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In Leaked Audio, Iran's Foreign Minister Criticizes Influence Of Revolutionary Guards

Leaked excerpts from an interview with Iran's foreign minister have ignited controversy inside the Islamic Republic. The comments by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad-Zarif were never intended to be broadcast, but officials say more than three hours of the seven-hour interview were leaked on Sunday.

The excerpts first appeared on Iran International, a London-based channel that Tehran views as a hostile, pro-Saudi Arabia outlet.

Several of Zarif's remarks portrayed Iranian diplomacy as consistently taking a back seat to the interests of the military, especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Zarif even took on the late General Qassem Soleimani, who was assassinated in a targeted American air strike in January of last year, and is revered as a national hero in Iran.

Zarif told the interviewer, economist Saeed Laylaz, that Soleimani on multiple occasions dictated what Zarif should try to accomplish in negotiations.

"I sacrificed diplomacy for the battlefield," Zarif is quoted as saying. "Every time I went to negotiate, Commander Soleimani would tell me to request this and that."

Zarif added, "In the Islamic Republic, the battlefield rules."

Attempt to Undermine Nuclear Agreement

Zarif also accused Soleimani of at times working against the country's diplomats — including working with Russia to undermine the 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It was considered the crowning foreign policy achievement of President Hassan Rouhani's government, until then-President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal and imposed harsh sanctions on Iran.

Zarif also disputed a claim frequently made by hardliners, that Soleimani had played a key role in convincing Russian leader Vladimir Putin to intervene in the Syria conflict on the side of the Bashar al-Assad government. Zarif said Putin had already made up his mind to intervene.

A foreign ministry spokesman did not dispute Zarif's words, but said they had been "taken out of context," and did not reflect official policy.

Similar Complaints in the Past

This isn't the first time such complaints have been leveled at the Revolutionary Guards. Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani wrote in his memoir that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was "practically surrounded" by the IRGC's Quds Forces. And President Rouhani has also accused the Revolutionary Guards of attempting to torpedo the nuclear deal.

The blunt remarks by Zarif were made public at a time when Iran is engaged in talks aimed at finding a way for the United States to return to the JCPOA and for Iran to return to full compliance with the deal.

There has also been some speculation that these explosive comments were leaked in an effort to dissuade Zarif from running to succeed the outgoing Rouhani in this June's presidential elections. The leaked recordings, however, include Zarif saying he won't run. A number of conservative and hardline candidates have announced their intention to run.

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Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.