Leaked recording exposes Tehran regime’s weakening grip

Leaked recording exposes Tehran regime’s weakening grip

Leaked recording exposes Tehran regime’s weakening grip
Iran FM Mohammad Javad Zarif listens to Russia FM Sergey Lavrov during talks in Moscow, Russia, Jan. 26, 2021. (AP Photo)
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In a leaked audio recording, former Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif accused the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of rigging the parliamentary elections held in early March 2024. Though Zarif said that the leaked recording was fabricated, edited and released for political motives, its content is highly dangerous, given the issues raised. The remarks in the recording were made by a veteran diplomat who served the regime at a delicate juncture. The recording also comes at a sensitive timing, with voices inside and outside Iran calling into question the integrity of the political process. Additionally, there is a political, economic and social reality that the elections seem to have failed to accommodate. The Iranian regime is tightening its grip on power while the Iranian society is aspiring for more reforms.
The significance of Zarif’s audio recording lies in the issues that expose how the Iranian internal policies operate. For starters, the recording has reignited debates about disputed claims regarding voter turnout in the latest parliamentary elections. Zarif argued that voter apathy has facilitated the regime’s task of allowing more hard-liners and corrupt officials into the parliament. He leveled manifest accusations against the regime of manipulation and interfering in the electoral process, calling into question the voter turnout already disputed among Iranians. More importantly, Zarif accused the IRGC commanders, especially former chief Mohammad Ali Jaafari, of playing a prominent role in interfering in the electoral process. According to Zarif, the IRGC prepared all the electoral lists in the latest parliamentary elections.
In Zarif’s view, the reformists bear a share of responsibility. He accused them of suffering setbacks after the 1997 elections which brought the reformist politician Mohammad Khatami to the presidency. He contended that Khatami’s election had offered a golden opportunity for making radical changes internally and externally, arguing that the supreme leader would have supported such reforms at the time. Zarif suggests that the reformists’ triumph in the 2000 parliamentary elections and their attempt to amend the constitution, including removing the supreme leader in 1999, were disastrous mistakes. Here, Zarif seems to be looking for the roots of the ongoing disagreements between the hard-liners and reformists, and the reasons behind the regime’s resolute insistence on keeping the reformists from power.
Zarif launched a scathing critique against the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, saying that the conflict between the reformists and Khamenei empowered a faction of extremists to control Iran’s decision-making. Furthermore, Zarif claimed Khamenei was compelled to align with the hard-liners to safeguard himself, particularly against improving relations with Washington. These remarks mark a direct assault on the supreme leader, but they are not the first instance — previous leaks revealed Zarif’s criticisms of the IRGC’s interference in diplomatic affairs and obstruction of his attempts to reconcile differences with the West.
Undoubtedly, Zarif’s leaked recording struck a chord within both hard-liner and reformist circles. His remarks found a warm reception among certain hard-liners, as they undermined the reformist faction, providing ammunition for justifying the expulsion of their reformist rivals from the Iranian political arena. The hard-liners might argue that the reformist movement seeks to change the constitution, a move that could precipitate a radical change in the regime’s structure and hierarchy. Hence, hard-liners welcomed Zarif’s remarks. However, some contended that the crucial aspect of Zarif’s leaked recording was his rationale in critiquing the trajectory of reforms.
The reformists, for their part, considered Zarif’s remarks a stab in the back. A segment of the reformists has ignored the reasons that compelled the reformists to boycott the latest elections. According to them, Zarif has ignored the collective exclusion targeting the reformists by the Guardian Council. Therefore, some reformists described Zarif’s remarks as “lying,” and even accused him of being a deceiver and a collaborator with the hard-liners within the Iranian intelligence services. The reformists’ reactions could mark the start of a rupture between them and Zarif. Perhaps the veteran diplomat is trying to jump off the reformists’ boat as he is becoming more certain that their role in political life is waning.
However, others have accused Zarif of launching a deliberate propaganda campaign aimed at bringing him back to political life, potentially in preparation for the presidential election scheduled for 2025. But Zarif has plainly stated that he has no plans to enter the presidential race. And his position does not seem to have changed since the last presidential election. Still, his allegation that he has a big opportunity and more popularity than others could trigger speculation about the possibility of him entering the race in the future. This comes especially as his position toward the reformists and hard-liners welcoming his remarks could open the door for him to gain the hard-liners’ confidence.
The political landscape in Iran could be read from the prism of the leaked recording by highlighting several essential points:
First: It is not unlikely that the intelligence services leaked this recording containing criticisms and accusations directed at the reformists, whose boycotting of the election was the chief reason behind the low voter turnout that barely reached 41 percent.
Second: The recording sheds light on the IRGC’s grip on the internal political landscape, as well as its dominance over the economy, while excluding all the opposition factions. While the advanced age of Khamenei — who is surrounded by a chorus of IRGC commanders and hard-liners — affects his performance, this will push the regime to take harder lines. And this will, of course, have an impact on essential issues, such as ways of addressing domestic crises, including the demands of those seeking reform, as well as foreign policy issues, such as the nuclear file. Iran could embark on building up its nuclear capabilities.
Third: Zarif’s remarks reveal his frustration — along with that of the reformists — as they are becoming certain that the regime is planning a comprehensive empowerment of the hard-liners, totally excluding the reformists from the path of assuming power. And this has appeared in the exclusion of any reformist figures from all the state apparatuses. The engineering of 2020 elections, the 2021 presidential election, and the March 2024 elections, as well as the exclusion of former President Hassan Rouhani from the Assembly of Experts elections are cases in point. It seems that the regime is no longer able to accommodate any dissenting voices, even among those considered to be affiliated with it.

The recording has reignited debates about disputed claims regarding voter turnout in the latest parliamentary elections.

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

Fourth: Zarif’s swift retraction of his statements, dismissing them as taken out of context, revealed his reluctance to confront the regime directly. He reiterated his support for the regime, indicating a lack of courage to challenge its authority. This suggests that his desire to reengage in the political arena remains, but he has alienated both reformist opposition factions, who were relying on his support, and hard-liners, who are unwilling to embrace figures such as Zarif within the ruling establishment. Instead, they are likely to delegate responsibilities to the most ideological and hard-line individuals. Zarif’s critique of the reformists and his attribution of responsibility to them for their exclusion shed light on his stance and belief in reform and change. He blames them for seeking constitutional reforms that could curtail the supreme leader’s powers, despite it being an undeniable right. Every political party has the right to enact its policies as long as they garner popular support and operate within legitimate frameworks.
In conclusion, Zarif’s leaked audio recording underscores the Iranian regime’s lack of transparency. His remarks also shed light on the dynamics of internal politics, revealing the leader’s vulnerability in the face of the IRGC and its hard-liners, who wield significant influence and power. In other words, the regime exhibits a lack of flexibility and adaptability, as the political maneuvering and bargaining it traditionally employed to reconcile internal movements operating within its framework are now absent. This implies increased political deadlock and stagnation, depriving the regime of alternatives and confining its options to the hands of a single movement. This poses a danger to the regime, which may be more inclined to internal clashes with dissatisfied masses and the outside world, preferring hostility and ideological confrontation over calls for dialogue and understanding.

  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is the founder and president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). X: @mohalsulami 
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