In a leaked audiotape that offers a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes power struggles of Iranian leaders, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the Revolutionary Guards Corps call the shots, overruling many government decisions and ignoring advice.
In one extraordinary moment on the tape that surfaced Sunday, Mr. Zarif departed from the reverential official line on Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Guards’ elite Quds Force, the foreign-facing arm of Iran’s security apparatus, who was killed by the United States in January 2020.
What’s the entire interview with Mr. Zarif is all about?
The general, Mr. Zarif said, undermined him at many steps, working with Russia to sabotage the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers and adopting policies toward Syria’s long war that damaged Iran’s interests.
“In the Islamic Republic the military field rules,” Mr. Zarif said in a three-hour taped conversation that was a part of an oral history project documenting the work of the current administration. “I have sacrificed diplomacy for the military field rather than the field servicing diplomacy.”
The audio was leaked at a critical moment for Iran, as the country is discussing the framework for a possible return to a nuclear deal with the United States and other Western powers. Talks through intermediaries have been taking place in Vienna.
It is unclear what effect, if any, the revelations will have on those talks, or on Mr. Zarif’s position.
The recording, of a conversation in March between Mr. Zarif and an economist named Saeed Leylaz, an ally, was not meant for publication, as the foreign minister can repeatedly be heard saying on the audio. A copy was leaked to the London-based Persian news channel Iran International, which first reported on the recording and shared it with The New York Times.
On it, Mr. Zarif confirms what many have long suspected: that his role as the representative of the Islamic Republic on the world stage is severely constricted. Decisions, he said, are dictated by the supreme leader or, frequently, the Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Iran’s foreign ministry did not dispute the authenticity of the recording but questioned the motive for the leak. Saeed Khatibzadeh, a spokesman for the ministry, called it “unethical politics” and said the portion of the audio released did not represent the full scope of Mr. Zarif’s comments about his respect and love for General Suleimani.
In the portions that were leaked, Mr. Zarif does praise the general and says they worked productively together in the prelude to the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. He also says that by assassinating him in Iraq, the United States delivered a major blow to Iran, more damaging than if it had wiped out an entire city in an attack.
But he said some of Mr. Suleimani’s actions also damaged the country, citing, as one example, his moves against the nuclear deal Iran reached in 2015 with Western nations, the United States among them (the Trump administration later renounced it).
Mr. Zarif said Russia did not want the agreement to succeed and “put all its weight” behind creating obstacles because it was not in Moscow’s interests for Iran to normalize relations with the West. To that end, Mr. Zarif said, General Suleimani traveled to Russia to “demolish our achievement,” meaning the nuclear deal.
Mr. Zarif took issue with General Suleimani on other fronts, criticizing him for allowing Russian warplanes to fly over Iran to bomb Syria and for moving military equipment and personnel to Syria on the state-owned Iran Air airline without the knowledge of the government and deploying Iranian ground forces to Syria.
By Sunday night, Mr. Zarif’s critics were calling for his resignation, saying he had threatened Iran’s national security by revealing to the world the country’s inner politics. Even his supporters expressed concern that the comments could influence the presidential elections in late June and harm candidates from the reform faction, which Mr. Zarif is associated with, by reinforcing voter apathy and the idea that elected officials are not really in charge.
The leak follows a series of security breaches within Iran’s intelligence and government circles that have been implicated in two assassinations and two explosions at the Natanz nuclear site. A former vice president, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, said that the publication of Mr. Zarif’s audio was “tantamount to Israel stealing the nuclear documents” from Iran.