How the ‘Zarifgate tapes' exposed Iran’s bitter power struggle ahead of decisive elections

How the ‘Zarifgate tapes' exposed Iran’s bitter power struggle ahead of decisive elections
In-depth: Leaked tapes of Foreign Minister Javad Zarif touched on the Revolutionary Guard and Qasem Soleimani, revealing deep political rifts.
5 min read
10 May, 2021
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. [Getty]
Amid negotiations on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and only one month ahead of a pivotal presidential election in Iran, controversial recordings of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have not only sparked outrage but exacerbated antipathy between the country's government and hardliners.

'Zarifgate' increases pressure

For days, the leaked interview, which criticised the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) and Qasem Soleimani, dominated the front pages of the Iranian newspapers, while the term 'Zarifgate' – a reference to President Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal – has been circulating in social media outlets.

Tehran's Prosecutor General, Ali Alghasi-Mehr, has confirmed that the Security Court of Tehran had begun an investigation into "the theft and illegal publication" of the audiotape.

Meanwhile, the secretary of the Iranian Parliament's praesidium, Hossein-Ali Haji-Deligani, has announced that several legislators had called for a legal complaint to be raised with the judiciary against President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif over the material.

Tapes expose rift with the IRGC

Zarif belongs to the reformists, led by President Rouhani, who aim to open Iran and free it from the paralysing sanctions of the last decades.

The reformist approach has been continuously opposed by the country's hardliners in Parliament. As such, it could be assumed that the relationship between Zarif and the IRGC would be unamicable.

The IRGC controls essential aspects of Iran's foreign policy, denying Zarif influence wherever possible

In the leaked conversation, Zarif complains about having limited power despite his position a Foreign Minister. He states that the IRGC controls essential aspects of Iran's foreign policy, denying Zarif influence wherever possible.

In 2019, Zarif was not informed of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's visit, an event that led Zarif to consider resigning. Zarif's rift with the IRGC has since been an open secret, which has been further confirmed by the leaked audio material.

Zarif trips on Soleimani's long shadow

More controversially, in the tapes Zarif critiques Qasem Soleimani, the popular commander of the Al-Quds forces, who was killed by a US airstrike in January 2020. Specifically, Zarif accuses Soleimani of undermining his attempts of facilitating the JCPOA in 2015 – a deal which was seen as an affront to the country's hardliners and the IRGC, of which Al-Quds are a branch.

The IRGC, together with the regular army, constitute Iran's armed forces. Established by Ruhollah Khomeini on May 5, 1979, the IRGC's purpose is to protect the Islamic political system, prevent foreign interference, and control so-called “deviant movements.”

Qasem Soleimani headed Iran's elite Quds Force. [Getty]
Read more: The significance of Qasem Soleimani's assassination

Increasingly, the IRGC has become responsible for fighting oppositional political groups. Most importantly, the IRGC has gained more and more influence in the country's active politics. In President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's cabinet, 13 of the 21 ministerial posts were occupied by former commanders of the IRGC.

Who is behind the leak?

The question remains. Initially, even Zarif himself could not be ruled out, as some commentators suggested that the leak was a bid to position himself for candidacy in the June presidential elections. However, given the immediate backlash, it seems unlikely that Zarif would jeopardise a potential candidacy by alienating the Guardian Council, which approves all candidates.

On 2 May, Zarif apologised for his remarks criticising the political system, in particular, the IRGC. Regarding his remarks on Soleimani, he wrote that if he had known his statements would leak, he would never have said them.

President Rouhani has distanced himself from the interview. However, Rouhani has implied that the hardliners are behind the leaked material. He suggests the leak intended to cause a stir in Washington and sabotage the renewed nuclear negotiations, thus boosting hardliners' chances in the presidential election.

It seems unlikely that Zarif would jeopardise a potential candidacy by alienating the Guardian Council, which approves all candidates

The tapes play into a familiar pattern. Against the will of Rouhani, in December 2020, Parliament ordered the authorities to increase uranium enrichment from around 4% to 20%.

However, the increasing enrichment has not achieved its sought-after result: an end of any negotiations with the West. This may explain why the tapes have become public now, despite being recorded in February.

An election poised to change Iran's direction

Indeed, the hardliners have been positioning themselves for months. Rouhani is leaving office this summer. According to the constitution, he is not permitted to stand in the 18 June election, which is considered to be a critical moment for the Islamic Republic.

In essence, the hardliners have a chance to win the presidency and fundamentally change the direction of the country.

Rouhani has not fulfilled his promises of creating a more prosperous Iran, and the 2019 parliamentary elections were an early indicator of discontent. The reformists lost seats, and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a hardliner and former member of the IRGC who has run for president three times, became the new Speaker of Parliament.

The JCPOA is a partisan issue in Washington. [Getty]
Read more: Could Biden bring the US back into the Iran nuclear deal?

The 2019 elections foreshadow recent developments. With many in Iran disappointed with Rouhani's track record, hardliners offer a diametrically opposed ballot option. Never in the history of Iran have so many ex-IRGC officers been in the running for office.

The candidates from the ranks of the IRGC are just as critical of the reformist idea of opening the country to the West as they are of the JCPOA and its restrictions.

Moreover, the IRGC categorically rejects the negotiations with the Europeans and the US regarding Iran's role in the region and its programme to build ballistic missiles – two operations under the IRGC's purview.

Should Rouhani and Zarif achieve an end to US sanctions in the ongoing nuclear negotiations in Vienna, the race for the presidency could turn. This is precisely why the timing of the leak is not a coincidence.

With another month until election day, the Rouhani government and Biden administration should hope for the best but prepare for the worst, as the tapes are unlikely to be the final attempt to sabotage progress between Iran and the West. 

Thomas O. Falk is a London-based freelance journalist who focuses on US affairs and the Middle East. He has written for Al Jazeera, Inside Arabia, il Giornale and other outlets.

Follow him on Twitter: @topfalk