Iran orders probe into leaked audio of Zarif bemoaning military’s influence

Rouhani-ordered investigation seeks to identify who released ‘stolen’ three-hour recording that has sparked anger among country’s conservatives

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif listens to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during talks in Moscow, Russia, January 26, 2021. (Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif listens to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during talks in Moscow, Russia, January 26, 2021. (Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP)

TEHRAN, Iran (AFP) — Iran’s government said Tuesday an investigation had been ordered into leaked audio of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif bemoaning the military’s influence, after its emergence stirred controversy ahead of presidential elections.

President Hassan Rouhani ordered the probe to identify who leaked the “stolen” three-hour recording that has sparked anger among conservatives.

“In the Islamic Republic the military field rules,” Zarif said in the audiotape, quoted by The New York Times. “I have sacrificed diplomacy for the military field rather than the field servicing diplomacy.”

Comments he made about Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s foreign operations arm who was killed in a US airstrike last year, hit a nerve.

In this photo released by the official website of the Office of the Iranian supreme leader, Gen. Esmail Ghaani, newly appointed commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, weeps while praying over the coffin of the force’s previous head Gen. Qassem Soleimani, at the Tehran University Campus in Tehran, Iran on January 6, 2020. (Office of the Iranian supreme leader via AP)

Rouhani’s moderate government has sought to downplay the remarks, which were leaked ahead of the June elections and as Iran and world powers discuss ways to revive a 2015 nuclear accord.

“The president has ordered the intelligence ministry to identify the agents of this conspiracy,” government spokesman Ali Rabiei said.

“We believe this theft of documents is a conspiracy against the government, the system, the integrity of effective domestic institutions, and also against our national interests.”

‘Personal opinions’

Zarif has yet to comment on the controversy, but on Tuesday he posted an audio message on Instagram, saying “don’t worry about history so much, but worry about God and the people.”

His ministry later published a video showing images of Zarif and Soleimani, accompanied by a quote it said was from the recording.

“I believe that our country suffered a great blow after the departure of martyr Soleimani,” it read.

“These are my beliefs and I have declared them everywhere, even in private meetings.”

The ministry said the leak was from a seven-hour discussion that included “personal opinions.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, arrives to meet his Iraqi counterpart Fouad Hussein, center, in Baghdad, Iraq, April 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

Rabiei said it was part of interviews conducted with government officials regarding the “oral history” of Iran’s last two administrations.

The spokesman emphasized “such differences of opinion” were common, and they would eventually lead to “a united policy.”

Supreme National Security Council secretary Ali Shamkhani tweeted that Iran’s policies were the result of “persuasive & protected conversations” and that “there is no duality” in their implementation.

The judiciary said it had launched a criminal investigation into the leak.

The main charge “is publishing and placing the country’s classified information at the disposal of unqualified individuals,” it said on its Mizan Online website.

Ultra-conservative Kayhan daily suggested the recording may have been leaked by Rouhani’s government to boost its own popularity at Zarif’s expense.

President Hassan Rouhani listens to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during their talks in Tehran, Iran, April 13, 2021. (Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP)

It said while Zarif had been “sacrificed,” he provided Iran’s enemies with “intelligence and ammunition.”

Vatan-e Emrooz carried a front-page picture of Zarif with the headline “Despicable.”

“Diplomacy must follow the path of increasing the system’s power,” it said.

‘Character assassination’

Javan daily said Soleimani was “physically assassinated (upon) the order of the most wretched creature of the world… America’s president.”

But Zarif had “assassinated (Soleimani’s) character,” it added.

Reformist newspapers questioned who stood to gain from the leak.

Shargh daily said Zarif’s comments do not show “a strong and independent foreign minister that would in turn herald a strong and independent head of state/”

The leak was “meant to eliminate Zarif,” it added.

Quoting veteran journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi, Arman-e Melli newspaper asked why Rouhani’s government allowed itself to be “used by others” and questioned why it should remain in power.

Revolutionary Guard troops attend a military parade marking the 39th anniversary of the start of the Iran-Iraq war, in front of the shrine of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, just outside Tehran, Iran, September 22, 2019. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

Analyst Abbas Abdi was quoted by Etemad newspaper as saying the leak “will not impact domestic policy, but its minimum result is Mr. Zarif definitely not being present in elections.”

Zarif has been mentioned as a possible contender in the June 18 presidential election, although he has said he does not plan to run.

The election will see Rouhani step down after two terms and following a parliamentary election swept by conservatives last year.

Aside from domestic politics, the leak comes as talks resume in Vienna aimed at getting the US to return to a nuclear deal and lift sanctions against Iran in exchange for it adhering to its nuclear commitments.

It also comes after the US navy said boats from Iran’s Guards “aggressively” approached two American coastguard vessels in Gulf waters this month, the first such incident between the arch-enemies this year.

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