Foreign Minister Muhammed Javad Zarif quit on Tuesday Feb. 26 because Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told him to, in pursuance of the supreme leader revamped strategy for extricating the country from its dire economic straits. The efforts of the regime’s who’s who to persuade him to retract his resignation and remain in place does not mean that Khamenei has changed his mind, only that he prefers to avoid major upsets in high places. In any case, the foreign minister was never a senior policy-maker in the revolutionary Islamic republic. Ali Akbar Velyati, the supreme leader’s foreign affairs adviser, is the real architect of foreign policy.
Still, everyone lined up to assure Zarif how badly he is needed: President Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s Middle East commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, and a majority of Majlis lawmakers who wrote a flattering open letter The foreign minister was assured that he was left out of President Bashar Assad’s visit to Tehran on Feb. 25 – the first in more than a decade – not deliberately but due to an “oversight.”
By Wednesday, Zarif was back at his desk as top Iranian diplomat. But he knows that his wings have been clipped. This polished, articulate figure is not the man Khamenei wants to see leading the tough bargaining with President Donald Trump. A knowledgeable Western diplomat in Tehran referred to Zarif as “diplomatic dead man walking.”
With Iran’s back to the wall, Khamenei has been setting the stage for diplomacy with Washington, while taking care to buttress his position as the unchallenged, omnipotent head of the Islamic regime.
Unlike Trump, Iran’s supreme leader never jumps into decisions. He tests the ground very carefully before going forward. First, he sounds out his senior advisers. They are then sent to check the feasibility of the new course and weigh its potential impact on the nation’s political, economic and military interests. Even then, he takes the time to evaluate the power balance within the leadership before moving pieces around the check board..
In 2005, Khamenei engineered the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president. He needed a dynamo for restarting the nuclear and ballistic missiles programs that was frozen in 2003 when the United States invaded Iraq.
And again, in 2013, after eight years of rapid nuclear development, he decided it was time to come to terms with the United States on Iran’s nuclear and missile industries. It took him two years to dump Ahmadinejad. By August 2013, the incumbent Hassan Rouhani was in place and Tehran had lined up a team, led by Zarif, for engaging Barack Obama and negotiating the 2015 nuclear deal with six world powers.
Now, in 2019, the supreme ruler is again changing course. He saw the need for different approach last May, when President Trump pulled the United States out of the 2015 nuclear accord, followed in November by his clampdown on Iranian banking and oil sales.
For the new man in Washington, Khamenei needed a new strategy and a new team. He cast about for a lead negotiator with the qualities of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, who seems ot know how to handle Trump. He was impressed when the US president commented before his second summit with the North Korean leader, on Feb. 27 in Hanoi: “I don’t want to rush anybody.” The leisurely negotiating tempo which Kim was able to dictate to Trump would suit the supreme ruler very well. But he also notes that this American president obtained more from the North Korean dictator in terms of halting nuclear tests than either China’s Xi Jinping or Russia’s Vladimir Putin, had ever achieved.
He sees strong similarities in their strategic situations: Pyongyang possesses two major levers, nuclear arms and the ability to militarily threaten South Korea and Japan; whereas Iran holds the threat to fully weaponize its nuclear program and unleash a reign of terror against US forces in Syria and in Iraq, while also attacking deep targets in Israel. Clearly, the Islamic regime is determined to come to the table with the Trump administration – from a position of strength not weakness. Khamenei’s decision-making process has finally matured. This was signaled by his invitation to Syrian President Bashar Assad to pay an unannounced trip to Tehran on Monday, Feb. 25. (More about their conversation in the next article.)