Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (L) meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) in Yerevan, Iran on October 01, 2019. Photo: Iranian Presidency / Handout / Anadolu Agency via AFP

Iran’s top envoy has backpedaled on remarks he made privately in a taped oral history about the country’s hardline Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and his ministry’s lack of real influence over the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy.

But while Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has made waves locally by claiming US-slain IRGC commander Qasem Soleimani interfered in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), his revelations on Russia’s bid to scupper the 2015 nuclear deal could have a greater political impact.

The Donald Trump administration withdrew from the deal in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Iran that have since strangled its economy. But momentum is slowly but surely building towards a possible revival of the JCPOA under the Joe Biden administration — raising new questions about how Russia may respond.  

Zarif has spent the last week issuing apologies over the leaked three-hour interview, the controversial contents of which have been widely disseminated at home and abroad. The tape was smuggled out of Iran and released by the London-based Persian language broadcaster Iran International in an affair now known as “Zarif Gate.”

The incendiary interview, conducted in March, was commissioned by the Center for Strategic Studies affiliated with the office of President Hassan Rouhani and is part of a project to chronicle the tenure of Rouhani’s top ministers. The Foreign Ministry has said the tape was meant to be kept confidential.

Zarif, a centrist diplomat known for his key role in brokering the nuclear deal with six world powers including the US, China and European Union as well as his loyalty and closeness to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, throws caution to the wind in the tape.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif threw caution to the wind in the leaked tapes. Photo: AFP

He bluntly chided the IRGC for its counterproductive influence over Iran’s diplomatic apparatus and in particular undermining the JCPOA. He repeatedly hits out at what he called the “field,” standing for the IRGC and Iran’s militarist agenda.

“I have sacrificed diplomacy for the military field rather than the field servicing diplomacy,” he said. “This is not a dual governance. This is the governance of the field. It is the field that makes the decisions,” he lamented. 

The US-educated Zarif also expressed thinly veiled criticism of hero-worshipped Soleimani, implying that he worked in lockstep with the Russians to thwart the JCPOA.

At home, the leaked tape has opened a Pandora’s box of problems for Rouhani’s lame-duck administration with new presidential elections due in June. Some hardliners say Zarif should be impeached while others are pushing for judicial action against him for disclosing state secrets.

Others have speculated the tape was intentionally leaked to a widely viewed TV station to sway public Iranian opinion in favor of reformists and against conservatives at the June presidential election.

On May 2, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made a televised speech in which, without naming names, he said some government officials had made comments that had caused “surprise and misfortune.” He said some of these comments mirrored the stance of Iran’s enemies, including the US.

Yet one of the interview’s biggest revelations concerns Russia, which is widely seen as an Iranian ally but is revealed as less so in the tapes. Zarif said Moscow had pulled out all stops to stop the JCPOA from being sealed and had presented several proposals during the talks that aimed to nip any agreement in the bud.

Zarif said Russia had arranged a trip to Moscow for Soleimani shortly after the JCPOA was signed and that Moscow did not liaise with the Iranian Foreign Ministry despite its central role in brokering the deal.

A demonstrator carries a placard depicting Iran’s revered and deceased commander Qasem Soleimani. Photo: AFP/Ahmad Al-Rubaye

“When it is the determination of Russia to destroy the achievement of the [Iranian] Foreign Ministry, of course they won’t take action through the Foreign Ministry,” he said.

He went on to give further details of Russia’s reputed contrivance to block any successful conclusion of the nuclear talks, including through a proposal which if it had been passed would have required Iran to receive approval from the United Nations Security Council every six months to renew the deal’s mandate.

This proposal aimed to replace a roadmap that stipulated all measures, including curbs on Iran’s nuclear activities and the scope of the removal of sanctions, in a pre-planned timetable agreed in one step.

Zarif claimed that during the first three months of negotiations that gave birth to the JCPOA, the Russians were opposed to Iran being officially entitled to enrich uranium at its nuclear facilities and vigorously sought to bring the talks to a standstill.

He also said the Russians had offered to procure permanently the fuel needed for the operation of the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, but Iran declined the offer as it didn’t wish to be reliant on a foreign power for nuclear fuel in perpetuity.

Faced with Iran’s persistence, Zarif revealed the Russians dropped their diplomatic niceties and threatened they would never allow a deal to be made and would resist any move by Iran to supply its own fuel for the reactor.

These behind-the-talks intrigues were never publicly revealed by Iranian authorities until now. Indeed, Iranian authorities never carped during or after the JCPOA negotiations about Russia’s stonewalling while it frequently criticized European and US delegations for their perceived unwillingness to compromise.

In the absence of meaningful relations with the West and with few solid regional alliances, Iran views Russia as a crucial political and economic ally.

Engagement with Russia, however, has always been viewed with ambivalence and skepticism by many Iranians who feel their government has forfeited potential robust ties with the West for non-committal relations with Russia as well as China.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Tehran in November 2017. Photo: Ho / / AFP

Zarif insinuated during the leaked interview that Russia benefits from Iran-West antipathy and was concerned that Tehran might tilt toward the West if the JCPOA and an associated warming trend drew in European and US investors.

“It is in the interests of Russia that there are no tensions in our relations with the West, but it is not in its interests that our relations with the West are normalized,” Zarif said. “If our relations with the West are normalized, Russia would sustain two damages. First, the priorities of the United States and Trump would change.

“Secondly, if we are in need of China and Russia due to enmity with the West, they will not have to compete with anyone, and also they can always derive the most benefits from us.”

But some experts on Russia say the fluctuations of Iran-West and particularly Iran-US relations are not determined by Russian influence or maneuvering.

“I am convinced there is not much Russia could do to upset a rapprochement between Iran and the US and West if the two parties had the will and worked towards this rapprochement,” said Maxim Suchkov, a senior fellow and associate professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

“Iran is a great power and not some banana republic to be easily manipulated by anyone from outside, including Russia. So, the problem in Iran-West relations in no way boils down to the Russia factor.”

Nicole Grajewski, a fellow at the International Security Program at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, told Asia Times Iran-West tensions benefit Russia to some extent, but Moscow is definitely not the principal driving force.

“Iran’s continued tensions with the West benefits Russia to the extent that Tehran is more reliant on Moscow, but as we’ve seen in Syria and the Persian Gulf, Russia’s relationship with Iran also induces a burden of antagonizing Israel and the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council],” she said.

“In general, Russia is willing to support Iran when it is consistent with its interests. [But] there is still quite a bit of mistrust in the relationship and areas of tension.”