Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif arrived in Iraq on Monday morning on the second leg of his two-nation regional tour, even as a flood of political controversy surged at home.
On a busy roadway near Baghdad International Airport, his entourage halted at the place where top Iranian commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani was assassinated 15 months ago.
After a moment of silence, looking intently at the wall where the US airstrike targeted Soleimani and his associate, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was the deputy leader of Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi militia, on Jan. 2, 2020, Zarif said the two were “paragons of resistance.”
Back in Iran, however, the country’s top diplomat is under fire for unflattering remarks about Soleimani and the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), leaked by a foreign media network on Sunday.
While the Foreign Ministry has, in the absence of Zarif, stepped in to do damage control, saying the remarks were “cherry-picked” from a seven-hour “classified discussion,” this does not seem enough to pacify angry conservative voices.
In the leaked audio, allegedly recorded in February this year, Zarif disparages the diverging, almost competing, interests of the Soleimani-led Quds Force and his ministry.
He also makes startling revelations about the slain IRGC commander’s visit to Moscow in 2015 to derail the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, without Zarif’s knowledge.
In the controversial audio, Iran’s top diplomat seems to suggest that he was compelled to sacrifice diplomacy for operations by the IRGC and its extraterritorial arm that Soleimani commanded, the Quds Force.
During the freewheeling seven-hour conversation, which the Foreign Ministry says was not an interview and was not supposed to be made public, Zarif also alleges that following the January 2020 downing of the Ukraine Airlines near Tehran, he was asked by the country’s top security body to reject assertions that the plane had been shot down.
He goes on to make another stunning claim — the attack on the Ain al-Assad airbase which hosts US forces in Iraq in the aftermath of Soleimani’s assassination in January 2020 was also concealed from him.
The audio file, first published by a London-based Saudi-affiliated news channel on Sunday, immediately whipped up a political storm in Iran, with wide-ranging reactions coming from a variety of quarters.
Some questioned its timing — just weeks ahead of the much-anticipated presidential election in Iran — as well as the fact that it was leaked to a news channel linked to long-time regional rival Saudi Arabia, which many see as a red line in Iran, both moderate and hardliner alike.
Thousands took to popular social media application Clubhouse on Sunday night, including dissident journalists and those linked to the country’s conservative group, to discuss the leaked conversation, in particular remarks related to Soleimani and the Quds Force.
On Monday, more reactions poured in, particularly from the Conservative-controlled parliament, which announced a probe into the leak, vowing stern legal action against “traitors.”
Parliament speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a former IRGC commander and a close associate of Soleimani, said the latter’s “ingenuity and courage” had opened up avenues of diplomacy.
Without naming Zarif, he said no one would be allowed to “achieve political goals” by “turning the historical role of Soleimani upside down.”
Interestingly, in the course of the conversation, Zarif says Qalibaf had in the last election offered him the Foreign Ministry if he was elected president, which Zarif had politely turned down.
Jalil Rahimi Jahanabadi, a lawmaker and member of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said the purpose of leaking the audio was to “derail the Vienna talks.”
Seyed Nezamuddin Mousavi, a lawmaker from Tehran, went a step further, saying the foreign minister was surrounded by so-called “Gandos,” a reference to a popular Iranian drama series about foreign spies that Zarif had recently dubbed “a total lie.”
“As soon as your confidential audio file comes out of a Saudi-affiliated television network, it means that it was a very accurate, correct and vigilant act not to inform you about the missile attack on Ain al-Assad and Bashar al-Assad’s trip to Tehran,” he wrote on Twitter.
Syria’s Bashar al-Assad paid a visit to Tehran in March 2019, where he was accompanied Soleimani to a meeting with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, apparently irking Zarif who subsequently filed his resignation.
The two men later made peace after Soleimani went to see the foreign minister.
Syed Mahmood Razavi, the advisor to the parliament speaker, said the release of the audio would lead to an “increase in popularity” for the deceased Soleimani, while marking the “end of Zarif’s” political career.
Ali Khezrian, a lawmaker from Tehran, echoed the sentiment, stressing that the “analytical backwardness” of Zarif was “enough to end his political life.”
Some voices, like former member of parliament Jalal Mirzaei, however, jumped in defense of Zarif, blaming the leak on elements inside the country that sought to derail ongoing negotiations to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal.
He said Zarif’s disagreements with other officials, including Soleimani, were a “sign of dynamism and positive growth of society,” saying one should not look at the affair negatively.
Debate continues in Iran over the controversial audio, which has been widely shared over social media, with many journalists and social media activists weighing in.
Afifeh Abedi, a political commentator, agrees with Zarif on not banking too heavily on Moscow for Iran’s nuclear issues, but adds that looking westward was also problematic.
“The right approach,” she notes with emphasis, “is to attain a strong nuclear deal with all international powers.”
Others, like journalist Amir Hussain Sabeti, refered to the Gando TV series and Zarif’s criticism of its storyline. “How far have spies infiltrated the government?” he asks.
Conservative newspapers like Farhikhtagan and Watan e Imroz have also joined the chorus, carrying headlines critical of Zarif.
On its front-page headline on Tuesday, Watan e Imroz accused Azrif of “passive diplomacy” that led to the killing of Soleimani, quoting former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s tweet on Monday.
“Our administration’s exquisite strike on Qasem Soleimani had a massive impact on Iran and the Middle East,” he wrote. “You don’t have to take my word for it. Ask @JZarif.”
The initiative was reportedly spearheaded by a senior advisor of President Hassan Rouhani, Hesamuddin Ashna.
Access to audio, it is said, was limited to Ashna and five others with a history of security-related convictions.
President Hassan Rouhani has since asked the Intelligence Ministry to probe the leak and “identify the perpetrators behind the conspiracy.”
Government spokesman Ali Rabaie said the audio was leaked by a TV network that “supports suffering and threats to Iranian people,” and pointed to a “conspiracy to steal and selectively broadcast” the classified conversation.
He said it was a part of the government’s in-house project to “record services, challenges and achievements” of the Rouhani government, undertaken by the Center of Strategic Studies under the presidential office.