The leaked audiotape of the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif caused an uproar in the Iranian domestic political arena, became the talk of the town, and led to a change in the parameters of the Iranian political domain on the eve of the presidential elections, in the midst of negotiations with the parties to the nuclear agreement in Vienna.
What was mentioned in the interview?
The interview lasted more than three hours, and was broadcast by the London-based Persian channel Iran International, on 25 April 2021. In the interview, the Iranian Foreign Minister spoke to the journalist and economist Saeed Laylaz who is known for his closeness to the government and to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The interview included several axes, the most controversial of which were the following:
In addition to these axes that preoccupied the Iranian street and became the talk of the town, the interview included other axes that are no less important, given certain circumstantial considerations and goals for which the interview was recorded, namely:
When these remarks are put in a general context, it is noted that Zarif's position before the leak of this interview was excellent in the debate over the presidential elections, given that there was talk about a consensus between the reformist and moderate currents on the nomination of Mohammad Jawad Zarif to fight the presidential battle, while sources close to the government indicated that the committee set up by the government to discuss the candidate for the presidential elections had limited its options to two candidates, one of whom being Zarif. Therefore, the dialogue constitutes an attempt to launch a publicity campaign for the Minister that was posted out of place. Sources indicate that the dialogue was part of the programme of a propaganda campaign prepared by Mohammad Jawad Zarif. According to those rumours, clips of this video were planned to be used after they were modified in that programme.
Reactions of the different actors
The days following the leak of the recorded interview showed how political currents in Iran used the leak, the repercussions that resulted from it, its timing, and its impact on Zarif’s status, and on the political interactions on the eve of the elections, and in the midst of the nuclear negotiations:
At the level of political positions, the conservative trends widely attacked the Iranian foreign minister. The Iranian Parliament Speaker emphasised the falsity of the dichotomy referred to by Zarif between the field and diplomacy. The former Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki said that what Zarif reported was a mixture of lies and fraud, and that the best response to him at the present moment is to remove him from office. While the Iranian Parliament, which summoned Zarif to a hearing after his return from his Middle East tour, began its preparations to withhold confidence from Zarif, according to the former director of the Fars News Agency, which is close to the IRGC, and one of the members of the current Parliament, namely Seyyed Nezam al-Din Mousavi, the conservative press was united in criticising Zarif based on his position on the Quds Force (IRGC-QF) and Iran's policies for regional expansion, describing him as not the man of the "field", but rather the man of the foreign agenda.
At the government level, the positions were extremely shy. Hesamoddin Ashna, advisor to the President of the Republic and Head of the Presidency’s Centre for Strategic Studies, which is the centre that conducted the interview within the framework of its activities, simply posted a vague tweet indicating that the affair was a plot, before announcing his resignation from his post. The spokesperson for the government emphasised that Zarif may have a response to all those queries. The President of the Republic indicated that the leakage of the tape in the current circumstances is a robbery that must be followed by the security services, and that the leak came at an extremely critical time, and in the midst of a battle that the Iranian diplomatic team is fighting in Vienna, with the purpose of negatively affecting the course of the nuclear negotiations, indicating that the leak serves the agenda of those who oppose the nuclear negotiations and do not want them to reach a conclusion. At the same time, the President took a "conservative" stance about the positions of Zarif which, he said, do not represent the government's stances, and that he disagrees with him on some of them, including those related to the dichotomy of field and diplomacy.
Within the framework of the Iranian Foreign Ministry, which had issued an extensive statement hours before the tape was leaked, in which it heavily criticised those who try to abort the diplomatic efforts to revive the nuclear agreement by undermining members of the Iranian Foreign Ministry, the spokesman for the Ministry said after the interview was leaked that it was a part that was extracted from an interview that was nearly seven hours longer, and that it does not represent the whole truth, stressing that in the original version, Zarif dealt at length with Soleimani's constructive role, indicating that no one can question the friendly relations that existed between the two men, and the respect that Zarif had for General Soleimani. As for Zarif himself, he simply wrote a text on his Instagram account in which he stressed that he would not give up on telling the truth regarding national interests, calling everyone to work for God and the people, not for history.
At the level of the reformist movement and moderate political currents, the interview was an opportunity to focus on the dichotomy of "field and diplomacy", and to emphasise the duality of the regime between the IRGC that represents the hard-line trend, and the government that represents the moderate current that is open to the world. Thus, the dichotomy presented by Zarif during his interview constitutes a main point within the political debates on the eve of the presidential elections.
The dialogue caused controversy in the US political arena. It referred to the attempt by John Kerry, the Secretary of State of the Obama administration, to convey to his Iranian counterpart some field information. While the US State Department simply emphasised that it was not possible to verify the authenticity of what was said by the Iranian Minister, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the allegation that John Kerry passed news to Zarif is a farce that is not worth considering. Kerry himself indicated that what was mentioned in Zarif’s interview has nothing to do with the truth. As for the Republican side, the Secretary of State in the Trump administration accused John Kerry of collusion with Iran by providing consultations to its diplomatic team. Some Republican actors confirmed their efforts to dismiss John Kerry, who currently holds the position of the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, against the backdrop of what was stated in Zarif’s interview.
Who is behind the leak?
While President Rouhani called on the security services to follow up on the issue of the interview leak, stressing the need to respond firmly to those behind it, the main question remains about who is behind the leak, and the causes thereof:
The first possibility assumes that some hardliners (including the IRGC intelligence) are behind the leak of the interview to foreign press sources. Some sources reported that persons close to Ahmadinejad had obtained the tape a few days before it was broadcast in the press, indicating the possibility that those persons were involved in its leak. This possibility stems from the fact that the leak of the interview was a major step for the IRGC in removing one of its most important potential competitors from the domain of competition, and paving the way for the conservative candidate to enter an easy battle.
The second possibility assumes that the Iranian Foreign Ministry and close contacts of Mohammad Javad Zarif have leaked the interview with a view to restoring Zarif to the status of hero/victim, and then use this status in order to fight the presidential battle from which Zarif has not yet been excluded. According to sources, this possibility assumes that the interview had been prepared in favour of Zarif's election campaign, which had already been formed months ago, and that the leakage of the interview came as one of the coordinated steps for the campaign. However, this possibility remains weak, or is at least a failure, given the reactions of the conservatives. This increases the likelihood that Zarif’s eligibility would be rejected and that he would be excluded from the competition through the Guardian (Constitutional) Council.
The third possibility points to the involvement of the government or actors within it in the leak of the audiotape. The possibility is confirmed by news of the circulation of the tape among some reformists (including the son of the reformist opposition figure Mehdi Karroubi, who said that he obtained parts of the interview days before it was leaked to the press), and other reports that it was leaked to the “Iran International” channel and website via one of the reformists within their administration. The possibility assumes that actors within the government have leaked the interview in the wrong time for the benefit of other candidates who see Zarif as a challenge that should be excluded. It also assumes that the government will reap remarkable benefits from its leak to increase the visibility of the hardliners/moderates dichotomy and push the Western actors towards making quick concessions in order to make the agreement succeed in the remaining opportunity. This would make the government the beneficiary of the repercussions of any agreement with the parties to the nuclear agreement at the expense of Zarif who turned from a presumed hero of any progress at the nuclear level to a victim thereof. At the domestic level, this possibility assumes that the government benefits greatly from the hardliners/moderates dichotomy in favour of rallying the street, supporting its position in the presidential elections, evading the responsibility for the economic collapse, and assigning the responsibility to the hardliners who control the field.
Zarif’s interview will likely have important repercussions at the domestic level and at the international level as an interview that deals with issues that concern the Iranian street, and addresses questions that have preoccupied the Iranian political domain during the past years, and also as an interview that came at an important moment on the threshold of the presidential elections, and amidst nuclear negotiations, as follows:
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