President Biden’s effort to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran may be in jeopardy after a leaked tape exposed deep divisions between military leaders and diplomats inside Iran, with the credibility of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif now in doubt at a crucial moment in negotiations.
The tape of Mr. Zarif, recorded as part of a government-sponsored Iranian history project and leaked to media late Sunday night, sheds new light on the inner workings of Iranian politics and the competing factions angling for power in Tehran. It was made public less than two months before critical elections that could hand a victory to hard-liners who want Iran to take a much tougher tack in talks with the U.S.
In the leaked recording, Mr. Zarif seems to confirm what Republicans and other critics of rapprochement with Iran have long argued: that Iran’s nationalist military has the final say on matters of national security and that any promises made by Mr. Zarif and his team should not be trusted.
For Biden administration officials now holding indirect talks with Iranian diplomats, the recording is a sobering reminder of where the true power lies.
“In the Islamic Republic, the military field rules,” Mr. Zarif said in the recording, first reported by the London-based Iran International media outlet and later obtained by The New York Times and other news organizations.
“I have sacrificed diplomacy for the military field rather than the field servicing diplomacy,” Mr. Zarif reportedly says in the tape, which was recorded in March as part of an hourslong conversation with an Iranian journalist.
The Iranian foreign minister detailed apparent clashes with Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in January 2020. Mr. Zarif bemoaned how Soleimani and other military leaders tried to undermine the Obama-era nuclear deal between Iran and the U.S. and how the IRGC pushed policies that made diplomacy with the West much more difficult, such as aligning with President Bashar Assad in Syria’s brutal civil war.
The comments by Mr. Zarif, a polarizing figure in Iran long distrusted by regime hard-liners, touched off a firestorm. Some Iranian lawmakers have called for his resignation. Although Mr. Zarif’s freedom to maneuver and cut deals is constrained domestically, he is fluent in English and in many ways has become the public face of the Iranian regime.
Mr. Zarif has amassed a great deal of influence in corners of U.S. and European civil society. His central role in negotiating the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with Secretary of State John Kerry and other top foreign ministers greatly enhanced his profile on the world stage.
Mr. Zarif also appears to have close working relationships with top diplomatic officials inside the Biden administration, including Mr. Kerry, now the administration’s point man on climate issues, and Iran special envoy Robert Malley, both of whom took leading roles in negotiating the 2015 nuclear pact. Mr. Malley is now back at the center of negotiations over a return to the JCPOA or another deal like it. President Trump ended U.S. involvement in the agreement in 2018.
Mr. Zarif’s influence extends beyond administration circles, officials say. High-ranking American intelligence officials have described him as “the bat signal” for a network of left-leaning analysts and professors who favor a softer approach toward Iran from Washington. They say Mr. Zarif sets the agenda with talking points that are echoed by allies inside the U.S.
Critics say the Iranian foreign minister’s comments, which he clearly did not intend to become public, expose the reality that the U.S. is negotiating with a figure whose has little real power. They say IRGC leaders, and ultimately Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will make any decisions about the future of the JCPOA.
“Zarif has no power, as he now admits, but his mendacity on behalf of the brutal regime continues to beguile naive Westerners who pretend he does. They are unwittingly, or, in some cases, wittingly, serving the IRGC and Khamenei,” Mark Dubowitz, chief executive at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, tweeted Monday.
In another revelation that may prove problematic for the U.S., Mr. Zarif said Mr. Kerry privately kept him apprised of secret Israeli military actions in Syria, where Iranian-backed forces are aiding the Syrian government.
Mr. Zarif reportedly said on the audiotape that Mr. Kerry told him that Israeli forces had attacked Iranian targets in Syria at least 200 times. Mr. Zarif expressed “astonishment” at the revelation, according to The New York Times.
Iran-backed militias operate inside Syria and have been the targets of Israeli military strikes. Mr. Biden ordered an airstrike against an Iranian militia in Syria earlier this year after the militia targeted U.S. troops stationed in neighboring Iraq.
Although the Israeli strikes are not surprising, it is noteworthy that Mr. Kerry discussed the matter with Mr. Zarif. It’s not clear, though, exactly when those conversations took place. Even after Mr. Kerry left the State Department with Mr. Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Zarif remained in contact. By Mr. Kerry’s own acknowledgment, they met in person several times.
The former senator from Massachusetts defended the contacts while he was a private citizen by saying they were conducted openly. He told radio host Hugh Hewitt that he intended to find out “what Iran might be willing to do in order to change the dynamic in the Middle East for the better.”
Mr. Kerry has strongly denied assertions that he “coached” Mr. Zarif on how to deal with the hostile Trump administration.
Chaos at home
The leak of the Zarif interview could also add to a sense of chaos inside Iran just weeks after a suspicious power outage at Iran’s Natanz nuclear enrichment facility that Tehran claims was caused by an Israeli sabotage operation.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh did not dispute the authenticity of the recording late Sunday but called the leak illegal. He said it had been selectively edited. Iranian state-run media outlets such as the Fars News Agency largely ignored the controversy and instead highlighted other comments by Mr. Zarif that were more positive about Soleimani and other military figures.
The U.S. and Iran say progress has been made in indirect talks managed by the major European powers in recent weeks in Vienna on bringing Washington and Tehran back into compliance with the 2015 agreement, but coordinating concessions from the two capitals remains a major challenge.
The Iranian regime reiterated Monday that the U.S. and its European allies must lift all economic sanctions before Tehran will roll back aspects of its nuclear program. The Biden administration has insisted that Iran cut back its uranium enrichment before any sanctions will be lifted.
Meanwhile, former Trump administration officials say Mr. Zarif’s comments underscore the magnitude of Mr. Trump’s decision to target Soleimani. The airstrike led to Iranian retaliation against U.S. forces stationed in Iraq and nearly brought the two sides to all-out war. By Mr. Zarif’s acknowledgment, though, it appears to have eliminated a key hard-liner in Tehran.
“Our administration’s exquisite strike on Qassem Soleimani had a massive impact on Iran and the Middle East. You don’t have to take my word for it. Ask [Mr. Zarif],” former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted Monday. “President Biden still thinks it was a mistake.”