WASHINGTON – Bomb leak of audio recording with Iranian foreign minister exposed bitter internal divisions in Iran, threatening to complicate ongoing delicate negotiations between Tehran and the United States to revive the deal nuclear 2015.
The leaked interview with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in which he complains of being undermined by the radical Iranian Revolutionary Guard corps, sparked a firestorm and dominated media coverage this week in Iran.
The leak has ignited a raging debate in Iran over the nuclear deal as rival factions prepare for a presidential election in June. And it had ripple effects in Washington as well, with Republican opponents of nuclear diplomacy with Iran picking up on Zarif’s account of his conversations with former Secretary of State John Kerry.
The intense fighting in Iran is a potential wildcard in the ongoing nuclear talks in Vienna between Iran and world powers, and it is not clear whether Iranian negotiators will have sufficient political leeway to strike a deal. with the elections approaching June 18. .
Unlike previous negotiations that led to the 2015 accord between Iran and the world powers, the pre-election machinations mean that President Hassan Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Zarif have much less political space to maneuver this this time, said Ilan Goldenberg, senior researcher at the Center. for a New American Security think tank.
“The political competition around the Iranian elections is starting to make it really difficult to get this deal done,” said Goldenberg, who was a senior Middle East policy official in the Obama administration. “This is what could kill these negotiations.”
Rival factions are arguing over how far to compromise with the West and also wonder who will get the credit if and when the United States agrees to lift economic sanctions that have severely damaged Iran’s economy, said officials. experts.
The recording, which was supposed to be part of an oral history project to be released in the future, was recorded in March, according to Iranian media. In it, Zarif said that the Revolutionary Guard Corps and the country’s security apparatus effectively rule the country and ignore the advice of the government and the Foreign Ministry.
In blunt language, Zarif even dared to criticize the revered General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, who was killed in a US drone strike last year. The regime portrays Soleimani as a heroic figure and a martyr, but Zarif accused him of trying to undermine the 2015 nuclear deal and drag Iran into the Syrian conflict at Russia’s behest.
But Zarif also praised Soleimani in the interview, calling him a martyr, recounting how the two cooperated constructively before the US invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq, met regularly and became friends.
In the recording, Zarif calls his interview confidential and says it won’t be released for “years.” He also says some of his comments will never be published.
The head of the office responsible for the oral history project resigned today, Iranian media reported.
Zarif’s comments raised questions about his government’s authority to negotiate with world powers, given the constraints he faces within the Iranian regime. He recounted how his diplomatic efforts were often marginalized by the heavy hand of the Revolutionary Guards and that he was recently “rebuked” by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for the way he described the position of Iran in the nuclear negotiations.
Conservative newspapers condemned Zarif for his comments and critics called for his resignation. Some Iranian newspapers have speculated that diehard skeptics of engagement with the West leaked the recording to undermine nuclear talks overseen by Zarif, who has been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said he was outraged that someone leaked the confidential interview and said it was an attempt to undermine nuclear talks at a crucial stage.
“It was released just as Vienna was on the road to success, to create conflict in the country,” Rouhani said.
The recording also played into Washington’s polarized policy on Iran. Republican opponents of the nuclear deal, citing Zarif’s account of conversations with former Secretary of State John Kerry, accused Kerry of betraying US interests and US ally Israel, demanding that he is resigning from his post as climate envoy to President Joe Biden.
According to Zarif’s leaked comments, Kerry informed him that Israel had attacked Iranian targets in Syria at least 200 times, which Zarif claims Iranian security forces never bothered to tell him.
“Kerry must tell me that Israel attacked you 200 times in Syria?” Zarif said in the recording.
Kerry vehemently denied Zarif’s account.
“I can tell you that this story and these allegations are unequivocally false. It has never happened – whether 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 exchanges he described with Kerry allegedly took place.
“If he did this with the intention of undermining the current President of the United States, then President Trump and the members of that body, he must resign,” said Republican Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska in a speech to the Senate. floor.
Israel’s military strikes in Syria are no secret. Israeli officials, in an attempt to send a message to Iran, have often leaked information to reporters about strikes against Iranian or Iranian-backed proxies in Syria, and reports have described the numerous military attacks in Syria. ‘Israel in Syria.
In July 2017, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was caught at the microphone telling world leaders that Israel had launched attacks on arms transfers in Syria to Lebanese Hezbollah militia “dozens of time”. Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz said in September 2018 that the military had carried out more than 200 strikes in Syria in two years.
State Department spokesman Ned Price did not say whether Kerry made the reported comments to Zarif, but suggested it might not have been a breach of secrecy.
“I would just like to say that if you go back and look at the press reports from the time, it was certainly no secret,” Price told reporters. “And the governments involved were talking about it publicly, officially.”
In addition to the fallout from the leak, the nuclear negotiations took place against the backdrop of clashes at sea between Iranian Revolutionary Guard ships and US ships, as well as a cyberattack on a key underground nuclear site in Iran that Tehran has imputed to Israel.
This month’s two tense encounters in the Persian Gulf saw Iranian speedboats – as well as a larger vessel – approach dangerously close to U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels, according to the Fifth Fleet. the US Navy. In Monday’s second incident, a US Navy patroller had to fire warning shots to avoid a possible collision with Iranian ships, which had ignored repeated radio calls to withdraw.
Earlier this month, Iranian officials said an attack on a major underground uranium enrichment facility in Natanz damaged or destroyed centrifuges, accusing Israel of carrying out “nuclear terrorism.” Israeli media reported that the sabotage was caused by a cyber attack carried out by the country’s Mossad intelligence service.
The Revolutionary Guard Corps has already carried out provocative actions when Zarif and other officials engaged in diplomatic dialogue with the West. During and after the talks that led to the 2015 accord, extremist Revolutionary Guards arrested and imprisoned Iranian-Americans in 2014 and 2015, and captured American sailors on patrol boats after they got lost in the Iranian waters in 2016.
The seizure of US sailors by the Revolutionary Guards was designed “to defeat the nuclear deal,” Zarif said in the leaked recording.
Zarif spoke publicly about the leak for the first time on Wednesday, saying his remarks were meant to be an honest and confidential assessment of how to improve relations between the Revolutionary Guards and the Foreign Ministry.
“I am very sorry to see how a secret theoretical discussion about the need to strengthen cooperation between diplomacy and the field (the Revolutionary Guards) – so that future officials can use the valuable experiences of the past eight years – has become internal conflict, ”Zarif wrote in an Instagram post.
His post featured a video of him visiting a memorial in Baghdad for General Soleimani.
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 strict limits on Iran’s nuclear program. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the deal in 2018, reimposed sanctions and introduced a series of new sanctions as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.
After the US pulled out, Iran said it was no longer obligated to join the deal and flouted restrictions on uranium enrichment and limited access for international inspectors.
The Biden administration has said the United States will be ready to revert to the deal if Iran reverts to respecting the agreement’s limits on its nuclear activity.