In an interview with USA TODAY, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif talked about U.S.-Iran relations and the Iran nuclear deal
Neale Haynes and Jasper Colt, USA TODAY
Iran’s president formally rejected the surprise resignation of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, effectively throwing his full support Wednesday behind the veteran diplomat who negotiated the country’s nuclear deal with world powers.
The move comes as President Hassan Rouhani and Zarif face growing pressure from hardliners inside Iran as the accord that President Donald Trump’s administration exited unravels. European signatories to the deal have been trying to prop it up.
“Since I consider you in the front line of resistance against broad pressures by the U.S., I consider acceptance of your resignation against the expedience of the country and I do not agree with it,” Rouhani told Zarif in a letter, after earlier praising him in a speech, according to Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency.
Zarif resigned late Monday in a move that shocked the Islamic Republic and raised immediate questions about Iran’s future diplomatic engagement with the world.
U.S.-educated Zarif, 59, has long pushed for deeper relations with the West. Analysts said his departure would signal that hawks within Iran’s government are ready to push back against the Trump administration, which has sought to isolate Tehran.
It’s unclear what will happen next, but it’s thought Zarif likely will return to work. In a further sign of backing for Zarif, Qassem Soleimani, a senior commander in Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, said that Zarif was the main person in charge of Iranian foreign policy and he was supported by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
It remains unclear what sparked Zarif’s resignation.
It came after Zarif did not attend a Monday meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Assad was warmly received by Khamenei and Soleimani.
Zarif overcame objections from Iran’s hardliners and Western suspicions to strike the accord with world powers in 2015 that saw Iran limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of crippling economic sanctions. The deal was later challenged by Trump’s administration, which reimposed tough sanctions on Iran last year.
European nations, led by France and Germany, are trying to launch a financial mechanism to enable Iran to keep trading with some nations despite the U.S. sanctions. During a summit in Poland this month focused on the Middle East, Vice President Mike Pence demanded European nations withdraw from the nuclear deal.
Trump has fueled Iranian suspicions about U.S. intentions dating back to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when Iran’s last monarch, the U.S.-supported Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, was overthrown. Zarif has faced strong criticism at home for appearing to be too friendly with the West. He once shook hands with President Barack Obama.
While Iran’s supreme leader ultimately has the final say on all domestic and foreign policy, analysts say Rouhani’s government is vulnerable because of an economic crisis aggravated by the reimposition of sanctions. Iran’s rial currency has plummeted in value, which has hurt ordinary Iranians and emboldened critics to call for his ouster.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday said he “noted” Zarifs departure, adding:
“We’ll see if it sticks.” But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, long a critic of Iran, welcomed his departure in what now looks like premature comments.
“Zarif is gone, good riddance. As long as I am here Iran will not get nuclear weapons,” he wrote on Twitter. Iran has always said its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, and U.N. inspectors say it is still complying with the 2015 nuclear accord.
As Iranians braced for the full restoration of sanctions in November, Zarif told USA TODAY in an interview that his government would be open to talking to the U.S. about a new nuclear arms accord if Washington changed its approach to the deal it exited.
“Mutual trust is not a requirement to start negotiations – mutual respect is a requirement,” Zarif said in the wide-ranging, 45-minute interview. Zarif hinted in the interview that Iran’s government was waiting to see whether Trump would be a one-term president before deciding to completely abandon the nuclear agreement.
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