Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, is used to giving interviews. In his almost eight years in the job, he’s spoken to hundreds of journalists from around the world, putting forward Tehran’s case, quite often in fluent English. But on Feb. 24, he sat down with the Iranian economist Saeed Leylaz for a different sort of exchange.
Organized by the Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank run by the office of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the interview was part of an oral history project meant to give Iran’s cabinet ministers space to speak candidly for posterity. These interviews were meant to be edited and published months, if not years, later — only after classified material was scrubbed from the record. Or so it seemed.
Last week, three hours and 11 minutes of Zarif’s supposedly confidential interview was published by the London-based and Saudi-linked satellite outlet Iran International. Millions were shocked to hear Iran’s top diplomat speak more openly than he ever has and admit to what many had long suspected: that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the powerful and elite military force, controls all major aspects of Iranian foreign policy; that its slain Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani, ran his own show when it came to the Iranian intervention in Syria; and that Soleimani went as far as colluding with Russia to disrupt the implementation of the Iranian nuclear deal of 2015.
The explosive leak went viral and has already led to numerous calls for Zarif’s resignation and even prosecution. Soleimani’s daughter, Zeinab Soleimani, an icon for Iran’s Islamist allies in the region, is among many who took to Twitter to mock the outgoing foreign minister. In the United States, Zarif’s claim that he heard about Israel’s attacks on Iranian targets in Syria from his then-counterpart, former Secretary of State John Kerry, before he knew it from his own government has led to calls by Republican lawmakers to investigate Kerry, who has denied ever telling Zarif any such thing. (Israel’s sorties on Iranian targets in Syria were widely reported on in the international press at the time Kerry’s alleged disclosures took place.)
And yet, despite all the brouhaha, very little in the interview was completely unexpected to those who closely follow Iran. Sadegh Zibakalam, a political scientist at the University of Tehran, spoke for many when he tweeted: “Apart from some details, what did Dr Zarif say that we already didn’t know? Didn’t we know the Russians don’t want Iran to have better relations with the US? Didn’t we know the IRGC runs the foreign policy? Didn’t we know anti-Americanism unites the Russians and the Iranian hardliners?”
Many of these revelations have indeed been open secrets for a long time. But what makes the interview unique is Zarif’s open admission of their sheer extent.
Zarif repeatedly and unequivocally says that the “military field,” which he uses as a euphemism for the IRGC, calls the shots in Iran and that every aspect of Iranian policy is subservient to it. We not only learn that Zarif is not in charge of Iran’s embassies in the region (not news) but also that the IRGC didn’t even bother to inform him and other cabinet ministers of their major decisions. This is a far cry from Zarif’s official line, which has always been that he acted in complete harmony with Soleimani.
A striking example Zarif gives is from June 2016, when he says Kerry told him that since the implementation of the Iran deal earlier that year and the lifting of sanctions on Iran Air, the flagship airline had increased its Tehran-Damascus flights sixfold. Zarif goes on to say he begged Soleimani to avoid using Iran Air for Iran’s intervention in Syria and instead rely on the privately owned Mahan Airlines, based in Soleimani’s home province of Kerman and long a favorite means of conveyance for the IRGC. But Soleimani refused, according to Zarif, even though this risked derailing the Iran nuclear deal and all the hard work Iran — particularly Zarif — had put into it.
The anecdote is striking because according to Zarif, the country’s transportation minister, Abbas Akhundi, and Iran Air’s CEO at the time, Farhad Parvaresh, were not even aware of Soleimani’s use of their aircraft. The notorious Shadow Commander, in other words, didn’t even bother to inform his own government, let alone pretend he needed its permission.
Soleimani’s unilateral moves weren’t limited to Iran.
When the nuclear negotiations that led to the 2015 deal were going on, Zarif’s team faced a propaganda campaign of opposition from the IRGC and its long tentacles in Iranian media. Despite Zarif’s personal loyalty to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the latter’s continued open support for him and for the talks, the IRGC constantly attacked Zarif. It has long been axiomatic that the Guards’ interest lies in closer ties with Russia and China and avoiding Iran’s integration in the global economy.
But in the interview, Zarif gives details as to how the IRGC actively worked to sabotage the deal’s implementation after it was reached. According to him, Soleimani’s celebrated trip to Russia to meet with President Vladimir Putin in July 2015, was done on the initiative of Moscow with the expressed aim of “destroying” the nuclear deal.
Challenging the official narrative of Tehran on the trip, Zarif also says: “We claim that Mr. Soleimani brought Putin to war (in Syria), but Putin had already decided on that. … It was he who was able to secure Iran’s ground intervention. Before the trip, we didn’t have ground forces in Syria.”
Zarif’s sharp words against Russia are not news for those who know him. He has long emphasized the need for Iran to have better relations with the West. In the interview, he also says what many on the Iranian street have long believed (although this is sometimes mocked by certain pundits as unsophisticated thinking): If Iran relies too much on Russia and China, to the detriment of its ties with the West, they will take advantage of Iran.
But does that mean Zarif, who’s lived much of his adult life in the U.S. and has a doctorate degree from the University of Denver, is a proponent of Iranian friendship with the U.S., as some of his supporters hope and many of his hard-line detractors claim?
Zarif has long been accused of harboring pro-Western tendencies. Having spent years in Iran’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations, he is part of the so-called New York Boys club of Iranian diplomats who first became subject to the IRGC’s ire following their role in negotiating an end to the Iran-Iraq War in 1988. Such tendencies, of course, didn’t prevent the Trump administration from imposing sanctions on Zarif.
Ironically, Zarif is, in a sense, more of a true believer than many in the IRGC.
But what the candid conversation makes clear is not only Zarif’s personal loyalty to Khamenei but also his firm belief in the Islamic Republic. Ironically, Zarif is, in a sense, more of a true believer than many in the IRGC. He genuinely appears to be under the illusion that the ideals of the Islamic Republic still have popular support and that Iran should rely on them instead of brute force. Few in the IRGC think so, and many seem to be aware of how widely discredited these ideals are among average Iranians.
Zarif’s background and worldview, which he expounded upon in a book of memoirs published in 2013 (written when he was in retirement and had no reason to believe he’d soon become foreign minister) explains this attitude.
When the Iranain Revolution led to an Islamic Republic in 1979, he was a young Islamist student activist at San Francisco State University. A rare international relations major among his Iranian peers (who were mostly studying engineering), Zarif was soon tasked by the new government to take over Iran’s consulate in the city. This marked the beginning of his long career as a key figure in the development of the diplomatic apparatus of the Islamic Republic. His close ties to Khamenei date back to this formative period, too, including when Zarif was the ayatollah’s interpreter during his 1987 visit to the U.N. as Iran’s president.
Speaking for the entire Iranian regime on the world stage has been at the heart of Zarif’s lifelong ambition. His experience and knowledge of America’s culture and political system have kept him at the top of that portfolio for decades, making him, in essence, too valuable to get rid of. Even prior ructions with the IRGC couldn’t sink him. For instance, following the Iran-Iraq War negotiation debacle in 1988, many of the New York Boys were marginalized or even driven to exile. Not Zarif, who got promoted and served for 10 years as Iran’s deputy foreign minister. Following the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election to the presidency in 2005, Zarif also stayed on as Iran’s envoy to the U.N. — at the insistence of Khamenei.
All of which is to say that Zarif might be a “moderate,” in the sense that he believes the Iranian regime should work to have good relations with the West, but as Iran scholar Karim Sadjadpour pointed out, he is nevertheless the hard-liners’ favorite moderate for a reason. He has never wavered from supporting the first principles of Khomeinism and has repeatedly defended its support for groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah or the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Such orthodox thinking means that, on the possibility of ties with the U.S., Zarif remains thoroughly unsentimental. “So long as the identity of the Islamic Republic remains intact,” he has said, “Iran will never be friends with the United States.” He insists that what Iran should aim for instead is “managing conflict,” so long as the U.S. accepts that Iran won’t budge on some issues, including the fundamentals of the Islamic Republic and the “recognition of the Zionist regime (Israel).”
The manner of the audio file’s leak and its source has been a source of incessant chatter in the Iranian public sphere. Some Zarif supporters (including the Rouhani administration itself) have claimed it was a treacherous act aimed at undermining him as a credible diplomat. On the other side, “Akhbar o Tahlilha,” the public bulletin of the IRGC’s Political Department, attacked Zarif, defended Soleimani, and mockingly asked the foreign minister: “Why should a Foreign Ministry that is incapable of keeping a voice file confidential be trusted with secret military information?”
But there is much in the audio file that Zarif might have wanted to use to burnish his own image. He might have thought that this account would show him as a hardworking diplomat, standing up to Russia, and confronting Soleimani. One could even imagine Zarif having been behind the leak himself, perhaps with the political ambition of running for Iran’s presidency, as many, including Leylaz in the interview, are pushing him to do.
If that’s the case, he might have been too clever by half.
Zarif’s own account shows the degree to which he is used by the IRGC and the military establishment, without him ever being allowed to play a role outside their plans. It hardly inspires confidence. In fact, his account seems to confirm that the process of the IRGC’s domination of Iranian politics is much more advanced than previously imagined.
If, as it seems likely, an IRGC commander such as Saeed Mohammad, who ran the militia’s mammoth construction wing until a few months ago, comes to win the presidency in June, most of the country’s main institutions will belong to the IRGC (an IRGC man is already the speaker of the Parliament.) With Khamenei’s eventual demise (he is 82 and not doing well), the next supreme leader is likely to be a pliant figure, controlled by the IRGC. Iran will thus turn into a military dictatorship, akin to Egypt or Algeria, a transformation with many unexpected consequences.
It is still possible for this process to be disrupted. Khamenei might fear giving too much to the IRGC and attempt to prevent Mohammad from winning in June. Iran’s most courageous reformist politician, Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former deputy interior minister during Mohammad Khatami’s presidency, has launched his own, long-shot candidacy, with the promise that he will “drive back the IRGC to the barracks” and abolish the position of Supreme Leader. Even if he is somehow allowed to run for the presidency (and that is very unlikely), he will have an uphill task in convincing people that he has what it takes to confront Khamenei and the IRGC.
As for Zarif, only history will show whether the leaked file was his swan song or a new beginning. In the topsy-turvy world of Iranian politics, everything is possible; even the presidential candidacy of a foreign minister who couldn’t appoint his own ambassadors.