Zarif, Iran’s Next President?

With the presidential elections only weeks away, one of the hottest debated issues in Iran today is whether or not Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s current foreign minister, who is favored by the country’s reformists and a bulk of the educated strata, will set aside his stated hesitations and declare his candidacy?  Despite his repeated denial of any personal interest to enter the race, the domestic pressure on Zarif to change his mind is building in parallel to the growing criticisms of the foreign ministry and its chief diplomat on the part of the country’s hard-liners, who control the Parliament.

A seasoned diplomat who has been an integral part of Iran’s foreign policy process since his early 20s, Zarif has weathered many storms and survived both internal and external shock waves to the point that he is now almost immune to controversy and can boast of a thick skin that is a sine qua non for making it in the fractious Islamic Republic of Iran today.  Keen on “national consensus” (ejma-e meli), Zarif’s mission for his country may soon induce him to bracket his stated reservations as a national duty at a critical juncture when the toxic combination of the pandemic crisis and the economic crisis threaten the future of the post-revolutionary system, which must simultaneously address the multiple legitimation and motivation deficits at both the political and societal levels.  

A US-educated political scientist with a long and impressive resume in the realm of international affairs, Zarif has recently inked the 25-year Iran-China cooperation agreement, which in turn deepens Iran’s so called “look east” orientation while, simultaneously, focusing on a balancing act through a potential agreement with the Biden administration, whereby US would re-embrace the Iran nuclear deal and lift the Trump-imposed sanctions on Iran; should the latter happen between now and the upcoming elections in June, 2021, chances are that Iran’s reformists will be able to score a victory, particularly if Zarif runs and showcase his delivery of a “both east and west” approach in line with the country’s founding principle of “superpower equidistance.”   

But, at the moment there is a great deal of conservative animosity toward Zarif that may prove insurmountable and sideline him for the coming presidential race, depending in part on the decision of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, without whose support Zarif would have been forced to resign a long time ago.   A Khamenei loyalist, Zarif has many advantages for the Iranian political system that make it likely that the leader and other leading power brokers in Iran will tolerate his bid to run for the presidency.  First, Zarif is an internationally-recognized figure who, as president, will be able to increase Iran’s presence and maneuver in the international community.   Second, Zarif can not only improve the system’s external legitimacy, he can also contribute to improving the internal legitimacy by drawing on the support of middle class and educated Iranians, who yearn for a post-sanctions economy and the normalization of Iran’s trade relations.  Third, in light of his background and extensive role in the nuclear negotiations, Zarif is apt to prove highly instrumental in striking a deal with the Biden administration, compared to, say, a hard-line politician who may favor deepening the “look east” ties instead of a more balanced approach.  Fourth, Zarif has the potential to be a transformative president, compared to the current president Rouhani, a moderate centerist, who is often criticized for being aloof.  Known for his zeal and energy, the technocratic Zarif is capable of giving the government a much-needed facelift, particularly if he runs on an anti-corruption campaign and the like.  

But, should Zarif declare his candidacy, he still faces important hurdles, such as his approval by the screening Guardian Council, which could disqualify him for various (chiefly ideological) reasons.  Another hurdle is the role and position of the powerful revolutionary guards and the related security apparatuses, in light of Zarif’s latest taped interview which readily admits to the foreign priority given to the security apparatuses over the diplomatic machinery, particularly in Syria, although Zarif amends himself when discussing Iraq and Afghanistan and recalls the diplomatic input of the late general Ghasem Soleimani, assassinated by the Trump administration in early 2020.  Without doubt, given the continuing securitization of Iran’s foreign relations in the region, the diplomacy-security chasm in Iran will linger for the foreseeable future, although much depends on the outcome of the present Iran-Saudi dialogue on the one hand and, on the other, the fate of the indirect Iran-US talks in Vienna, not to mention the escalation of tensions between Iran and Israel.  Still, due to the Syrian transition to a post-conflict scenario, the defeat of ISIS, and the ‘endless war’ in Yemen, frustrating the Saudi-led coalition’s past expectations of a decisive victory, it may well be the region is on the cusp of a positive turn conducive to a partial de-securitization of Iran’s foreign calculus, in which case that is a net plus for the reformist camp.   

Indeed, Iran is still rattled by the huge loss of Soleimani, a larger than life figure who in many ways was the chief architect of Iran’s regional relations for so many years and, whose tragic loss in the American hands, represents a major setback requiring a re-thinking of Iran’s regional strategy, which is founded on the doctrine of extended deterrence and ‘zones of influence’ in tandem with the plethora of national security threats facing Iran.  Weakened by the US sanctions and the strength of anti-Iran alliances, e.g., between Saudi Arabia and Israel, Iran’s range of options are limited and, hypothetically speaking, the Saudis’ willingness to enter a new phase of bilateral dialogue with Tehran may stem from their impression that they are no longer in an inferior position with respect to Iran, although the Iranian side might rely on Iran’s influence in Yemen as a counter-leverage that is perceived as inherently destabilizing for the Saudis as well as the UAE.  At any rate, there is no guarantee that the deep well of suspicion between the two sides can dry any time soon and the current Iran-Saudi dialogue has a long way to go and, indeed, is partially pegged to the Vienna talks, in light of Zarif’s admission in his leaked interview that the Saudis had considerable influence on the US nuclear negotiators in the past.  

Henceforth, should Zarif run and win the presidential contest, one of his major challenges would be to rein in on the powerful military and security apparatuses that have considerable economic clout and a long history of acting autonomously.  Such an autonomy is not without its dividend for the country’s regional power projection, much as it has created certain tensions with the formal institutions in charge of foreign policy.  On the whole, however, in the post-Soleimani milieu, a new level of centralization of power is called for and necessary, requiring a powerful leader and, obviously, the big question is if Zarif is up to par with sparring with such monumental challenges?  After all, a transformative leader is often forged through crisis, with crisis-management basically second nature to him, and Zarif has certainly the right credential, as well as personal ingredients and the propensity, to assume the mantle of presidency and thus help the ship of state navigate through the treacherous waters.

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, Ph.D.
Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, Ph.D.
Afrasiabi is a political scientist and author of several books — on Iran, Islam, ecology, Middle East, UN reform, as well as poetry and fiction — and numerous articles in international newspapers and journals.