Analysis: Does Iran FM Zarif's resignation end or save nuke deal?

For Tehran, firing Zarif could be the final act before leaving the deal.

Iran's Foreign Minister Zarif resigns from position, February 26, 2019 (Reuters)

The sudden resignation of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Monday likely signals either the end or the last-minute saving of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Assuming that his resignation is accepted and this is not a Saad Hariri-style coerced and temporary resignation – as when Saudi Arabia tried to force him to step down as Lebanese prime minister – it is a clear turning point.

Zarif was the Islamic Republic’s face for the 2015 deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and has defended it against Iranian hard-liners for years.

His defense of the deal in Iran became more difficult when the US left the deal in May.

It got even harder when the US imposed new sanctions in August and imposed full oil sanctions in November.

Though Tehran threatened to leave in retaliation, it has remained in the deal now nearly 10 months after the US left.

Meanwhile, promised help to Iran by the EU to offset US sanctions has been slow and negligible.

Only recently did the EU finally announce its Special-Purpose Vehicle for facilitating trade with Iran to circumvent US sanctions – and it is relatively clear that the so-called SPV will be very limited in its impact.

Iran has also been furious with the EU for taking Washington’s side in trying to get it to reduce ballistic missile testing and to downgrade its presence in Syria.

The Islamic Republic has increased its threats of leaving the deal and has advertised a range of nuclear activities that it was getting ready to proceed with the second that it might leave the deal.

For Tehran, firing Zarif could be its final act before leaving the deal.

Then again, Zarif could be the sacrificial lamb that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has offered up to those opposing the deal in order to protect the agreement and his own power somewhat longer.

Forcing Zarif out could also give the hard-liners greater control over negotiations with the EU and others and give them a chance to vent and threaten more directly in an effort to extract concessions.

Either way, Zarif’s resignation is a turning point – and the nuclear-standoff ride just got a lot bumpier.