Javad Zarif, Mossadegh and the “Art of Political Theatre”

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif

The legacy of Mohammad Mossadegh in modern Iran is, to say the least, controversial. The late Iranian prime minister, deposed in 1953 in a CIA-led coup after having nationalized the Iranian oil industry, has been instrumentalised by the Islamic Republic. At the same time, the opponents of the current Iranian regime (especially the United States) have tried to silence or minimize the important drawback to Iranian democracy represented by the removal of Mossadegh. The nationalist prime minister, while having the popular legitimacy that free elections guarantee, had to contend with other non-accountable centres of power during his premiership. The concept of centre of power, which will appear throughout the text, assumes that “power has numerous centers and is located in organizations”. In Iran, during the 1950s, these centres of power were primarily the military, the clergy and the Shah.

More than six decades and a half after the demise of Mossadegh, the Islamic Republic is built on a new and unique system of government, which some scholars have described as a “theocratic democracy”. However, the existence of accountable and non-accountable centres of power is a characteristic that links Mossadegh’s Iran with today’s Iran. In the current context, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei represents the ultimate power within the Iranian polity.

Together with, among others, the judiciary and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the supreme leader decisively constrains the manoeuvring room of the government and the Parliament, the two main Iranian institutions elected through popular vote. Even the elections for these two centres of power, nevertheless, are affected by the Guardian’s Council, whose prerogatives include the vetting of candidates for public office.

Although it is always a difficult task to analyse the weight of the different centres of power in current Iran, and even more complicated to draw a comparison across time, it seems clear that the power held by President Hassan Rouhani is much more limited than that of Mohammad Mossadegh during his period as prime minister. The current head of government and his ministers operate with a narrower autonomy vis-à-vis the non-accountable centres of power than Mossadegh did.

This political framework helps us understand Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s decision to resign from his post on February 25. Whereas he is the official representative of Iranian diplomacy, the supreme leader and his foreign policy advisors (especially Ali Akbar Velayati) and the IRGC have often acted against Javad Zarif’s wishes, normally damaging the foreign minister’s openings to Western countries.

There are multiple examples of this; some of them are very recent. When a plot to assassinate in Denmark a member of an Arab separatist group fighting against the Iranian central state was discovered in October 2018, Javad Zarif was in the middle of a diplomatic effort to salvage trade with the EU after the re-imposition of sanctions by the Trump Administration. Some days before, France had expelled an Iranian diplomat accused of planning to bomb a rally organized by the cult-like Iranian opposition movement MEK. Although it is undeniable that Iran was behind these assassination attempts and other assassinations on European soil already during Rouhani’s term, it would have been counterproductive for the foreign ministry to condone such a behaviour. As a consequence, the go-on order must have been given from somewhere else.

After years of fighting for an extension of his autonomy in crafting Iranian foreign policy, Javad Zarif was not invited to meet Bashar Al Assad in his visit to Tehran on February 25. While Iranian official circles have argued that his absence was the result of a lack of coordination, the fact is that Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the IRGC Quds Force fighting together with Assad’s army in Syria, was present in the meeting. Javad Zarif probably perceived this as a personal humiliation, as it graphically represented the superseding of diplomacy by a military commander. The same day, Javad Zarif announced his resignation through Instagram.

The situation was not so different from the one in which Mohammad Mossadegh found himself on July 17, 1952. On that date, the Iranian prime minister presented his resignation to the Shah after Reza Pahlavi renounced to hand over to Mossadegh the control of the army. The American author Stephen Kinzer asks rhetorically in his book about the 1953 CIA-led coup: “Did Mossadegh really wish to leave power, or was he just maneuvering for political advantage?”. The same question could be asked of Javad Zarif’s behaviour. The most appropriate answer, in both cases, might be that “resigning was an inspired gamble”, what Kinzer writes about Mossadegh’s decision.

Both Mossadegh and Javad Zarif were aware of their popularity when resigning. In the case of Javad Zarif, we have data from the University of Maryland showing that the Iranian top diplomat is far from being at the peak of his popularity, which he reached after the signing of the JCPOA or Iran nuclear deal. Nonetheless, around 70% of the Iranian population still have a very favourable or somewhat favourable opinion of the foreign minister. But the clearest proof of both Mossadegh and Javad Zarif’s popularity is what happened after their resignation was made public.

Mossadegh was back to the premiership in less than a week on the wake of a general strike, attacks to the royal palaces and angry protests at the Iranian Parliament. Reza Pahlavi had lost his pulse with Mossadegh and the prime minister had gained control of the war ministry. Mossadegh enjoyed more political power than ever before vis-a-vis the non-accountable clergy, military and Shah. The Iranian people had spoken in favour of the veteran nationalist politician and the other centres of power had to bid for their time. But this time came soon enough. The disloyalty of a considerable part of the army and the international economic pressure that followed Iranian government’s nationalization of the oil industry would strike him back and pave the way for the CIA-led coup in 1953.

Javad Zarif saw how soon after his resignation some Iranian diplomats were threatening to resign in solidarity and a majority of the Iranian parliamentarians signed a petition calling for him to stay in office. At the same time, his supporters took to Twitter with the hashtags #Zarif_is_not_alone” and “#Zarif_is_staying” in Persian. But perhaps most importantly, the commander of the IRGC Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, expressed his support for Javad Zarif. Soleimani’s entry into scene was especially significant as he keeps a good relation with Supreme Leader Khamenei and represents the Iranian hardliner faction, often opposed to the more pragmatist postulates of Javad Zarif.

All in all, Javad Zarif has come to represent Iran’s moderate face to the EU and also to the US before Trump’s arrival to power. His substitution could have had a negative impact in the EU’s already limited motivation to bypass US sanctions and trade with Iran. Even Iranian hardliners, who often have close ties with economic conglomerates that have bloomed with the sanctions against Iran, are aware that a certain trade with the EU needs to be maintained. If this was not the case, Iran’s economic crisis would spiral out of control and the very stability of the Islamic Republic could be compromised.

Javad Zarif might probably have gained some limited political manoeuvring room with his aborted resignation, as his risky gamble appears to have paid off so far. Stephen Kinzer wrote that Mossadegh mastered “the art of political theatre”. The same could be said of Javad Zarif. It remains to be seen, nevertheless, how and for how long will the Iranian foreign minister benefit from the window of opportunity he opened for himself.

Image Credit: DFID – UK Department for International Development via Flicker and it is available under a Creative Commons license.

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