In a series of leaked interview tapes, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made some rather off the cuff remarks. The timing of the leak suggests that the intent was either to advance Zarif’s presidential bid in the upcoming election in June, or to discredit him before the race, or simply to stir public interest in the election. On a closer look, the tapes could have also been leaked to put pressure on global powers, mainly the United States, to reach a quick agreement with Tehran over its nuclear file.
Whatever the intent behind the leak, one thing is clear, Zarif is expendable. The leak was part of a three hour plus interview that Zarif gave to reporter Saeed Laylaz in March as part of the “Oral History” program designed to safeguard the legacy of the Rouhani government, and it was meant to be archived by the Iranian Center for Strategic Research. It is not yet clear how the tapes were leaked but they bring to light a powerless foreign minister whose position is rather meaningless.
In the tapes, Zarif admits to not having decision-making powers in regard to public diplomacy. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei criticized Zarif for his remarks by reminding him that the Foreign Ministry was an executor rather than a pioneer of foreign policy in most countries around the world including Iran. Another figure close to the leader, Mohammad Javad Larijani, said Zarif suffered from narcissism. According to Larijani, Zarif knows too well that he does not stand above the system which he represents, and that the leaked tapes have dishonored Iran’s Foreign Ministry.
Zarif also claimed in the leaked tapes that the nuclear talks leading to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 were frequently sabotaged by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and that he was left in the dark when IRGC military policies trumped diplomacy. The supreme leader’s advisor Ali Akbar Velayati offered Zarif some advice regarding this matter when he reminded the foreign minister that diplomacy without power never works.
The supreme leader’s loyalists blame Zarif for concluding a flawed nuclear deal in the first place which has not stood the test of time. According to them, to salvage his legacy, Zarif has claimed that the IRGC and Russia tried to derail previous nuclear talks. Also to discredit the IRGC, Zarif implies that the late Quds Force Commander Soleimani had no role in convincing Russia to engage in the Syrian conflict. According to Zarif, the reverse might have happened. Iran might have been forced to deploy its forces to Syria in return for Russia’s cooperation, thus leaving its own borders rather vulnerable. The leaked tapes mention that Zarif was informed during the course of the previous nuclear talks by former US Secretary of State John Kerry about frequent Israeli strikes against Iranian strongholds in Syria. These attacks pointed to a coordinated campaign between Israel and Russia to destroy Iran’s military capabilities in Syria.
In the aftermath of the leaked tapes, Zarif attempted to limit the damage by arguing that there should be effective coordination between the diplomatic and military fields, in reference to the IRGC’s military escapades and operations.
In fact, most of Iran’s “hardliners” now believe that the leaked tapes expose Zarif’s contempt for the system he represents. The leaked tapes also endorse hardliner views that Zarif is a compromised and incompetent technocrat and is incapable of leading the nuclear talks.
When Zarif was summoned to Iran’s Parliament for questioning on May 9 regarding the leaked tapes, the chief of the National Security Commission Mujatba Zolnouri said his answers indicated that he held a “grudge” against Soleimani, and he wanted to reverse his military gains. Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf said Zarif was working against national interests and he added that Iran would have no one to negotiate with without gaining advantages on the military front. In response to these allegations, Zarif said he personally did not endorse polarity between the goals of diplomacy and the military field.
Ghalibaf endorsed the Parliament’s decision to investigate the Center for Strategic Research and the Foreign Ministry. Since the tapes were leaked, some 15 to 20 government officials have already been removed from office, and 15 are banned from leaving Iran. Iranian preachers close to Ayatollah Khamenei have received the green light to deliver public sermons against Zarif.
The leaked tapes shed light on the divisive nature of Iranian politics during the time of the previous nuclear talks. Even now there are disagreements regarding the Vienna talks, and there is a long way to go before the official nuclear talks start and conclude. This means that Zarif will be out of office when a new nuclear formula is reached with global powers. Hence, the “hardliners,” not Zarif, will be the main drivers of the future nuclear talks, as a “hardliner” candidate is expected to win the upcoming presidential election. This is something that the “hardliners” have wanted for a very long time.