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Leaked Zarif Interview Highlights Lack of Gov’t Mandate with Vienna Talks Resuming

UK-based Iran International, a Persian-language news channel, revealed on Sunday a leaked interview of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The three-hour interview, apparently created as an archival project intended to document the current Iranian administration, included a string of surprisingly blunt sayings about the dominance of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Iranian foreign policy, compared to the Foreign Ministry’s relative impotence.

According to Iran International and The New York Times (who also had access to the recording), the minister said that the final word on matters of policy belonged to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, or in many cases, to the IRGC. Zarif reportedly claimed he had no influence on deciding the country’s foreign policy.

He also spoke relatively freely of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, who is hero-worshipped in Iran, saying that he couldn’t turn to him to further diplomatic moves, while the general demanded he harm Iranian diplomatic interests for the sake of military policies. He also blamed Soleimani for trying to sabotage the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal between Iran and the major world powers, before its signing in 2015, by cooperating with Russia. Moscow, he said, opposed the agreement. Soleimani, the former head of the IRGC’s Quds force, was killed in a US airstrike in January 2020.

Dr. Raz Zimmt, an Iran specialist at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, explains that there is nothing new or surprising in Zarif’s words. “What is exceptional about this interview, of course, is the strength” with which Zarif expresses himself, Zimmt told The Media Line. The directness with which the minister exposes the IRGC’s dominance differentiates this leaked recording from past statements by Zarif and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in which they expressed thickly veiled criticism.

The entire political system in Iran is characterized by a multiplicity of authorities in every field, Zimmt explains, and foreign affairs is no different. A long list of Iranian bodies contribute to the formation of Tehran’s international policy, and “the bottom line is that the Foreign Ministry, like all other governmental offices, doesn’t create policy, it doesn’t decide – it executes [decisions],” he says.

“Going back to 1979 and onward, no Iranian foreign minister has been able to singlehandedly or greatly shape the foreign policy of the country,” Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran program at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, told The Media Line.

Iran’s ruling apparatus comprises elected bodies, such as the Majlis (Iran’s parliament) the presidency, and entities ultimately controlled by the supreme leader, who isn’t elected by the Iranian populace. The unelected bodies hold great power over the elected ones. For example, the Guardian Council decides on the qualification of presidential candidates and can rule out those it deems unworthy. Half of the council’s members are nominated directly by the supreme leader, and the other half by the head of Iran’s judicial system, who himself is nominated by the supreme leader.

The body responsible for formulating the country’s foreign policy is called the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC). The council has 13 members and includes representatives of both the republic’s elected and unelected bodies. The council’s decisions are based on a consensus reached between its members. But “the final word belongs to the supreme leader, always,” says Zimmt.

All this is especially true for issues of strategic importance. The Foreign Ministry’s influence and authority in areas less central – such as, for example, Iran’s policy in Africa – are likely much greater, says the expert. In a vital subject such as Iran’s negotiations surrounding the JCPOA, the Foreign Ministry has always been subject to the SNSC’s decisions, which themselves depend on the approval of the supreme leader.

Zimmt’s points out that since the 1990s, the power of the IRGC has grown and it is now the strongest governmental entity in the country. This, he says, contributes to growing criticism from elected politicians like Zarif, “especially from the more moderate, pragmatic side of the Iranian political arena,” criticism that reflects a feeling that “the Revolutionary Guards have too much power.”

However, Zarif’s words can be understood with another factor in mind. The current administration will step down this summer and the foreign minister may be looking to his lasting heritage in this interview. “At the end of the day,” Zimmt says, “the Rouhani administration’s most significant achievement in the last eight years was the nuclear deal, and following former US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement, the widely held view at present is that … Iran’s conciliatory policy failed to lead to the desired results.” Zarif’s claims that Soleimani tried to sabotage the JCPOA, and other statements asserting that the minister’s hands were tied, are attempts to minimize his responsibility for what is considered a failure, the Israeli expert suggests.

Vatanka says the most significant aspect of the interview is not what was said but when the recording was leaked. “What is really interesting … about this revelation, this leaked audio,” he says, “is the timing.” The Washington-based expert points to the coming elections and suggests three possible motives that could be behind the public exposure of the interview. Zarif is considered to be in the Iranian reform camp, which is more moderate and supportive of nurturing friendly relations with the West. Zarif hasn’t put himself forward as the camp’s candidate for the presidential elections in June, but Vatanka says the interview may have been leaked “by the hard-line camp, by people who don’t want to see Zarif even consider running for the presidency.”

On the other hand, supporters of the minister and the reform camp could themselves be behind this, looking “to use this audiotape to show Zarif as an independent actor,” Vatanka suggests. By showing that Zarif opposes someone like Soleimani and his policies, his supporters are hoping to mark him as a candidate of hope for the Iranians looking for a champion of moderation and reform. If the minister sees that his words are accepted with wide support in the country, he may consider running, and the Iranian population craving change will help put him in charge.

A third possible actor behind the leaked audio, Vatanka suggests, is “the regime as a whole, with the intention of giving the impression that there is this fight inside the regime for the soul of the revolution, if you will, that this is engineered to mobilize Iranian voters because right now all the indicators show Iranians don’t believe in participating in elections.” The expert says that according to current estimates, the turnout in the coming elections is expected to be embarrassingly low – a major cause for concern within the regime, which knows that this will reflect on its legitimacy.

“One thing is for sure,” he says, “this was clearly leaked with a bigger political objective in mind.” However, Vatanka suspects that this revelation will not be able to create true support for Zarif as a popular presidential candidate of the reform camp, nor will it change the Iranian population’s cynicism or apathy toward the elections.

The tape is exposed as talks in Vienna between Iran and the JCPOA’s other sides are entering their third round, in an attempt to bring both the Islamic Republic and the US back into compliance with the agreement. Until now, despite statements by Tehran and Washington that they wish to revive the nuclear deal, both countries remain in violation of its stipulations. Iran has progressed in its nuclear program wildly beyond its limits, while American economic sanctions on Tehran remain in place since then-US President Donald Trump reinstated them in 2018.

It remains to be seen whether the minister’s attempt at shifting responsibility will succeed, but other implications – such as damaging the Vienna talks – are not expected, both experts believe. “Everyone that negotiates with the Iranians knows that it is the Iranian [supreme] leader and the SNSC that make the final decision.”