Persian media in London published footage of Muhammad Javad Zarif, who has been Minister of Foreign Affairs since 2013.
The leak sparked a heated debate in Iran, which is trying these days to salvage the nuclear deal and which is close to holding presidential elections.
President Hassan Rouhani, who said that the audio tape was stolen from the government’s secret file, said, “Every day, exciting stories that divide the country and the people are told.”
A power struggle
He said that the intelligence service should find out who was responsible immediately, as they are guilty of treason.
The struggle for power in the Iranian regime is well known, but the conflict may further complicate efforts to salvage the nuclear deal.
Iran, the United States and other major powers recently launched a third round of talks in Vienna over the future of the nuclear deal. The international agreement providing for access to Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions has not succeeded since former President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from it.
He criticizes the Revolutionary Guards
The audio recording was allegedly stolen by someone in the close circle of government and sent to two Persian news channels in London.
According to Rouhani, the two news channels are funded by Iran’s enemies, and are therefore banned in the country.
In the conversation, as Zarif speaks with an adviser to the president, the foreign minister criticized the Revolutionary Guards. Strong military force is believed to be interfering with Iranian diplomacy.
A gift from God
For extremist and conservative forces in Iran, the leak is a godsend ahead of the June presidential election. They mainly oppose the moderate line of Rouhani and Zarif and the government’s efforts to improve relations with the West.
The Commander of the Revolutionary Guard, Major General Hossein Salami, said on the force’s website that diplomacy without military force is just “words and voices.”
Some have responded particularly harshly to Zarif’s criticism of General Qassem Soleimani. He gained the legendary status of a martyr in Iran after he was killed in an American assassination attempt in January 2020.
“I sacrificed diplomacy for the sake of the battlefield, and I paid a higher price than the battlefield and sacrificed for the sake of diplomacy,” Zarif said.
According to the Iranian Foreign Ministry, Zarif’s conversation with a prominent economist lasted seven hours, and was not scheduled to be published but was kept for historians. Zarif denied his critics.
Iranian media quoted Zarif as saying, “This was a purely theoretical discussion and it should remain a secret and should not be exploited now with regard to internal power struggles.”
Despite the reactions, he stuck to the rhetoric. Observers in Tehran believe that the leaked footage could cost Zarif the mission. The issue could also weaken the pro-reform forces in the presidential election.
Potential presidential candidate
Zarif is the engineer behind the 2015 nuclear deal and was mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in the June 18 elections. Rouhani has sat for two periods and cannot hold out.
Rouhani distanced himself from Zarif’s comments, but he also considers the leak as part of a campaign from the extremes.
– Why exactly do certain things happen when we are on the verge of success in the Vienna nuclear negotiations, he asks.
The President believes that the opponents want to sabotage the talks in order to increase their chances in the elections. According to him, Iran is on the verge of reaching a compromise solution in Vienna that could also lead to the easing of US sanctions that have severely hurt the country’s economy.
“I don’t understand why the election campaign is more important to anyone than the national interests and the welfare of the people,” Rouhani said.
– The sanctions can only be lifted if we stand together, he adds.