Making Sense of Iranian Foreign Minister’s Leaked Comments

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has been forced to walk back some of his comments on the negative impact of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps on the country’s foreign policy. His leaked comments also show Mr. Zarif criticizing late Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2020. The comments have drawn a rare public rebuke from Iran’s supreme leader, following widespread criticism of the foreign minister. The incident raises questions about both the motivations for the leak and the impact the public dressing-down will have on the ongoing Vienna talks.

What is the immediate fallout?
Iranian Press TV reports that the leaked comments by Iran’s top diplomat drew immediate condemnation by a number of high-profile politicians, many of whom are running in the presidential elections on June 18. Of course, the most stinging rebuke came from the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, who called out “Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif for the latter’s ‘wrongful’ remarks about Iran’s foreign policy, the Quds Force of the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the force’s martyred commander, Lieutenant General Qassem Soleimani. Ayatollah Khamenei made the remarks in a live televised speech on Sunday in reference to a leaked audio file featuring allegations by Zarif about some occasions in which the country’s foreign policy had been ‘sacrificed’ in favor of the force’s activities.”

Given Mr. Zarif’s clearly weakened position and the ongoing indirect talks between Iran and the US in Vienna, The National editorial staff wonders whether Iranian officials involved in the talks are taking their orders from the Foreign Ministry or the IRGC: “The real question is what this latest development means for Iran’s political class, particularly as international talks in Vienna continue to try to formulate a new deal to limit Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. The leaks raise fresh concerns about the relevance of the diplomatic negotiating team that Iran has sent to the meeting. Representatives from the Foreign Ministry are in the Austrian capital, but with their own boss having admitted their powerlessness, it is increasingly obvious that the negotiators are possibly striking a deal, not with President Hassan Rouhani’s government, but with the IRGC.”

What and who really lie behind the leak?
The timing of the leak has raised uncomfortable questions about the motivation of those who authorized it and, more important, about what it says regarding the internal power dynamics in Iran. In a recent editorial, Mohammed Almezel, editor-at-large of Gulf News, suggests that perhaps the biggest takeaway from last week’s developments is that “all those breaches and leaks, at the top level, are signs of a regime in trouble. A revolution that has aged so much it is no longer able to protect its most cherished scientist and general [or] even stop a confidential conversation of its top diplomat from being leaked. Or was the Islamic republic a paper tiger all along?… It could very well be a combination of all three factors—a slouching revolutionary regime, factional fighting, and ineffective security system—that [are] behind the embarrassingly damaging breaches that continue uninterrupted in Iran.”

Jerusalem Post’s Seth Frantzman, zooming in on the content of Mr. Zarif’s leaked conversations, sees more evidence that the moderate/conservative narrative is a façade and that the leak may well have been yet another attempt by the Iranian regime to put pressure on the US delegation in Vienna: “It might be worth asking if this was all just an act designed to bring the US back to the table. Iran’s administration has already tried to use its upcoming elections as a way to encourage America to move faster, warning that ‘hard-liners’ might win. Iran is a sophisticated country and regime. Unlike Turkey, a top-down authoritarian and fascist one, Iran’s regime is willing to use more cunning and complex approaches. But overall, the regime is not divided between hard-liners and moderates; it is only hardliners…. The pretense that there is some mythical good part of the Iranian regime is only sung by Zarif at Western think tanks, his natural habitat. And now it has also been heard in ostensibly secret recordings.”

What next for Iran’s foreign minister?
Few, if any, of his fellow Iranians living abroad seem to have sympathy for Mr. Zarif. Camelia Entekhabifard, editor-in-chief of the Independent Persian and a guest op-ed writer for Asharq Alawsat, draws attention to the fact that, instead of resigning or being dismissed, Mr. Zarif “preferred to remain in the regime he is loyal to and to apologize to his boss. He did not prefer Iran and its people, but he unwittingly gave them a great service…. In its thousands of years of history, Iran has been involved in an endless battle between autocrats and those fighting for change. Autocrats come and go, but Iran, even if wounded and injured, remains…. Those who do not serve their people, but the ruling despot, won’t leave a good name for themselves in history. What remains is Iran and its good men and women.”

Writing for Arab News, Mohammed Al-Sulami, president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies, is similarly critical of Iran’s top diplomat, hastening to add that, if anything, the leaked comments revealed the “true face of the Iranian regime…. Zarif plainly acknowledges that, for Iran’s regime, diplomacy has become a soft-power tool to support its military objectives, rather than the military establishment being a last-resort tool of diplomacy…. All these revelations confirm that dealing with the Iranian diplomatic apparatus is a waste of time and effort. The most realistic and appropriate approach to negotiations with Iran is to hold them with the entities that control the country’s decision-making process, at the head of which come Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the ‘revolutionary’ establishment.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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