A leaked audiotape offers a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes power struggles of the leaders of Iran. According to a report by the New York Times, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that the Revolutionary Guard Corps overrules many government decisions and ignores advice.
"In one extraordinary moment on the tape that surfaced Sunday, Mr. Zarif departed from the reverential official line on Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Guards’ elite Quds Force, the foreign-facing arm of Iran’s security apparatus, who was killed by the United States in January 2020," said the report. "The general, Mr. 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."
The recording of a conversation in March between Zarif and an economist named Saeed Leylaz, an ally, was not meant for publication. 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. Zarif complained that decisions are dictated by the supreme leader or, frequently, the Revolutionary Guard.
"In the portions that were leaked, Mr. Zarif does praise the general and says they worked productively together in the prelude to the U.S. 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," according to the report. "But he said some of Mr. Suleimani’s actions also damaged the country, citing, as one example, his moves against the nuclear deal Iran reached in 2015 with Western nations."
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 normalize relations with the West. To that end, Mr. Zarif said, General Suleimani traveled to Russia to "demolish our achievement," meaning the nuclear deal, according to the report.
Zarif took issue with General Suleimani on other fronts, criticizing 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 Iranian airline without the knowledge of the government. And also, for deploying Iranian ground forces to Syria.
Dr. Raz Zimmt, an Israeli expert on Iranian politics, said that the interview is in the framework of a project to document oral testimony of senior officials who served in the administration of Rouhani whose term will end soon. "Like every oral testimony, the testimony of Zarif should be considered as reflecting his personal views, his commentary on the events that occurred over the last eight years, and no less important: the manner in which he wants to preserve his legacy and that of the administration in which he served," Zimmt explained.
"I, for example, am not impressed by his reference to the efforts by Russia to torpedo the nuclear agreement. His claim that Soleimani visited Moscow as part of a step aimed at torpedoing the nuclear agreement looks to me to be detached from reality. Soleimani's visit took place amid assessments in Tehran and Moscow (on which there are testimonies from various sources) that the Assad regime was on the verge of collapse and that direct Russian and Iranian involvement was needed to save it."
"As such, Zarif's comments should be taken with a grain of salt. In the end, strategic decisions in Iran are not made by the Revolutionary Guard but rather by the supreme council for national security, which is headed by the president, and whose members are the heads of the authorities, the ministers of foreign affairs, internal affairs and intelligence, two representatives of the leader, the chief of staff and the head of the organization for planning and budgeting. The decisions are subject to the approval of the leader and are mostly made by consensus." Zimmt made a surprising comment regarding the source of the leak – according to him, it was apparently an Iranian official.
Another source that addressed the topic was the Politico website. "According to leaked audio revealed Sunday by The New York Times, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said (John) Kerry told him that Israel attacked Iranian assets in Syria 'at least 200 times.' Zarif added that he was surprised that Kerry would reveal that sensitive information to him," the report said. On his part, Kerry denied the allegation in a tweet. "This never happened — either when I was Secretary of State or since."