Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s unorthodox views towards Iran’s military establishment angers the supreme leader, deepening moderate-hardliner infighting as June elections approach.
Javad Zarif, Iran’s American-educated foreign minister, who is the country’s most popular politician, was caught in the crossfire when his confidential comments on Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards were leaked to the press.
Zarif, who has been seen as a potential reformist candidate in the upcoming presidential elections in June, complained that he has “zero” influence over Tehran’s critical foreign policy decisions despite the fact that he is the foreign minister.
"I have never been able to tell a military commander to do something in order to aid diplomacy," Zarif said during the conversation, underlining the outsized power of the country’s military led by the Revolutionary Guards over the diplomacy corps.
"I have sacrificed diplomacy for the battlefield more than the price that [military forces on] the battlefield [led by Qassem Soleimani, the late Quds Force leader] ... paid and sacrificed for diplomacy," Zarif pointed out in the leaked audio tape.
After the leaked audio, Zarif was quickly rebuked by Iran’s most powerful force, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. "This was a big mistake that must not be made by an official of the Islamic Republic," said Khamenei during a speech on Sunday. "Nowhere in the world the foreign ministry determines foreign policy,” added the supreme leader.
Zarif’s leaked comments were part of a seven-hour taped conversation with Iran’s reformist economist Saeed Laylaz for a state-backed oral history project, intended to document the experience of the current administration. The project aimed to make the current government’s work available for future state officials who can benefit from the documentation.
But with the leaked audiotape, which was only a three hour section of a much longer seven hour tape, the oral project, which has been developed by the Tehran-based Center for Strategic Studies, a state-backed think-tank, became a political tool to foment internal political infighting between moderates and hardliners.
Putting Zarif in corner
The leaked audio tape instigated a fierce debate over the country’s direction, while Zarif, the most popular reformist politician, was put under heavy political pressure to weaken moderates in the public eye.
“It’s the silly season in Iran as a lot is at stake in the upcoming presidential election. This election is likely to determine who [Iran’s Supreme Leader] Ayatollah Khamenei’s last president will be and given that the leader’s succession is looming large, all factions want to make sure they are in a position to shape the Islamic Republic’s future,” says Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, a prominent American think-tank.
“It is in this context that Zarif’s tape had a dual utility for the hardliners: it helped undermine the diplomatic process in Vienna, which could boost the more moderate forces of Iranian politics ahead of the elections, and burned Zarif as a potential presidential candidate,” Vaez tells TRT World.
The leak came at a crucial time, when Iran’s diplomatic corps were negotiating in Vienna with Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the EU, all signatories to the original Joint Comprehensive Action Plan (JCPOA), to revive the nuclear deal suspended by the former Trump administration.
“At a time when Vienna is at its peak of success, this tape is being published to create discord within,” said Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during a cabinet meeting last week.
He ordered the Ministry of Intelligence to investigate the breach as he fired his top adviser, Hesamodin Ashna, the head of the think-tank, organising the interview with Zarif. Ashna, a former top official in Iran’s intelligence apparatus, was married to the daughter of Ghorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi, the former minister of intelligence.
Rouhani, a reformist president, cannot run for the presidency for a third time due to constitutional limits. With the leakage, it will be an uphill fight for his favourite foreign minister, Zarif, to run for the presidency or even play a critical role in the future.
“I doubt he’d be able to play a meaningful political role as long as the power structure remains what it is today,” Vaez suggested. But he also says that the supreme leader appeared to perform a balancing act, not being willing to go after Zarif to a point where he would have no choice but to resign.
Despite all pressure over the embattled foreign minister, a Tehran-based Iranian political analyst, who wants to remain anonymous for security reasons, thinks that Zarif’s career might not be at its end after all.
“I am not pessimistic! Hardliners are chanting that his political career is over, certainly it is not the case, he is extremely popular among people. Most people look at what has happened as a conspiracy from his enemies to put him under more and more pressure,“ the Iranian source tells TRT World.
Zarif appears to be the most popular Iranian politician. A 2016 poll conducted by Information and Public Opinion Solutions LLC (iPOS) showed his approval ratings at 76 percent, with only 7 percent disapproval among common Iranians.
“As I see among regular people, they see him as a victim of this conspiracy, and his popularity is increasing right now, not just because of the JCPOA negotiations but because of these attacks against him. I guess he still will have a critical role in the upcoming election and no, his career is not over yet,” the source says.
She also sees some of Zarif’s problems rooted in the political structure of the Rouhani cabinet. “There is a fight over power inside the cabinet, with collaboration from the powers outside the cabinet,” she says. “Simultaneously with being more close to the election season, the right [wing in the cabinet] tries more to push back the left and even the moderators.”
Who will win the elections?
While the elections are scheduled for June, some prominent figures like Ebrahim Raisi, the chief justice of Iran, or Ali Larijani, the country’s former top nuclear negotiator, have not yet announced their candidacy. It’s a big difference with the US, where candidates declare their candidacy years before the date of the elections.
Under the intense debate of the leaked Zarif audiotape, which damages the prospects of the revival of the nuclear deal negotiated in Vienna by Iran and its counterparts at the moment, the political atmosphere “is very much going to fall in the hands of hardliners”, says the Iranian political analyst.
“There is no time left for the negotiation teams to make an agreement,” which could be announced before the June elections, the analyst adds. While the negotiations did not stop due to the leaks, “if the process doesn't lead to something recognisable as soon as possible, another round of negotiation with those who are willing to reach an agreement would be very hard to consider.”
With the withdrawal of the US from the 2015 nuclear deal, hardliners have intensely criticised the Rouhani government for its rapprochement policy with the West, saying that Tehran should not trust Washington to commit itself to the agreement. Hardliners see America as a “Big Satan”, a phrase first uttered by Ayatollah Khomeini, the leading cleric during the 1979 Revolution.
With his recent rebuke of Zarif, Khamenei, the successor of Khomeini, appears to be leaning towards hardliners.
“As usual, Ayatollah Khamenei’s words are dual-use, allowing both sides to interpret them in their own favor. But one thing is clear: the leader made it clear that the Quds Force’s role in Iran’s regional policies is beyond reproach,” says Vaez. The Quds Force is the leading force within the Revolutionary Guards.
“The upcoming elections seem to mirror last year’s parliamentary election, which took place amid a widespread sense of political apathy and granted the hardliners a landslide victory,” Vaez adds.
Unlike many commentators, the anonymous Iranian source sees three different forces in the elections: Moderates, reformists and hardliners. She labels reformists as left, hardliners as right, while seeing moderates fall between the two.
According to her, moderates might have a chance in the elections if someone like Larijani announces his candidacy. Without Zarif, “I don't see a big chance for other key reformist figures like Eshaq Jahangiri Kouhshahi, Abbas Ahmad Akhoundi and others'' in the elections, she says.
Among hardliner figures, Raisi stands as the most powerful person to win public opinion should he step forward, she adds.
“Everything is under a blanket of fog about the upcoming election,” she concludes.