In a personal and revealing interview with Saeed Laylaz, a senior journalist-economist and adviser to former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, who supports the reform camp, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif explains, in anguish, the depth of the involvement of Qassem Soleimani, the Quds Force commander who was assassinated in Iraq in January, in Iran’s foreign policy. He stresses that as a result of this involvement and the pressure that Soleimani constantly exerted, Iran’s foreign policy (including toward Russia) always had to be “sacrificed” for the good of the “battlefield.” That is, the export of the revolution and Iran’s regional subversion.

The interview, which was recorded several months ago, was made public on Sunday after being leaked to Persian-language broadcast networks outside of Iran, and has set off a storm both at home and abroad. It unambiguously illustrates Iran’s regional order of priorities and the limited role of diplomacy in determining it. It also highlights Soleimani’s central role in all the key decision-making processes in Iran, including those leading to policy decisions on Iran’s core concerns—the nuclear issue, the ballistic missile program, political subversion and exporting the revolution. In other words, the pillars of the Islamic Republic’s hegemonic strategy. The interview also accurately reflects the longstanding rivalry in Iran’s domestic arena between, on the one hand, the IRGC and the Office of the Leader, and, on the other, the various government ministries, particularly the Foreign Ministry and the Intelligence Ministry, as well as the tense relationship between the conservative camp and the fading reform camp.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry is charged with whitewashing the effects of Iran’s subversion, terror and human rights violations and with moderating the West’s response to Iran’s malignant activity in the region in particular and in the world in general. It also turns out that the IRGC—which in fact dominates Iran’s security and economic issues—opposes the nuclear deal and keeps pursuing nuclear activity under its own aegis, while the Foreign Ministry serves as a fig leaf vis-à-vis the West and provides maneuvering room to that end. Thus, as part of the strategy of developing Iran’s nuclear program, the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s role is to create a mirage of political activity that affords time and facilitates the nuclear activity. Sometimes, as Zarif acknowledges, the Foreign Ministry had to accept dictates from Soleimani.

Why was the interview leaked now?

Zarif’s more-than-three-hour interview was leaked from within Iran to the BBC Persian channel in London and to Iran International, which broadcasts in Persian from London to Iran (and is identified with Saudi Arabia). This deliberate leak was carried out several days before the beginning of the appointed time for the registration of candidates for the Iranian presidential elections, scheduled for June 18. In recent weeks, a flurry of news items have claimed that Zarif is considering a run for president. Given his great popularity, the leak may have been aimed at destroying his professional career and preventing him from running.

An anti-Zarif cartoon: He serves as a convenient prop for Uncle Sam to target Iranian industry. Source: Twitter.

At the same time, the conservative press has been waging a defamation campaign against Zarif and portraying him as the one responsible for the failed nuclear deal, because of which the Iranian economy has been very hard hit and the situation of the Iranian people has worsened. In one of his responses regarding the upcoming elections, Zarif said the conservatives and the IRGC believe they will win the presidency and then “everything will be OK and they will solve all the problems.”

The main Iranian TV channel, IRTV2, said the leaking of the interview raises “disturbing questions,” both regarding its timing and its aims, and claimed it may have originated with foreign intelligence services that seek to undermine the regime’s stability. An IRTV2 reporter on security affairs, Ameneh Sadat Zabihpoor, called for a thorough investigation of the timing of the public airing of the dispute between Zarif and Soleimani. She said the leak could be related to attempts to create a rift as the June elections approach and thus distract the population from difficult problems and make them think—in a kind of psychological warfare—that Iran is in fact controlled by the IRGC and not by the government, thereby sowing discord.

Iranian journalist Sadat Zabihpoor. Source: Twitter.

In response, the Foreign Ministry emphasized that the interview was recorded in March 2021 to document the history of Zarif’s eight years as foreign minister and was not supposed to have been made public until the end of President Hassan Rouhani’s tenure. Although the Foreign Ministry did not explicitly accuse anyone of deliberately leaking the recording, between the lines it hinted at elements in the conservative camp.

IRGC commanders turn every issue into a “security issue”

Zarif emphasizes throughout the interview that a “minority group” (meaning the IRGC commanders and their supporters in the Office of the Leader) act in their own interests, while turning every issue into a “security issue.” This group, he says, in addition to its power to disrupt diplomatic processes, also has the potential “to create huge waves of support for itself.” All through the interview, sounding angry and aggrieved, Zarif complains that the military people (clearly referring to the IRGC commanders and not to Iran’s standing army) “assume the role of diplomacy,” and he asserts that they, in fact, have been the regime’s “diplomats” even when “there was a need to leave matters in the diplomats’ hands [i.e., the Foreign Ministry].”

Iran’s Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani (foreground) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammmad Javad Zarif. Credit: Didban-Iran.

Zarif says that he “did not necessarily agree with Soleimani about everything,” but was forced “to coordinate with him” so as to prevent him from causing greater damage on foreign policy issues. In a clear tone of helplessness, Zarif says: “Almost throughout my [eight-year] tenure as foreign minister, I was unable to tell the field commander [Soleimani] to do one thing or another because diplomacy required it.” Instead, the opposite was the case: “Almost every time I entered negotiations [with the West or other actors], it was Soleimani who would intervene and tell me to make use of one point or another.”

Zarif illustrates the problem in the context of a meeting he held with the Russian foreign minister: “He [Soleimani] came and told me to say that I want [Russia] to do one, two, three, four. That is, the real diplomatic activity I was supposed to engage in was sacrificed to promote one or another objective in Aleppo or Idlib.” For example, in a tone of supplication and sounding almost on the point of tears, Zarif says it was demanded of Soleimani and the Quds Force not to use the flights of Iran’s national airline, Iran Air, for operational purposes in the war in Syria, but Soleimani refused.

“To my great surprise, John Kerry informed me of Israeli attacks in Syria”

According to Zarif, then-Secretary of State John Kerry (whom he met with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s prior approval) told him in June 2016, after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action had been agreed on, that “we [the U.S.] have canceled the embargo on Iranian flights, but do you know that the number of your flights from Iran to Syria has grown six times?” Zarif continues: “Of course I did not know about that, but I asked Soleimani and he did not agree [to reduce the flights and did not agree to stop using the flights to support the war in Syria].”

According to Zarif, even the president and the minister of civilian aviation were unaware of Soleimani’s and the Quds Force’s use of the Iranian airline for operational purposes in Syria. The Iranian foreign minister also reveals that, “to our great surprise,” Kerry informed him of “at least 200 cases of Israeli attacks on IRGC targets in Syria. I as foreign minister did not know anything about this.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as he arrives at a hotel in Vienna, Austria, on July 14, 2014, for a day of meetings about Iran’s nuclear program. Credit: U.S. State Department.

The IRGC acted against the implementation of the JCPOA

Zarif says that from the time the nuclear deal was reached in June 2015 until the beginning of its implementation in December that year, IRGC commanders did all they could to derail the agreement. He refers, among other things, to the attacks (“betrayal”) by the IRGC’s Basij force on the Saudi embassy in Tehran, which prompted a severing of ties between Tehran and Riyadh, and to Soleimani’s visit to Moscow for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as two major steps taken by the conservatives to undermine the deal.

Zarif discloses that the IRGC tried to thwart the 2015 nuclear deal and that Russia tried its best to prevent its signing, and in fact didn’t believe the agreement would be signed. In this regard, he added that “Russia could strike Syria from the Mediterranean Sea … but they chose to use Iranian airspace? All of this was because they intended to  foil the JCPOA.”

Zarif notes that Soleimani’s trip to Moscow was carried out without supervision or coordination with the Foreign Ministry. Instead, it was done in accordance with “Russia’s desire,” in order to “destroy the achievement of the Iranian Foreign Ministry.” He says that “Mr. Putin entered the meeting with me having decided in advance to intervene in the war in Syria … and dragged Iranian forces into the arena.” The IRGC has claimed that it was Soleimani who convinced Putin, in a meeting that lasted two and a half hours, that Russia should intervene militarily in Syria.

Fars News, affiliated with the IRGC, accused Zarif, under the headline: “The Desk Jockeys’ False Narrative regarding the Man of Jihad and Resistance,” of downplaying Soleimani’s “achievement” in bringing Russia into the Syrian civil war, and maintained he was jealous of Soleimani’s popularity among the people. Fars also said that Soleimani was even able to convince former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani (Zarif’s spiritual father) and Rouhani’s government that Iran’s support for the regime in Syria would best serve the interests of the region and Iran.

Denying Iran’s involvement in the downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752

In a different part of the interview, Zarif refers extensively to the scandalous issue of the June 8, 2020 downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 over Tehran. The plane was shot down by a missile on the same day that, in response to Soleimani’s assassination, the IRGC launched a missile attack on the headquarters of U.S. forces in Iraq.

“At a time when the whole world already knew that the plane with its 176 passengers was hit by a missile [of the IRGC], I went and asked the Supreme National Security Council if it was really a missile of ours that hit the plane,” requesting that they “tell me the truth so we could ‘heal’ the wounds in some way.” But “they answered me: ‘No’ [we did not down the plane], and added, ‘Go ahead, deny [Iran’s involvement] in a tweet,’ while they themselves had already known at least the day after the event, or, in my opinion, already several hours after the downing of the plane, that the missile was fired by an air-defense battery,” says Zarif.

When the interviewer insistently asks the foreign minister who was present at the meeting of the Supreme National Security Council, Zarif responds: “No more than four or five people, including the secretary-general of the Supreme National Security Council [General Ali Shamkhani], the chief of staff [Mohammad Hossein Bakri], and another two or three.”

Zarif further commented that “the U.S. received the information on the missile attack against the Ein al-Asad base [in Iraq] in retaliation for the killing of Soleimani earlier than I did. That night, two Quds Force members went to the office of the Iraqi prime minister, about 45 minutes before the attack began, and told him that soon there would be a strike on an American base in Iraq, but I found out about it in the news.”

Tense Relations with President Ahmadinejad

The Iranian foreign minister also recounted that when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office as president, he had received an order from the new president’s office to resign from his post as Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations. Khamenei, however, prevented that from happening, and he remained two more years in the position until he had had enough and demanded not to serve under the Ahmadinejad government.

Regarding Ahmadinejad’s first trip as president to make a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Zarif says that immediately after he received Ahmadinejad at the airport, he informed the president of his timetable in New York. Ahmadinejad then said he “wanted to be present at a meeting I was to hold with American senators, but I told him that as president he could not do so until he requested the agreement of the Leader, Khamenei, in advance.”

Zarif claims that Ahmadinejad merely made use of the slogan “Death to America” on behalf of his own interests, whereas he wanted very much to forge ties with the Americans. In another part of the interview, Zarif notes that when, as a result of Ahmadinejad’s policy, the first U.N. resolution on sanctioning the sale of Iranian oil was passed, “the world reached the conclusion that it did not really need Iranian oil,” and that that situation has continued to the present.

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

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