An Iranian delegation headed by President Hassan Rouhani is visiting Iraq for three days this week, and it includes Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif who was at the centre of controversy in recent weeks over his tendered, but refused, resignation.
The visit is intended to showcase Iran’s good relations with its Arab neighbours, and it will shortly head to Syria on the invitation of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, who has invited Zarif to ease tensions caused by his own unprecedented visit to Tehran.
Zarif is believed to have resigned in protest over not being informed about or invited to a meeting with Al-Assad in Tehran.
Commanders of the Iranian Al-Quds Forces had apparently persuaded the Syrian president to come to Tehran without the knowledge of high-ranking diplomats. Some saw this as an attack on the Iranian government or an indication of the forces’ power in political affairs.
Zarif remained in his position, however, and his resignation was not accepted by the regime as the damage his absence could have caused was greater than the achievement of having Al-Assad in Tehran.
Zarif is considered to be a skilled diplomat who for the first time has brought prestige to the Islamic Republic. Raised in the United States and gaining a PhD from an American university, he worked at the Iranian mission at the United Nations in New York and then served as ambassador to the UN before becoming foreign minister.
This background gives him good knowledge of the West, and it helped Iran to achieve its nuclear deal with the West after years of haggling and difficulties experienced by former Iranian governments in their communications with the West.
Rouhani has another two years to go ahead of the next presidential elections in Iran, but it is unlikely he can complete this journey without Zarif. This has led even head of the Al-Quds Forces Qassim Solimani to publicly praise Zarif, saying that Iran has only one foreign minister, who is Zarif.
However, while Zarif was in Baghdad preparing the ground for the president’s visit, the media in Tehran reported that Solimani had received the highest-ranking military award in Iran, the Order of Zol-Faqar, from supreme leader Ali Khamenei.
Khamenei’s recognition of Solimani’s services is being seen as part of plans to increase the profile of the Revolutionary Guards, of which the Al-Quds Forces are a part, in Iran.
When Al-Assad visited Tehran, Solimani greeted him at the audience with Khamenei and then again, and without Zarif, at the audience with Rouhani.
As testimony of Solimani’s place within the hierarchy in Iran, Khamenei said that Iran’s regional ambitions were more important than the dialogue with the West or relations with the United States. He trusted activists like Solimani more than he trusted politicians, he said.
Solimani is said to have masterminded Iran’s presence in Iraq and Syria in recent years, and he was commander of the operations in Lebanon against Israel during the war of 2006. He is thus a well-known figure to Iranians.
His footprints can be found from Afghanistan in Central Asia to the Middle East, and his frequent presence in the media in recent weeks could be evidence that Khamenei intends to let Solimani run in the next elections or give that role to a member of the Revolutionary Guards.
Khamenei’s endorsement or support could boost a candidate’s election prospects even two years ahead of the elections.
The Iranian public was likely stunned to hear that Solimani had received the country’s highest military award, because its existence has not been mentioned over the past 40 years of the Islamic Republic’s history.
The late shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was a recipient of the 2nd class star of the highest military award of the former Empire of Iran, the Order of Zol-Faqar.
The award has apparently existed since the beginning of the Qajar era in Iran in the 18th century, and it was continued during the Pahlavi period. It is interesting to learn that the Islamic Republic has decided to keep the award.
Pictures of the late shah with the award are being emphasised unofficially these days, more than the pictures of Solimani with the medal on his chest after the gift by the supreme leader.
They are another reason for the Iranian public to remember how Iran was under the old regime and how it is today.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Iranian visit to Baghdad