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Tue 26 Feb 2019 08:32 AM

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Iran's Zarif quits as engagement with the West seen failing

President Hassan Rouhani has yet to say whether he has accepted Zarif's resignation

Iran's Zarif quits as engagement with the West seen failing
President Hassan Rouhani has yet to say whether he has accepted Zarif’s resignation.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who led his country’s nuclear negotiations with world powers and was widely viewed as a proponent of engagement rather than confrontation, resigned on Monday in an unexpected move he announced on the picture-sharing service Instagram.

“I am no longer able to continue to serve,” Zarif said in the post, giving no reason. The resignation was confirmed by state news agencies and the foreign ministry.

“I thank the benevolence of the dear and brave Iranian people and I’m most grateful to the kind authorities for the past 67 months. For my inability to continue my service, and all the flaws and shortcomings during the period of my service, I sincerely apologize,” he wrote.

President Hassan Rouhani has yet to say whether he has accepted Zarif’s resignation.

Deal Champion

A US-educated career diplomat, Zarif led Iran’s negotiating team during lengthy talks with the United States and other world powers that culminated in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or “Iran deal," which lifted some sanctions against Iran in exchange for commitments on its nuclear enrichment program.

President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the accord last year and reimposed sanctions, leaving Iran to try and salvage what it could of the agreement.

Brokering the deal made Zarif popular with reformists and moderates in Iran’s fractious political system, but he was also the subject of criticism from the Islamic Republic’s hard-liners, who are traditionally suspicious of any engagement with Washington and Europe.

The US withdrawal has emboldened the hard-liners and weakened Rouhani, who has been trying to come up with ways to retain some of the benefits of the agreement in negotiations with other signatories.

Political shift

Zarif’s resignation could mark the start of a shift in Iranian politics as engagement efforts with the West are seen backfiring, according to Fouad Izadi, assistant professor at the faculty of World Studies in Tehran and a critic of the nuclear deal. After the US backed out of the agreement, hopes that Europe would salvage parts of it were also misplaced, he said.

The foreign minister “put a lot of his personal prestige on the line to get the nuclear agreement,” Izadi said. “ The remaining people who have not resigned will be forced out with the current trend we see now.”

European leaders have publicly clashed with Trump over his hard line on Iran, with three powers unveiling a plan to help companies trade with the Islamic Republic -- a move intended to salvage the nuclear accord. The so-called special purpose vehicle is key to the European Union’s effort to keep Iran from quitting the JCPOA.

Zarif’s resignation coincided with a visit from Syria’s President Bashar al Assad to Tehran, where he met with Rouhani. The timing led Iran-watchers to speculate that Iran’s top diplomat was being sidelined on key foreign policy issues, such as Iran’s role in propping up Assad’s government after nearly eight years of civil war in Syria.

Zarif, who was appointed in 2013 after Rouhani was elected, would be leaving amid intensifying pressure on the Iranian economy from the resumption of US sanctions on Iran’s oil exports and its use of the US dollar. Zarif served as Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations from 2002 to 2007, where he developed a reputation as a skilled but difficult negotiator.

Zarif also has a long history of goading US officials, telling Trump last year that “international relations is not a beauty pageant” and accusing him of bullying members of the United Nations Security Council. In September, he said Trump needed to take a side seat on Syria.

US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo remarked on Zarif’s resignation in a tweet:

Pompeo was referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader.

Battles Lost

Zarif’s resignation via Instagram comes weeks after authorities in Iran said they were preparing to block access to the service, extending their crackdown on social media to the only major platform still freely available.

“If Zarif has actually resigned and is leaving the scene, my guess is that it means that Iranians who are looking for engagement with the world have lost some important battles internally,” said Jarrett Blanc, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department coordinator for Iran nuclear implementation.