Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s resourceful top diplomat, may be still recovering from the hectic marathon nuclear negotiations that yielded a historic agreement one year ago, but chances are that he is destined to become Iran’s next president, given his immense popularity in Iran, particularly among the educated strata.
Already, there is a growing conversation among the political elite regarding Zarif’s candidacy, in light of the presidential elections next Summer, and some prominent figures have begun to openly mention Zarif as a viable candidate. Of course, President Hassan Rouhani remains the likely choice of moderate clergy and their mass of supporters, but the political dynamic in favor of Zarif’s inclusion in the list of candidates is rapidly taking shape, perhaps despite the personal reservation of Zarif himself, who is not affiliated with any political faction and prides himself for his superb diplomatic skills, for good reasons.
Zarif has singlehandedly “turbocharged” Iran’s diplomacy since assuming the helms as Iran’s foreign minister in mid-2013, as anticipated by this author in his interview with Zarif at the time, and since then the tumultuous regional environment of Iran has been much helped by Zarif’s crisis-management efforts and focus on good neighborly relations. Needless to say, this is a work in progress with a myriad of unresolved issues, such as the intense Iran-Saudi rift and maritime tensions with the US, yet overall it is fair to say that in the new post-sanctions milieu Iran has emerged as a stronger and more confident country, thanks in part to its skillful diplomats such as Zarif who are keen on capitalizing on the combination of soft and hard Iranian power.
In order for this possibility to happen, Zarif himself ought to express interest, so that his sea of supporters can be galvanized into action, given the complex nature of Iran’s domestic politics that filters the presidential candidates. The jury on the nuclear accord is still not out yet and the accord has its own internal detractors who focus on Zarif, and therefore Zarif’s candidacy will inevitably turn into a contest on the merits of the accord as well.
An important prerequisite for Zarif’s candidacy is the sustained support of Iran’s Supreme Leader, who has repeatedly thanked Zarif and other members of the nuclear negotiation team for their efforts. Should the leader see fit that Zarif’s candidacy will add to the wealth of Iran’s Islamist democracy, then Ayatollah Khamenei may send the proper signals that would clear for Zarif’s entry into the presidential race.