Former US secretary of state John Kerry on Monday denied Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s claim that the top US diplomat told him Israel had carried out 200 strikes on Iranian targets in Syria.
“I can tell you that this story and these allegations are unequivocally false. This never happened — either when I was Secretary of State or since,” Kerry tweeted.
The tweet cited a 2018 article by the Reuters news agency in which then-intelligence minister Israel Katz said that Israel had carried out over 200 airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria over the previous two years.
Kerry’s denial came amid pressure from some parts of the Republican party after The New York Times published a report on a leaked interview Zarif gave last year.
Zarif said that he was often kept in the dark about security matters, and that “to his astonishment,” Kerry told him that Israel had attacked Iranian interests in Syria at least 200 times.
In the recording, Zarif told the interviewer that he hadn’t been told about key issues.
“Kerry has to tell me that Israel has attacked you 200 times in Syria?” said Zarif.
“You did not know?” the interviewer asked twice, according to direct quotes published by the Times for the first time on Monday evening, to which Zarif responded “no, no” on both occasions.
Zarif did not clarify when the purported conversation with Kerry took place. Kerry served as a chief negotiator for the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers and dealt closely with Zarif over the years.
Israel acknowledges having launched hundreds of strikes in Syria since the start of the civil war there in 2011, aimer to counter Iranian moves to establish a permanent military presence in the country and to transport advanced, game-changing weapons to terrorist groups in the region, principally Hezbollah.
Still, Israel’s official policy is to neither officially confirm nor deny specific operations in Syria, save for those in retaliation for an attack from the country.
State Department spokesman Ned Price on Monday noted the widespread reporting on Israel’s strikes and implied that even if Kerry had made the comments, the existence of the strikes was public knowledge.
“I would just make the broad point that if you go back and look at press reporting from the time, this certainly was not secret,” Price said. “And governments that were involved were speaking to this publicly, on the record.”
Some Republican officials attacked Kerry in the wake of the Times report, accusing him of leaking Israeli military secrets. Kerry, who now serves as US President Joe Biden’s special envoy on the climate crisis, was already under fire from the GOP over those policies.
“People are talking about treason — and I don’t throw that word around a lot,” said Alaska’s Sen. Dan Sullivan. “John Kerry does all kinds of things that I can’t stand. But this is the one that broke the camel’s back.”
Nikki Haley, who served as US ambassador to the UN under the Trump administration and is widely thought to be considering a 2024 presidential run, called the reported conversation between Kerry and Zarif “disgusting.”
However, others in the party urged a more cautious approach to Zarif’s comments.
“I don’t know if we should trust that tape or not. If it’s true, it’s very damaging,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham. “I like John Kerry, but that would not be helpful and it would be very problematic if it were true. But let’s wait and see how authentic this is.”
Ahead of Kerry’s public response , Sen. Mitt Romney also said that the matter should be examined in light of the fact it was based only on the Iranian envoy’s comments, Politico reported.
“It’s very troubling, and there needs to be full transparency to understand exactly what was done, by whom, for what purpose, and an accounting of what occurred,” said Romney, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We have one recording by an Iranian official, but this is something that has to be evaluated and looked into.”
The most recent time a high-level US official was accused of divulging Israeli military secrets was 2017, when then-president Donald Trump told Russia of intelligence that reportedly came specifically from a spy embedded in the Islamic State terrorist group on behalf of Israel. The spy was also reportedly a major asset in gaining information on the actions of Iran in Syria — through its Revolutionary Guard Corps and Lebanese proxy Hezbollah. The leak reportedly placed the person’s life at risk and Israeli intelligence officials were said to have been outraged by Trump’s actions.
Zarif made the comments about Kerry in an hours-long taped conversation that took place last March as part of an oral history project. A copy was leaked to the UK-based Persian language news channel Iran International, which is viewed as hostile to Iran and is owned by Saudi Arabians.
In the interview, Zarif also criticized the power of Qassem Soleimani, saying the assassinated head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had been setting Tehran’s policy.
Zarif said that Soleimani had worked with Russia to sabotage the nuclear deal and acted in Syria’s long-running war in a way that damaged Tehran’s interests, as well as undermining him on a number of occasions, the Times reported.
“In the Islamic Republic the military field rules,” Zarif said. “I have sacrificed diplomacy for the military field rather than the field servicing diplomacy.”
The extracts also suggested Soleimani refused to listen to a request by Zarif’s Foreign Ministry that Tehran show less overt support for Syrian leader Bashar Assad, including not using state airline Iran Air to transport military equipment and personnel to Syria and not deploying ground forces to the war-torn country.
Zarif also criticized Soleimani for allowing Russian planes to fly over Iran on their way to bomb Syria.
According to the Times, Zarif could be heard on a number of occasions in the interview emphasizing that his words were not for publication.
Zarif also claimed that Soleimani traveled to Moscow to “demolish our achievement” and try to stop Russia’s support for the nuclear deal struck with world powers.