Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif‘s sudden offer to step down has shocked the country’s political establishment and members of the public, with many expressing worry the move could derail efforts to save a landmark nuclear deal.
Zarif announced late on Monday he would step down amid quarrels over Iran’s foreign policy as well as a global struggle to preserve the 2015 nuclear deal, in which Tehran agreed to curb its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.
Fighting between parties and factions in Iran is a “deadly poison” in formulating foreign policy, Zarif said in an interview published by the Jomhuri Eslami newspaper on Tuesday, suggesting he may have resigned over pressure from hard-line elements opposed to his role in negotiating the landmark nuclear deal.
“We first have to remove our foreign policy from the issue of party and factional fighting,” Zarif said in the interview. “The deadly poison for foreign policy is for foreign policy to become an issue of party and factional fighting,” he added.
Many in Iran were caught off-guard by his offer to resign, adding to the country’s state of uncertainty following Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear accord in May last year.
“I extend my gratitude for the generosity that dear and brave people of Iran and its respected authorities have had during past 67 months,” Zarif wrote on his Instagram page on Monday.
“I humbly apologise for the inability to continue serving and for all the shortcomings during my service.”
Speaking to the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), Zarif urged his colleagues at the foreign ministry not to quit.
His offer to resign was confirmed by deputy spokesperson for the foreign ministry, Seyyed Abbas Mousavi, state-run news agency IRNA reported.
However, the presidential chief of staff, in a tweet, “strongly denied” that President Hassan Rouhani had accepted the resignation.
Zarif’s offer to stand down came a few hours after an unprecedented visit of the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a separate visit with President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran.
Zarif’s absence in the heavily-publicised meetings caught many by surprise.
Entekhab news website, which is believed to be close to Rouhani’s political camp, quoted Zarif as saying in a text message that “after the photos of today’s meetings, Javad Zarif will no longer have credibility in the world as the Foreign Minister”.
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Entekhab also quoted an “informed source” as saying Zarif has not submitted his resignation formally and that talks are under way to dissuade him from the decision.
“Shock of Zarif’s resignation,” read the headline in big yellow letters on the front page of the reformist Arman-e Emrouz daily’s Tuesday issue.
The newspaper referred to a prolonged procedure in Iran’s Expediency Council to pass bills to reform the country’s anti-money laundering and terrorism financing regulations.
The international Financial Action Taskforce (FATF) recently extended the deadline for Iran until June to fix its rules. Passing of the bills is crucial for the establishment of international banking ties, notably with Europe.
Germany, Britain and France recently launched a financial entity to facilitate trade with Iran, in an effort to save the nuclear deal. That hinges on FATF legislations, too.
Two remaining FATF bills have been stalled due to a seemingly unending debate between moderates and the hard-liners both in Parliament and the Expediency Council.
FATF bills have put Zarif at odds with a part of the conservative camp, whom the foreign minister has implicitly accused of being engaged in money laundering activities.
Coupled with crippling US sanctions, these efforts have slowed down the economic benefits of the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA.
Iran’s economic indicators have been generating nothing but concern over the past months. Growth is dismal, the national currency has depreciated substantially and prices have soared.
‘Horrified and upset’
Many Iranians see Zarif’s resignation as yet another blow to the country’s struggle to overcome the sanctions.
Sepideh, 24, said she was “horrified and upset” when she heard the foreign minister had stepped down.
“I don’t have a good feeling,” she told Al Jazeera. “I worry that people, including my family, could fail to make ends meet in this situation.”
This comes at a time of growing pressure on Rouhani administration and his willingness to engage with the international community.
Hard-line voices have been getting louder, calling for a change in political approach.
Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, the founder of Europe-Iran Business Forum, told Al Jazeera that if Zarif’s resignation was accepted, the functions of diplomacy could still be capably handled his deputy at the foreign ministry, Abbas Araghchi, who has overseen much of the technical work around implementation.
“But if Zarif’s departure signals that political tides within Iran are turning against the JCPOA in a more dramatic way, then this continuity may not matter,” Batmanghelidj said.
“However, the JCPOA is not a deal among governments but among states. The European parties to the deal will need to signal to Iran that they will stand by the deal even if Zarif departs, so long as that departure does not mean Iran’s own commitment is wavering,” he said.