Foreign minister’s private comments on power struggles within the Iranian establishment ignite controversy.
Tehran, Iran – Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has warned against division sown by the country’s “enemies” after leaked audio revealed his top diplomat discussing internal power struggles, stirring up a political storm in the country.
More than three hours of what is said to be a seven-hour tape of foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaking about a variety of issues was released earlier this week by Iran International, a London-based Farsi-language media network funded by Saudi Arabia.
The president said during a televised cabinet meeting on Wednesday that the classified tape, part of an oral history project aimed at documenting his administration’s work, was “stolen” by elements that the intelligence ministry has been tasked with finding.
“It was leaked exactly when Vienna is at the height of its success,” Rouhani said in reference to ongoing talks in the Austrian capital to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers that the United States abandoned in 2018.
“They want to create division inside the country. How can we succeed? How can we lift the sanctions? With unity and integrity.”
A JCPOA Joint Commission meeting was held between Iran, China, Russia, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom on Tuesday, where representatives agreed to accelerate efforts aimed at lifting US sanctions and curbing Iran’s nuclear programme in compliance with the deal.
In the audiotape, among other things the diplomat talks about how at times diplomacy had to be “sacrificed” for what he refers to as “the field” – military operations and politics driven by the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and specifically its outward-looking Quds Force that was led by Qassem Soleimani until his assassination by the US in January 2020.
Zarif also explained how Russia was against the JCPOA as it did not benefit from Iran normalising ties with the West, and how Russian President Vladimir Putin convinced Soleimani to increase Iranian ground presence in the civil war in Syria and flights to the country.
The foreign minister’s comment that he first heard from his then-counterpart John Kerry that Israel had conducted 200 air attacks against Iranian interests in Syria created a political storm in the US, with many Republicans calling for Kerry’s resignation for divulging sensitive information.
Under pressure from conservatives, Zarif said on Wednesday he favours a “smart adjustment” between the military and diplomacy, in his first public reaction to the leaked tape.
Zarif posted a video earlier this week of him visiting the place where Soleimani was assassinated in Baghdad, and wrote that his comments were meant to be part of a “confidential theoretical discussion around the necessity of diplomacy and the field strengthening each other”.
Praising Soleimani for his character and trying to establish peace in Afghanistan and Iraq, in addition to fighting the ISIL (ISIS) armed group, Zarif said his comments must not be construed as personal criticism of the late general.
President Rouhani also said on Wednesday that “the field” and diplomacy go hand in hand, that Soleimani was a diplomat in addition to being a fighter, and that some of the things Zarif said were personal opinions, not his administration’s official stance.
Iran’s security chief Ali Shamkhani tweeted on Tuesday that “there is no duality” in implementing policies in the field and in diplomacy as they all stem from “definite principles of the Islamic Revolution” that birthed the current theocratic establishment in 1979.
Meanwhile, hardline opponents of the government have harshly criticised Zarif and underlined the administration’s failure to keep the tape secure.
Parliament Speaker Mohamad Bagher Ghalibaf tweeted a picture of Soleimani among fighters who were taking selfies with him, suggesting some are trying to use him “to achieve their political goals”.
Parliament’s national security commission has invited Zarif to explain his comments and has said it aims to find out who leaked the tape.
Hardline newspaper Vatan-e-Emruz dedicated its entire front page on Tuesday to the issue, writing “Wretched” on a half-blacked-out image of Zarif.
Ultraconservative Keyhan wrote that, in an attempt to save itself, the “pro-West” Rouhani administration “forced [Zarif] to commit suicide”.