Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (right) and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif shake hands during a joint news conference following their meeting in Moscow in 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via Sputnik / Valeriy Melnikov

The June 18 presidential election in Iran is approaching and public attention is gravitating toward who will succeed President Hassan Rouhani, who is scrambling to solidify a wobbly Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as his sole legacy in the final days of his administration.

This means the dust has settled on a controversy around the leaked tape of a confidential interview in which Foreign Minister Javad Zarif lifted the veil on the frictions of the top echelons of power in the Islamic Republic and the travails of signing the JCPOA in 2015 with six world powers.

In the tape, Zarif lamented attempts by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to derail engagement between Iran and the West and spoil the Iran deal, and mildly criticized the deified IRGC commander General Qasem Soleimani assassinated by the United States in 2020.

Such remarks, among others in the tape, sent shockwaves across Iran and provoked calls for his impeachment by hardliners in the parliament, and a public rebuke by the Supreme Leader strong-armed him into issuing apologies.

But one of the most significant revelations of the interview pertained to Zarif’s explicit references to efforts by Russia during the talks that led to the adoption of the JCPOA to torpedo the negotiations, mostly for fear of a burgeoning Iran-West rapprochement that could jeopardize Moscow’s interests in Iran.

The Iranian government considers Russia an anchor of security and a bulwark against US-led Western pressure, so public admonishment of the Kremlin by the authorities is not common. But while renewed talks to revive the JCPOA are under way, Russia’s stance remains pivotal.

Julia Roknifard (left) is an assistant professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Nottingham Malaysia. She is also a consultant with the PIR Center, a Moscow-based think-tank, and has published articles on such outlets as Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera and the South China Morning Post. She specializes in Iran’s domestic and foreign politics.

Asia Times asked Roknifard to comment on the leaked tape – what the media have called Zarifgate – the complexities of Iran’s foreign policy, and the ups and downs of Iran-Russia relations.

Kourosh Ziabari: In the leaked interview, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said the Russians were concerned about Iran tilting toward the West and being embraced by the Europeans if the JCPOA were to be implemented successfully, so they made a number of attempts to derail the talks. Is Iran so important in the foreign policy and economic calculus of Russian that it bent over backwards to bring the nuclear talks to a standstill?

Julia Roknifard: I wouldn’t exaggerate the importance of Iran in its foreign-policy calculus…. Even more so, have you seen the indicators for bilateral trade for the past years? It’s minuscule, barely over $2 billion. In 2015, it was below $1 billion. While the politicians on both sides, especially in Iran, sometimes call the relationship strategic, it is a far cry from that. 

Russian analysts tried to explore what consequences Iran’s rapprochement with the West would mean, especially when [the] finalization of JCPOA was just around the corner, but [largely] came to a conclusion that it’s not happening overnight, either politically or, say, in terms of Iran becoming a competitor to Russia on the oil market.

Besides, Russia [was] actively engaged in the negotiation process, coming up with its own proposals. The final deal is based on one of them.

I don’t argue that Russia would be happy to see Iran changing its foreign-policy orientations to something [like in] the time of the Shah – of course it wouldn’t like to see Iran joining the Western camp, but seriously, can we even imagine this happening under the current leadership of the Islamic Republic?

Russia saw Iran’s nuclear issue within the framework of nuclear non-proliferation, not resolving the US-Iran standoff, and acted accordingly.

Russia also strongly advocated, and still does, the creation of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East, so elimination of the possibility of nuclearization of another Middle East state, as well as prevention of possible arms race and exacerbation of tensions, looks like a solid motivation to facilitate the talks. The “sabotage” we are talking about might be about nuances, not the deal as a whole. 

KZ: But is it realistic to assert one of the reasons Iran has not been able to engage in a meaningful rapprochement with the United States is Russia’s maneuvering and its influence over the Iranian leadership and the IRGC? Does Russia have any interests in continued Iran-US, and more broadly Iran-West, animosity? 

JR: Apart from what I said, I’d add that there is also a presumption that Russia can exert influence over the leadership of the Islamic Republic. Even when the issue of Russia facilitating Iran moving its troops away from the border with Israel in Syria arose, Moscow said it couldn’t command Tehran what to do.

Of course, there is cooperation on certain matters between the two, but not in a way that Russia as a big brother would command Iran to do something; besides, Iran would not accept that. 

I don’t see Russia deliberately undermining [the] possibility of Iran’s rapprochement with the United States – it already seems impossible enough, even if agreements will be achieved on certain limited matters. 

KZ: During the talks that gave birth to the JCPOA, Iranian authorities on numerous occasions publicly censured the French and American delegations for making excessive demands and deviating the course of the talks. But they never said anything critical about the Russians. Was there an intention behind putting a lid on Russia’s role?

JR: I expressed doubts about the depth of the sabotage that Zarif talks about on the tape. I am glad on the other hand that he speaks out about another engagement with Russia, uncovering to the Iranian audience that it’s not General Qasem Soleimani who during his visit [to Russia] persuaded President Putin to start a Russian operation in Syria.

That’s been a part of [the] Iranian narrative, where some politicians and diplomats somehow take pride in this – that if not Iran, Russia would overlook the necessity to engage and by this serve the Middle East to the US on a golden plate.

Russia has made up its mind anyway, but of course, there is an understanding that with Iran’s current involvement, even back in 2015, in Syria, stability [couldn’t] be achieved. So, on this, Zarif didn’t say anything new for Russians – he just reasserted what it already was. 

KZ: Iranian authorities assert that the country’s foreign policy is built on independence, self-determination and lack of reliance on foreign powers. Yet what Zarif said in the tape clearly suggests the Islamic Republic has already acquiesced to Russian dominance, and as claimed by some critics, its 25-year strategic deal with China also gives the impression that it doesn’t have any issues with “Chinese imperialism.” What’s your take on that? 

JR: I think Iran compromises where it deems necessary….  Iran’s cooperation with China and Russia fits pretty well into the general sentiment of some states in Asia – tiredness with foreign encroachment of any kind and somehow longing to form a strong opposition to it. Of course, it is quite delicate when you form that with such giants as Russia and China, but falls under theoretical concepts of international relations quite well, using those partnerships as an umbrella for your own security, at the very least. 

KZ: Is Russia a trustworthy partner for Iran that is prepared to shield Tehran against Western pressure? Can Tehran rely on Moscow as a friend in days of difficulty? 

JR: This is so romantic and doesn’t have anything to do with relations between states. I’ve already heard even Iranian academics calling for dropping this romantic idea of even the possibility of brotherhood in the international arena. It’s all about emotions, while states are about their interests.

We can’t discount all the good work that both Iran and Russia do to get their people acquainted with the culture, literature and customs of each other, but when it comes to national interests, these things do not form a considerable bond.

There is a prominent distrust that exists between the two, starting from what every Iranian absorbs since school about the Turkmenchay and Gulistan treaties, and respective defeats [in wars with Russia], to Russia’s support of sanctions against Iran in 2010, namely the UN Security Council Resolution 1929, and freezing supply of the infamous missile defense system S-300 after that, then also stalling the construction process of the first Bushehr nuclear facility, that can be put into the same bracket. 

I’m sure by now there is an understanding in Iran that Russia acts on something based on its interest, and so does Iran itself. It doesn’t mean that Russia wouldn’t do anything to aid Iran at times of difficulty. We can remember the oil-swap deal or even intention to facilitate trade in national currencies – that’s more difficult to implement though, so entrepreneurs on both sides experience problems with conducting payments, as a result of sanctions.

At the same time, Russia took necessary actions to protect itself from secondary sanctions, for example, when some Russian banks were directly instructed to close down accounts opened by Iranian nationals, so they could preserve their ties with Western clients which are more numerous and thus more important. No hard feelings, just business. 

Kourosh Ziabari is an Iranian journalist and reporter. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow. Kourosh was named a finalist in the category of Local Reporter of the Year in the 2020 Kurt Schork Awards in International Journalism.