Iranian President Hassan Rouhani rejected Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s resignation on Wednesday, saying his departure would be against Iran’s best interests.
Zarif’s abrupt announcement on Instagram late on Monday that he was quitting had sparked rumors of mass resignations in the country’s diplomatic corps and a petition from parliamentarians urging Rouhani to turn it down.
“I believe your resignation is against the country’s interests and do not approve it,” Rouhani wrote in a letter to Zarif.
The president cited Iran’s Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in praising Zarif’s work as foreign minister.
“I consider you, as put by the Leader, to be ‘trustworthy, brave and pious,’ and in the forefront of the resistance against America’s all-out pressure,” the president added.
In his few public comments after his resignation, Zarif complained that the work of the Foreign Ministry was being undermined by political interference and expressed determination to see it regain its proper statutory role.
The last straw appears to have been his exclusion from meetings with visiting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad earlier in the day.
Assad, who has relied heavily on Iranian support during his country’s nearly eight-year war, met with both Ayatollah Khamenei and President Rouhani on his rare foreign visit, but Zarif was not present at either meeting.
In his letter to Zarif, Rouhani stressed that he was the point man in the conduct of Iran’s foreign policy.
“As ordered several times, all bodies – including government and state bodies – must be in full coordination with this ministry with regard to foreign relations,” the president said in his letter.
Zarif, 59, who has served as Rouhani’s foreign minister since August 2013, has been under constant pressure from hardliners who opposed a landmark deal he reached with major powers in 2015 curbing Iran’s nuclear program in return for an easing of international sanctions.
The pressure has only intensified since US President Donald Trump abandoned the deal in May last year and reimposed unilateral sanctions.
Zarif’s departure would have deprived Iran of its most skilled diplomat, a patient negotiator who was able to strike the deal with Western powers during years of intense negotiations.
His knowledge of the West gained during years of studying in the United States and then representing Iran at the United Nations enabled him to build a rapport with American officials.
Resistance from hardliners against new anti-money laundering legislation hampered his efforts to secure a mechanism from the European Union to allow continued trade and investment skirting the unilateral US measures.
The widespread publicity around Zarif’s resignation announcement, and then strong support from senior officials which followed, may give him political ammunition against hardliners as an internal power struggle continues.
Zarif gave no specific reasons for his resignation. He had told the ministry staff on Tuesday that he hoped his resignation would “act as a spur for the Foreign Ministry to regain its proper statutory role in the conduct of foreign affairs,” IRNA reported.
In a new Instagram post on Wednesday, Zarif expressed gratitude for the “generous affections and unsparing support” of officials and the people.
“As a modest servant, I have never had any concern but elevating the foreign policy and the status of the Foreign Ministry,” he added.
He expressed hope that the ministry “can carry out all its responsibilities within the framework of the Constitution and the country’s laws” with the “cooperation of... and supervision by the Supreme Leader and the president.”
On Wednesday, national television broadcast images of Zarif carrying out his duties as normal, taking part in the welcoming ceremony for visiting Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashiniyan.
‘Supported by the Leader’
Major General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), said Zarif was in full charge of Iranian foreign policy.
Soleimani was present on Monday for Assad’s meetings with both Ayatollah Khamenei and Rouhani.
Zarif “is indeed in charge of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s foreign policy,” Soleimani said in comments carried by the IRGC’s official website Sepah News.
The foreign minister is “supported and approved by the system’s top authorities, from the Supreme Leader down,” he added.
“There was no deliberate attempt to leave Dr. Zarif out [of the Rouhani-Assad meeting],” the general underlined, blaming a “lack of coordination in the president’s office.”
The prospect of Zarif’s departure had been swiftly welcomed by Iran’s arch foe, Israel.
His ready smile and mastery of both the English language and social media has made him a formidable diplomatic rival.
“Zarif is gone, good riddance. As long as I am here, Iran will not get nuclear weapons,” Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu wrote in Hebrew on Twitter.
Iran has always said its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, and UN inspectors say it is complying with the 2015 nuclear accord.
Rouhani cited that Israeli response in his support of Zarif.
“The happiness and rejoicing of the real enemies of the people such as the Zionist regime over your resignation is the best indication of success of Mohammad Javad Zarif and the biggest reason for continuation of your activity in the post of foreign minister,” Rouhani said.
AFP, AP and Reuters contributed to this story.