The leak of the three hours interview of Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif with the economist and the Iranian Presidential advisor Saeed Laylaz has raised a storm in Iran and abroad. The domestic reaction to the talk between the two men – which happened last March and was supposed to remain in an archive at the Foreign Ministry – embarrassed both Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani, who ordered an immediate inquiry. Does the audio leak help or hurt Foreign Minister Mohamad Jawad Zarif and Sheikh Rouhani’s government? Did the leak occur in the President’s office or at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs while the Foreign Minister was on tour outside the country, in Qatar and Iraq? The leak is certainly revealing and worth diving into some of its essential details.
Nothing is a coincidence in Iran, and every move is well thought out. One thing is sure; it totally concerns the failure of the nuclear deal, known as the “JCPOA” (Joint Comprehensive Plan of action), signed by President Barack Obama in 2015 and unilaterally revoked by the Trump administration in 2018. It is also about Zarif’s popularity and achievement or lack of accomplishment while in power. Was the Iranian Foreign Minister looking out for his interests, those of the political line (pragmatists) he belongs to or for those of Iran?
The objective was to justify the failure of the current government of President Rouhani, so Zarif chose to target Brigadier General Qassem Soleimani, who guided a “government in the field” (a parallel government to the one led by President Rouhani). Significantly, the Iranian Foreign Minister chose not to blame Donald Trump’s administration, who revoked the nuclear deal. However, in contrast to what was said in the leak, Zarif repeated that he “met with Soleimani weekly to coordinate”.
In the whole of his leaked conversation, the Iranian Foreign Minister was focused on the nuclear deal and expressed concern about his “popularity being downgraded from 85% to 60% and how Soleimani had surpassed Zarif’s popularity, moving from 70% to 90%.” That means the Iranian people supported what Soleimani was achieving in the field, notwithstanding Zarif’s criticisms. Zarif said that he was “following University of Maryland statistics” and gave the impression of being concerned with this undeclared competition with Soleimani.
The Iranian Foreign Minister said: “People voted for this President and government (approved by the Parliament)”. However, the Iranian Minister was not coherent, and unable to explain how most Iranians support Soleimani’s acts more than his. Rouhani’s government was unable to register any achievement during his mandate. Iranian diplomacy failed to break the isolation around Iran. And Iran’s rising influence in the Middle East was due to military interventions orchestrated by the IRGC, who empowered Middle Eastern allies and allowed Iran to become a regional power.
Zarif claimed to have little insight into the events in Syria, the attack against the US base at Ayn al-Assad, and the downing of the Ukrainian plane. He complained that he was the last person to be informed of matters of state because the “field decided”. But the Iranian Foreign Minister downplays the fact that the failure of the JCPOA was due to his misjudgement of the west’s lack of commitment. Zarif believed in the JCPOA and signed a deal based on soft ground, which of course, quickly crumbled. When President Barack Obama signed the agreement, he gave Iran some of its frozen assets and nothing more that Zarif could capitalise as his achievement. The deal was hobbling along until Trump’s arrival at the White House finally shredded it.
“The nuclear deal was the consequence of the revolution and the sacrifices of the tens of thousands of martyrs. It doesn’t belong to Minister Zarif. Since when the field’s successes are sacrificed for the success of diplomacy only to satisfy the Foreign Ministry? Diplomacy is a tool, not a goal, and Minister Zarif seems to have missed this point. Intelligent diplomacy benefits from success in the field first before the negotiation. Only due to Iran and its allies’ gains in the field, and the achievements of Qassem Soleimani, the US and its European and Arab partners want to discuss with Iran its influence in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen,” commented a decision-maker in Tehran.
The interview indicates how frustrated the Foreign Minister was and how, for him, the nuclear deal, seen as his accomplishment, was of paramount importance. Indeed, when the nuclear agreement was concluded, Zarif was received in Iran like a hero, and a statue was cast in honour of his skilful negotiation. Was it an accomplishment of the pragmatists over the hardliners? Not at all. Sayyed Ali Khamenei was President between 1981 and 1989 and understood how a state functions. When Rouhani was elected, Sayyed Khamenei allowed his foreign ministry to negotiate with the Americans. When the US revoked the deal, Sayyed Khamenei repeated to Zarif what he said before the negotiation that the west’s commitments were unreliable. The Iranian Foreign Minister believed he could rely on the Europeans to hold on to the deal and fill up the gap. Sayyed Khamenei allowed Zarif to try but reiterated that the Europeans are deceitful, like the Americans. Never did the Iranian Foreign Minister imagine the west could betray him. Zarif always tries to behave like a decision-maker, in many circumstances. For example, before the latest Vienna talks, he said that Iran would meet every US positive step with a similar one. Sayyed Khamenei was adamant about the policy that should be adopted: no simultaneous small steps were allowed in Vienna. Either
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all sanctions were to be lifted or no deal. Zarif was put back in his place and was told his negotiating skills were no longer needed for improvisation because he has a guideline to follow with no amendments allowed.
Let’s suppose the goal of leaking the interview was to discredit Zarif and remove him from the circle of trusted decision-makers. From what Zarif said about his lack of insights, he was already not included in that circle. For example, until the day of the interview, Zarif – who said in the leaked audio that Iran sent troops to Syria in 2015 – seems to ignore the fact that Iran was present in Syria since the 1990s and never had troops but only military advisors, and that the number fluctuated between 100 and 150. Moreover, the IRGC brigadier general Qassem Soleimani was the one who convinced President Vladimir Putin about the necessity to join the war in Syria, offering Iranian allies’ troops to capitalise on the Russian Air Force conquests. Russia did not send troops to Syria in the first years but only a small force to protect its air and naval bases.
Moreover, Russia did not intend to liberate all of Syria when it jumped into the war but wanted to make small and quick conquests to stop the war and conclude a deal with the US. The US rejection of any agreement with Russia pushed its forces to coordinate with Iran and its allies to continue the fight. The Syrian arena was very dynamic and fast-changing. Zarif’s ignorance of the course of events in Syria is surprising. This also confirms his reduced access to information.
Zarif has always spoken with Sayyed Ali Khamenei about his opinion of matters related to the west, mainly the relationship with Europe and the US. He would have succeeded in introducing profound changes in Iran had Trump and Pompeo not powerfully – and foolishly, from their point of view – contributed to weakening Zarif and Rouhani and the pragmatists. The success of Zarif in the JCPOA would have brought the pragmatist majority to the Parliament and the Presidency in 2021 with no problem.
Moreover, on multiple occasions, Rouhani and Zarif wanted to reduce the financial support to Iran’s allies. Sayyed Khamenei and Soleimani blocked these reductions. Furthermore, Zarif had no information about what the IRGC was doing in Syria and Iraq. The Foreign Ministry was not informed of tactical details (which are very important) but only of the bigger picture.
Perhaps the IRGC had a point: an Iranian political commentator appeared on an IRGC-affiliated state TV channel and accused someone in Rouhani’s government (Jawad Zarif) of inspiring the US to assassinate General Qassem Soleimani. This insinuates that Zarif may have been involuntarily delivering too much information to the Americans: “if the suggestion that Soleimani was the obstacle to Iran-US relation were conveyed to the Americans through Zarif, it would have been the most extraordinary invitation to assassination.”
The Quds-Brigade commander was indeed a decision-maker on the ground, capable of supplying his allies within hours with all their needs and adjusting Iran’s military capability in just a few phone calls. This is why it is agreed that, by assassinating Soleimani, Iran was struck very hard.
Zarif seemed to have severely damaged Iranian national security and was not careful about what his friend and counterpart, John Kerry, revealed. Domestically, the Foreign Minister told the world about how the domestic Iranian airline Iran Air was used by the IRGC, running six flights a day for military reasons. He also said that Kerry passed on this information, exposing the US Secretary of State who revealed classified information to a non-friendly country and Foreign Minister. Also, Zarif revealed that Israel bombed 200 Iranian targets in Syria when Tehran never acknowledged any direct hit to its positions. These revelations don’t show the professionalism expected from an Iranian Minister, putting Iran’s national security at risk and exposing his US counterpart John Kerry to questioning back home. Zarif committed another mistake, saying that “security personnel control the Foreign Ministry”, confirming, as an example, the US claim that the Iranian ambassador to Yemen Hasan Irlu is an IRGC officer.
Iran was in an undeclared war with the US, Israel and its Arab neighbours, that Soleimani was handling. Soleimani was confronting these challenges, without counting the long list of complicated relationships with Iran’s allies, mainly in Iraq, and the sensitive situation in Syria with Russia. Thus, it is believed that there was no time for anyone in the Islamic Republic to look after Zarif’s authorities.
Some members of the Iranian Parliament are said to be thinking of calling for an emergency session, invoking Article 234 to impeach the Minister of Foreign Affairs Jawad Zarif for revealing information related to national security. However, sources in Tehran say this is unlikely to happen because the government has only a few weeks left in power.
Sayyed Ali Khamenei set the bar high: nothing will be accepted, but the 2015 JCPOA without amendments and its implementation must be confirmed. That means if the deal is signed sometime in the coming month of May, Iran needs several months to ensure the US is lifting all sanctions and the frozen Iranian monies are back. Therefore, this will not count as a victory for the pragmatists in the forthcoming Presidential elections this summer because Rouhani’s government is expected to step down before.
Mr Zarif wanted listeners to believe that the IRGC aimed to sabotage the JCPOA that started at the time of President Ahmadinejad in power. However, the 2015 signatory and the 2021 Vienna talks would never have happened without the consensus of Sayyed Khamenei. Lifting the sanctions is a national strategic request. Iran is happy to bargain the return of its frozen wealth and lift all sanctions in exchange for a nuclear bomb it doesn’t want to build in the first place.