Iran's Foreign Policy Is in Chaos. How Should America Respond?

Image: Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in a meeting with the ambassadors of Belarus and Pakistan. Tasnim News photo by Meghdad Madadi, CC BY 4.0.

Hardliners and moderates are facing off, creating dilemmas for the United States.

Iran’s foreign-policy establishment is in chaos. The last week has seen a catena of maneuvers by the system’s key players. Rumors, reassignments and threats have been the order of the day. Yet determining how America should respond won’t be easy; indeed, it requires a fundamental vision of the U.S. approach to Iran.

Things kicked off last week when a former leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) alleged that Abbas Araghchi, a senior foreign-ministry official and nuclear negotiator respected by Western interlocutors, is a member of the IRGC’s external action wing, the Quds Force. The Quds Force has been linked to numerous terrorist plots, and its members face restrictions; as Al Monitor’s Arash Karami notes, this could lead “foreign delegations [to] request that Araghchi no longer be involved in ongoing negotiations over the implementation of the nuclear deal,” hindering those negotiations and thereby increasing pressure on Iranian president Hassan Rouhani.

Then, last Friday, Al Monitor’s Laura Rozen reported that Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had “signaled that he has more authority on the Syria file than he has had until now, and that Iran may be prepared to show more flexibility to advance a political solution.” Rozen linked this to a meeting between the Iranian, Russian and Syrian defense ministers in Tehran earlier this month, which saw similar signals by Iran, and to the subsequent appointment of Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani to handle “political, security and military affairs with Syria and Russia.” This would shift the Syria file away from the de facto control of the IRGC.

On Sunday, the Foreign Ministry announced a shakeup. Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs, was removed from his post and made an “adviser” to Zarif, allegedly rejecting a role as ambassador to Oman in the process; foreign ministry spokesman Hossein Jaberi-Ansari took his place, while Bahram Qassemi, former ambassador to a number of European countries, became the new spokesman. This little game of musical chairs seemed to confirm Zarif’s rumored empowerment, and implied a shift in Iran’s foreign policy. Amir-Abdollahian was seen as the IRGC’s man in the foreign ministry—as Muhammad Sahimi points out, he was in the foreign ministry’s Iraq department for much of the period of U.S. occupation there, at a time when Iran’s ambassador in Baghdad was a member of the Quds Force. Amir-Abdollahian’s area of responsibility in his latest post overlapped with areas where the IRGC, not the administration of President Rouhani, have more impact.

Amir-Abdollahian was enough of a thorn in Arab sides that many inside and outside Iran suggested his removal implied an Iranian opening to Arab states on the Persian Gulf; Zarif even had to deny rumors that Amir-Abdollahian was removed at their request. Coupled with Zarif’s empowerment and the new role for Shamkhani (an ethnic Arab seen as friendlier to the Arab states), this suggested a coming reduction in tensions with the Gulf Cooperation Council and a stronger focus on the diplomatic track in Syria. And, to a lesser extent, Qassemi’s advancement could also hint at a turn toward Europe, as both of the previous spokespersons have moved on to prominent roles.

This diplomatic shift would comport with the Rouhani administration’s apparent desires. Though his time in office has seen the worst relations with the Gulf states in decades, there is a widespread perception that he favors friendlier relations with their governments and with the West, and that this is in service of a commerce-first vision of national power. (Former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, a key Rouhani ally, is associated with similar views.) The hardline factions, centered around the IRGC and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, tend to push for a more revolutionary approach to the region, distrust of the West (sometimes in favor of Russia, China or the third world), and autarky.