ANALYSIS - Javad Zarif's voice recording and rising tensions in Iran
Rouhani and Zarif will pay a political price for portraying the issues raised in the audio recordings as merely an intelligence crisis rather than taking a political position
The author, who received his master’s and doctoral degrees in Iranian Studies from Leiden University, is a faculty member at Marmara University's Middle East and Islamic Countries Research Institute.
An intelligence security crisis that broke out in Iran on April 25 drew widespread attention and quickly became the topic of conversation both inside and outside the country. The Presidency Center for Strategic Studies, which is chaired by Hesamodin Ashna, one of President Hassan Rouhani’s advisors, was working on a project called “Oral History of the Government of Measure and Hope” to document Rouhani’s 11th and 12th governments’ experiences. Interviews with twenty-eight ministers and vice presidents, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, were conducted for this purpose. The atmosphere in Iran became very tense when a three-hour section of Shahid Beheshti University professor and reformist economist Dr. Saeed Laylaz’s seven-hour long interview with Zarif in March was leaked to regime opponent Iran International broadcasting from London. From the course of the speech, it is understood that the interview will be published after review and transcribed into a book. In fact, during the interview, Zarif says on several occasions, “I don’t want this to be published”.
The issue gained international traction after Iran International, which immediately ran the raw version of the conversation as an exclusive, shared it with the world’s leading media outlets, including the BBC and the New York Times. Some foreign media outlets went so far as to call the incident “Zarifgate,” comparing it to the Watergate scandal that erupted in the United States during the Nixon administration in the early 1970s. Due to the incident, Ashna resigned, an investigation was launched, and a travel ban was imposed on twenty people. The Rouhani government, which has previously failed to manage crises, displayed a similar weakness this time as well. The Rouhani’s front implicitly blamed its political opponents for the scandal, which happened just weeks before the June 18 elections. “It is not clear who selected and transferred a part of this record to the virtual environment and what their intentions are,” said Saeed Khatibzadeh, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, adding that the entire interview would be published if the relevant authorities gave their approval. However, as expected, this step was not taken.
Rouhani’s reaction to the leak was harsher. Rouhani described the incident as a “theft,” noting that it occurred at a critical juncture in Iran’s negotiations with the US in Vienna to lift sanctions when the country was “at the pinnacle of success.” He claimed that these were done to incite internal conflict and added: “How will we succeed? How will we remove the sanctions? We can accomplish this by standing united. We cannot solve problems by splitting apart and falling out with each other.”
Immediately after the incident broke out, Zarif received heavy criticism from the Conservatives. The leader of the Revolution, Ali Khamenei, also expressed his reaction in his speech on Sunday, May 2. Khamenei’s message to Zarif was moderate but clear, indicating that foreign affairs are not solely the responsibility of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs anywhere in the world: “We hear upsetting things from some officials. America has been disturbed by Iran’s influence in the region for years and Qasem Soleimani was martyred for this reason. Authorities should not make such big mistakes, and we should avoid making remarks that echo the enemy’s words about the Quds Force and the Martyr Soleimani.” Upon these statements, Zarif wrote on his social media account that Khamenei’s “benevolent statements” put an end to the issue for himself and his colleagues and apologized for the “stolen” and distorted statements. So, what exactly did Zarif say in the interview that caused such a stir?
'Secrets' that everyone knows
The points made by Zarif in the interview are not particularly noteworthy, except for the fact that they were made by such a high-ranking Iranian official. The reason for this is that, while the things Zarif says on record have been debated for years, no Iranian official, including Zarif, has ever admitted them so emphatically. Zarif claims in the interview that Russia was attempting to sabotage the nuclear deal and that then-US Secretary of State John Kerry had repeatedly informed them about impending attacks that Israel would carry out on Iranian forces in Syria. Both the United States and Russia have denied Zarif’s claims about them. In fact, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the claim “complete nonsense”.
Zarif’s claims were actually intended more for the inside rather than the outside, and his target was Soleimani. Zarif claims in the lengthy interview that he never sacrificed the battlefield for diplomacy, but that the opposite occurred, claiming that Soleimani made imposing demands every time they met to consult. Zarif also claims that Soleimani’s July 2015 visit to Moscow was made without consulting with the Foreign Ministry and was intended to derail the nuclear deal.
Another claim made by Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif is quite remarkable. Zarif claims that after the sanctions were lifted, Iran Airlines was removed from the US terror list, allowing it to purchase Boeing and Airbus planes, and that, shortly thereafter, the number of Iran Airlines planes flying to Syria from Iran was increased sixfold solely because of Soleimani’s “pressure”, without consulting with him or the Foreign Ministry. It is worth remembering at this point that many news reports at the time claimed that Iranian planes were transporting weapons and ammunition to Syria.
Although Zarif said in the interview that he had great respect for Soleimani and that it was normal to have differences of opinion, the tension between the two was not a secret. Indeed, when Soleimani brought Bashar Assad to Tehran to meet with the leader of the Revolution, Ali Khamenei, in February 2019, Zarif, who saw this as the last straw, resigned because he had not been informed of the process. Although his resignation was not accepted by President Rouhani and Zarif continued his duties, it is known that Rouhani himself was uncomfortable with the influence of the Revolutionary Guards in many areas from economy to foreign policy. Therefore, it is understandable why Conservative media outlets, especially the Revolutionary Guards, are reacting so harshly to Zarif’s statements. What is not very clear is Zarif’s confusion.
Zarif is a highly experienced diplomat and has a diplomatic career spanning the past forty-two years of the Islamic Republic of Iran. However, looking at his country from the outside due to the various positions he held for many years, including his duty at the United Nations (UN), has created a handicap in terms of his domestic policy perspective. Of course, the Iranian minister is aware that Khamenei and institutions such as the Supreme Council of National Security have the authority to determine his country’s foreign relations, and that the Revolutionary Guards are directly subordinate to Khamenei. So much so that Zarif alluded to this point during an open session of the Iranian Parliament in July 2020, saying, “Foreign policy is not an area of group disputes. Foreign policy is left to the discretion of the Supreme Authority of Revolutionary Guidance under the Constitution.” Therefore, Zarif’s efforts to blame others for his shortcomings while claiming credit for the gains of his last eight years in office would fail.
Although the majority of their complaints are justified, the performance of Iran’s reformist governments has become a problem in and of itself. Rouhani’s eight-year term is about to expire, and it is highly likely that he will be replaced by a conservative figure in the presidential elections on June 18.
In an interview with TOLO in December 2020, Zarif was asked if he would also be running for president. “No, I know my talents and I am not capable of this job,” he said. Zarif was merely putting on a show of humility, exercising what is known in Persian as “ta’arruf”. His performance as a successful diplomat during his ministry, on the other hand, reveals the limits of his competence in domestic politics. What has been going on for a few weeks now, however, foreshadows ramifications that go beyond Zarif’s career and the June elections.
What is the essence of the matter?
Similar audio record incidents occur from time to time in various countries. The greater crisis is the current Iranian system’s “don’t let it out of this room” approach to almost every major event. In every critical process in Iran, the parties accuse each other vehemently, but the core of the issue is never discussed openly. In his contribution to the Shahrvand-e Imruz magazine’s article titled “Why doesn’t dialogue bring mutual understanding?” about a year before he was sentenced to prison for his pro-Green Movement stance in 2009, Laylaz complained about the lack of a healthy dialogue between political groups in Iran, saying: “A slew of slogans are used to rouse the crowds, such as, ‘not Muslim’, ‘foreign-dependent’, ‘sympathizer of foreigners’, ‘reactionary’, ‘traitor’ and so forth.”
This is exactly the essence of the matter. Iran faces significant challenges that require a healthy environment for debating things, and the increasing securitization of the country’s politics, especially by the Revolutionary Guards, is one of them. Apart from such leaks, however, a sizable portion of the public is unaware of these discussions and does not believe the issues are adequately addressed. In their 1974 book “All the President’s Men,” Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who exposed the Watergate scandal, made an important point: the problem for the White House was the press’s way of doing things, not the president’s men.
Despite the fact that the two incidents are quite different, the main point in almost every such event in Iran is consistently missed. Rouhani and Zarif will pay a political price for portraying the issues raised in the audio recordings as merely an intelligence crisis rather than taking a political position. In one sense, this crisis can be described as “theft,” but what is being stolen is the future of Iranian politics, not an audio recording. The political landscape in Iran continues to shrink, and if I may repeat an observation I made two years ago, this may be precisely the damage the “enemy” wishes to inflict on Iran.
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