The Leaked Interview with the Iranian Foreign Minister: Implications and Considerations of Domestic Actors

EPC | 06 May 2021

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:

  • During the dialogue, the Iranian Foreign Minister focused extensively on the developments of the nuclear agreement, referring in an important part thereof to the Russian position which rejected the nuclear agreement. He stressed that the Russian side, which does not favour the improvement of Iranian relations with the West, did everything in its power to prevent the nuclear agreement from reaching the stage of signature. He stressed that the Russians' resentment of the nuclear agreement was evident through the absence of their foreign minister at the meeting of the signing of the agreement, indicating that they had submitted numerous proposals, which he described as catastrophic, during the rounds of negotiations, including one that includes referring the nuclear agreement to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) every six months.
  • The Iranian Minister referred to the attempts by the Russians to provoke Iranian escalatory waves, including attempts to influence the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, who was a second axis on which Zarif focused during his interview. While Zarif referred during the interview to respectful relations between himself and General Soleimani, most of his talk about him carried a critical tone, during which Zarif confirmed that Soleimani would ask him to do things to serve the Iranian expansionist project, and did not much recognise the role of the Iranian Foreign Ministry. Zarif indicated that on several occasions, he asked Soleimani to stop taking actions that harm Iran's interests and foreign relations, including stopping the use of the national airlines' planes to transport soldiers and equipment to Syria in order to prevent the company from falling under the sanctions clause. However, Soleimani would refuse to do so. In the same context, Zarif indicated (contrary to what is being promoted inside Iran about General Soleimani's role in persuading Russian President Putin to enter the war in Syria) that the Russian side had taken its decision to enter the battle in Syria, that it was Moscow that invited Soleimani to meet the Russian President, who had made his decision beforehand, and that the Iranian side had become in the service of the Russian side.
  • The ill-fated Ukrainian plane was another controversial topic in the interview. Zarif indicated that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) was fully aware of the strike since Thursday morning, or even since the evening of Wednesday on which the plane was shot down (here the interviewer intervened to indicate that the IRGC had essentially known since Wednesday morning), but kept silent on the matter. Zarif also said that he asked the IRGC during a meeting he attended on behalf of the government on Thursday evening at the headquarters of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) to tell him the truth so that he could "deal with the situation" and "handle the matter internationally". However, the IRGC responded severely, and tried to hide the matter from him, rejecting the argument that the plane was shot down by missiles, according to Zarif, who said that the IRGC asked him to tweet on the subject on his account.
  • The "field and diplomacy" dichotomy was another axis to which Zarif referred more than once during the interview. He emphasised that the IRGC, which was fighting regional battles, was applying field strategies that were completely different from the diplomatic strategies of the Iranian Foreign Ministry. According to Zarif, while the international practice requires that the field strategies serve each country’s general diplomatic strategy, he emphasised during the interview that the case was completely the opposite in Iran; the field strategies (and regional expansion) had the upper hand, and the IRGC would impose its will on the public diplomacy, indicating that diplomacy sacrificed a lot for the sake of the field (military field strategies), whereas the field did not take any step that would serve Iranian diplomacy. Indeed, it did not provide any clear field information to the diplomatic team members who learned some of the field developments from foreign diplomats during their meetings with international parties. In a controversial example, Zarif indicated that the US Secretary of State was the one who told him that Israel had carried out more than 200 attacks on Iranian headquarters in Syria. In more than one instance, Zarif indicated that the IRGC held the reins within the diplomatic arena, and in other arenas for that matter, indicating that the men of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was powerless in front of the IRGC field strategies, worked very hard to conduct the diplomatic affairs and keep the door open with the world despite the maximum pressure they endured.

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:

  • The interview included at length the Iranian leader's relations with Foreign Minister Zarif who greatly praised Ali Khamenei. Zarif indicated that the Iranian leader had known him personally since 1988, indicating that he had won Khamenei’s admiration on more than one occasion, and his steps were in full coordination with Khamenei. While Zarif referred in his interview to President Rouhani in a tone that was sometimes tainted by criticism, his remarks about Khamenei were very friendly.
  • The interview included a lengthy focus on the possibilities of Zarif's candidacy for the upcoming presidential elections. While Zarif confirmed that he had not reached a legitimate argument to push him to run, the interviewer highlighted with him in detail his achievements and his experience in the international field (according to Laylaz, Zarif is unmatched by anyone in Iran in terms of knowledge of the internal US affairs, being the issue around which Iranian policies are centered). He talked at length about Zarif’s popularity that surpasses that of President Rouhani. Zarif confirmed that he is aware of his wide popularity, although popularity is not the only criterion for him. He explained that it is too early for a decision in this regard, and that the bridge has not been reached yet, indicating that it is not yet time for the final decision.

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.

Likely repercussions

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:

  • Zarif’s leaked interview to the press may have negative repercussions for the nuclear negotiations, especially for Russia's stance on Iran, given Zarif's assertion that Russia was not in the first place in favour of achieving the nuclear agreement and Iran's openness to the West and the US. While the past period witnessed a decline in Russia's positions regarding the return to the nuclear agreement and the end of the sanctions, reports from Vienna indicated, after the leaked interview, Iran's attempts to confirm that complete harmony exists between the Iranian and Russian positions regarding the issues at hand. This in itself indicates concern about the impact of the interview on the Russian position. However, the interview may have positive repercussions for accelerating the nuclear negotiations, at least according to plans by the Iranian government which seeks to employ the hardliners/moderates dichotomy that Zarif focused on in the interview in an attempt to intimidate the Western side regarding the consequences if matters end up in the hands of the hardliners who prioritise field strategies at the expense of diplomacy, hinting that the window of diplomacy will be closed with the end of the Rouhani government in order to push the Western and US side towards making quick concessions for the success of the nuclear agreement.
  • While the reformist and moderate movements close to the government were in a weak public position due to the street’s reluctance to vote and the government’s poor economic performance, the “field/diplomacy” dichotomy, which can be translated into the “hardliners/reformists” dichotomy, may give those movements momentum during the upcoming elections, especially that the said dichotomy provides them with justifications for the economic shortcomings. Indeed, it passes the ball into the court of the hardliners who dominate the political arena, and who stand in the way of opening up to the world, with the effect that this has on the improvement of the economic situation. During the week that has passed since the leak, reports indicate that the reformist movement has tried to focus during this period on the hardliners/reformists dichotomy as the focus of its political rhetoric on the eve of the presidential elections.
  • The explicit result of the leaked interview is assumed to be the removal of Zarif from the nominations circle, after indications of his rise within the reformist and moderate circles as the unanimous candidate versus the conservatives. Sources indicate that the interview was conducted mainly to be used in a propaganda campaign of Zarif. While his candidacy continued to be discussed even after the leak of the interview, mention of his candidacy abated and became extremely shy. Furthermore, the widespread attack that followed the leaked interview is highly likely to result in his removal from the competition on the part of the nominating centres, if he still intends to run in the first place. In this regard, it could be asserted that various quarters, not just the conservative movement, would benefit from Zarif’s disqualification as a result of the leaked interview, including the government. The conservatives, who adopt the strategy of “zero competitors” prior to the start of the election battle (within the framework of this strategy, Hassan Khomeini was excluded by Khamenei himself after reports indicated that the reformists agreed unanimously on his candidacy) attempted to use the situation to raise the possibility of excluding Zarif who constituted a danger to their candidate given his popularity on the street and the consensus over him within the reformist movements. However, there are trends in the government that take advantage of the issue to exclude Zarif who constitutes a difficult factor in the internal competition for the nomination at the expense of other candidates, including Mohsen Hashemi, the son of President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The leakage of the interview serves to a large extent the interests of the government (as well as those of the reformist movement) when it brings to the surface once again the hardliners/moderates dichotomy so that the government would benefit from it at the international level, and the reformist and moderate currents would benefit from it domestically.
  • Other implicit repercussions also exist, including the focus on the intelligence weakness that led to the leakage of an interview tape that was prepared by a government institution which asserted that it is not for publication.

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