Amirali Hajizadeh, head of the aerospace division of the Revolutionary Guards
Amirali Hajizadeh, head of the aerospace division of the Revolutionary GuardsReuters

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s stance on the IRGC’s interference in Iranian foreign policy comes as a surprise to no one. Leaks and hints have often surfaced indicating how unhappy the Iranian foreign minister is with being given little role in key strategic issues. In reality, these issues, especially those of Iraq and Syria, are totally taken over by the IRGC leaders.

Zarif’s ire and torment over the control of IRGC commanders on issues relevant to his work goes back a long way. Perhaps the most well-known case was what happened in February 2019, when a crisis over his resignation emerged in an incident described at the time by the reformist newspaper Ebtekar as a “shuddering cry. ”

Zarif knows very well that Iran’s foreign policy is not the purview of his ministry alone. The Supreme Leader plays a primary role in formulating foreign policy guidelines.

There are also the IRGC, the president, and the many advisors in this theocratic complex. But Zarif protested at the time with a “hypothetical” resignation. He justified his move by saying that he “no longer has value” after he was made to miss meetings held between Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, visiting Tehran, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Rouhani.

After images of the meetings were released, it seems Jawad Zarif has no value as a foreign minister before the world, he himself said. Other officials in Tehran explained then that the issue of his absence from the meetings was just a “peg,” while the main reason for his resignation was the internal differences that followed the withdrawal of the US from the nuclear deal and holding him accountable.

The evidence is that he feels he has become the foreign minister of the nuclear issue, not the foreign minister of a state with complex international and regional relations. He is even absent from the most important issues of his ministry.

Now, the time factor is revealing in the crisis of the leaked audio recordings attributed to the Iranian minister, in which he castigates the IRGC’s actions and the reduction of the Iranian diplomatic apparatus’s role.

It is hard to make sense of this crisis outside of its timing.

We are talking here mainly about the nearing Iranian presidential elections in June, and the resumption of negotiations on the Iranian nuclear agreement in Vienna. Zarif seems to be very loyal to the mullahs’ regime. He is its soft face abroad—Some Western observers even call him the Goebbels of the Iranian regime.

But even with a secret meeting, he went too far in crossing the lines set by the mullahs with indirect criticism of General Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani has been elevated to the status of a saint by the mullahs. This is not only for his role in pursuing the regime’s goals.

The mullahs were unable to “avenge” his death, so they were forced to impart him with an aura to compensate for this failure and avoid being criticized by his family members, disciples and cronies. The leak, described by a Foreign Ministry statement as internal conversations taken out of context and not intended for release, involves Zarif’s rejection of the eminence grise in foreign policy, namely the IRGC and especially Gen. Soleimani. Not to mention the IRGC’s penchant for confrontation and playing hardball with crises rather than dealing with them through diplomacy.

“Soleimani had his way when I went to negotiate with others about Syria. I could not convince him of my demands. For example, I asked him not to use civilian aviation in Syria, but he refused,” Zarif said of the former IRGC commander who was assassinated in Iraq. The anger over the leak of Zarif’s remarks in many circles, including the Iranian Shura Council, is worth a closer look.

“We will not allow those who want to take advantage of opportunities to achieve their political goals to do him [Suleimani] injustice or reverse his historic role,” tweeted its chairman, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, criticizing Zarif.

Mansour Haghighatpour, vice chairman of the National Security Committee, said the foreign minister had crossed the regime’s “red lines” and called for him to be held accountable. MP Zohreh Elahian, a member of the Supreme National Security Committee, suggested that “legal action” could be taken against the foreign minister. In any case, this leak reflects how troubled the mullahs’ system is.

There is the opposition, as we know that the origin of the leak was the opposition channel Iran International. There are also the intelligence services of regional powers, mainly Israel, which have carried out several operations inside Iran in recent months.

Remarkably, despite the strong attacks from hardliner within the mullahs’ regime, Zarif did not apologize for his remarks. He just expressed regret that the leak of the audio recording had triggered an internal controversy.

He said the “moving and heartfelt dialogue,” which was held in a private meeting, was twisted and turned into “personal criticism,” and that it was intended to draw attention to the need for a “smart recalibration of the relationship between diplomacy and the military. ”

President Rouhani said the main aim of the leak was to sow discord within the Iranian regime and block any outcome that might stem from the Vienna negotiations on the nuclear deal. This happened “when the Vienna talks were at their peak. ” Some believe the crisis could end with Zarif being fired or resigning as head of Iranian diplomacy. That is one possibility.

But there is another hypothesis: the leak could be exploited to raise US concern if the man with whom a “deal” can be made is no longer there, prompting it to make quick concessions in the Vienna negotiations, with all that this implies for the course of the presidential election in Iran.

Some believe that the leak reveals the presence of several heads at the top of the pyramid in the mullahs’ regime. Supreme Leader Khamenei may not be so supreme. The IRGC commanders are also at the helm. But this does not mean that the leaks do not reflect, in my opinion, a division or internal conflicts. It is a turf war that fits the nature of such a closed theocratic system.

This crisis reflects the conflict between people and not the principles of the regime and the revolution, towards which Zarif, according to his leaked words, wants to be more effective.

The minister, considered by the mullahs to be an americanist, complains of his reduced ability to achieve results for the regime, not the other way around. The secrecy and ambiguity surrounding the activities of the mullahs’ regime make the possible implications of this leak harder to spot and understand. However, developments in the next stage, both domestically and in the Vienna negotiations, could explain much of what lies behind this incident.

Dr. Salem AlKetbi is aUAE political analyst and former Federal National Council candidate