The duel between Qassem Soleimani and Mohammad Javad Zarif sends important messages

The Iranian foreign minister's approachable brand of diplomacy stands in stark contrast to the military hardliners and shields the regime from accountability

epa07401033 A handout photo made available by the presidential office shows Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) talking to President Hassan Rouhani during a welcoming ceremony for Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pahinyan (unseen), in Tehran, Iran, 27 February 2019. President Rouhani on 27 February officially rejected the resignation of Zarif, saying it would not benefit the Islamic Republic. Iran's top diplomat, in office since August 2013, announced his surprise resignation on 25 February, without specifying the reasons behind his decision.  EPA/PRESIDENTIAL OFFICE HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
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Who benefits the most from the rejection of Mohammad Javad Zarif's resignation as Iran's foreign minister, made this week in protest at his exclusion from a meeting with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in Tehran?

At first glance, the moderate faction in Iran appears to be the biggest winner, having successfully resisted attempts to banish it and having imposed itself in the struggle for power dominated by the hardliners.

Practically speaking, the Iranian consensus on the reinstatement of Mr Zarif has sent out several important messages, namely that the “smiley diplomacy” he represents is the best protection against international accountability for the policies of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani.

Mr Zarif’s soft approach is something Iran desperately needs to mitigate Mr Soleimani’s heavy-handedness, extremism and domination of foreign policymaking, especially as it relates to Iran’s regional expansionism and efforts to export its revolutionary model.

The moderate comeback restores some balance between the rival factions, which had been tipped in favour of the hardliners. However, how will this be translated at the foreign policy level, when Mr Soleimani had, a week before Mr Zarif’s resignation, declared that Iran’s regional role was non-negotiable?

Does rescinding the resignation mean that Mr Zarif has regained control of foreign policy in earnest, or does it mean that Mr Soleimani was forced to give back control temporarily to Mr Zarif, without a license to engage in serious negotiations with the Europeans over the regime’s regional role?

What is certain is that Iran’s domestic front is witnessing battles between factions, while the country’s foreign outlook suffers the consequences of its adventurism in Arab countries, and that its relations with its partners in Syria – Turkey and Russia – will be affected.

Right now, Mr Al Assad, who had pompous words of praise for Iran’s rulers during his visit to Tehran, may be the country’s only asset, amid growing Iranian-Russian mistrust. Following a meeting between Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week, Russia appeared to adopt a new discourse on Syria.

Mr Putin said he would be launching an international plan with a mechanism for a final settlement in Syria, which includes a working group focusing on securing the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country and putting in place arrangements for the state to impose its full control over Syrian territory.

Some like to see Mr Soleimani and Mr Zarif’s gambits as a duel between the moderates and the hardliners – the civilian and military wings of the regime respectively. Mr Zarif is a skilled negotiator and is good at selling to the Europeans the idea that there are moderates in Iran, who have a different policy from that of the regime on the ground.

Some describe this as deception, however, and say that Mr Zarif has no qualms about Mr Soleimani’s policy of expansion in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. Yet some observers hold that Mr Zarif is honest and wants to see the regime curtail its regional ambitions and focus on having normal relations with Iran’s neighbours and the world.

Mr Zarif has always been diplomatically useful for the regime in Iran, including both moderates and hardliners

Regardless, Mr Zarif has always been diplomatically useful for the regime in Iran, including both moderates and hardliners. And in reality, there is no equivalence between him and Mr Soleimani. Despite having proven himself necessary during the resignation saga, Mr Zarif remains an executor, not a maker of policy, unlike Mr Soleimani.

In the words of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Mr Zarif is a front man for a "corrupt religious mafia". "We know [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei makes all the final decisions. Our policy is unchanged – the regime must behave like a normal country and respect its people," he tweeted on Tuesday.

Many agree with that assessment but that does not negate the fact that there is a serious power struggle in Iran, in which Mr Zarif’s resignation upended the equation. Going forward, this struggle will take new forms that can change the rules of engagement, with both domestic and foreign-policy consequences.

The IRGC is in an offensive posture to make up for the damage it and Iran have sustained as a result of US sanctions, after US President Donald Trump overturned his predecessor’s love affair with the Islamic Republic, which rewarded its regional expansion and turned a blind eye to its domestic repression, making Iran a de-facto alternative strategic partner replacing the US’s traditional Arab allies.

Perhaps the consensus in Iran regarding Mr Zarif signifies that the regime does not want to abandon diplomacy at this juncture

The IRGC may exaggerate its capabilities, but it has teeth, for sure. The IRGC has been able to impose its political domination at home and military domination abroad, weakening the hardliners’ moderate rival President Hassan Rouhani, who has made big concessions, to the point that on more than one occasion, he flat-out endorsed their discourse. But as a result of Mr Zarif’s resignation and reinstatement, the moderates have caught their breath, and cautioned their rivals that if the Iranian ship sinks, all sides will drown.

Many Iranians fear that the alliance between Ayatollah Khamenei and Mr Soleimani could lead the military to full control of the Islamic Republic.

Everyone is keeping a close watch on the power struggle in Iran and the battle for succession looming over the post of Supreme Leader. But the implications of this battle for foreign policy will not wait until succession is settled. For this reason, observers are expecting the duel between Mr Zarif and Mr Soleimani will have big ripples in foreign policy and Iran’s regional role.

Perhaps the consensus in Iran regarding Mr Zarif signifies that the regime does not want to abandon diplomacy at this juncture. But it is not clear whether Mr Zarif has been told that the temporary licence for him to resume diplomatic engagement is conditional on refusing to put Iran’s regional role on the agenda of talks with the Europeans and others.

Last week, Mr Soleimani cautioned his country’s government against negotiating this role, saying that any attempt to contain or reduce it is “an attempt to dry out the spirit and movement of Islamic Iran”. Most likely, Mr Zarif heard this well and will heed it.

In other words, it is very unlikely for Tehran to engage in any serious negotiations over its regional role, or comply with Washington's demands, Moscow's urges, or Europe's wishes – the latter being built on the deceptions of Mr Zarif's brand of diplomacy. That is, unless Iran is forced to reform as a consequence of crippling US sanctions and new strategic equations alluded to by the Russian leader.

The surprise announcement by Mr Putin was addressed to his Astana partners, Turkey and Iran. Both powers do not want to leave Syria and want to reap the benefits of their investments in the war-torn country. Mr Putin spoke about creating a new international group that includes nations involved in the Syrian conflict, to normalise the situation there and achieve permanent stability after uprooting terrorism. Among other things, he added, this is linked to withdrawing “all [foreign] armed forces from the territories of the Syrian Arab Republic”.

Mr Putin’s remarks effectively removed the long-term political process in Syria from the framework of the tripartite Astana process in the direction of an international one. They were made a day after the Russian president met with Mr Netanyahu, who said his talks at the Kremlin concluded with an agreement to establish a working group to launch efforts towards removing all foreign troops from Syria.

Mr Netanyahu also said that Mr Putin placed no restrictions on Israeli military operations against Iranian positions in Syria, adding that he did not believe there was an “organised and coherent” axis that included Syria, Iran, and Russia.

No doubt, such statements are not a cause for reassurance among the IRGC, Quds Force, and the Soleimani-aligned Hezbollah – the Lebanese group implementing the IRGC's policies in Syria and Lebanon and everywhere it is asked to go.

However, the battle being fought by this hardline camp will not stop because of these developments in Russian-Israeli and Russian-Iranian relations. This group is patient, seasoned, and shrewd, and there are no indications that it wants to reform itself or adapt to developments.

Instead, all signs indicate that its members want to fight an existential battle for survival, because reforming the regime and reducing Iran’s regional expansion invalidates their raison d’etre. Therefore, they will continue their internal and foreign battles, while maximising their benefit from Mr Zarif’s smiley diplomacy.