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Opinion Iran’s foreign minister is playing a precarious political game

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Tehran on Feb. 21. (Majid Asgaripour/West Asia News Agency via Reuters)
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Newly leaked audio recordings of Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, are stirring controversy in Tehran. The recordings include audio of Zarif critiquing his domestic rivals, whom he accused of colluding to undermine his diplomatic efforts.

Some see the audio — released by London-based news channel Iran International — as designed to endanger Zarif and weaken his negotiators in their efforts to revive the nuclear deal. To me, it looks as though it could be intended to bolster Zarif’s sagging image by distancing himself from the regime for a possible presidential run or, at the very least, insulate him from accountability at home and abroad.

In that regard, it is classic Zarif.

With a presidential election less than two months away — one that Iran’s establishment worries will inspire a historically low turnout — the results of Zarif’s tenure will inevitably be on center stage, whether or not Zarif is a candidate. Zarif, more than any other Iranian political figure, has come to symbolize engagement with the rest of the world, and the tape implies that those efforts faced obstacles in public and behind the scenes.

Fissures within Iran’s ruling system are not new, but this development is noteworthy for the ways Zarif criticizes the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps general, Qasem Soleimani, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in January 2020. Zarif claims that, among other things, Soleimani traveled to Russia in 2015 in an effort to persuade Moscow not to join the nuclear accord. He also said the military commander regularly imposed demands on Zarif ahead of international talks.

Until now, Zarif has always claimed to have had a close working relationship with Soleimani. In the recordings, Zarif suggests that Soleimani often tried to push the IRGC’s agenda into the diplomatic realm. He apparently confirms the oft-repeated excuse that the IRGC is the real power in Iran, and that he and the rest of the civilian government are powerless. Yet he does so in a way intended to rekindle support for his camp.

Many of Iran’s opponents abroad see Zarif as little more than a charming puppet doing the bidding of the supreme leader and the IRGC abroad. U.S. and European diplomats who negotiate with Zarif prefer to see him as a pragmatist whose hands are ultimately tied by the rigid ideology of the regime he represents. Meanwhile, those inside Iran’s ruling system who oppose engagement with the outside world are suspicious of Zarif’s American education and decades of living in the heart of the “Great Satan.”

The truth is that Zarif can be all of these things at once.

As self-interested as any politician, Zarif has learned how to survive a treacherous game by cultivating a distinct advantage for himself. He and his team have one-way windows into the thinking of both the IRGC and their Western counterparts. These two forces rarely, if ever, speak directly, allowing Zarif to manipulate reality.

It’s a precarious dance that has worked out for Zarif throughout his career, which I have watched closely for years.

In 2015, while I sat in the most isolated section of Tehran’s Evin prison, I had access to a small television with the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting’s full range of channels. The biggest story that year was the nuclear talks between Iran and world powers, including the United States.

Iran’s team of negotiators, led by Zarif, was alternately portrayed as villains or heroes on the news, depending on the perceived concessions they were able to extract from or concede to world powers. Zarif became such a focus of those reports that, for weeks leading up to the landmark deal, every time he would appear on the television screen, my cellmate and I would half-joke that the third bed in our cramped quarters was being kept for him.

After my release, I learned that, in private conversations with his international interlocutors, Zarif would warn that it shouldn’t come as a surprise if he didn’t show up for the next round of talks, because there were forces in Tehran that wanted him behind bars. I’ve come to see him as the personification of “The Lying Shepherd,” the Iranian equivalent of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”

Over time, his reputation solidified as a “drama queen,” according to one of the senior U.S. negotiators.

But Zarif kept showing up in Vienna, and the talks lumbered on. By July 2015, when the nuclear deal was signed, signaling an end to the harshest U.S. and international sanctions on Iran’s economy in exchange for terminating Iran’s most potentially sensitive nuclear activities and unparalleled access to Iran’s atomic energy facilities, the storyline had changed.

When Zarif and his team of negotiators returned to Iran, it was to a hero’s welcome. They were taken to the country’s holiest site, the shrine of Imam Reza, one of Shiite Islam’s most important figures.

IRGC officers — and apparently their superiors — did everything they could think of to sabotage the nuclear deal. The fact that the accord was signed, implemented and clings to life is evidence that the stories from conflicting quarters about Zarif’s supposed lack of any influence — including those coming from his own mouth — shouldn’t be taken at face value.

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Jason Rezaian: Pompeo vs. Zarif: Now there’s a debate I’d actually watch

Jason Rezaian: I dislike Mohammad Javad Zarif as much as anyone. But his departure may not be a good thing.

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