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Iran orders probe into ‘conspiracy’ of leaked Zarif audio

Iran's government said Tuesday an investigation had been ordered into leaked audio of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif bemoaning the military's influence after its emergence stirred controversy ahead of presidential elections.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on February 23, 2021, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif addresses the media at the International Conference on the Legal-International Claims of the Holy Defense in the capital Tehran. – Iran’s foreign ministry downplayed on April 26, 2021, a leaked audiotape of Zarif in which he said the military played too strong a role in diplomacy, saying it reflected his personal opinions. The statement came after Zarif’s comments were reported by media sites online, as well as the New York Times, with conservatives in the Islamic republic criticising him for the comments he made on the role of top Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani, killed in a US drone strike near the airport of the Iraqi capital Baghdad in January last year. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP)

Iran’s government said Tuesday an investigation had been ordered into leaked audio of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif bemoaning the military’s influence after its emergence stirred controversy ahead of presidential elections.

President Hassan Rouhani ordered the probe to identify who leaked the “stolen” three-hour recording that has sparked anger among conservatives.

“In the Islamic republic the military field rules,” Zarif said in the audiotape, quoted by the New York Times. “I have sacrificed diplomacy for the military field rather than the field servicing diplomacy.”

Comments he made about Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ foreign operations arm who was killed in a US air strike last year, hit a nerve.

Rouhani’s moderate government has sought to downplay the remarks, which were leaked ahead of the June elections and as Iran and world powers discuss ways to revive a 2015 nuclear accord.

“The president has ordered the intelligence ministry to identify the agents of this conspiracy,” government spokesman Ali Rabiei said.

“We believe this theft of documents is a conspiracy against the government, the system, the integrity of effective domestic institutions, and also against our national interests.”

‘Personal opinions’
Zarif has yet to comment on the controversy, but on Tuesday he posted an audio message on Instagram, saying “don’t worry about history so much, but worry about God and the people”.

His ministry later published a video showing images of Zarif and Soleimani, accompanied by a quote it said was from the recording.

“I believe that our country suffered a great blow after the departure of martyr Soleimani,” it read.

“These are my beliefs and I have declared them everywhere, even in private meetings.”

The ministry said the leak was from a seven-hour discussion that included “personal opinions”.

Rabiei said it was part of interviews conducted with government officials regarding the “oral history” of Iran’s last two administrations.

The spokesman emphasised “such differences of opinion” were common, and they would eventually lead to “a united policy”.

Supreme National Security Council secretary Ali Shamkhani tweeted that Iran’s policies were the result of “persuasive & protected conversations” and that “there is no duality” in their implementation.

The judiciary said it had launched a criminal investigation into the leak.

The main charge “is publishing and placing the country’s classified information at the disposal of unqualified individuals”, it said on its Mizan Online website.

Ultra-conservative Kayhan daily suggested the recording may have been leaked by Rouhani’s government to boost its own popularity at Zarif’s expense.

It said while Zarif had been “sacrificed”, he provided Iran’s enemies with “intelligence and ammunition”.

Vatan-e Emrooz carried a front-page picture of Zarif with the headline “Despicable”.

“Diplomacy must follow the path of increasing the system’s power,” it said.

‘Character assassination’
Javan daily said Soleimani was “physically assassinated (upon) the order of the most wretched creature of the world… America’s president”.

But Zarif had “assassinated (Soleimani’s) character”, it added.

Reformist newspapers questioned who stood to gain from the leak.

Shargh daily said Zarif’s comments do not show “a strong and independent foreign minister that would in turn herald a strong and independent head of state”.

The leak was “meant to eliminate Zarif,” it added.

Quoting veteran journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi, Arman-e Melli newspaper asked why Rouhani’s government allowed itself to be “used by others” and questioned why it should remain in power.

Analyst Abbas Abdi was quoted by Etemad newspaper as saying the leak “will not impact domestic policy, but its minimum result is Mr. Zarif definitely not being present in elections.”

Zarif has been mentioned as a possible contender in the June 18 presidential election, although he has said he does not plan to run.

The election will see Rouhani step down after two terms and following a parliamentary election swept by conservatives last year.

Aside from domestic politics, the leak comes as talks resume in Vienna aimed at getting the US to return to a nuclear deal and lift sanctions against Iran in exchange for it adhering to its nuclear commitments.

It also comes after the US navy said boats from Iran’s Guards “aggressively” approached two American coastguard vessels in Gulf waters this month, the first such incident between the arch-enemies this year.

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