STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A news item out of Iran today suggests the unusual prominence of Iran's foreign minister. Mohammad Javad Zarif announced his resignation yesterday, and today the Iranian stock market plunged. Zarif is no ordinary cabinet minister. He's a U.S.-educated diplomat who played a central role in Iran's nuclear deal with world powers in recent years. His departure, if it stands, would be a blow to the politicians known inside Iran as reformers. NPR's Peter Kenyon is following this story. Hi there, Peter.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: So is his resignation final?
KENYON: It's not. It hasn't been formally accepted by President Hassan Rouhani. So it isn't official yet. And a majority of Iran's Parliament has now signed on to a letter, saying, please stay on the job, won't you; continue being our top diplomat. One MP notes this isn't the first time Zarif has offered to step down. So we're still waiting for final word on his status. But so far, it is being treated as a win for Iranian hard-liners. They, of course, have been strongly opposed to the pragmatic Hassan Rouhani and his government from the start.
INSKEEP: Well, why would Zarif have resigned?
KENYON: Well, he doesn't give a reason in his announcement, which was on Instagram. In a later interview, he mentioned political infighting, saying he wishes that could've been kept separate from foreign policy. Zarif and Rouhani have been constant targets of the hard-liners. They remain very strong in certain parts of the Iranian government. The voters have consistently chosen Rouhani and his pragmatic brand of politics, but governing has always been difficult in Tehran. It's a very fractured, factionalized process. And as for the timing, there's speculation Zarif was losing influence and felt bad about it. He was absent from the official pictures of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's recent visit.
INSKEEP: Is Zarif losing influence, in part, because he is so closely associated with this nuclear deal with the United States, among other countries, and the United States under President Trump has withdrawn from it?
KENYON: Well, I think there's no question the hard-line pressure was ratcheted up exponentially when Donald Trump pulled out of that 2015 nuclear agreement and reimposed sanctions on the Iranian economy. That was Zarif's crowning diplomatic achievement. It was tarnished. Remember, he also promised, as did Rouhani, major economic improvements to Iranians from this deal. That never happened. Then the pullout, of course, made it even worse. So, again, it's a win for the hard-liners who have always argued that Rouhani was naive to trust America to keep its word; should never have done this deal. And there's a debate in Tehran about pulling out of the agreement, too.
INSKEEP: Well, I suppose we should remember that this is all happening at a moment when the United States is gearing up for more intense confrontation with Iran, ratcheting up sanctions and trying to put more pressure on the Iranian regime, which must raise a question inside Iran about how to respond.
KENYON: Well, yes. I mean, as you point out, the relations have been getting cooler and cooler ever since Donald Trump was elected. And if this resignation by Mohammad Javad Zarif stands, the hard-liners will be feeling more encouraged, more empowered to try and undermine Rouhani's government even further. And one result then could be a more hostile confrontational approach to Washington as Rouhani seeks to shore up his right flank. I think analysts would say that suits the Trump administration just fine. Rouhani could try to find another pragmatist for foreign minister - not clear he can find anyone to match Zarif's English skills and long experience dealing with Westerners. So ties certainly seem to be moving colder and colder.
INSKEEP: Peter, thanks so much - really appreciate it.
KENYON: Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon who reports today from Istanbul.
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