TEHRAN, Iran: An audiotape of Iran’s top diplomat bemoaning the military’s influence was leaked to sow “discord” during talks on reviving an international nuclear deal, President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday, after the recording stirred domestic controversy.
Media outside Iran published the audio of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, triggering a heated debate inside the country ahead of presidential elections.
Talks in Vienna aim to get the US to return to the agreement it abandoned under former President Donald Trump and lift sanctions, and to bring Iran back to full compliance with nuclear obligations it retreated from in response.
Rouhani said the audio was leaked just as the Vienna talks were “at the height of their success, so that it creates discord inside” Iran.
“We can only lift sanctions through unity,” the president said.
Zarif has been under fire since the audiotape emerged on Sunday, with comments he made about Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ foreign operations arm who was killed in a US airstrike last year, hitting a nerve.
“In the Islamic republic the military field rules,” Zarif said in the recording, quoted by the New York Times. “I have sacrificed diplomacy for the military field rather than the field servicing diplomacy.”
Without directly referring to the leak, the Guards’ commander Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami on Wednesday praised Soleimani for having possessed the “art of bringing diplomacy to the service of the field.”
In comments reported by Guards’ website Sepah News, Salami said he considered diplomacy without military power to be only “sounds and words.”
The Guards and their foreign operations arm the Quds Force were “building this power,” he said.
Zarif, seen as the architect of the 2015 nuclear accord, has been mentioned as a possible contender in Iran’s June 18 presidential election, although he has denied he plans to run.
Another potential candidate, parliament speaker Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, also weighed in on the issue on Wednesday, saying “we are sensitive” about Soleimani.
“We do not want there to be even a small scratch on the shining visage” of the slain commander, the conservative was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA.
In his first public reaction to the audiotape, Zarif took to social media to downplay the recording while voicing regret that it had triggered “domestic infighting.”
But despite the furious reaction from conservatives, Zarif stuck to much of what he said in the recording, saying he favors a “smart adjustment” between the military and diplomatic spheres. Zarif said an “honest and passionate” argument in a private setting had been misconstrued as “personal criticism.”