A recently leaked audio recording featuring Iran's foreign minister lamenting the dominance of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in setting Iranian policies offers the latest evidence of how Iranian hardliners exclude all others in the Islamic Republic's policies.
In the excerpts, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tells an Iranian economist named Saeed Laylaz, a supporter of the reformist camp, that the IRGC, and the late Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, dictate Iran's regional and foreign policies. Soleimani was killed in a January 2020 U.S. drone strike in Baghdad.
The tape confirms that Zarif is "filled with bitterness against the IRGC, and particularly with Soleimani," Brig. Gen. (ret.) Yossi Kuperwasser, former head of the research division in the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate, told the Investigative Project on Terrorism.
"The reality is that the IRGC are the dominant force in the power struggle taking place around the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Khamenei] in Iran," said Kuperwasser, a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
Khamenei is ideologically close to the IRGC, and has allowed the elite parallel military body to also take over Iran's economy. "The IRGC therefore has very significant power in Iran, in addition to its military force," Kuperwasser said.
Hence, they push their weight around on everyone else, and this is what has surfaced from Zarif's comments."
"Almost every time I went to negotiate, it was Soleimani who said, 'I want you to make this concession or point,'" Zarif said in the recording. "I was negotiating for the success of the [military] field."
"The general structure of our Foreign Ministry is security-based," he added. "There is a group in our country that has an interest in making everything security-based, to highlight their own role."
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Wednesday that the leak was an attempt to sow discord in Iran during a decisive phase of nuclear talks with world powers in Vienna. Rouhani ordered an investigation into the leak.
Despite the overarching power of the radical camp in Iran and the IRGC, "the supreme leader doesn't always adopt their position," Kuperwasser noted. Khamenei's backing of the 2015 decision to enter a nuclear agreement is an example of his taking the reformist position.
The late head nuclear scientist in Iran, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, assassinated in November, played a key role in instructing Iranian negotiators on what to insist upon during the 2015 talks, said Kuperwasser, and was cited for his achievement after the deal was signed.
"There is no difference in objective between the reformists and the radicals. Both want Iran to be nuclear," said Kuperwasser. "The reformists believe the right way to do this is to exploit the weakness of the West, and to progress towards a nuclear bomb without disruption, while the radicals say, 'who cares about the West, let's proceed to the bomb faster, because the West is too frightened to confront us.' This is the main difference between them."
While the reformist camp saw the 2015 deal – as well as a revived version of it now – as an opportunity to improve Iran's poor economic situation and help Iranian citizens, economic relief had been less important to the radicals.
At the same time, Kuperwasser assessed, the hardline camp may now be more open to the idea of a new agreement, due to the ravaging of the Iranian economy by the U.S. sanctions imposed in 2018 by the Trump administration. "The radicals may also want to ease sanctions now," he said.
The same dispute between the two camps took place around the IRGC's ambitious entrenchment program in Syria.
The reformists were critical about the scope of resources that the IRGC was pouring into its Syria takeover program (though not necessarily about the effort itself) at the expense of the economic interests of Iranian citizens, and criticisms arose over the scope of "adventures" in the Middle East
Such reservations could help explain why Zarif temporarily resigned in February 2019 after being left in the dark about a visit by Syrian President Basher Assad to Tehran.
Zarif was pushed away because of his reservations over the scope of the Iranian takeover program, and this exclusion was underlined when Zarif described his surprise after allegedly being told by former Secretary of State (and current U.S. Climate Envoy) John Kerry, who Zarif said notified him about 200 Israeli airstrikes on Iranian assets in Syria.
"Zarif is saying here, look at how the IRGC has not updated us," said Kuperwasser.
Kerry called Zarif's claim "unequivocally false. This never happened - either when I was Secretary of State or since."
And even if it were, the news was hardly secret.
In 2018, Israeli officials confirmed to media outlets that 200 strikes were carried out on Iranian targets in Syria since 2016.
This constant power struggle is, in actuality, comfortable for Khamenei, Kuperwasser argued. "He does not rush to one side or the other," he said. "Khamenei is closer to the IRGC, but he allows this argument to run on. He usually backs the IRGC but not always."
Ultimately, Khamenei is able to use the 'good cop bad cop' routine to extort concessions from the West, just as he did from U.S. negotiators in 2015, said Kuperwasser.
"Iranian negotiators said in 2015 that they were under restrictions placed on them by the supreme leader, as if the U.S. has to take this into account. And negotiators fell into this game. That was the real problem with Kerry and the nuclear deal," he argued. "Kerry's claim that the West must strengthen Zarif and Rouhani against the IRGC came at the expense of U.S. and Israeli interests" – in the form of a poor nuclear deal that empowered the Islamic Republic and its radical agenda.
Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the military correspondent for JNS. His book, The Virtual Caliphate, explores the online jihadist presence.
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