A recording of Iran's foreign minister offering a blunt appraisal of diplomacy and the limits of power within the Islamic Republic has leaked out publicly, providing a rare look inside the country's theocracy.
The release of the comments by Mohammad Javad Zarif set off a firestorm within Iran, where officials carefully mind their words amid a cut-throat political environment that includes the powerful paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, ultimately overseen by the country's supreme leader. Zarif has been suggested as a possible candidate for Iran's June 18 presidential election as well.
Outside of Iran, Zarif's comments could also affect talks in Vienna aimed at finding a way for Tehran and the U.S. to both come into compliance with Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Already, sabotage targeted Iran's nuclear facility at Natanz during the talks as Tehran has begun enriching a small amount of uranium up to 60% purity, which edges the country closer to weapons-grade levels.
After the leak became public, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh did not dispute the tape's authenticity. He told journalists on Monday that the recording represented just a portion of a seven-hour interview Zarif gave to a well-known economist that was to be held for posterity by a think tank associated with the Iranian presidency.
Khatibzadeh called the release of the recording “illegal” and described it as “selectively” edited, though he and others did not offer opinions on how it became public.
Portions of the leaked interview first aired overnight on Iran International, a London-based, Farsi-language satellite news channel. Tehran has criticized Iran International in the past for its airing of a militant spokesman who praised a 2018 militant attack on a military parade in Ahvaz that killed at least 25 people, including a child. British regulators later rejected an Iranian complaint over the segment.
Iran International shared a file with a little over three hours of the interview with an Associated Press correspondent based in the United Arab Emirates on Monday.
In the interview, Zarif describes Russia as wanting to stop the nuclear deal, something apparently so sensitive that he warns the interviewer: “You definitely can never release this part.” Russia at the time had a frosty relationship with then-President Barack Obama, whose administration secured the deal with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Russia and Iran also at times have strained relations, despite being battlefield allies in Syria.
“If Iran hadn’t become Mr. (Donald) Trump’s priority, China and Russia would have become his priority,” Zarif said. “If, because of hostility with the West, we always need Russia and China, they don’t have to compete with anyone, and also they can always enjoy maximum benefits through us.”
Both China and Russia have been vocal proponents of returning to the nuclear deal. Their missions in Vienna did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.
The recordings also include Zarif offering criticism of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani's separate relations with Russia as well. A U.S. drone strike in 2020 killed Solemani in Baghdad, an attack that at the time brought the U.S. and Iran to the brink of war. Soleimani's funeral processions in Iran drew millions of people to the streets.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who pushed the Trump administration's pressure campaign on Iran, later linked to a story about the leaked tapes on Twitter. He described it as an “exquisite strike” that “had a massive impact on Iran and the Middle East.”
“You don’t have to take my word for it,” Pompeo wrote, noting Zarif's comments.
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