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Foreign Minister recorded criticising IRGC ahead of key elections

10 May 2021

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was forced to apologise for leaked comments about the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and General Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a US drone strike in January 2020. In a leaked audio recording, Zarif bemoaned the IRGC’s attempts to dominate Iran’s foreign policy and claimed General Soleimani was responsible for taking Iran into the conflict in Syria. The foreign minister also said that he had zero influence on the country’s foreign policy during the interview, which was intended to be kept for internal state records. “I hope that the great people of Iran and all the lovers of General (Soleimani) and especially the great family of Soleimani, will forgive me,” said Zarif on Instagram.

The leak was politically motivated, coming less than two months before presidential elections are to be held in Iran. There were rumours that Zarif was planning to run as a candidate to challenge hard-liners, but following the controversy he publicly stated that he will not stand. The full list of candidates has not been released, but the candidates could include ex-Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan, former parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani and current speaker Mohammed Bagher Qalibaf, former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Mohsen Rezaee and the head of Iran’s judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi. All of the candidates will be selected by the 12 unelected members of the Guardian Council, half of whom are directly appointed by the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The nominations will be received in mid-May before they are vetted and approved, with the vote scheduled for 18 June.

The election will take place as talks continue to try to salvage the 2015 Iran nuclear deal - Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Former US President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Iran; this has had a major impact on Iran’s economy and increased tensions between Washington and Tehran, culminating in the killing of General Soleimani and retaliatory attacks against US military bases in Iraq by Iranian proxies. Trump’s successor, President Joe Biden, is attempting to restore the JCPOA but only if Iran returns to compliance. In April officials unveiled new uranium enrichment centrifuges and dozens of ‘nuclear achievements’ to mark its national nuclear technology day. Tehran wants commitments from Washington that the Biden administration will not pull out of any deal for a specific period.

Hardliners inside Iran are campaigning against a new deal; the leak of Zarif’s conversation is likely part of these efforts. There are other parties outside of the country who are also opposed to the agreement, most notably Israel. Zarif accused the Israeli military of carrying out a cyber-attack on the Natanz nuclear facility in April, claiming that Iran’s rivals were trying to derail the JCPOA. “If they think our hand in the negotiations has been weakened, actually this cowardly act will strengthen our position in the talks,” said Zarif. Israel’s hard-line position against Iran has been led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. However, following yet another inconclusive election, Netanyahu has failed to form a coalition government and his days in office could be numbered. A change in leadership will have significant implications for Israeli policy towards Iran and the JCPOA.