Power politics in Iran

Fallout from Mohammed Javad Zarif's political bombshell

An interview by Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif has provoked outrage in Iran. In it, Zarif criticised the Revolutionary Guards' destructive role in both the nuclear agreement and the Syrian war. Ali Sadrzadeh has the details

Since the age of 18, Mohammed Javad Zarif has consistently presented himself as unshakeably convinced, media savvy and power conscious. Even when he was proselytising for political Islam under the California sun during the student movements of the 1970s, nearly 42 years ago.

Mohammed Javad Zarif weathered all the power fluctuations of the past century and has also managed to survive the often life-threatening intrigues of the Islamic Republic. Today, he is 61 years old and has almost reached the end of his march through the institutions. His term as foreign minister is due come to an end in a few weeks.

What will become of the man some call "the smiling face of a ruthless theocracy" after that, no one knows. Some credulous circles see him as the future president of Iran, others would rather see him in prison than in the presidential palace. For a dead, but still omnipresent adversary could now prove Zarif's undoing.

The long shadow of Qassem Soleimani

"Hunter of hunters" – these three words were written under the picture of the commander of the Quds Brigades, Qassem Soleimani, which adorned the T-shirts of millions of Shia pilgrims who tried to cross the border with Iraq in the hot summer of 2016 in the Iranian desert. Their destination was the city of Karbala, 280 kilometres away.

The heroic designation for the head of the Quds, the outlying arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, came from Putin supporters, Iranian media claimed. Since then, the global pandemic has put an end to mass pilgrimages to Karbala, and Soleimani was killed in a drone strike at the Baghdad airport in January 2020 on Trump's orders. Last Sunday (4/25), Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif set the record straight about the general's true image, including his relationship with Putin.

Qassem Soleimani, former commander of the Quds Brigades (photo: Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/picture alliance/AP)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif under pressure: in a "secret interview", Zarif painted a picture of Qassem Soleimani, the former commander of the Al-Quds brigade, as "a man with a destructive drive for dominance, a power-conscious jack-of-all-trades who wanted to dominate everything and everyone. He describes him as a man with an all-encompassing claim to power who would answer to no one," says Iran expert Ali Sadrzadeh. Zarif has since apologised for his critical remarks toward the political system and the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) in particular

Iran's hero was a vassal of Putin

For six years, radical media in Tehran had circulated information that it was General Soleimani who persuaded Putin to intervene in the Syrian war during a visit to Moscow. Now, however, the chief diplomat in Tehran is speaking his own truth: according to Zarif, it was the other way around. Putin ordered the commander of Iran's Quds Brigades to Moscow.

Is Javad Zarif risking everything? Why is he revealing valuable secret and actionable information that can only originate from his country's worst enemies? Is he trying to commit "political suicide", as some Internet commentators write? What is his aim? Often, certainties are as fleeting as time itself. But can truth strike like a bomb, or lead to dramatic aftershocks, as in an earthquake? Without doubt, it can.

Five days ago, Javad Zarif detonated this media bomb, the far-reaching consequences of which are only gradually becoming apparent. They will determine his personal fate, as well as the outcome of the upcoming presidential election in June, for which the Revolutionary Guards are already preparing.

The "bombshell" was a three-hour recording of a seven-hour interview with economic journalist Said Leylaz, a confidant of President Hassan Rouhani, held two months ago. According to a statement, the journalist wanted to conduct interviews with the president and his ministers for an "oral history" project about the Rouhani years in office, which are coming to an end.

 

During the interview, Zarif emphasises several times that what he says must not be made public, that he is only telling stories for the future, for history and historiography, and that is the only reason he is speaking so openly. The interviewer, too, probably did not intend to publish what he said, or at least that is what he claims. It is still unclear who leaked the recording of the conversation.

Last Sunday (25.04), all Persian-language TV stations abroad broadcast the recording. Since then, the political aftershocks have been tremendous.

During the rather boring conversation, Zarif shares nothing but the truth that has long been known: the Revolutionary Guards determine everything in Iran, both domestically and in terms of foreign policy. Zarif then provides examples of their central position and adds telling details that are likely to influence future debates and conflicts in the entire region.

Only for the history books?

Interestingly Zarif rarely uses the word "Revolutionary Guards". Instead, he speaks of Meydan میدان)). This Persian word can be translated as place, scene, field, but also battlefield, depending on the context. Zarif, however, is mainly concerned with the "commander of the Meydan", meaning the dead but still highly revered Qassem Soleimani.

Aside from the obligatory homages, Zarif paints a picture of Soleimani as a man with a destructive drive for dominance, a power-conscious jack-of-all-trades who wanted to dominate everything and everyone. He describes him as a man with an all-encompassing claim to power who would answer to no one.

"In the Islamic Republic, the Meydan (the battlefield, meaning the Revolutionary Guards) rules. I sacrificed diplomacy to it, but the Meydan never helped diplomacy," Zarif says, offering telling examples and sometimes startling details to back up his argument which historians and, in some cases, the courts will indeed have to deal with.

Putin seeks permanent tension

Zarif focuses on four issues in describing Soleimani's role: the nuclear agreement, Russia, the Syrian war, and tensions with Saudi Arabia. He notes that Russia does not want a genuine detente between Iran and the West; on the contrary. Moscow, he says, wants ongoing, but manageable tension between Tehran and Washington.

Prior to the conclusion of the international nuclear agreement in 2015 between Iran and leading powers, General Soleimani had repeatedly sought to travel to Moscow, but Putin had always refused. It was only after the signing of the agreement that Putin summoned Soleimani to see him in September 2015, he said.

After the two met, the Revolutionary Guards were sent to Syria as ground forces to assist the Russian air force. According to Zarif, this intervention in Syria was not solely about Assad and IS, but also about undoing the fruits of the nuclear agreement. Which it did. The Revolutionary Guards executed Russian policy in Iran. And head of state Ali Khamenei was positioned at the heart of the Meydan.

 

Worth less than a porter

When the interviewer asks with a sardonic laugh, "Where do you stand in this order?", Zarif responds with a Persian saying that represents deep degradation and humiliation:

"نظام باقلی هم بار من نمیکند"- "To the system, I am less than a carrier of beans". Then he added, "Maybe I'll end up someday, somewhere, in a striped shirt."

This is not unrealistic. Four days after the conversation was published, calls were made to put Zarif on trial. Last Wednesday, the prosecutor general in Tehran said investigations were already underway against Zarif over the audio file.

"Every time I was about to leave for the nuclear talks, Soleimani would enumerate point by point what issues I should bring up and what results I should achieve. Yet I never managed to convince Soleimani to help the diplomatic effort."

Civil aviation at the service of the Quds Brigades

Once the nuclear agreement was signed and sanctions on Iran Air were lifted in December 2015, Iran began holding talks with Boeing and Airbus with the goal of buying new planes. "A few weeks later, then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told me that since sanctions on Iran Air had been lifted, the airline's flights to Syria had increased sixfold. Neither President Rouhani nor the transport minister knew anything about this. When I asked the head of Iran Air if that was true, he replied, yes, it was an order from General Soleimani. And then when I asked Soleimani why he didn't use Mahan Air for his military purposes as he had before, he replied, Iran Air was safer." The fact that the civilian Iranian airline was carrying military goods to Syria did enormous damage to Iranian credibility.

The audio file contains a wealth of such startling and historically interesting details on the secret diplomacy over a civil war in a foreign land that has since produced hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of refugees. "It was Secretary of State Kerry who reported to me at the time that the Israelis had already bombed Iranian forces in Syria 200 times," the irate foreign minister is heard saying. Seen in this light, this file is undoubtedly a document of historical value. "We were not even allowed to know how many Iranians were killed in Syria."

Confession of a crime

The background to the downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight No. 752 in Tehran on 8 January 2020 is also interesting. Two Revolutionary Guards missiles led to the downing of the passenger plane, killing 167 passengers and nine crew members. The disaster – the bereaved families call it a crime – occurred shortly after sunrise on a Wednesday.

For two days after the shooting down, there was silence at first, then there were lies and contradictions. The outside world was already talking about the shooting down and the likely intent of the Revolutionary Guards. "On Friday morning, I went to the National Security Council," Zarif says. "Five military and intelligence people were sitting there. I told them, for two days, the world has been talking about missiles and launching: if you did this, tell me, so I can try to explain it to the world somehow.' They showed me the door as if I were a blasphemer and said, get out there, write a tweet and deny everything." If this crime ever goes to trial, this statement by Zarif could pass for court-proof evidence. Survivors of the victims abroad are currently trying to sue the Iranian leadership in various countries.

Was it Netanyahu?

One could fill entire pages with similar information, backroom whispers and further background from Zarif's conversation. In a meeting broadcast on Iranian television, President Rouhani angrily shouted at the intelligence minister present that he should find and relentlessly pursue those who had stolen this secret file and passed it on to foreign broadcasters. Experts are racking their brains over who could have done this. Will a "guilty party" soon be paraded on television?

In any case, former Vice President Mohammed Ali Abtahi is already comparing the leaking of these three-hour files to the theft of the secret nuclear file that Israel's President Benjamin Netanyahu gleefully presented to the world in 2018.

Ali Sadrzadeh

© Iran Journal/Qantara.de 2021

You may also like:

U.S. sanctions against Iran: The lonely "axis of evil"

Interview with Nader Hashemi: Violence "reflects the Iranian regime's desperation"

Parliamentary elections in Iran: Era of the Khamenei vassals

More on this topic