Iran foreign minister criticises power of Soleimani in leaked interview

Military commander was killed by US drone strike in January 2020

Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, has criticised the dominance of the assassinated Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander Qassem Soleimani in Iranian diplomacy, and admitted his own influence over Iranian foreign policy was sometimes zero in a leaked audio recording.

The remarks are from an interview the Iranian foreign ministry admits Mr Zarif gave last March, but it says has been distorted through selective quotes. The leak was claimed as an exclusive by Iran International, a Persian language network viewed by Tehran as hostile and owned by Saudi Arabians.

Soleimani was assassinated by a US drone strike in January 2020, and official criticism of the IRGC’s influence on Iranian foreign policy is extremely rare.

Some say the leak appears designed to discredit Mr Zarif internally but others will claim that the interview is an attempt by Mr Zarif to exonerate himself for the failures in Iranian foreign policy.

The release comes as a battle intensifies in Iran over the wisdom of striking a fresh deal with the West over the revival of the nuclear deal signed in 2015. Indirect talks led by the Iranian foreign ministry are under way between Iran and the US in Vienna, and due to resume this week.

The Iranian foreign ministry admitted the seven-hour interview was genuine but designed as internal record, and certainly not for release before the end of the government led by president Hassan Rouhani after the June presidential election.

The foreign ministry also claimed the excerpts were a distortion and framed to show Mr Zarif giving an unduly negative view of Soleimani.

It is the second time in four days the Iranian foreign ministry has felt forced to issue statements condemning media distortions of its motives. It has also issued an attack on the distorted coverage of the Vienna talks by one Iranian state-owned broadcaster.

The leak came as the Iranian chief negotiator in the talks in Vienna, Abbas Araghchi, reported to the Iranian parliament that an understanding had been reached with the US on lifting sanctions in some sectors such as banking, oil insurance and automobiles. But he again insisted all anti-Iranian sanctions including as many 1,500 imposed on individuals had to be lifted at once.

The Mr Zarif interview was conducted by a reformist economist and journalist Saeed Laylaz.

In the released extracts from the interview, Mr Zarif described the imposition of foreign policy on the Iranian foreign ministry by the IRGC as akin to a cold war. He said he spent more time on his relationship with IRGC than anything else, and security had more influence over diplomacy than diplomacy had over security.

Mr Zarif complained there was a group in Iran that had an interest in seeing everything through the lens of security.

He also claimed forces inside Iran before the 2015 agreement tried to disrupt the passage to an agreement including an attack on the Saudi embassy. He also claimed Soleimani travelled to Moscow soon after the agreement to try to end Russia’s support for the agreement.

The published extracts also suggest Soleimani refused foreign ministry requests not to show such obvious support for the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, including not using Iranian state airlines to transport goods to Syria.

He also claims that the IRGC travelled to Moscow soon after the nuclear deal was signed in a bid to persuade Russia to abandon its support.

The foreign ministry said, if given permission, it will publish the entire interview to remove distortions. – Guardian/NYT