NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - In a leaked audiotape that offers a glimpse into the behind-the scenes power struggles of Iranian leaders, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the Revolutionary Guard call the shots, overruling many government decisions and ignoring advice.
In one extraordinary moment on the tape that surfaced Sunday, Zarif departed from the reverential official line on General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Guard's elite Quds Force, the foreign-facing arm of Iran's security apparatus, who was killed by the United States in January 2020.
The general, Zarif said, undermined him at many steps, working with Russia to sabotage the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers and adopting policies toward Syria's long war that damaged Iran's interests.
"In the Islamic Republic, the military field rules," Zarif said in a three-hour taped conversation that was a part of an oral history project documenting the work of the current administration.
"I have sacrificed diplomacy for the military field rather than the field servicing diplomacy."
The audio was leaked at a critical moment for Iran, as the country is discussing the framework for a possible return to a nuclear deal with the United States and other Western powers. Talks through intermediaries have been taking place in Geneva.
It is unclear what effect, if any, the revelations will have on those talks, or on Zarif's position.
The recording, of a conversation between Zarif and an economist named Saeed Leylaz, an ally, was not meant for publication, as the foreign minister can repeatedly be heard saying on the audio.
A copy was leaked to the London-based Persian news channel Iran International, which first reported on the recording and shared it with The New York Times.
On it, Zarif confirms what many have long suspected: that his role as the representative of the Islamic Republic on the world stage is severely constricted. Decisions, he said, are dictated by the supreme leader or, frequently, the Revolutionary Guard.
Iran's foreign ministry did not dispute the authenticity of the recording but questioned the motive for the leak. Saeed Khatibzadeh, a spokesperson for the ministry, called it "unethical politics" and said the portion of the audio released did not represent the full scope of Zarif's comments about his respect and love for Soleimani.
In the portions that were leaked, Zarif does praise the general and says they worked productively together in the prelude to the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. He also says that by assassinating him in Iraq, the United States delivered a major blow to Iran, more damaging than if it had wiped out an entire city in an attack.
But he said some of Soleimani's actions also damaged the country, citing, as one example, his moves against the nuclear deal Iran reached in 2015 with Western nations, the United States among them (the Trump administration later renounced it).
Zarif said Russia did not want the agreement to succeed and "put all its weight" behind creating obstacles because it was not in Moscow's interests for Iran to normalise relations with the West. To that end, Zarif said, Soleimani travelled to Russia to "demolish our achievement," meaning the nuclear deal.
Zarif took issue with Soleimani on other fronts, criticising him for allowing Russian warplanes to fly over Iran to bomb Syria and for moving military equipment and personnel to Syria on the state-owned Iran Air airline without the knowledge of the government and deploying Iranian ground forces to Syria.
By Sunday night, Zarif's critics were calling for his resignation, saying he had threatened Iran's national security by revealing to the world the country's inner politics. Even his supporters expressed concern that the comments could influence the presidential elections in late June and harm candidates from the reform faction, which Zarif is associated with, by reinforcing voter apathy and the idea that elected officials are not really in charge.
The leak follows a series of security breaches within Iran's intelligence and government circles that have been implicated in two assassinations and two explosions at the Natanz nuclear site. A former vice-president, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, said that the publication of Zarif's audio was "tantamount to Israel stealing the nuclear documents" from Iran.
Some analysts said the audio would undermine Iranian diplomats' authority at a sensitive window of the negotiations.
"This ties the hands of the negotiators," said Sina Azodi, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council.
"It represents Zarif as someone who is not trustworthy domestically, and overall paints a picture that Iran's foreign policy is dictated by theatre policies of the military and Zarif is a nobody."
Zarif acknowledged on the tape that when it comes to negotiations, he is bound not just by the directions of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but by the demands of the Guard. He said Khamenei had recently "forcefully rebuked" him for straying from the official line when he said Iran was willing to work with the United States to choreograph steps toward returning to a deal.
"The structure of our foreign ministry is mostly security oriented," Zarif said.
Zarif said he was kept in the dark on government actions - sometimes to his embarrassment.
On the night that Iran decided to retaliate against the United States for the killing of Soleimani, two Quds Force commanders went to see the Iraqi prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, to inform him that in about 45 minutes Iran would fire missiles at a military base where US troops were stationed, Zarif said. The Americans knew about the strike before he did.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry informed him that Israel had attacked Iranian interests in Syria at least 200 times, to his astonishment, Zarif said.
He also pointed to the cover-up of the Guard's downing of a Ukrainian jetliner in Iran that killed 176 on board on the morning after Iran attacked the air base.
The Guard knew immediately that their missiles had hit the plane, but only admitted to it three days later.
Soon after the plane was brought down, Zarif attended a small meeting of the national security council with two top military commanders, and said the world was demanding an explanation. The commanders, he said, attacked him and told him to send out a tweet saying the news was not true.
"I said, 'If it was hit by a missile, tell us so we can see how we can resolve it,' " Zarif recalled. "God is my witness, the way they reacted to me is as if I had denied the existence of God."