For the Iranian regime, the internal scrambling started in the middle of the night Monday, just moments after its foreign minister, Javad “Smiley” Zarif, posted a curious resignation announcement on his Instagram account. Tehran’s dilemma: As it faces pressure at home and abroad, how can it pretend to be united when one of its most visible front men quits so publicly?
The resignation may have been a mere cry for help from Zarif, an attempt to show he’s still needed. On Tuesday, Iran’s powers-that-be signaled that they won’t accept his resignation.
Truth is, Zarif — one of the most recognized faces in the West — never had real power beyond that of Islamic State salesman. Now, even that role is challenged. Yet even if he stays on, the drama behind his move, and the regime’s crisis that it shines a light on, isn’t about to end soon.
Why? Iran’s economy is in the dumps. Inflation is rampant. Analysts project a 3.9 percent negative growth in 2019. Iranians are suffering under America’s renewed sanctions. More frequently than ever, they challenge the regime in street protests.
And so regime insiders are turning on each other. As Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran-watcher at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, observes, “With factionalism rising more than ever before, the regime continues to struggle to present a unified front, as it faces pressure, both foreign and domestic.”
At the moment, the Revolutionary Guards, who control much of the country’s economy and influence a huge chunk of its domestic and foreign policy, have the upper hand. After President Hassan Rouhani’s government produced a new budget recently, with belt-tightening across the board, the Guards complained and eked out parliamentary approval for a $2 billion boost for their operations.
On the other end of the fight is Zarif, a polished diplomat who’s fluent in American English and sometimes known for his Cheshire Cat smile. His career, and Rouhani’s, are tied to the Obama-era Iran deal. They bet all-in on it, forcing Iran to make at least cosmetic concessions to the West, which they argue are necessary for Iran’s economic survival.
The Guards, conversely, call for muscular policies, including a public showing of Iran’s nuclear gains. That, they say, will scare Europe and even America to make concessions.
Europe’s already scurrying to save the nuclear deal by creating a mechanism to help Iran bypass US sanctions. In return, the Europeans asked Iran to join a multinational organization, the Financial Action Task Force, designed by America and other powers to combat money-laundering and end financial aid to terrorists.
Zarif’s and Rouhani’s calls for full compliance with the FATF were rebuffed by the Guards. After all, can Iran forgo support for Hezbollah and its proxy terrorist armies in the region and beyond?
Another slap in Zarif’s face: Monday’s surprise visit to Tehran by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — the butcher’s first venture outside his country in seven years. Assad was seen smiling next to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and later with Rouhani, both accompanied by the most significant player in the Revolutionary Guards, Qasem Soleimani.
As for Zarif, he apparently wasn’t even informed of Assad’s visit. Whether that was the last straw, or — as some Iranian sources speculate — just an excuse, a protest to stress his relevance, is anyone’s guess. Either way, Zarif’s political star is dimming in Tehran, and it surely reflects the internal strife the regime has increasingly faced.
Consider: An Israel-based Farsi broadcaster, Menashe Amir, noticed that lately Zarif has been more hawkish than ever in his defense of the regime and seemed increasingly tense. In a recent BBC interview, the usually cordial foreign minister angrily pushed back when asked about Iran’s human-rights record.
“I’ve been a human-rights professor for 30 years,” he chided a reporter.
That has long been Zarif’s job: to beguile accommodating Western listeners and lull them into ignoring, say, Iran’s public hangings of gay Iranians or the violence against women who decline to cover their hair.
Yet Zarif has long successfully sought the image of “moderate” among our media, so his new tone might represent a shift. Of course, the Guards never trusted him, and some even called him an American stooge and a traitor.
But Zarif has never truly been a moderate — not in the least. His differences with the Guards were more over style and career ambitions.
Now these ambitions are hitting flak. Don’t shed any tears.
Instead, let’s amp up the pressure. The regime is clearly having difficulty dealing with it. And its difficulties are to our — and the Iranian people’s — good.
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