Hero or Villain: Is this the End of Zarif?
Hero or villain? The question is making the rounds in Tehran’s political circles with regard to controversial Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif. The question has acquired new intensity thanks to a decision by the Trump administration in Washington to impose sanctions on Zarif.
Washington justifies its decision to sanction Zarif, which means excluding him from any future talks, by claiming that he is just an actor playing the role of foreign minister. Thus, the Trump administration intends not to repeat the mistake of previous presidents who did not understand the nature of the Iranian regime, a regime in which the formal government is no more than a façade for a “deep state” that operates in the dark.
Some American analysts believe that the Trump administration never trusted Zarif because of his close ties to the US Democratic Party under President Barack Obama. According to that view, Zarif helped Obama concoct the so-called “nuke deal” as the principal element in his presidential legacy.
However the talks that led to the deal stared two years before Zarif was named Foreign Minister on an initiative by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and approved by the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei.
However, now that the agreement has all but collapsed, Khamenei is trying to shift the blame to President Hassan Rouhani and his team of which Zarif is a key member.
Rouhani, however, is implicitly blaming Khamenei for the failure of the “nuke deal” saga. In a speech last Thursday, he claimed that he had asked the “Supreme Guide” to grant him “full powers” with regard to negotiations with the US and the other 5+1 nations. Khamenei, however, refused the demand by insisting that “such a heavy responsibility” would be too much for Rouhani.
That Khamenei never trusted Zarif is no mystery. Iran’s policy regarding the Middle East was never entrusted to the foreign ministry as Khamenei fielded the Quds (Jerusalem Corps) and its chief Major-General Qassem Soleimani to advance the Islamic Republic’s interests in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, the GCC states, Yemen and the Palestinian territories.
Soleimani’s number-two General Esmail Qa’ani has described those countries as Iran’s “forward defense lines” that cannot be handled by diplomats and politicians.
At the same time, Khamenei has used Chief of Staff Major-General Muhammad Baqeri as point man in relations with Turkey and Pakistan, again excluding Zarif and the foreign ministry. Khamenei’s top adviser Ali-Akbar Velayati handles a further segment of foreign policy concerning Russia, Central Asia, Afghanistan and India.
Thus the formal government, that is to say Rouhani and Zarif, were left to handle relations with the US and the European Union.
With relations with the EU in a dead-end while the love-fest with Obama is also over, Zarif is left with nothing but failure as foreign minister. Few people, however, are prepared to consider the possibility that Zarif’s failure is due, at least in part, to his lack of real authority combined with the Trump administration’s pathological hatred for Obama and anyone associated with his administration.
Even before the Americans sanctioned Zarif, his critics in Tehran were calling for his hide. Hojat al-Islam Hamid Rasa’i, a former parliament member, claims that during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, Zarif who had been forcibly retired wanted to defect to the United States and even filled an application at the US Embassy in Turkey. Rasai has called for Zarif’s passport to be withdrawn and he be subjected to an investigation regarding the presence of foreign spies in his team.”
Former secretary of the National Security Council Sa’id Jalili said in a speech in Hamadan last week that sanctioning Zarif was nothing but an additional means for Washington to pressure Iran and did not imply a determination to cut all channels with Tehran.
One of the official Iranian Radio and TV network’s “stars” castigates Zarif as “the most pro-West and Infidel friendly foreign minister in the history of the Islamic Republic.” He claims that Zarif “fully deserves whatever humiliation inflicted on him.”
In an editorial, the official news agency IRNA, controlled by the Rouhani faction, claimed that just as a “Team B” was trying to incite the US to launch a war against Iran, another “Team B” in Tehran was trying to block all channels of diplomatic dialogue for peace. In that analysis, Zarif has fallen a victim to both “Team Bs”.
Zarif’s semi-secret meetings with Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein and Republican Rand Paul plus at least two meetings with two of Trump’s closest “fundraisers” in New York showed that Zarif is still able to get a sympathetic hearing from many elements in the United States. Reports that Senator Paul conveyed an invitation for Zarif to visit National Security Adviser John Bolton at the White House has not been officially confirmed but should not be dismissed as mere rumor.
However, the best guess in Tehran is that Zarif is unlikely to be given a role in any eventual dialogue between Khamenei and the Trump administration. The ayatollah is reportedly preparing to field a new point man: former Foreign Minister Kamaleddin Kharrazi who also has good contacts in both Washington and London.
Hero or villain, the man labeled “Grand Apologist” by Washington may have reached the end of his leash.