Iran: Who is the Soleimani devotee taking over from Zarif?

Iran: Who is the Soleimani devotee taking over from Zarif?
7 min read
27 Aug, 2021
Opinion: Iran's new foreign minister, Amir-Abdollahian, will likely continue the Iranian policy of destabilisation and promoting militias, hindering regional reintegration, writes Arash Azizi.
Hossein Amir-Abdollahian at a commemoration ceremony for Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani on 1 January, 2021 in Tehran, Iran. [Getty]

Eight years ago, in August 2013, when the newly-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani unveiled his cabinet-designate, he seemed to confirm the old adage that "personnel is politics". 

Rouhani's pick for foreign minister was an unmistakable sign of his coming policy: Javad Zarif had spent most of his adult life in the US and had long been the Iranian regime's point person for, and advocate of, negotiations with the West and the US.

Eight years later, Rouhani's successor, Ebrahim Raisi, has also picked a foreign minister who signals a clear policy direction. Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, who was confirmed on Wednesday following a vote in the Iranian parliament, shares one thing with Javad Zarif: they are both career diplomats who've spent all their professional lives in the bureaucracy of Iran's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

But similarities end there. 

If Zarif had degrees from Denver and Columbia, Amir-Abdollahian got his first degree from the foreign ministry's own university followed by a MA and a PhD from the University of Tehran. If Zarif was a critic of the overbearing influence of the powerful militia Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in setting the direction of Iran's foreign policy, Amir-Abdollahian has long been its biggest advocate. 

"Amir-Abdollahian has made it clear that he wants to 'follow in the footsteps of Qassem Soleimani' in foreign policy and that, unlike Zarif, he sees no contradiction between the demands of 'battleground' and 'diplomacy'"

In a tell-all audio file that was leaked earlier this year, Zarif was heard complaining about the Iranian regime always giving priority to the IRGC and its famed general Qasem Soleimani; a reality that Zarif characterized as "the battlefield always coming before the diplomacy".

In the same file, he was heard mocking Amir-Abdollahian, the man who has now gone on to replace him as foreign minister. Amir-Abdollahian has made it clear that he wants to "follow in the footsteps of Qasem Soleimani" in foreign policy and that, unlike Zarif, he sees no contradiction between the demands of "battleground" and "diplomacy".

Amir-Abdollahian first got to work with Soleimani in 2003; when the young diplomat was an Iraq expert in the Iranian foreign ministry and the battle-hardened general was about to launch the most significant campaign of his career: Iran's intervention in the post-invasion Iraq. The two would work closely for close to two decades before Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike on 3 January, 2020. 

A major cheerleader t in Soleimani's hagiography carnival, Amir-Abdollahian made the strange claim that the late general helped various field commanders by appearing to them in their dreams and giving them detailed operational plans.

The obvious differences between Zarif and Amir-Abdollahian were already on open display in 2016 when the latter lost his powerful position as Deputy Foreign Minister in charge of Arab and African Affairs. 

Rejecting Zarif's reappointment as ambassador to Oman (an obvious demotion), Amir-Abdollahian went to work as an international advisor to the conservative Speaker of Parliament. He also headed the permanent secretariat of the International Conference on Palestinian Intifada and was the director of the academic journal Palestine's Strategic Discourse, thus continuing his work on regional affairs and biding his time. The long-time devotee of Soleimani is now in charge of the country's diplomatic apparatus.

In his first tweet as foreign minister, Amir-Abdollahian promised "balanced, active and smart diplomacy" in which the priority is given to “neighbours and Asia.”

Dual challenges of the new foreign minister

Raisi's government takes the reins in Tehran as Iran faces two broad challenges in foreign policy:  First, the indirect negotiations with the US in Vienna over the latter's possible return to the Iranian nuclear deal of 2015, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA. Second, Iran's crisis-ridden relationship with its neighbours and its lack of diplomatic ties with the regional behemoth Saudi Arabia.

The new top diplomat seems ill-suited for both.

Having spent his entire diplomatic career focused on regional affairs, Amir-Abdollahian doesn't seem to have what it takes in attitude or experience to lead negotiations with the US and the rest of P5+1 despite having briefly served as a member of the political-security subcommittee of the talks during the reformist administration of President Mohammad Khatami (1997 - 2005.)

"With Raisi in the president's office, there is no more game of illusions about who appears in charge and who holds the actual power"

It is still not clear whether Amir-Abdollahian’s foreign ministry will be in charge of the nuclear file or if it will revert back to the Supreme National Security Council as was the case before 2013. If that happens, Amir-Abdollahian will oversee a foreign ministry that’s sidelined when it comes to the country’s main diplomatic challenge.

On regional affairs, Amir-Abdollahian's diplomatic expertise and speaking of fluent Arabic might seem like an asset, but the fact is, he's worked more closely with the multitude of militias that form the destabilising network of Iranian political-military allies in the region, than with his diplomatic counterparts in the Arab world.  

In 2007, Amir-Abdollahian led the Iranian delegation to a crucial tripartite process in Baghdad with Iraqis and Americans, engaging in a rare direct negotiation with the US. But by all accounts, the three meetings of that process showed Amir-Abdollahian's inflexibility and decidedly undiplomatic posture. During the Rouhani years, his talks with EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, over regional affairs did not seem to have fared much better.

Overall, Amir-Abdollahian might seem a perplexing choice, given Raisi's constant insistence on the necessity of bettering ties with the regional countries, especially Saudi Arabia.

Things become less perplexing when viewing Amir-Abdollahian in the broader context of Iranian power struggles. Raisi's election victory earlier this summer was only made possible by throwing out the candidacy of all single rivals to the hardliner cleric. If Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, had a history of balancing between different factions of the regime, by backing Raisi's coronation, he shows his running out of patience in his attempt at power consolidation. 

Perspectives

Raisi's presidency has helped streamline and simplify power in Iran's governing structures. While nominally in charge of the country's executive branch, Rouhani was largely powerless in the face of IRGC and parastatal bodies loyal to Khamenei.

With Raisi in the president's office, there is no more game of illusions about who appears in charge and who holds the actual power. This is also mirrored in the foreign ministry when Zarif admitted he had very little say in running the file of regional countries vis-a-vis Soleimani and the guards. In Amir-Abdollahian, Iran now has a foreign minister that speaks for the guards and the true power centres of the country. To many in the region, this is preferable to Zarif's game of smokes and mirrors.

The new foreign minister's first test comes in his very first week in office. On 28 August, Baghdad will host a diplomatic conference to which Iraq's Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi has invited Iran alongside Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, and other countries. 

Will Amir-Abdollahian attend personally to show the importance he gives to regional reconciliation? 

Will he meet with his Saudi counterpart on the sidelines of the one-day summit? 

 "In Amir-Abdollahian, Iran now has a foreign minister that speaks for the guards and the true power centres of the country"

According to two high-ranking diplomats I spoke to, he is mulling over this question while also planning personnel changes in the ministry's crucial Persian Gulf section.

Even if the above-mentioned questions are answered affirmatively, the Iranian-Saudi talks will likely not lead to a deep-seated reconciliation but a pragmatic series of talks, mostly over Yemen, similar to Iranian-American talks over Iraq in post-2003 years or the Astana process over Syria.

The root of the tensions in the region, however, lies in the Iranian policy of destabilisation and the promotion of militias; a policy that Amir-Abdollahian not only defends but has helped build over many years. Without a fundamental change, it is hard to imagine Iran's reintegration into the region. The new foreign minister seems to augur Islamic Republic's increasing isolation from the world and escalatory actions in the region. 

 

Arash Azizi is a writer, translator and PhD candidate at NYU. He is the author of the book, 'The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the US and Iran's Global Ambitions'.

Follow him on Twitter: @Arash_Tehran

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.