The Zarif leaks: no apology needed

What matters is how they influence politics at a particularly tense moment
FILE - In this Jan. 26, 2021, file photo released by the Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif listens during the talks in Moscow, Russia. Iran's foreign minister apologized Sunday for recorded comments that were leaked to the public last week, creating a firestorm in Iran less than two months before presidential elections.(Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP, File)

A foreign minister admitting they have no influence over foreign policy would raise eyebrows in any country. On Sunday, Iran's most senior diplomat, Javad Zarif, apologised profusely for doing just that.

Last week, in a leaked audio recording, Mr Zarif was heard complaining about his powerlessness in a political system that is dominated by the hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

He even criticised the organisation's now-deceased commander, Qassem Suleimani, a divisive figure who was nonetheless revered by a significant number of Iranians.

In a veiled response to the foreign minister's comments, the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called the remarks "regrettable and surprising".

He said that "nowhere in the world does the foreign ministry determine foreign policy", a statement that does not deny the crux of Mr Zarif's complaint that the IRGC is unaccountable to government or even to the supreme leader. 

A handout picture provided by the office of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on May 2, 2021 shows him giving a live televised speech in the capital Tehran. Iran's supreme leader slammed as a "big mistake" leaked remarks by his foreign minister, a week after audio emerged of the diplomat bemoaning the military's influence on diplomacy. Top diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif made the remarks in a three-hour conversation first published by media outlets outside the country a week ago, provoking anger from conservatives. - === RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / HO / KHAMENEI.IR" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS ===
 / AFP / KHAMENEI.IR / - / === RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / HO / KHAMENEI.IR" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS ===

Despite the manufactured furore, Iranians should not be surprised by what Mr Zarif said. Indeed, many are not. Few within government have accused him of lying outright.

The power of elected administrations has always been limited. The most important arms of the state are answerable only to the clerical establishment.

This includes the IRGC, which during the rise of Suleimani led the country’s foreign policy.

The strategy was not a diplomatic one, but rather based on the destabilising use of foreign militias and proxies and a wider strategy of asymmetric warfare across the region.

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It now seems that parties at the Vienna talks are negotiating with the IRGC

And yet Mr Zarif continues with a protracted public apology, claiming that the comments were "misused by enemies of the country and its people".

He might be doing so to sustain the long-peddled government facade that Iran is a democracy, in which the people give leaders a mandate to resist foreign influence and maintain the revolution.

In fact, citizens are far less involved than authorities like to make out, which is ultimately the conclusion that can be drawn from Mr Zarif’s leaked comments.

He might be trying to keep alive his prospects of running for political office. There are many questions that remain unanswered about the recording and how it was leaked.

There are even rumours that Mr Zarif co-ordinated it himself, in an attempt to win the favour of a growing number of Iranians who are angry at the IRGC's unaccountability.

The real question is what this latest development means for Iran's political class, particularly as international talks in Vienna continue to try to formulate a new deal to limit Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

The leaks raise fresh concerns about the relevance of the diplomatic negotiating team that Iran has sent to the meeting.

Representatives from the Foreign Ministry are in the Austrian capital, but with their own boss having admitted their powerlessness, it is increasingly obvious that the negotiators are possibly striking a deal not with President Hassan Rouhani’s government, but with the IRGC.

Going down such a path was one of the central errors of the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal.

Deliberate or not, Mr Zarif is now on the record as admitting the obvious. For the stability of Iran and the wider region, diplomatic efforts must be genuine and able to deliver results, and not be undercut by domestic politics.