What the Leaked Zarif Interview Says About the Power Dynamic of Iranian Leadership

Plus, what to make of the Iranian foreign minister’s claim that John Kerry told him of Israeli covert operations.

A three-hour interview containing Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s seemingly unfettered commentary on his political colleagues and superiors circulated Sunday, offering a unique look into the inner-workings of the regime. “I sacrificed diplomacy for the battlefield,” Zarif, Tehran’s “friendly face” to the West, said in the audio obtained by Iran International. “In the Islamic Republic, the battlefield rules.”

The story gained traction in the United States for Zarif’s revelations that former Secretary of State John Kerry disclosed classified information on hundreds of covert Israeli operations targeting Iranian and Iranian-backed forces in Syria. Those claims are worth digging into (more below), but less attention has been paid to a striking series of anecdotes in which Zarif outlines the many occasions that military ventures by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) came at the expense of his own chosen foreign policy path. 

Although the conversation—recorded as an oral history—was not meant for publication until President Hassan Rouhani’s administration leaves office later this year, Zarif tells the legacy-minded story of a hard-fought but ultimately futile battle for political influence as a reformist in Iran. 

The leak’s source and its motivations remain unknown, but Americans of all political persuasions were quick to seize on its contents to shore up their own preconceived notions about the Islamic Republic amid another week of nuclear negotiations in Vienna. Experts, on the other hand, have urged the media and news consumers to avoid the temptation to link developments in Tehran’s domestic politics to its relations with the United States. 

Zarif’s musings could be exploited by the Iranians to address shifting American administration policies and priorities, i.e., to make the case that the U.S. should strike a deal with Zarif to empower him in the presence of more hawkish forces out of Tehran. But they ultimately point to the absolute primacy of IRGC and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Iran’s diplomatic and civilian realms, which existed long before U.S. diplomatic engagement with the current regime. 

“It highlights a power dynamic that a lot of Western observers and media fail to fully understand, and that is that Iran’s foreign minister does not have independent decision-making power,” Jason Brodsky, senior Middle East analyst and editor at Iran International, told The Dispatch. “Washington likes to obsess over the reformists versus the hardliners: That’s a distraction. The key decision-maker in any Iranian government is the supreme leader.”

Take, for example, the time that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad visited Tehran in 2019. Zarif regarded the trip as an affront to his authority as foreign minister and resigned. Rouhani—and behind the scenes, Supreme Leader Khamenei—rejected Zarif’s departure and he has continued to serve as the country’s diplomatic head to present day.  

“Ultimately, the supreme leader values him as a propagandist,” said Richard Goldberg, senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and former member of the U.S. National Security Council. “He is the charmer of the West. His job is to sound and look like the perfect gentleman for a Western audience, so that people in Washington or Brussels or elsewhere can sell the idea of doing deals with Iran and giving sanctions relief to Iran.”

But Zarif’s frequent and explicit grievances with Iran’s highest ranking commander, Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, represent a break from the usual public deference to martyrdom among Iranian government officials. Suleimani was killed in a targeted U.S. airstrike in Baghdad in January 2020.

Although he praised the general’s military prowess—at one point claiming that his killing by the U.S. was more damaging than if an entire city had been destroyed—Zarif noted particular concern with the IRGC’s military intervention on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. 

At one point in the interview, he accused Suleimani of transporting military armaments and personnel to Damascus via Iran Air, the state-owned civilian airline company. At another, Zarif criticized the general’s seemingly unilateral decision to allow Russian bombers to fly over Iranian airspace en route to Syrian conflict zones.

“Zarif doesn’t know what’s going on in Yemen. He doesn’t know what’s going on in Syria. He doesn’t know what’s going on in Lebanon or in Iraq, and he’s admitted to it,” Alex Vatanka, head of Middle East Institute's Iran program, told The Dispatch.  “Every foreign minister since ’79 has essentially been more of a messenger than someone who formulates foreign policy.”

Suleimani also allegedly encroached on Zarif’s diplomatic turf, evidenced by his 2015 visit to Russia after the nuclear deal was first conceived. “That trip was made upon Moscow’s initiative without the Iranian Foreign Ministry having any control on it. Its objective was to destroy the JCPOA,” Zarif claimed. Experts have since cast doubt on the authenticity of this particular assertion, as well as Zarif’s insistence that Rouhani had no knowledge of Suleimani’s meddling. 

Another outlandish remark in the tape, one that The New York Times has been accused of “burying” at the end of its breaking story, is Kerry’s alleged disclosure of covert Israeli military interventions to Zarif in one of their meetings during the Trump administration. “It was former U.S. Foreign Secretary John Kerry who told me Israel had launched more than 200 attacks on Iranian forces in Syria,” he said at one point.

Kerry’s slow-on-the-draw denial didn’t help his case among congressional Republicans, who immediately called for responses ranging from an investigation to Kerry’s resignation or impeachment from the Biden administration’s national security council. 

“I rise today on the Senate floor to call for the resignation of John Kerry as a member of the Biden Administration's National Security Council. … In my entire time in the Senate, I’ve never called for anyone’s resignation,” Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska said before his colleagues Monday. “If this is true, it’s traitorous and Kerry needs to go,” he added on Twitter.

“It’s unfathomable that any U.S. diplomat, past or present, would leak intelligence to the world's leading sponsor of terrorism at the expense of one of our staunchest allies,” GOP Rep. Mike Gallagher said in a statement. “If this report is accurate and he did leak intelligence, John Kerry should resign.”

“Until we have clarity and know the truth, President Biden must remove John Kerry from all access to and briefings on national security intelligence. If these allegations are true, he must resign. Above all, this clearly shows why the United States cannot entertain re-entering the failed Iran Nuclear Deal,” Sen. Rick Scott said on Twitter Monday. “We must stand by our great ally, Israel, and maintain harsh sanctions against the Iranian government.” 

Note the conditional language in each of the above statements. While the authenticity of the tape is generally taken at face value, including by those in the regime, the accuracy of Zarif’s offhand comment has been subject to scrutiny.

Kerry, who acknowledged having met with Zarif “three or four times” between January 2017 and September 2018, wholly denied any such discussion taking place.  State Department spokesman Ned Price declined to comment on the leak but indicated problems with the timeline, implying that Israeli attacks on Iranian targets in Syria would have been public knowledge by the date of the alleged conversation. 

Price’s defense is difficult to assess, given ambiguities as to when Kerry allegedly provided the information to Zarif. Haaretz broke in August 2017 that Jerusalem had carried out 100 strikes on Hezbollah and Syrian convoys between 2012-2017. A Reuters report from September 2018, referenced by Kerry in his defense, draws on the same story to claim that Israel had carried out “200 strikes in 2 years”—the number allegedly divulged to Kerry.

“In August 2017, the outgoing chief of Israel’s air force told Haaretz newspaper that his corps had carried out ‘nearly 100 strikes’ in Syria. That left another 100 in the time since, according to the official Israeli accounts issued on Tuesday—or roughly two a week.”

If the timeline above is confusing, it’s because it doesn’t add up. Recall that Haaretz cited 100 strikes over the course of five years. To reach its headline conclusion of “200 strikes in 2 years” in 2018, Reuters confines those first 100 operations to a date range of about a year. 

These inconsistencies don’t absolve or condemn Kerry, but they’re notable as observers purport to have a clear understanding of when the information was passed to Zarif and when it became public knowledge. Also significant is Zarif’s alleged “astonishment” at receiving the news.

“Zarif’s comments have produced a strange situation in which those who claimed Zarif had influence on Iranian policy and could be trusted to deal with Americans have been proven wrong,” Norman Roule, former U.S. national intelligence manager for Iran, told The Dispatch. “At the same time, those who claimed Zarif could never be believed are now arguing that we should take seriously his comments on alleged revelations by the former secretary of state.” 

To understand the latter discrepancy, it’s worth revisiting the context of the conversation. Assuming that Zarif had no hand in the leak—which isn’t a foregone conclusion—the conversation was a brutally honest, internal oral history project conducted with a friend, economist Saeed Leylaz. These circumstances are meaningfully different from Zarif’s public statements, in English, and catered to Western audiences for the sake of furthering his own country’s national interests. 

But assuming the conversation’s publication was the work of Zarif, it would be all the more bizarre that he would go out of his way to slander his political ally and interlocutor in John Kerry. 

A closer reading finds that Kerry wasn’t even the subject of Zarif’s comment. Rather, Zarif was bemoaning his own exclusion from Iranian military intel. It’s almost certain that the Guards knew about Israel’s strikes in Syria before the media and before the U.S., as defenders of Kerry have pointed out, but it’s also likely that they withheld that information from Zarif. Consider this updated excerpt from the Times.

“‘Kerry has to tell me that Israel has attacked you 200 times in Syria?’ says Mr. Zarif, who complains in the recording that Iran’s military has long kept him in the dark on crucial matters. ‘You did not know?’ the interviewer asks twice. Both times, Mr. Zarif replies, ‘No, no.’” 

“Basically, what Zarif was saying is ... ‘it’s an embarrassment that I as the foreign minister of Iran need to hear certain things from the Americans about what’s going on with Iranian interests in Syria.’ It sounds pretty crazy, but in fact we know this happens because when Bashar al-Assad showed up in Tehran, Zarif didn’t know about it,” Vatanka told The Dispatch. “So this isn’t something that Zarif is making up, and that’s why people call him the useful idiot for the regime.” 

All of these considerations raise a few questions: Who leaked the audio, why now, and what do they stand to gain? Given who had access to the tape and the different agendas its publication furthers, there are several plausible scenarios and none of them involve John Kerry.

The first theory, and the simplest, is that the audio was circulated by Zarif’s political rivals to weaken his hand should he announce his candidacy in the June presidential election. Although Zarif has publicly stated that he has no interest in throwing his hat into the ring, there is some push for him to run from within the Rouhani government and among its allies. 

Zarif’s recorded criticism of Suleimani, Vatanka said, “almost takes him out of contention.” The political fallout in Tehran following its publication was swift and severe, as conservative politicians and pundits demanded his resignation or impeachment. 

The foreign minister “blames others for the shortcomings and weaknesses of the diplomacy of the regions under his management,” one commentator wrote in Resalat, a pro-Khamenei newspaper. 

“Zarif had better be wise enough to step down or he will be impeached and dismissed by the revolutionary parliament,” hardline member of Parliament Hossein Haghverdi reportedly said, adding that Zarif’s comments pose a threat to the Islamic Republic’s national security and undermine Iranian leverage in negotiations with the West. 

In an apparent attempt at public relations damage control, the foreign minister paid tribute to Suleimani and Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was killed in the same strike, at a memorial in Baghdad earlier this week. In an Instagram post documenting the visit, Zarif apologized that his stated policy differences with the deceased general were perceived by so many as a personal slight. 

“Those who believe the leak of Zarif’s comments is part of a master plan should be careful. It is possible the leak occurred as the result of domestic political pettiness,” Roule said. 

Political expediency, of course, is not relegated to one end of the partisan spectrum. Some observers have noted that it may be Zarif and his supporters who benefit most from the leak. “As his tenure as foreign minister comes to an end, Zarif is seeking to protect his legacy,” Roule added. “As ever, Zarif’s comments are self-serving.  Unsurprisingly, he says nothing that puts his personal work in a bad light.”

In his discussion of the Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 downing that killed 176 people early last year, for example, Zarif said that he implored the IRGC to tell “the truth so we could ‘heal’ the wounds in some way.” Whether or not this is an accurate recollection of the conversation is unknown, but it certainly paints him as a sympathetic figure to Iranian and Western audiences alike. 

While these two possibilities are indicative of the regime’s political infighting, some experts believe that the leak was not a leak at all—but rather a carefully orchestrated plan from the supreme leader down to project a mirage of pluralism within the government. 

“The intention is to give the impression to the world that there are schisms within the Iranian regime,” Vatanka said. “The supreme leader wants to have this idea that there is a political competition in place in Iran, where you have a group of people who are more conservative and a group of people who are more liberal within the Islamic Republic.” 

Zarif is critical in maintaining this notion. As a U.S.-educated, suit-wearing, English-speaking diplomat, he broadcasts “moderation” to Western audiences without stepping on the toes of the institutions actually running the country. “They have this weird, delicate balance where they manage Zarif and make sure he doesn’t make decisions, but at the same time fan him with a little bit of adoration, so he hangs around,” Goldberg explained. 

This dynamic could factor in as Tehran seeks to exploit its nuclear file for sanctions relief. 

By manufacturing the perception of Zarif as a reasonable actor—regardless of his wholly unreasonable demands, like his recent request that the U.S. lift all nuclear and non-nuclear sanctions imposed since 2015—the regime demonstrates an acute understanding of Western diplomacy, where niceties can trump practicalities. 

By accepting the regime’s projection as truth, meanwhile, the United States and Europe demonstrate a total incomprehension of the Islamic Republic’s negotiation tactics.

“Some in the West believe that our engagement will transform the Islamic Republic into a regime that reflects Western political, and even social, values,” Roule explained. “The fact that some ascribe to us this agency is strange, especially given the results of engagement with Russia and China.”