Iranian FM accused of crossing ‘red lines’ after remarks leaked

Zarif complained of disproportionate role of military, Suleimani in diplomacy.
Tuesday 27/04/2021
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks in the capital Tehran, February 23, 2021. (AFP)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks in the capital Tehran, February 23, 2021. (AFP)

TEHRAN--Iran’s foreign ministry tried to downplay a leaked audiotape of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif complaining that the military played too strong a role in diplomacy.

His remarks sparked sharp criticism among conservatives who accused him of crossing “red lines”.

Foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said Zarif’s comments in the three-hour tape were “confidential” and should not have been released.

“What was published was not an interview with the media,” Khatibzadeh told reporters in Tehran.

Conservatives chafed at Zarif’s comments on the role of top Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani, killed in a US drone strike near the airport of the Iraqi capital Baghdad in January last year.

“In the Islamic republic the military field rules,” Zarif was reported as saying in the conversation.

“I have sacrificed diplomacy for the military field rather than the field servicing diplomacy,” he complained.

The conservative Fars news agency criticised Zarif for presenting himself during the conversation as “a symbol of diplomacy”, contrasting with Soleimani as a symbol of the “battlefield”.

The Fars agency quoted lawmaker Nasrollah Pejmanfar, who demanded “explanations” from the foreign ministry for the remarks.

“Mr. Zarif calls into question subjects appearing among the red lines of the Islamic republic,” Pejmanfar said.

Ministry spokesman Khatibzadeh played down the controversy, noting that Zarif said in the tape his “statements are his personal opinions”.

Zarif on Monday was in neighbouring Iraq, where he paid his respects to Soleimani, stopping at the site where he was assassinated.

At a press conference in Baghdad, Zarif called the late general “a “hero of the fight against Daesh”, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group, but made no reference to the controversy over the comments.

Electoral ambitions? 

In the leaked interview, aired by the London-based Iran International Persian-language satellite news channel late on Sunday, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said he had “zero” influence over Iran’s foreign policy.

“I have never been able to tell a military commander to do something in order to aid diplomacy,” Zarif said.

Without disputing the audio’s authenticity, the foreign ministry spokesman on Monday said that the news channel only published excerpts of the seven-hour interview with the foreign minister.

Using language rarely heard in politics in Iran, Zarif complained about the extent of influence the late IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani had over foreign policy, hinting that Soleimani tried to spoil Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal by colluding with Russia.

“He (Soleimani) asked me to make this or that concession or point almost every time I went to negotiate (with world powers),” Zarif said in the recording, that was aired on the TV’s Clubhouse channel on late Sunday.

“The (military) field’s success was more important than diplomacy’s success. I was negotiating for the (military) field’s success.”

Leader of the Guards’ clandestine overseas Quds Force, Soleimani was a pivotal figure who built up Iran’s network of proxy militias across the Middle East. He was killed in a US drone attack in Iraq last year.

Iran retaliated with a rocket attack on an Iraqi air base where US forces were stationed. Hours later, Iranian forces shot down a Ukrainian passenger airliner taking off from Tehran. Days later, Iran’s Guards admitted that the plane had been hit “mistakenly”.

“I said (at the Supreme National Security meeting) that the world is saying the plane was hit with missiles. If the plane was really hit with missiles, tell us so we can see how we can fix it,”‌ Zarif said in the recording.

“They told me :’no, go, go tweet and deny it’.”

Although Zarif said he had no intention of running in Iran’s June 18 presidential election, some critics said Zarif’s comments were aimed at gaining votes from Iranians disillusioned by a stalled economy and lack of political and social freedoms.

His name has been suggested by prominent “moderates” as a possible candidate for the election, in which several leading commanders of the Guards are also running for the top executive post.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) was set up after the 1979 Islamic Revolution to “protect the Shia clerical ruling system and revolutionary values.”  The Quds Force is the expeditionary force pushing Tehran’s aggressive agenda in the region and the world.