U.S. intelligence agencies are monitoring a political dispute between Iran’s foreign minister, who is a key player in nuclear talks, and the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the hard-line shock troops behind the Islamist regime in Tehran.
The dispute could impact the outcome of nuclear talks between Iran and the six nations that are expected to resume Thursday in Geneva.
“Do you think the America, which can take out all our defensive systems with one bomb, is afraid of our defensive system? Is America really not taking [military] action due [Iran‘s] military might?” Mr. Zarif said in response to a question at Tehran University.
His comments prompted a harsh reaction from several Iranian officials and state-controlled media. But the most significant criticism came a week later from IRGC commander Brig. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, who challenged the minister’s comments as “incorrect” and said Iran’s military could withstand any attack.
Gen. Jafari said Mr. Zarif lacks expertise in defense and security affairs, and insisted the IRGC maintains “remarkable” arms capabilities.
“If the enemy attacks and drops thousands of bombs, it will only succeed in destroying 10 to 20 percent of our missiles,” he said.
The general asserted that what forced “enemies” to negotiate lifting sanctions was “our security and defense capabilities.” And he claimed that Iran’s missiles are hidden throughout the country and cannot be knocked out with thousands of bombs.
The Pentagon in a recent report to Congress on Iran’s military supports the Zarif position, noting that Iran’s military “would be relatively ineffective against a direct assault by well-trained, sophisticated military such as that of the United States or its allies.”
Gen. Jafari’s unusual public attack on Mr. Zarif appeared to be a political effort to undo the damage the remarks caused to a major propaganda offensive. For the past several years, propaganda organs have sought to portray Tehran’s military as more powerful than it is. Almost weekly reports in state media have sought to highlight new and more powerful weapons developments, from high-speed torpedoes to armed drones to advanced missiles.
U.S. military officials have voiced skepticism about Iran’s reported military advances and said frequent reports of new weapons and capabilities are exaggerations.
What concerns U.S. diplomatic and intelligence analysts is Gen. Jafari’s criticism of the nuclear deal reached last month that calls for Iran to curb its uranium enrichment.
“We have given the maximum in this six-month interim agreement, and we have received the minimum,” Gen. Jafari said.
He also said the talks must be limited to the nuclear issue alone, and insisted that no more concessions be made.
Western critics of the talks have said they should include discussion of Iran ending its support for international terrorism, such as the weapons it supplies Lebanon’s Hezbollah and other terrorists.