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Shakeup in Iran’s presidential office after Zarif tape leaked

Rouhani fires head of think tank that recorded hours-long interview in which Iran’s FM described sharp divides within the regime

In this February 23, 2021 file photo, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif addresses a conference in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)
In this February 23, 2021 file photo, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif addresses a conference in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has replaced the head of a think tank that recorded an interview with the country’s foreign minister after it leaked out this week, providing a rare glimpse into the theocracy’s power struggles and setting off a firestorm in Iran.

In the recording of the conversation held in March 2020 between Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Saeed Leylaz, an economist at the Strategic Studies Center, the think tank associated with Iran’s presidency, Zarif offered a blunt appraisal of Iranian diplomacy and his constricted role in the Islamic Republic. Zarif also criticized the power of Qassem Soleimani, the late IRGC general killed in a US drone strike in Baghdad.

Soleimani had been setting Tehran’s policy, Zarif charged, had worked with Russia to sabotage the nuclear deal, and had acted in Syria’s long-running war in ways that damaged Tehran’s interests.

The audiotape, leaked earlier this week to London-based, Persian-language news channel Iran International, set off political controversy across Iran ahead of the country’s June 18 presidential election. While Zarif has said he does not want to run in the election, some have suggested him as a potential candidate to stand against hardliners.

On Thursday, Iran’s presidency announced that the chief of the Strategic Studies Center, Hesamodin Ashna, had resigned and Ali Rabiei, who already serves as the Cabinet spokesman, would replace him. Ashna was reportedly present during the interview with Zarif.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, right, is shown new centrifuges and listens to head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi, while visiting an exhibition of Iran’s new nuclear achievements in Tehran, Iran, April 10, 2021. (Iranian Presidency Office via AFP)

Also Thursday, the semi-official ISNA news agency reported, citing an informed source in the judiciary, that 15 people connected to the interview have been banned from leaving the country.

Earlier this week, Zarif expressed regret that the recording had leaked out. Rouhani portrayed the breach as an incident intended to derail ongoing talks over the return to Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers.

Zarif made clear in the recording that the interview was never intended for publication, according to a New York Times report on the seven-hour-long recording. Iran International is viewed as hostile to the Iranian regime and is owned by Saudi Arabians.

“In the Islamic Republic the military field rules,” Zarif said in the recording, which was part of an oral history project at the center. “I have sacrificed diplomacy for the military field rather than the field servicing diplomacy.”

In this September 18, 2016, photo, Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, center, attends a meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Revolutionary Guard commanders in Tehran, Iran. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

The extracts also suggested Soleimani refused to listen to a request by the 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.

Zarif said that he was often kept in the dark about security matters, and that “to his astonishment,” former US Secretary of State John Kerry told him that Israel had attacked Iranian interests in Syria at least 200 times.

The Israel Defense Forces has launched hundreds of strikes in Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011 against moves by Iran to establish a permanent military presence in the country and efforts to transport advanced, game-changing weapons to terrorist groups in the region, principally Hezbollah.

Footage of Israeli strikes on Iranian and Syrian targets in southern Syria following an attempted explosive attack by Iranian-backed operatives against Israeli troops on the Golan Heights, November 18, 2020 (Israel Defense Forces)

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.

He also said that Russia did not want the deal to succeed as that would result in Tehran normalizing relations with the West, and therefore Moscow “put all its weight” behind placing obstacles on the path to the agreement.

According to the Guardian, which did not publish direct quotes from the interview, Zarif said that “forces inside Iran” tried to prevent the passage of the 2015 nuclear agreement through a number of methods, including an attack on the Saudi embassy.

Zarif reportedly described the IRGC’s influence on foreign policy as “akin to a cold war,” the Guardian reported, adding that the top Iranian envoy claimed he spent more of his time dealing with the organization than with any other tasks.

Flowers and candles are placed in front of portraits of the flight crew members of the Ukrainian 737-800 plane that crashed on the outskirts of Tehran, at a memorial inside Borispil international airport outside Kyiv, Ukraine, January 11, 2020. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

Zarif said that when the IRGC shot down a Ukrainian airliner, killing all on board, he attended a meeting with security officials who attacked him and told him that it was not true that Iran had downed the plane.

He said he was told to send a tweet denying the Guard had shot down the plane, despite the IRGC immediately knowing what had happened.

According to the Times, Zarif did praise Soleimani at times during the interview, saying they successfully worked together ahead of the United States invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Iranian envoy said that the US assassination of Soleimani caused more damage than the wiping out of a city.

The US killed Soleimani, who oversaw the Revolutionary Guard’s expeditionary Quds Force, and others in the January 3, 2020, strike near Baghdad International Airport.

Soleimani was for years seen as the architect of much of Iran’s malign activities in the Middle East, including attempts to place a foothold in Syria and rocket attacks on Israel, making him one of Israel and the US’s most sought-after targets.

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)

The strike on Soleimani came after months of incidents raising tensions between the two countries and saw Iran retaliate with a ballistic missile strike targeting American troops in Iraq, an attack Zarif said the United States knew of before he did.

The leaks came at a sensitive time, with Iran currently engaged in indirect talks with the US, mediated by Europe in Vienna, aimed at reviving the nuclear pact, even as it enriches uranium to its highest-ever levels.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry admitted that Zarif gave the interview, but said that his words had been distorted through the use of selective quotes, the Guardian reported.

Saeed Khatibzadeh, a spokesman for the ministry, called the leak “unethical politics.”

Former vice president Mohammad Ali Abtahi said that the publication of Zarif’s comments was “tantamount to Israel stealing the nuclear documents” from Iran.

In 2018, the Mossad spirited a huge trove of documentation out of a warehouse in Tehran, detailing Iran’s rogue nuclear program.

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