By RFE RL
By Golnaz Esfandiari
(RFE/RL) — Leaked audio of dour foreign policy assessments from Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has raised a political storm amid questions about who was behind its release at a crucial juncture for Iran and the region.
In it, Zarif complains of interference by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in Iran’s foreign policy and says assassinated Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani colluded with Russia to undermine nuclear diplomacy.
The IRGC’s role in Iranian foreign policy, mainly in the region, and its opposition to improved ties with the West are no secret. Neither is it a surprise that Iran’s postrevolutionary system heaps power in the hands of an unelected supreme leader and other hard-line institutions.
But Zarif’s blunt insights into the power that the IRGC wields and his obvious frustrations with the revolutionary guards and with ally Russia, which according to Zarif opposes any Iranian thaw with the West, came as a surprise to many.
“We paid for the [military] field more than the [military] paid for us,” Zarif complains in the audio recording, which was said to have been recorded as part of an oral history of current Iranian politics.
Zarif also says he was often left in the dark on important foreign policy decisions.
“During my work, I couldn’t — not that I didn’t want to — tell the field commander, ‘Do this, I need it for diplomatic reasons,'” Zarif is heard saying.
‘Betrayal’ And ‘Defamation’
The Tehran prosecutor’s office said on April 27 in an apparent reference to the leak that it had opened a criminal case “to identify the elements who committed the crime.” Meanwhile, hard-liners accused Zarif of “betrayal” and “defamation” of Soleimani, who has been hailed as a national martyr since being killed by a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad in January 2020.
The audio recording leaked via the London-based news channel Iran International on April 25 as the country’s power struggle intensifies amid a return to international negotiations over Iran’s nuclear activities and ahead of a June presidential election.
Iranian government officials have alleged that domestic rivals are working to undermine indirect talks in Vienna with the United States aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA).
The Zarif interview was recorded on February 24 as part of an “oral history” series, the interviewer, prominent economist Saeed Laylaz, says in an audio file that was posted online.
Zarif can be heard repeatedly saying his comments are not for publication.
After the disclosure, the Foreign Ministry said the most controversial excerpts were taken out of context from a seven-hour conversation.
‘Beginning Of The End’
There has been speculation that it was leaked by Zarif’s rivals as a political death blow or to thwart a possible presidential bid to succeed Rohani, who is in his second and final term.
“This is the Iranian equivalent of an October surprise — a deliberate leak timed to prevent the pro-engagement forces of Iranian politics from having any say in the upcoming elections,” said Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group (ICG).
Vaez said all signs point toward the IRGC as the probable culprit, adding, “It likely signals the beginning of the end of Zarif’s political life.”
But in a reflection of Iran’s complicated political scene, others have suggested that Zarif and his allies were behind the leak in order to boost his visibility and highlight his willingness to question state policies.
One Tehran-based observer told RFE/RL that the leak could increase Zarif’s popularity because it shows he is willing to challenge state policies and to criticize Russia, which he said was “unprecedented.”
“Public opinion is usually anti-Russia and anti-China, which contravenes the so-called ‘look eastward’ [policies] promoted by the establishment,” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak openly without fear of official reprisal.
He acknowledged, however, that the recordings could be used by the conservative Guardians Council to disqualify Zarif from the June 18 presidential vote.
Moscow has consistently supported Tehran at the United Nations, and it called the U.S. assassination of Soleimani a “reckless step” that threatened regional stability.
Zarif has made around 30 visits to Russia during his seven-year tenure as foreign minister.
Moscow has worked with Tehran in Iraq and Syria, and has generally strengthened an already friendly and strategic relationship with Iran as tensions ratcheted back up between Iran and the United States.
Speaking on April 28, President Rohani suggested that the leak was aimed at derailing the nuclear talks, in which President Joe Biden is seeking a return to the JCPOA abandoned nearly three years ago by his predecessor.
“Right at the time that Vienna talks were on the verge of success, they broadcast [the Zarif comments] to create discord inside the country,” Rohani said. He urged the Intelligence Ministry to do “its utmost” to discover how the recording was “stolen.”
ICG’s Vaez said he thought the controversy was unlikely to affect the current nuclear talks in Vienna.
Earlier this week, Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei noted that the interview was first aired by London-based Iran International TV, which Tehran says is funded by Saudi Arabia to undermine the leadership in majority-Shi’a Iran.
Rabiei said those circumstances proved it was “a conspiracy” against the government and Iranian national unity.
Tasnim news agency, which is affiliated with the IRGC, blasted Zarif’s comments and blamed Rohani adviser Hesamodin Ashena for the leak.
The interview was reportedly recorded at the Center for Strategic Studies (CSS), a research arm of the presidency that is currently headed by Ashena.
“Was Ashena, who is among the security figures in Rohani’s government, unaware of the importance of this audio file and did he neglect to safeguard it, or has this file been published with prior planning to influence the [June] election?” Tasnim asked.
“What’s going to happen in the end?” asked another IRGC-affiliated media outlet, the Javan daily. It accused Zarif of insulting Soleimani and suggested that the Iranian foreign minister should face consequences.
“Zarif’s explanation and apology? Zarif’s resignation? Impeachment and dismissal? Or his trial for expressing an analysis that insults soldiers of the [military] field?” the Iranian daily wrote.
Javan also noted that former U.S. Secretary of State and current White House climate envoy John Kerry had faced political pressure over another of Zarif’s claims in the interview.
Zarif is heard saying that Kerry acknowledged to him that Israel had attacked Iranian interests in Syria 200 times.
Kerry has rejected that claim as “unequivocally false.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price said earlier this week that he would not comment on “purportedly leaked material” and could not “vouch for the authenticity of it or the accuracy of it.”
“In the United States, John Kerry came under intense pressure over a sentence in Zarif’s audio recording. But in Iran, there’s still no news of action against Zarif by oversight bodies,” Javan wrote.
Iranian lawmaker Mohammad Taghi Naghdali called for Zarif to apologize for his comments and vowed that parliament would take action. Another lawmaker, Nasrollah Pejmanfar, said Zarif should explain his remarks, which he said challenged Iranian “red lines.”
In his first public reaction to the controversy, Zarif on April 28 posted to Instagram a video of himself visiting the memorial to his “longtime friend” Soleimani in Baghdad. He wrote that he favors a “smart adjustment” between the diplomatic and the military spheres.
Zarif said he regretted that a “confidential theoretical discussion about the necessity to increase cooperation between diplomacy and the [military] field” had turned into an “internal conflict.”
- Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent with RFE/RL.