Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks at a news conference in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019. An American-led meeting on the Mideast in Warsaw, which started Wednesday, was initially pegged to focus entirely on Iran. However, the U.S. subsequently made it about the broader Middle East, to boost participation. Zarif on Wednesday predicted the Warsaw summit would not be productive for the U.S. "I believe it's dead on arrival or dead before arrival," he said. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Mohammad Javad Zarif has led efforts to keep Tehran's nuclear accord with world powers alive in the wake of the US pullout © AP

For three decades, Mohammad Javad Zarif has been a constant of Iranian diplomacy. With his immaculately trimmed beard and collarless shirt buttoned to the neck, the foreign minister has built a reputation as a slick performer on the international stage, charming and jousting with friends and foes alike.

So when the US-educated 59-year-old suddenly announced his resignation on Instagram this week it sent ripples throughout the global diplomatic corps. In Iran, politicians swiftly urged Mr Zarif to stay and, 24 hours later, President Hassan Rouhani announced that he was rejecting his top diplomat’s offer to quit.

The pair — longtime allies — then appeared with an Armenian delegation to Tehran as if the saga had been a storm in a tea cup. But it put a spotlight on simmering tensions between the Islamic regime’s hardline factions and reformers allied to Mr Zarif and Mr Rouhani — the two key Iranian proponents of Tehran’s landmark 2015 nuclear deal.

The unusually public drama has left western officials puzzling over Mr Zarif’s standing. Was his show of disgruntlement a blip that will soon be forgotten, or an episode that may bolster his influence over Iran’s foreign policy?

“He is a careful calculator and nothing is done on the spur of the moment,” said an adviser to a senior European official. Describing Mr Zarif as a “super-rational” character, the official added that this week’s events suggested a “domestic battle that so far he and Rouhani have won”. But the adviser cautioned: “The fact that they won this time round does not mean they will win the next.”

Richard Nephew, a former US state department official who was involved in the nuclear negotiations with Iran, said that while the resignation offer might have appeared to be a tactical move by Mr Zarif, in reality “I think he snapped”.

“He’s been under a lot of pressure for a while. I think once he resigned he realised it was a good tactical move,” he said. “He’s not one to hide his emotions or to avoid a dramatic scene if he thinks it will help him.”

The saga erupted at critical time as Mr Zarif leads Tehran’s efforts to engage with Europe, Russia and Asian powers in their battle to keep the nuclear deal alive after Donald Trump withdrew the US from the accord last year and imposed sanctions on the republic.

The government is under intense pressure, hardliners are emboldened and Mr Zarif’s “resignation” looks to some to have been a dramatic expression of frustration over the marginalisation of his ministry. The apparent final straw was him being sidelined when Syrian president Bashar al-Assad visited Tehran on Monday.

Mr Zarif was, however, already planning to put some of his frustrations into the public domain.

In an interview with an Iranian newspaper conducted before his shock Instagram post, but published the day he resigned, he outlined some of his concerns. He implied that Tehran was missing an opportunity by not using its regional influence — which includes the deployment of troops in Syria and backing for proxies such as Hizbollah — as leverage at the negotiating table.

“Any achievements we had [during the past 40 years] in foreign policy were the result of negotiations,” he said.

He cited the example of the peace agreement that ended the 1980s Iraqi-Iranian war. In the early stages of his diplomatic career, Mr Zarif was involved in the negotiations that ended the conflict. The young official, who was born to an affluent family of bazaar merchants and left to study in the US when he was 17, also played a role in talks to help free western hostages held in Lebanon between 1989 and 1991.

But in the interview, Mr Zarif complained that there was currently “no consensus” in Tehran about the value of negotiations.

His comments may suggest that there are pragmatic elements within the regime who are willing to discuss Iran’s regional role and ballistic missile programme with the west. The issues are core to Mr Trump’s belligerent attacks on what he describes as Iran’s malign role. European governments harbour similar concerns, but believe the nuclear accord should be saved and continue to engage Tehran.

Few Iranians believe there could be any dialogue with Mr Trump given the US president’s tirades against the republic.

Hardliners have exploited Washington’s pressure to blame Mr Rouhani and Mr Zarif for agreeing to the terms of the nuclear deal in the first place and key foreign policy issues are believed to be determined by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader. The Qods force, the overseas arm of the Revolutionary Guards led by Qassem Soleimani, also exercises significant influence over regional matters.

An Arab diplomat said Mr Zarif was “a very powerful tool for the image of the republic”. But he added: “The problem is his interlocutors don’t know how much leverage he has.”

Mr Nephew said Mr Zarif was “very dedicated to finding a good deal for Iran”. But had “a lot of political pressure put on him”.

“When starting to discuss the state of negotiations, he would lament at great length the pressure he was under and talk about how it’s very difficult,” he said.

Mohammad-Sadegh Javadi-Hesar, a reformist Iranian politician, said: “We cannot say that the foreign ministry will be the decision maker in foreign policy, now but Mr Zarif may hopefully be able to influence policies more.”

A senior UK official said Mr Zarif was “thoughtful” on the subject of reducing regional tensions and argued that him stepping down “would indicate a hardening of the hardline”.

“Iran has got to recognise its responsibilities in the region. Some people are talking about how to do that, and if Zarif remains, I would hope we could open up more of that.”

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