WASHINGTON – The bomb leak of an audio recording with the Iranian Foreign Minister exposed bitter internal divisions in Iran and threatens to complicate delicate negotiations between Tehran and the United States to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.
The leaked interview with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in which he complained about being undercut by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, sparked a firestorm in Iran this week and dominated reporting.
The leak sparked a debate in Iran over the nuclear deal as rival factions prepare for a June presidential election. And it also had ripples in Washington when Republican opponents of nuclear diplomacy with Iran took up Zarif’s report on his talks with former Secretary of State John Kerry.
The intense fighting in Iran represents a potential wild card for the nuclear talks currently underway in Vienna between Iran and the world powers, and it is not clear whether the Iranian negotiators will have sufficient political leeway to reach a deal with the upcoming elections June 18 to work out.
In contrast to the previous negotiations that led to the agreement between Iran and the world powers in 2015, President Hassan Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Zarif have far less political leeway this time due to the machinations before the elections, said Ilan Goldenberg, Senior Fellow at the Center for One New American Security Think Tank.
“The political competition for the Iranian elections makes it really difficult to reach this agreement,” said Goldenberg, who was the senior official responsible for Middle East policy in the Obama administration. “That’s the thing that could kill these negotiations.”
Rival factions argue over how far to compromise with the West and argue over who will get the loan if the United States agrees to lift economic sanctions that have severely damaged the Iranian economy, experts said.
The recording, which was supposed to be part of an oral history project to be released in the coming years, was made in March, according to Iranian media. In it, Zarif said the persistent Revolutionary Guard Corps and the country’s security apparatus are effectively ruling the country, ignoring advice from the government and the Foreign Ministry.
In blunt language, Zarif even dared to criticize the revered General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, who was killed in a US drone attack last year. The regime portrays Soleimani as a hero and a martyr, but Zarif accused him of trying, at Russia’s request, to undermine the 2015 nuclear deal and drag Iran into the Syrian conflict.
But Zarif also praised Soleimani in the interview and called him a martyr. He shared how the two had worked together constructively, met regularly, and became friends before the US invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In the recording, Zarif describes his interview as confidential and says that it will not be published for “years”. He also says that some of his comments will never be published.
The head of the office overseeing the oral history project has resigned today, Iranian media reported.
Zarif’s comments raise questions about his government’s authority to negotiate with world powers, given the constraints faced by the Iranian regime. He shared how his diplomatic efforts were often marginalized by the heavy hand of the Revolutionary Guard and that he had recently been “rebuked” by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for describing Iran’s stance in the nuclear negotiations.
Conservative newspapers condemned Zarif for his comments and critics called for his resignation. Some Iranian newspapers speculated that stubborn skeptics of engagement with the West leaked the record to undermine the nuclear talks overseen by Zarif, who was named as a possible presidential candidate.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed Outrage that someone leaked the confidential interview and said it was an attempt to undercut the nuclear talks at a crucial stage.
“It was just released when Vienna was on its way to success to create conflict in the country,” said Rouhani.
The inclusion has also played a role in Washington’s polarized policy towards Iran. Republican opponents of the nuclear deal, citing Zarif’s report of talks with former Secretary of State John Kerry, accused Kerry of betraying the interests of the United States and America’s ally Israel and called for his resignation as President Joe Biden’s climate envoy.
According to Zarif’s leaked comments, Kerry told him that Israel had attacked Iranian targets in Syria at least 200 times, which Zarif claims the Iranian security forces never bothered to tell him.
“Kerry must tell me that Israel attacked you 200 times in Syria?” Said Zarif in the recording.
Kerry vehemently denied Zarif’s account.
“I can tell you that this story and these allegations are clearly false. This never happened – either when I was Secretary of State or since,” Kerry tweeted.
Kerry was Secretary of State from February 2013 to January 2017. Zarif does not say or imply when the exchange with Kerry he describes would have taken place.
“If he did this with the intention of undermining the current President of the United States, President Trump and the members of that body must resign,” said Alaskan Republican Senator Dan Sullivan in a speech in the Senate Floor.
Israel’s military strikes in Syria are no secret. Israeli officials aiming to send a message to Iran have often leaked information to reporters about strikes against Iranian or Iranian-backed proxies in Syria, and news reports have described Israel’s numerous military attacks in Syria.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in July 2017 was Caught on microphone to tell world leaders that Israel launched “dozens of” attacks on arms transfers in Syria destined for the Lebanese Hezbollah militia. Israeli secret service minister Israel Katz said In September 2018, the military had carried out more than 200 strikes in Syria in two years.
State Department spokesman Ned Price did not say whether Kerry directed the reported comments to Zarif, but suggested that it was not a breach of secrecy.
“I just want to point out that this was certainly no secret if you look at the press reports from that time,” Price told reporters. “And the governments involved have spoken about it publicly in the file.”
Apart from the consequences of the leak, the nuclear negotiations took place against the background of confrontations at sea between ships of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and US ships and a cyber attack on a key underground nuclear site in Iran that Tehran had accused Israel of.
In the two tense encounters this month in the Persian Gulf, Iranian speedboats – as well as one larger ship – came dangerously close to US Navy and Coast Guard vessels, according to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet. In the second incident on Monday, a US Navy patrol ship had to fire warning shots to avoid a possible collision with the Iranian boats, which had ignored repeated radio calls to withdraw.
Earlier this month, Iranian officials said an attack on a key underground uranium enrichment facility at Natanz damaged or destroyed centrifuges and accused Israel of “nuclear terrorism”. Israeli media reported that the sabotage was caused by a cyber attack by the country’s Mossad intelligence service.
The Revolutionary Guard Corps has been shown to have carried out provocative actions when Zarif and other officials were engaged in diplomatic dialogue with the West. During and after talks leading to the 2015 deal, the persistent Revolutionary Guard arrested and detained Iranian Americans in 2014 and 2015 and captured American sailors on patrol boats after straying into Iranian waters in 2016.
The Revolutionary Guard’s seizure of US sailors should “ruin the nuclear deal,” Zarif said on the leaked record.
Speaking publicly about the leak for the first time on Wednesday, Zarif said his remarks should be an honest, confidential assessment of how the relationship between the Revolutionary Guard and the State Department can be improved.
“I am very sorry that a secret theoretical discussion about the need for increased cooperation between diplomacy and the field (the Revolutionary Guard) – so that the next officials can draw on the valuable experience of the past eight years – turned into an internal conflict,” Zarif wrote in a post on Instagram.
His post showed a video of him visiting a memorial to General Soleimani in Baghdad.
The 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia, the EU, and the United States lifted economic sanctions against Tehran in exchange for tight restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the deal in 2018, re-imposed sanctions and introduced a series of new sanctions as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.
After the US withdrawal, Iran said it was no longer obliged to comply with the agreement and had violated uranium enrichment restrictions and restricted access to international inspectors.
The Biden administration has stated that the United States would be ready to revert to the deal if Iran returned to the agreement’s limits for its nuclear activities.