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Zarif apologizes for leaked comments, hopes Iranian people will ‘forgive’ him

Recording surfaced 2 months before Iran’s presidential election and amid indirect talks aimed at restoring 2015 nuclear deal

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela, November 5, 2020. (Matias Delacroix/AP)
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela, November 5, 2020. (Matias Delacroix/AP)

Iran’s foreign minister apologized Sunday for recorded comments that were leaked to the public last week, creating a firestorm in the country less than two months before presidential elections.

The recordings of Mohammad Javad Zarif included frank comments on powerful late Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a US drone strike in 2020. The attack at the time brought the US and Iran to the brink of war. Soleimani’s funeral processions in Iran drew millions of people to the streets.

In the recordings, Zarif criticizes Soleimani’s separate relations with Russia and his refusal to stop using the national carrier Iran Air for Syrian operations despite Zarif’s objections. Iran Air has been sanctioned by the US.

Zarif said in an Instagram post Sunday he hoped Soleimani’s family would forgive him. “I hope that the great people of Iran and all the lovers of General (Soleimani) and especially the great family of Soleimani, will forgive me,” he said.

In this picture released by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, worshipers chant slogans during Friday prayers ceremony, as a banner show Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, left, and Iraqi Shiite senior militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed in Iraq in a US drone attack on January 3, 2020, and a banner which reads in Persian: ‘Death To America,’ at Imam Khomeini Grand Mosque in Tehran, Iran, January 17, 2020. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

Zarif’s leaked comments were highly controversial in Iran, where officials mind their words amid a cutthroat political environment that includes the powerful Revolutionary Guard, ultimately overseen by the country’s supreme leader.

Besides the criticism of Soleimani, a top commander in the Guard, Zarif’s leaked remarks included cutting references to the limits of his power in the theocracy.

United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry attends a joint press conference with French Economy and Finance minister Bruno Le Maire, at Bercy Ministry in Paris, Wednesday, March 10, 2021 (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

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.

Zarif can be heard saying at various points in the seven-hour tape that it was not meant for release.

“If I had known that a sentence of it would be made public, I certainly would not have mentioned it as before,” he said in his Sunday Instagram post.

Zarif has said he will not run for president in the upcoming election. Some had suggested him as a potential candidate to challenge hardliners in the vote.

In this April 15, 2021, photo, US President Joe Biden speaks about Russia in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The leaks came at a sensitive time, with Iran currently engaged in indirect talks with the US, mediated by Europe in Vienna, aimed at getting the United States to return to an international nuclear deal it abandoned under former US president Donald Trump and lift sanctions, and for Iran to resume full compliance with nuclear obligations it retreated from in response.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the audio was leaked just as the Vienna talks were “at the height of their success so that it creates discord inside” the Islamic Republic.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks in a meeting in Tehran, Iran, Dec. 9, 2020 (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

“We can only lift sanctions through unity,” the president said.

Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have adamantly opposed the US returning to the nuclear deal, putting Jerusalem openly at odds with the new White House administration.

Rouhani also claimed last week that Israel “directed” the assassination of Soleimani.

“The martyrdom of General Soleimani was directed by the Zionists, even though Trump was the commander and killer,” Rouhani said, without providing any evidence for the claim.

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