Leaked Zarif criticisms of IRGC reveal who really runs the show in Iran

Special Leaked Zarif criticisms of IRGC reveal who really runs the show in Iran
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks to the media in Tbilisi, Georgia, April 18, 2017. (Reuters)
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Updated 26 April 2021

Leaked Zarif criticisms of IRGC reveal who really runs the show in Iran

Leaked Zarif criticisms of IRGC reveal who really runs the show in Iran
  • FM’s leaked audio more evidence that Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps acts as ‘state within a state,’ analyst tells Arab News
  • Timing could be aimed at scuppering a Zarif bid for presidency

LONDON: Leaked recordings by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in which he criticized slain Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), are a sign of political infighting within the regime, analysts have said.

Most notable from the hours-long leaked recordings, first exposed by Persian-language TV channel Iran International, were Zarif’s revelations that Soleimani and his accomplices in the IRGC exert near-total control over foreign policy.

Zarif complained that the IRGC’s needs on the battlefield in Syria, for example, have often usurped those of Iranian diplomats and the country’s foreign policy as a whole.

It is unclear who the leak came from, but it “comes at a sensitive point, at the end of the Rouhani administration and ahead of Iran’s presidential elections,” Jason Brodsky, senior Middle East analyst and editor at Iran International, told Arab News.

“We see the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs having to contend with various elements of Iran’s broader media ecosystem, which is trying to put out an official line that’s different at times to what Rouhani’s administration is putting out,” Brodsky said. 

“It shows that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has really had a difficult past few weeks in terms of contending with domestic political infighting inside the regime. It’s important to view this story in the context of that ongoing battle,” he added.

“It has international elements, with the ongoing nuclear talks in Vienna, and it has domestic political elements, with the Iranian presidential elections scheduled for June.”

But beyond the political rift between pro-nuclear-deal politicians such as Zarif and hardliners from the clerical arm of government, the leaked audio also exposes a more ingrained aspect of Iranian foreign policy: Who makes the decisions?

“The power dynamic that Zarif portrays within the Islamic Republic is something that a lot of observers don’t necessarily appreciate: That the Ministry of Foreign Affairs doesn’t have independent decision-making authority within the Islamic Republic,” Brodsky said.

Asif Shuja, senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute, told Arab News that this power imbalance is a result of the IRGC’s ascendancy to power since its formation during the Iran-Iraq war.

“The IRGC was designed to perform a specific role in Iranian society — to protect the Islamic revolution — and at the head of that whole system is the supreme leader,” said Shuja.

Over time, he explained, the IRGC’s role expanded to perform the traditional role of a military.

It transitioned from only guarding the office of the supreme leader and his ideology to territorial protection, which led to it sidelining the army and Foreign Ministry.

This has gone so far, Shuja said, that the IRGC has become “a mini-state, or a state within a state.”

The IRGC now controls the entirety of Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal. It has also taken an increasingly active role in suppressing domestic dissent against the regime — notably in November 2019, when hundreds of protestors were killed by security forces suspected to be from the Basij militia, the IRGC’s domestic army.

Shuja said the timing of the Zarif leak is hard to separate from the upcoming presidential elections, and competition from hardline factions could have spurred the leak in an attempt to dissuade the centrist foreign minister from a run at the presidency.

The Islamic revolution “was embodied by Qassem Soleimani, and if one negates him, then they also negate those ideas that are so integral to the Islamic Republic,” Shuja said. “That doesn’t augur well for Zarif’s chances in an election.”