In some respects, Iran’s politics function a lot like more-established democracies: there are rival power factions, leaks to friendly media outlets and murky press articles meant to send political messages. The leak this month of damaging parts of an audio interview with Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, just eight weeks before a pivotal presidential election fits this pattern. The most likely intent was to damage Zarif and the reformist camp, of which he is seen as a leading figure, ahead of the election. Yet it could, instead, aid Iran’s reformers, by warning the West of who could be in charge after the election.
The recording offers an apparently unvarnished glimpse into the extent of the power of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and, in particular, its powerful former commander, Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani was assassinated last year by an American drone strike. The audio suggests that, until his death, he wielded extraordinary political power, overruling government officials like Zarif.
Perhaps the most damaging assertion by Zarif is that military operations were never sacrificed for the sake of diplomacy, but that the converse happened on many occasions. In other words, the IRGC always got its way, even when that contradicted the aims of the government.
The leaked recording was part of a three-hour interview with an Iranian journalist, so it is possible the complete interview provides much more context for those comments. But the suggestion that Zarif and, by extension, much of the Iranian government are not really in charge could dampen the enthusiasm of voters eager for change and who feel exhausted after years of conflict under the Trump administration. Next, Zarif’s criticism of Soleimani is particularly toxic to conservative voters; in the year since he was killed, the former general has acquired near-mythic status in the country. Taken together, the leak damages the reform movement.
Hints that the reform faction believe it was leaked to hurt them came when the president, Hassan Rouhani, ordered an investigation. In an unusually blunt statement, a government spokesman called it “a conspiracy against the government.”
Yet there is also the possibility the leak could actually aid Iran’s reformers who, two months out from the election, have still not settled on a candidate to continue the president’s work. Rouhani has been in power for two terms and is ineligible to stand again, but his own political party has not yet announced who their candidate will be.
The Zarif leak could remind Western powers that moderates are likely to lose the election, and with it the best chance of a revived nuclear deal and four years of calm. That message is particularly powerful for a White House that appears intent on governing cautiously, an administration that is pulling out of Afghanistan and offering a summit to reduce tensions with Russia.
The only lever Western powers, in particular the United States, have to affect the outcome of the election is a return to the Iran nuclear deal, which would embolden reformists at the polls. But time is tight: negotiators have met in Vienna to discuss a return, but there would need to be something substantive agreed in the next two to three weeks for the impact to be felt at the polls.
Yet obstacles abound, in Iran and in the US. Already, in America, the leaked audio is being used to attack Joe Biden’s team.
Zarif claims that John Kerry, currently Biden’s special envoy for climate, but previously secretary of state under Barack Obama, told him Israel had attacked Iranian interests in Syria at least 200 times. Zarif makes the claim to demonstrate how he was sometimes kept in the dark about what was actually happening in government.
But Biden’s opponents have weaponized the leak to claim that Kerry revealed sensitive information to Iran about the military operations of an ally. Kerry has explicitly denied discussing covert operations, calling the allegations “unequivocally false.” The affair demonstrates how determined some in America’s Republican party are to stop a return to the nuclear deal.
If Western powers believe they can bolster the reformists, they will need to do something soon.
There is, however, another inference that can be drawn from the leaked recording, and it is one that Iran’s rivals in the region – in Egypt, among the Gulf states, in Israel – will readily conclude. It is not that Zarif’s tussles with the IRGC suggest that the reform faction is in need of help ahead of the June election, but that, instead, those tussles prove that the political system of the Islamic Republic ultimately has just one powerful faction.
Interpreted that way, it suggests that a nuclear deal or not, a reformist president or not, an indiscreet foreign minister or not, Iran’s goals will remain the same. It is that, in the words of Zarif, “in the Islamic Republic, the military field rules” – and nothing that happens at the ballot box will change that. Seen that way, instead of the leaked recording offering a glimpse into two warring factions, it confirms that the state is a coin with two identical faces. However the coin is flipped, it is the Guard Corps that comes up.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.