Iran FM Zarif’s leaked interview draws wide array of reactions

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A leaked audio recording in which Iran’s top diplomat complained about lack of power and criticized the country’s military’s dominance over foreign policy drew an array of reactions, including from US politicians.

In the three-hour recording, published by London-based Iran International TV station on Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said he had “zero” influence over Tehran’s foreign policy and complained about the extent of the influence the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its assassinated commander Qassem Soleimani had in comparison.

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“I have never been able to tell a military commander to do something in order to aid diplomacy,” Zarif said in the leaked interview, which took place last February.

Zarif added that Soleimani would give him instructions “almost every time I went to negotiate (with world powers).”

Soleimani, who headed the Quds Force – the overseas arm of the IRGC – was killed in a US airstrike in Iraq in January 2020.

Zarif also accused Soleimani and Russia of colluding to undermine the 2015 nuclear deal soon after it was signed. Moscow was opposed to the deal, Zarif alleged. The Kremlin has not commented on the allegations.

Without disputing the recording’s authenticity, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman said the recording is part of a seven-hour interview that was not intended for release, adding that the published excerpts did not reflect the respect Zarif has for Soleimani.

“It is not clear who, and with what goals, selectively published [parts of] the conversation,” Saeed Khatibzadeh said, adding that the ministry, if allowed, was willing to publish the full interview for clarity.

US reactions

Sharing a story on the leak on Twitter, former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote that the killing of Soleimani “had a massive impact on Iran and the Middle East. You don’t have to take my word for it. Ask @JZarif. President Biden still thinks it was a mistake.”

In the leaked interview, Zarif is also heard saying that during the Obama administration, former Secretary of State John Kerry informed him that Israel had launched 200 attacks on Iranian forces in Syria.

This prompted some Republicans to call for Kerry, who currently serves as President Joe Biden’s climate envoy, to be removed from government.

Republican Senator Dan Sullivan called on Kerry on Monday to immediately resign from the administration’s National Security Council, saying Zarif’s comments were the “straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Morgan Ortagus, the spokesperson for the State Department under former President Donald Trump, said that if the allegations are true, “there should be an investigation into John Kerry’s security clearance.”

Defending Kerry, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy wrote on Twitter that according to Republicans, “Iranian leaders are dangerous lying thieves who cannot ever be trusted… unless they are making accusations about John Kerry when of course they are telling the 100% truth.”

Kerry denied Zarif’s account on Twitter, writing: “I can tell you that this story and these allegations are unequivocally false. This never happened - either when I was Secretary of State or since.”

Uproar in Iran

In Iran, where criticising the IRGC and Soleimani is a red line, Zarif came under fire from politicians, commentators and journalists close to the IRGC.

Former Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki described the leaked interview as a “political assassination” of Soleimani.

Mourners carry the coffin of Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in an air strike at Baghdad airport, during the funeral at his hometown in Kerman, Iran. (File Photo: Reuters)
Mourners carry the coffin of Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in an air strike at Baghdad airport, during the funeral at his hometown in Kerman, Iran. (File Photo: Reuters)

Parliament Speaker Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, without naming Zarif and in reference to a comment by the foreign minister, said Soleimani’s “courage on the battlefield paved the way for diplomacy.” Zarif said in the interview that Iranian diplomacy is often “sacrificed for the battlefield.” Zarif repeatedly used the word “battlefield” in the interview to refer to the IRGC and its military operations abroad.

Iranian lawmaker Nasrollah Pejmanfar said Zarif “questioned issues that are among the red lines of the Islamic Republic,” adding that the foreign minister needs to explain his remarks in the leaked interview.

Pejmanfar demanded “explanations” from the foreign ministry for the remarks, according to the Fars news agency.

Foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh downplayed the comments, speaking to reporters in Tehran.

He said that the recording reflects Zarif’s “personal opinions,” and that it was never intended to be released.

The comments were made “within the framework of routine and confidential interviews within the government” he said, adding that leaking it was “a crime.”

Former vice president Mohammad Ali Abtahi said on Twitter that publishing the recording was “tantamount to Israel stealing the nuclear documents” from Iran.

Ali Khezrian, deputy of the Iranian parliament, called Zarif’s comments “analytical backwardness” serious enough to end his career in a Twitter post.

Others said the leak will give Iran’s elections watchdog cause to disqualify Zarif should he decide to run for president.

Among those is Vali Nasr, an expert on Iran and former dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, who said on Twitter that the leak “was designed to stop [Zarif] from running for president.”

All candidates who wish to run for election in Iran must be approved by the Guardian Council, whose members are appointed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The supreme leader is said to want a more “hardline” president this time around, especially since the next president may be the last one of his lifetime.

Iran’s presidential elections are less than two months away, and while Zarif has announced he will not run, some “reformists” in Iran still view him as their best option in the presidential race.

Others say Zarif attempted to come across as more of a critic in the interview in order to gain sympathy and support from the public, indicating he may plan to run for president.

Kasra Aarabi, an Iran analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, wrote on Twitter that the leak appears “coordinated,” saying it aims to rally support for Zarif inside Iran while pressuring the US to give Tehran sanctions relief on the premise that doing so would strengthen the hands of “moderates” such as Zarif ahead of the presidential elections in June.

“This has all the hallmarks of a deliberate “leak” coordinated quite possibly by Zarif himself albeit with green-light from above,” Aarabi added.

Zarif was on a trip to neighboring Iraq on Monday, according to Iranian media, visiting the site outside of Baghdad where Soleimani was assassinated. He has yet to comment publicly on the leak.

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