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Iran's Embattled Foreign Minister; What Next For Zarif?

File - Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, delivering a speech in a meeting of Iranian Diplomats with the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, on August 13, 2014.
File - Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, delivering a speech in a meeting of Iranian Diplomats with the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, on August 13, 2014.

The U.S. Department of Treasury's sanction against Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif came at the worst of times for him.

The sanctions were announced on July 30, during a hard week when Zarif received a lukewarm reply from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to a letter in which he had complained about "insults and slander" levelled at him by the state TV.

All along the previous month, a popular TV series aired on the network operating under the aegis of Khamenei portrayed him for "passivity and inaction," and not being firm enough against "infiltrators" and "spies." The series even featured a look-alike to further humiliate the country's chief diplomat.

When Zarif complained to Khamenei about this with a mild threat to resign, he was harshly attacked by Iranian media for his "weak, touchy" character and emotional decision making. They reminded him that his resignation in February after he was side-lined during a visit by Bashar al-Assad was a "fiasco."

Although U.S. officials had hinted earlier Zarif was going to be sanctioned, the delay in announcing perhaps reassured him that it was not going to happen. So, it might have come as a surprise.

Zarif visited the United States twice during the past months, his latest visit in July was humiliating due to limitations imposed on his movements in New York. In the meantime, he was attacked by social media users and Iranians abroad, where Tehran's long punishing arms cannot reach, for defending Tehran's violations of human rights.

Does all this mean that Zarif, once the darling of Western media has no future in Iran and abroad as he has lost his charisma inside Iran and his charm offensives seem to no longer effective in the United States and Europe? Does this mean he might be replaced?

At this juncture there are no signs about his departure. Having been sanctioned by the U.S. he might regain some prestige among the ruling establishment which would also want to preserve appearances.

Another factor working in his favour is the lack of a viable alternative.

After the dust of the 1979 revolution settled down, the post of foreign minister was given not to a professional diplomat but to a paediatrician, Ali Akbar Velayati whose unusually long tenure (1981-1997) rivals his Soviet counterpart Andrei Gromyko. He is now Khamenei's chief foreign policy adviser with a world vision strikingly reminiscent of the darkest days of the Cold War. He dwells in a bipolar world which no longer exists. From his public remarks it appears that he feeds Khamenei with outdated conspiracy theories.

In 1997 when reformist Mohammad Khatami took over the Presidency, his foreign Minister was Kamal Kharrazi, a frowning headmaster at the Alavi High School in downtown Tehran. A man said to have disciplined almost every politician in Iran, including Zarif, who studied at the religiously ideological school.

Kharrazi tried to open up Iran to Europe with little success as hardliners opposing Khatami sabotaged his efforts by sponsoring terrorism in Europe. Nevertheless, Kharrazi was criticized for his foreign policy failures, as well as for nepotism and running the Foreign Ministry like a high school.

Kharrazi is now in charge of a strategic foreign policy council at Khamenei's office and was observed frequently travelling to Europe in the hope of bringing about a breakthrough in Tehran's relations with France in particular. He was reportedly carrying messages to Europe, but no apparent success has been observed as a result of his efforts.

Ultraconservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fired his first Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki while the latter was visiting Senegal in December 2010. His Senegalese host informed him in the middle of diplomatic negotiations that Ahmadinejad has fired him.

Ahmadinejad's next Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, an MIT alumni and Khamenei's choice for the post opened a back channel via Oman to start negotiations with the United States in 2012.

Salehi was replaced by Zarif as Hassan Rouhani became President in 2013. Zarif's success in forging the nuclear deal with the West in 2015 is the highlight of his career. The rest of his career is a paragraph in Iran's modern history: Attacks by hardliners who opposed the nuclear deal; seeking refuge under Khamenei's umbrella where the Supreme Leader saved him each time with a few nice words.

Khamenei did not utter the nice words after Zarif's latest complaints and this emboldened his crouching enemies at the Majles and in the press.

He was more or less the last man who would be able to help both Iran and the United States to cross the barrier of mistrust and come to a settlement for their long-standing problems.

If Zarif leaves the scene, the only chances for Iran are Salehi, who is currently the head of Iran’s atomic agency and has diplomatic experience, and Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, who, according to Iranian media, seems to be closer to Khamenei's household, also known as the hidden government.

Zarif will still remain a major choice with renewed blessing by Khamenei that can happen on any given Wednesday, when he usually addresses the public. Otherwise, his plans before retirement are very well known as he has repeatedly said: Teaching at the Tehran University.