If the mullahs’ apologists tried to create an impression that last week’s leak of an interview with the regime’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif shows a serious divide between “hardliners” and “reformists” in the clerical regime, they failed. On Sunday, the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei referred to the foreign minister’s comments as a “big mistake,” thereby eliciting a series of groveling apologies from Zarif, who reaffirmed his fealty to a system that provides the leading cleric with absolute authorities in all matters of policy, including foreign policy.
Zarif took the opportunity to signal unity within that system by relying upon a familiar narrative of belligerence. While barely commenting upon the substance of his leaked interview, he declared that the leak itself had been the work of the Iranian regime’s “enemies.” In a post on Instagram, Zarif virtually begged for forgiveness, saying in part, “I am so sorry that part of my comments was stolen… and that it caused you, supreme leader, to feel regret.”
In this interview, Zarif complained of having his foreign policy role sidelined as the regime’s priorities tended toward the paramilitary objectives promoted by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and especially by the eliminated terror-mastermind Qassem Soleimani, the head of the terrorist Quds Force. Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike in January 2020, after which authorities made extensive yet failed efforts to portray him as a hero while criminalizing negative reports or statements about him.
Zarif and other officials from the regime’s so-called reformist faction actively participated in that effort, weeping at Soleimani’s funeral and publicly praising the role he had played in expanding the regime’s destructive influence and securing its interests in places like Syria and Iraq. These statements were overwhelmingly consistent with the attitudes those same “reformists” had shown toward the Quds Force commander and the regime’s terrorism in general while Soleimani was still alive.
In 2019, after the US extended terrorist designation from the Quds Force to the entire IRGC, Zarif eagerly accepted an invitation to the IRGC’s headquarters and gave a speech that addressed, among other things, his cooperative relationship with Soleimani. Zarif proclaimed that he and his supposed rival in matters of foreign policy were, in fact, almost invariably on the same page. His speech claimed that the two men never recognized any significant differences in perspective during the lengthy period when they had weekly strategy meetings.
Zarif’s leaked interview did not directly contradict any of this. For the most part, it simply described the regime’s foreign policy as prioritizing military, or rather terrorism matters of diplomacy. No one should have found this to be a revolutionary observation, and no one should have regarded it as a sign that Zarif is deeply opposed to that arrangement or truly committed to a more diplomatic alternative. Nothing that he has done during his eight years as foreign minister has suggested as much. In fact, he acts as a “propaganda minister” for the regime, and the previous U.S. administration even sanctioned him for that very reason.
It is much more likely – very nearly certain, in fact – that Zarif’s fleeting break with his overseers was actually part of a longstanding strategy to manipulate Western nations into relinquishing pressure on hardline authorities. Europe and the US have sadly fallen for that ploy many times in the past, but they must not do so now after Tehran has been made uncommonly vulnerable by the dual effects of maximum pressure and massive, organized unrest spanning all of Iranian society.