Zarif's leaked recording showed who's boss in Tehran

The international community must keep in mind it's the IRGC that makes the real decisions in Tehran

Memorial during a candlelight vigil at Mel Lastman Square in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on January 09, 2020 for the victims of the Ukrainian International Airlines flight PS752 plane crash. On 8 January 2020, the Ukrainian airliner crashed approximately six minutes after takeoff from Tehran airport killing all 176 people on board. Newly emerging video appears to show a missile being fired and hitting the plane. Leaders of Canada and Britain said that they have intelligence that the Ukrainian airliner was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada's intelligence, as well as intelligence provided by allies, shows that the commercial aircraft was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile. 63 Canadian citizens were killed in the crash. (Photo by Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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It has been over a year now since Ukrainian Airlines flight 752 was shot in the skies above Iran, and the families of the victims do not yet have all the answers.

The plane’s 176 passengers all perished when it was struck by two surface-to-air missiles fired by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who had just ordered a barrage of retaliatory strikes on a base housing American military personnel in Iraq as a response to the assassination of top Iranian general Qassem Suleimani in a drone strike days earlier.

The plane was headed to Toronto and most of its passengers had ties to Canada – including college students, immigrant families and university faculty.

Iran says its military accidentally shot the plane after mistaking it for a hostile target, an admission that followed days of shirking responsibility, but long resisted handing over even black box recordings from the flight. Now a new, explosive recording shows we may never have the answers – and offers a warning for future negotiations with Iran over its actions in the Middle East and the nuclear programme.

The recording, which was obtained by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), is of a conversation between Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and an interlocutor, in which the former says a scenario in which the plane was shot down deliberately by infiltrators within the IRGC was “not at all unlikely", and that even he may never know the real story because “they" – presumably the top echelons of the Iranian leadership – would deem any revelation a threat to the country’s interests.

It is extraordinary to hear Iran’s top diplomat, the key interlocutor with the West in Iran’s nuclear negotiations and the face with which Tehran engages the world, admit that he has no real knowledge of what those who actually run the country are up to, even though it has always been evident that the military and its various clandestine and external wings are the ones actually dictating Iran’s foreign policy. It is even more outrageous that this impenetrable web of deception has been deployed in the service of covering up the provenance of such a tragedy and preventing any accountability.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif listens to a speach during the the International Conference on the Legal-International Claims of the Holy Defense in the capital Tehran on February 23, 2021.  / AFP / ATTA KENARE
The US is condemning Iran's actions, but not taking steps against it. AFP
It is not yet clear under what conditions current President Joe Biden might return to the deal

This isn't Mr Zarif's first brush with the limits of his own role as a fluent-in-English facade for Iran's relations with the outside world. He resigned his post in March 2019 after a surprise visit by Syria's Bashar Al Assad to Tehran. He had been kept in the dark about the trip, though Suleimani attended the meeting between the Syrian strongman and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The new American administration is evaluating its options on engaging with Iran. Former US president Donald Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal that had been negotiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama. It is not yet clear under what conditions current President Joe Biden might return to the deal, whether Trump-era sanctions may be lifted ahead of such talks, and whether Iran's actions in the region more broadly will be up for discussion. Both sides are still distrustful of each other, and it may be a while before real progress happens.

But the saga of flight 752 shows that, if these negotiations do resume, the international community would do well to keep in mind who makes the real decisions in Tehran and who needs to be held accountable for complying with the agreements. Hint: it is probably not the diplomat sitting across the table in a fancy ballroom in a European capital.

Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada and a columnist for The National