The US government’s decision to impose sanctions on Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, sparked heated discussions about Zarif and his position within the Iranian government.
Announcing the new sanctions on July 31, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described Zarif as the Supreme Leader’s “chief apologist” and said he was “complicit in the regime’s outlaw behavior.”
Before that, on July 26, Pompeo said that Zarif has no influence on Iran’s foreign policy because it is actually driven by Ayatollah Khamenei. “Foreign Minister Zarif is no more in charge of what’s going on in Iran than a man in the moon,” Pompeo said.
But, Zarif-related polemics aside, what is the actual role of the foreign ministry in Iran’s political system? And how has this position changed since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran?
The Era of Ayatollah Khomeini
Before the Iranian revolution in 1979, plenty of capable diplomats worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The new revolutionary regime sacked many of these diplomats and put some of them on trial. One of the pre-revolution foreign ministers, Abbasali Khalatbari (who served from 1971 until 1978), was even executed by the Revolutionary Court.
In the early years following the revolution, Iranian foreign ministers were tie-wearing revolutionary politicians who at the same time also endorsed western culture. However, all these ex-ministers, Karim Sanjabi (February 1979 to April 1979), Ebrahim Yazdi (April 1979 to November 1979) and Sadegh Ghotbzadeh (November 1979 to August 1980) were later expelled from the Iranian regime. In fact, the latter was executed in September 1982.
After a short period of Mir-Hossein Mousavi serving as foreign minister, from August to December 1981, the longstanding reign of Ali Akbar Velayati began (Mousavi became prime minister in 1981 but ironically turned into an opponent of the Iranian government in 2009, and he has been under house arrest since 2011).
Ayatollah Khomeini completely trusted Velayati , as did the then-president Ali Khamenei and the then influential speaker of the parliament Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. In Velayati’s era, the foreign minister became a quite powerful figure within the Iranian political establishment. He was also fully involved in the Ministry of Intelligence and the Revolutionary Guards’ foreign operations. This involvement was such that from 1985 to 1988, the Liberation Movements Unit of the Revolutionary Guards (the forefather of the Quds Force, which was in charge of the Guards’ foreign operations) operated under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, at the end of the Iran-Iraq war, this connection was cut off, and the Quds Force, as one of the Revolutionary Guards’ forces, took on responsibility for extraterritorial operations.
In the final years of the Iran-Iraq war, when the Revolutionary Guards’ offshore operations were put under the foreign ministry’s control, the ministry reported to President Khamenei, and not to Prime Minister Mousavi, to whom most of the minsters reported.
It is worth noting that a few months after the end of the war, Mir-Hossein Mousavi resigned from his position, citing clandestine operations going on in the foreign ministry as one of the major reasons for his resignation. In his letter to Ali Khamenei, dated September 5, 1998, the prime minister wrote: “Extraterritorial operations are carried out without the knowledge of the government [prime minster]... We'll find out [about such operations] after a plane is hijacked, when a machine gun shooting takes place in the streets of Lebanon, or after explosives are discovered in our pilgrims’ luggage in Jeddah."
The Era of Ayatollah Khamenei
After Ayatollah Khomeini’s death on June 9, 1989, and at the beginning of Ayatollah Khamenei’s leadership, Ali Akbar Velayati remained in office for a further eight years. In this era, too, he enjoyed very close relations with the Leader as well as the new president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
In this period, Iranian or Iran-backed operatives carried out numerous terrorist operations in foreign countries, a number of which Iranian diplomats were thought to have been involved.
When the reformist president Mohammad Khatami took office in 1997, the 16-year era of the conservative Velayati as foreign ministry head ended. However, the next foreign minister, Kamal Kharazi, did not belong to the reformist faction of the Islamic Republic either. Over the course of Khatami’s presidency, it was made public for the first time that in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the appointment of a number of cabinet positions, including the foreign minister, must be approved by the Supreme Leader.
Despite Kamal Kharazi’s close ties to Ayatollah Khamenei, the foreign ministry did not hold the same position that it had under Velayati’s rule. It was partly due to the fact that the new minister was a member of a reformist cabinet, which the Leader did not adequately trust, and partly because Kharazi (as well as his successors) was not as close to the Leader as Velayati had been.
During Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first term, the Supreme Leader totally supported the president, but the foreign ministry’s position did not change significantly within the establishment. This was, in particular, due to Ahmadinejad’s massive intervention in foreign affairs, which practically stripped the ministry of its ordinary responsibilities.
In the course of Ahmadinejad’s second term, news emerged that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad believed his foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, was not dedicated enough to the president’s policies. As a result, in August 2010, he appointed a number of his close associates as the president’s “special representatives” on different regions of the world, which clearly undermined the foreign ministry’s authority. Ayatollah Khamenei criticized this decision and made Ahmadinejad cancel his appointments.
However, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not ease his pressure on the foreign minister and, in December 2010, fired Manouchehr Mottaki while he was in the middle of an official trip to Senegal.
But the next foreign minister under Ahmadinejad, Ali Akbar Salehi, was not in line with the president’s policies either. The discord between Ahmadinejad and Salehi was so extensive that when Iranian and American diplomats held secret nuclear talks in Oman in mid-2012 and early 2013, Ahmadinejad was not involved in the decision-making process. These preliminary talks, which later continued under Hassan Rouhani’s presidency, were directly approved by the Supreme Leader, and Salehi, whose deputy participated in direct talks with his American counterpart, reported to Ayatollah Khamenei about the negotiations.
The Case of Mohammad Javad Zarif
During the first term of Hassan Rouhani’s presidency, the foreign ministry had a rather privileged position within the Iranian political system. The ministry was tasked with holding nuclear talks, which made Mohammad Javad Zarif very popular.
The nuclear talks were coordinated with the Leader, and as Zarif and his deputies stressed on several occasions, the foreign ministry reported to Ayatollah Khamenei when it came to sensitive aspects of the nuclear talks.
The finalization of the nuclear agreement in July 2015 came about with the direct support of the Leader, who, despite expressing his concerns over different aspects of the talks, gave the final go-ahead for the agreement.
Nevertheless, in Rouhani’s second term, the very slow process of lifting international sanctions gradually weakened the position of the foreign ministry. Donald Trump’s inauguration as president in January 2017, and his disagreement with the nuclear deal, resulted in unexpected damage being done to the position of Iran’s foreign ministry, which had heavily capitalized on the implementation of the deal.
Finally, President Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement in May 2018, and the return of economic sanctions on Iran, turned out to be a catastrophe for the foreign minister and his team. Over the course of the last year, associates of the Leader have widely accused the Iranian nuclear negotiators of naivety and even treason. The attacks on the foreign ministry have been so intense that recently, a TV series was broadcast on an Iranian state-run network that indirectly accused Zarif and his colleagues of being under the influence of US spies.
On the other hand, in parallel with the decline in the foreign ministry’s position, the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force has gained more influence within Iran’s diplomatic elite. It comes at a time when, even before the most recent developments regarding sanctions and tensions in the Persian Gulf, this force’s regional outreach has been much more important than that of the foreign ministry. For instance, Iran’s ambassadors in a number of countries including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Yemen (when Iran had an ambassador there) have always been appointed only after the Quds Force’s approval.
A quite symbolic indicative of the foreign ministry’s place in Iran’s regional affairs made headlines on February 25, 2019, when Bashar al-Assad’s trip to Tehran led to controversy within the Iranian establishment. Assad was accompanied by Ghasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, and he had what appeared to be a warm meeting with the Supreme Leader (followed by a brief meeting with the president). Mohammad Javad Zarif was not even informed of the trip. In reaction to his exclusion from meetings with the Syrian president, Zarif submitted his resignation to the president, which was not accepted.
Under such circumstances, it is no surprise that the US Secretary of State said on July 25 that when it came to Iran-US relations, the Supreme Leader and Ghasem Soleimani, and not Mohammad Javad Zarif, are “the individuals that have to decide” and should “sit down and negotiate.”
At the end of the day, however, the practical position of Iran’s foreign ministry will possibly depend on the direction Ayatollah Khamenei will take with respect to the intensified tensions between Tehran and Washington. If the Islamic Republic decides to take an uncompromising stand toward the Trump administration, there will be even less need for diplomats like Mohammad Javad Zarif and their negotiation skills. On the other hand, if Tehran decides to start talks with Washington, Zarif and his team will possibly be needed again to carry out this quite risky and difficult mission.
Read other articles in the series: