(Persia Digest) - The abrupt resignation of Iran’s foreign minister is prompting mixed reactions. But what does it actually mean?
Jason Rezaian writes in The Washington Post that Mohammad Javad Zarif announced his decision in an Instragram post in Farsi on Monday night, Tehran time. Earlier in the day, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the country’s president, Hassan Rouhani, received Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad. Zarif was reportedly absent from both meetings.
During recent international appearances, Zarif has appeared testier than usual. Always argumentative, he seemed, at times, uncharacteristically angry.
My own experience has left me with strong opinions about the man. But let’s put that aside for a moment. The reactions of most Iran-watchers, if Zarif’s resignation is accepted, will almost certainly fall into two camps.
Advocates of regime change will greet the news as a victory in their efforts to end the Islamic Republic by any means necessary. News that one of Tehran’s most adept statesman is apparently leaving the scene will be seen as vindication of their view that the regime is coming apart at the seams. Needless to say, they believe they will now have an easier time re-isolating Iran in the months to come.
Those who hoped for internal reform through policymakers espousing engagement with the rest of the world will be disappointed. To them, Zarif — as the foreign policy guru for Rouhani — represented the best chance to cultivate change from within by opening Iran to foreign investment. Too often, though, they mistakenly saw him as a liberal thinker that would help guide Iran toward a secular future.
But I see Zarif and his legacy differently. It can’t be defined as positive or negative.
There are two commonly held beliefs that I strongly disagree with in most assessments of Zarif. The first is that he is a true believer in the cause of the Islamic republic.
Zarif — and his accomplishments — are a product of the strange relationship between the United States and Iran that has been the backdrop of his adult life.
Zarif is a graduate of San Francisco State University. That is my parents’ alma mater; they met there in the 1960s, long before there was any tension between Tehran and Washington. Zarif received his bachelor’s degree in 1981. He later went on to get a law degree at the University of Denver.
When so many other affluent Iranians returned to Tehran to take part in the defining moment of their country in modern times, Zarif stayed put. He was absent from the revolution and its aftermath. Maybe he was instructed to do so, or maybe he was comfortable in his American life, but nothing will change the fact that during Iran’s most tumultuous years, he was living very far from the action, representing it in New York as a diplomat at the United Nations.
While others were drawn to their homeland by passion, Zarif seems to have been driven by ambition. One doesn’t need to listen to too many of his political sermons to understand how highly he thinks of himself.
The other point of contention I have with conventional thinking about Zarif is that he held no power.
Zarif had enough political mojo to persuade world powers to sit down to serious long-term negotiations and ultimately come to an agreement on a massive geopolitical issue — something his predecessors had never even come close to achieving.
During those negotiations, while I was in prison in Iran, Zarif used international public platforms to reinforce Iran’s flimsy case against me while I had no means of defending myself.
Whenever Zarif appeared on our television screen, my cellmate and I would joke that we were saving the empty third bed in our cell for him. We understood that Zarif was performing a difficult high-wire act. It was one that only he had a chance of pulling off, but not without regular jabs from domestic adversaries who regarded him with profound suspicion due to his lifelong connections to the United States
He is probably more comfortable speaking English in front of an American or European audience than he would be among his fellow Iranians. This is because of his long pedigree in the United States. He was, in fact, bred to succeed in the work that he did.
But I think, in the process, America got to him.
He had to know — in ways that my captors could not — that he was on the wrong side of history more often than not, defending a regime’s excesses while tricking himself into believing he was actually defending a worthy idea.
I have as much reason to harbor personal resentment toward Zarif as any Western commentator you’re likely to hear from in the coming days. But I worry about what his exit from the scene means to this already tense era in U.S relations with Iran.
For as much as I loathe him, I also believe that his relationship with then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry helped to avert at least one potential international confrontation when a U.S. navy vessel inadvertently — but just as illegally — strayed into Iranian waters, was detained by the Revolutionary Guard Corps and released within hours.
It was one example that having a dialogue made a real difference, and for those Americans languishing in Iranian prisons today, there can be no worse news than Zarif’s probable departure.
Zarif’s hypocrisy, condescension, double-talk and regular justifications for Iran’s abhorrent behavior won’t be missed. But the silence between “us and them” that is likely to follow just might be even worse.
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