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Iran in the eye of the Zarif storm

Khattar Abou Diab

Published: Updated:

While the decision-making process in Tehran is as complex as it is clear, Zarif has helped uncover the secrets of the “deep state” role that the Quds Force plays, as well as the role that Russia plays in the international conflict on Iran.

The ripple effects of the leak of an interview recorded with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif continue. Indeed, the leak fanned the flames of conflict between regime components and exacerbated the internal conflict in parallel with the Vienna negotiations on the nuclear file and ahead of the June 18 presidential election.

While the decision-making process in Tehran is as complex as it is clear, Zarif has helped uncover the secrets of the “deep state” role that the Quds Force plays, as well as the role that Russia plays in the international conflict on Iran. This shows that cracks and crises within the Iranian regime have reached unprecedented levels, and the situation hinges on the outcomes of the negotiations over the nuclear deal, which will influence the direction the presidential election will take. Then, Zarif might be the last-minute surprise nomination (especially as the reform movement dwindles) or he might go retire in the United States, where he previously lived for a long time.

Leaving aside the analyses on the future of the Rouhani-Zarif duo in the Iranian formula, we can notice that consensus or approval within the regime on central and national security issues is crumbling, which pushed Zarif himself to ask the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei not to pressure negotiators in Vienna. The foreign minister also warned against any internal divisions that could potentially impact the strength of Iran’s position.

Fears of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ control of state institutions undoubtedly worsened the conflict between the wings of power. Zarif’s leaked statements revealed the extent of “military control” (or rather, the deep state’s control through the Quds Force, the IRGC’s extra-territorial arm) over vital decisions in the country. The attempts to contain the repercussions of the Zarif leaks storm through President Rouhani’s decision to dismiss his scapegoat adviser Hesamoddin Ashena were failed attempts as hardliners accused the presidential team of crossing the regime’s red lines through “the audio recordings thief amongst them.” Clearly, responsibility for the leak is being thrown back and forth between the conservative hardliners and the IRGC on the one hand, and the Rouhani-Zarif dyad on the other hand. The conflict goes as far as accusations of treason and serving foreign agendas, proving just how big a turmoil and crisis the regime has been suffering in terms of decision-making, which also does not obscure the severe socioeconomic crisis and the ongoing protests since late 2017.

Zarif’s interview, recorded last March as part of an archive of presidential and diplomatic activity, was supposed to be broadcast after the government’s departure. Seeing as it reveals hidden domestic and foreign secrets, it is impossible to separate it from the escalation of the internal conflict that has now reached its peak with increasing ideological-military control alongside rapprochement with China and Russia at the expense of middle-class advocates of openness to the West and pro-democracy actors.

Thus, it is likely that some people in Rouhani’s office leaked the interview with the aim of advocating for negotiations with the US, fully aware this would not be possible without a decision from the supreme leader and under his auspices. The leak could stem from a wish to highlight and warn of what the situation in Iran could be like after the presidential election. Should Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi or General Hossein Dehghan win the race, military control could gain “popular legitimacy” and the legitimacy of the guardian of the jurist, compared to its covert nature at present under the current balances of power.

The other underlying warning is related to Russia’s role and Moscow’s influence in the extra-territorial decision-making process of the IRGC (and the Quds Force in particular). Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the leaked recording is its dismissal of the assumption that the elected president and his team have any say in decision-making, as it confirmed that all matters, theoretically and practically, are up to the supreme leader and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. With Moscow’s ability to influence the choice of Khamenei’s successor given Russia’s power within the Quds Force and Iranian institutions, a former Western diplomat in Iran speaks of a secret conflict in Tehran between a Russian lobby comprising IRGC figures and politicians (such as former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), and a lobby that is close to Washington and led by Zarif himself. As for China and European countries, they have less power in the Iranian context.

As for the circle of the supreme leader and conservative hardliners, Zarif’s stellar move was attacking Russia and disclosing this offensive position just as tensions between Biden and Putin escalate. Zarif had criticized the Quds Force on many occasions, accusing its former commander Qassem Soleimani of harming Zarif’s political efforts, especially in the wake of the 2015 nuclear deal. In this context, Zarif said in his interview: “I can daringly say that I have helped the military by using diplomacy more than the military helped diplomatic efforts.”

From Zarif’s statements, we discovered new facts about decision-making in the Syrian war. The prevalent narrative was that Iran requested intensive Russian intervention after Soleimani’s visit to Moscow, but now we understand from Zarif that President Putin rather “forced on Tehran the deployment of ground troops to Syria.” Here, there are suspicions of Israeli support for the Russian intervention and American acquiescence to it. In the same context, Zarif also confirmed that Russia opposed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and worked closely with the Quds Force to undermine the nuclear deal, despite helping negotiate it. If Zarif’s account is true, then it is safe to say that the new Czar worked to prevent Obama from achieving his wager on a potential partnership with Iran.

The debate on the leaked recording will not stop. The statements of Hossein Shariatmadari, who is close to the supreme leader, prove the veracity of its contents. This only goes to show the heightened struggle for power between civilian politicians and military politicians under the cloak of the supreme leader, all the while the political scene crumbles as it heads toward decisive milestones that will shape the future of the regime, Iran, and the region.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, pan-Arab London-based outlet al-Arab.

Read more:

Beyond Zarif’s statements

A new cold war between Biden and Putin

Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.