation, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.

Rouhani’s chief of staff, Mahmoud Vaezi, had earlier denied reports that the president had accepted the resignation in an early Tuesday tweet.

“Dr. Rouhani is of the opinion that the Islamic Republic of Iran has just one foreign policy and one foreign minister,” Vaezi tweeted later, according to a translation by Iran’s Mehr news agency.

Despite Zarif’s declared intent to step down, he had yet to officially submit his resignation, according to the Reuters news agency.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks during the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, Feb. 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Kerstin Joensson)

In a further sign of support, a majority of lawmakers in Iran’s parliament signed a letter calling for Zarif to stay on as foreign minister, according to the Mehr news agency, and First Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri encouraged him not to resign in a phone call.

Quoting Rouhani’s cultural adviser, Mehr said Zarif’s resignation appeared to be the result of an “incoordination” and not because of internal regime disputes or his absence from the meetings with Assad.

Earlier Tuesday, and without mentioning the resignation, Rouhani praised Zarif as well as Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh and Central Bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati as soldiers on the battlefield against US pressure.

“Today, the front line against the US are the foreign and oil ministries as well as the Central Bank,” Rouhani said in a televised address. “Zarif, Hemmati and Zanganeh have stood in the front line.”

Prominent pro-reform lawmaker Ali Motahari said Zarif’s resignation came in response to the “interventions by unaccountable bodies in foreign affairs.”

He said Rouhani was unlikely to accept the resignation “since there is no alternative” for Zarif.

From left: EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini; Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif; British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond; and US Secretary of State John Kerry line up for a press announcement at the nuclear talks in Lausanne, Switzerland, April 2, 2015. The sides agreed that month on the framework for the deal they finalized three months later (photo credit: AP/Keystone, Jean-Christophe Bott)

Commenting on his resignation, the state-run IRNA news agency quoted Zarif telling colleagues his resignation would aid in “restoring the ministry to its statutory role in foreign relations.”

Iran’s powerful parliamentary committee on national security and foreign affairs was scheduled to discuss Zarif’s resignation later Tuesday though its pronouncements are considered mostly advisory.

Zarif and Rouhani, both considered relative moderates, have faced pressure from hardliners over their role negotiating the nuclear deal with six world powers, as Tehran’s economy has crumbled following the US pullout from the pact.

Lawmaker Behrouz Nemati said that hardline lawmaker Javad Karimi Ghodousi brought him cookies to celebrate Zarif leaving.

In an interview published Tuesday by the daily Jomhuori Eslami, Zarif slammed the infighting.

“A deadly poison for foreign policy is that it becomes the subject of factionalism and parties’ quarrel,” Zarif reportedly said. “There should be trust toward servants of foreign policy on the national level. Without trust in them, everything will go with the wind.”

The remark appeared to be aimed at other bodies within Iran’s government.

Zarif was not present for the meetings with Assad on Monday. Assad was warmly received by Khamenei as well as Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of an elite unit of the Revolutionary Guard.

On Tuesday, authorities shuttered the pro-reform Ghanoon daily which had in its early edition of the day called Assad an “uninvited guest” on the front page. The paper said on its Telegram channel that it was closed until further notice.

In this picture released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, speaks with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Tehran, Iran, February 25, 2019. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

Analysts say Rouhani faces growing political pressure from hardliners within the government as the nuclear deal unravels. Iranian presidents typically see their popularity erode during their second four-year term, but analysts say Rouhani is particularly vulnerable because of the economic crisis assailing the rial, which has hurt ordinary Iranians and emboldened critics to openly call for his ouster.

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

The face-off between Zarif and the hardliners has intensified as time has passed, and an attempt to impeach him in parliament was dropped only in December.

Zarif has publicly acknowledged that his main concern during the nuclear deal negotiations had been about opposition from inside Iran.

“We were more worried by the daggers that were struck from behind than the negotiations,” he told Jomhoori Eslami.

The latest point of contention between Zarif and the hardliners has been the implementation of the requirements of the Financial Action Task Force regarding money laundering in Iran.

The rift on the issue, which has complicated Zarif’s efforts to maintain European trade and investment despite the renewed US sanctions on Iran, has pitted the government against parliament and a key arbitration body.

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