On Sunday, an audio recording was leaked across Iranian state media which seemed to include the regime’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif making rare critical statements against Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ terrorist Quds Force, who was killed in a US drone strike in January 2020.
After Soleimani’s death, the regime responded with an outpouring of propaganda to portray the notorious terrorist as a figure who was broadly popular both inside Iran and throughout the world. That propaganda drive saw participation from the entire “reformist” faction of Iranian politics, including Zarif and the regime’s President Hassan Rouhani.
Zarif remarks in the audio once again indicate that the supposed differences between the factions inside the regime are merely performative, laying the groundwork for a sort of “good cop, bad cop” routine that encourages foreign adversaries to attempt to mitigate hardline threats by offering concessions to “moderate” officials.
This sentiment was endorsed by a broad cross-section of the Iranian population during nationwide protests in January 2018 and November 2019. Among the provocative, anti-government slogans featured in those demonstrations was one that identified both political factions by name and declared, “The game is over.” In other words, the uprisings represented popular demand for an entirely new system of government, along the lines of the democratic system outlined by the NCRI.
In the persistent aftermath of those uprisings and with sham presidential elections looming, it is reasonable to conclude that Zarif is working on playing up the supposed differences between his “reformist” faction and the hardline faction associated with the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the IRGC, and Soleimani. If those differences are widely believed to be genuine, it may give foreign powers, including signatories to the embattled 2015 nuclear deal, incentive to reach out to the “moderate” faction, thereby preserving its political relevance at a time when it appears doomed to receive no significant share of power in the next government.
The trouble with Zarif’s gambit, however, is that the leaked audio effectively confirms that he had little role in setting Iran’s foreign policy while he was the nominal head of the Foreign Ministry. “My diplomacy always paid the price for the military activities of the Martyr Qasem Soleimani, and it was not vice versa,” he said at one point in his three-hour interview.
While this remark implies that the two men’s foreign policies were at odds, it also acknowledges that it was the hardline faction that set that policy for the regime as a whole. In earlier, more public statements, Zarif was much more explicit on this point. “Our foreign policy is under the authority of the Imam,” he once said about the supreme leader. “And the state’s general policies regarding foreign affairs are determined by him.”
This deference to Khamenei also extended to Soleimani, long before Zarif offered his hushed criticisms of the Quds Force commander more than a year after his death. In 2019, Zarif was invited to visit the IRGC’s headquarters in the wake of new sanctions being imposed on the hardline paramilitary by the US. Zarif described the invitation as a great honor and boasted in an accompanying speech of having held weekly meetings with Soleimani in order to discuss strategy and reaffirm their shared outlook on foreign policy. During those discussions, he added, the two men “never felt they had any differences.”
If Zarif merely aimed to avoid the wrath of a hardline faction that truly opposed his agenda, it would have made no sense for him to insist that the two factions were really the same. In the first place, such claims would never have been taken seriously if the IRGC did not already recognize Zarif’s deference to the hardline. Furthermore, any such statement would have surely undermined Zarif’s effort to promote his agenda as an alternative to the hardline strategy of projecting force throughout the region and threatening adversaries throughout the world.
In complaining that Soleimani’s militarism overshadows the Foreign Ministry’s diplomacy, Zarif is employing a rhetorical device applied to various domestic issues to explain why no meaningful progress toward reform has been made after nearly eight years of Rouhani’s presidential administration.
When campaigning for office in 2013, Rouhani promised to promote a freer and more open Iranian society. Still, nothing was changed, and according to Iran Human Rights’ reports, at least 4,047 people were executed during the 7.5 years of Rouhani’s presidency.
While pursuing all the regime’s malign activities, the same argument has been applied to assert that reformists are powerless to free Western hostages taken by hardline authorities, expand the rights of women, lift restrictions on the internet and social media, and so on. Now Zarif is clearly asserting that his faction is equally powerless to shape a less confrontational foreign policy. This should raise the question among European and American policymakers: What value is there in continuing their outreach to a supposedly moderate faction if members of that faction freely acknowledge that their hardline colleagues are in charge?
This situation is not a temporary feature of the Iranian regime. Hardline political dominance is ingrained in the structure of the Iranian regime, and within that structure, the only function of reformists is to trick the world into believing it could be otherwise.