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Iran Begins to Fire Officials, Trap Suspects in Country over Leaked Foreign Minister Tape

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At least one senior Iranian official has lost his job and 15 unidentified people can no longer leave the country as of Friday in response to the publication of audio of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif complaining about the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The IRGC is a U.S.-designated terrorist organization and formal wing of the Iranian military. In the leaked tape, Zarif, the nation’s top diplomat, lamented he had “nil” influence in Iranian foreign policy because the IRGC routinely usurped his powers. Zarif appeared especially resentful towards late Major Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the former head of the IRGC Quds Force, its external terrorist division, claiming Soleimani often complicated Zarif’s job by conducting diplomatic meetings with foreign officials behind his back.

After President Donald Trump ordered a drone strike against Soleimani and the head of an allied Iraqi militia, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in January 2020, the Iranian Islamic regime proclaimed Soleimani a martyr and has since regularly organized mass events to praise and worship his memory.

Zarif’s remarks were part of a much longer conversation with pro-regime journalist Saeed Laylaz that the Iranian Foreign Ministry insisted were not meant for public consumption, but part of an “oral history” project the regime had participated in. The Ministry claimed the comments were recorded in February and that someone had “stolen” the tape from government custody. A Foreign Ministry official also claimed Iran International, the U.K.-based outlet that published the tape, was a front for Saudi Arabia and that it had “cherry-picked” the conversation. Iran International published three hours of uninterrupted audio of Zarif  talking.

On Wednesday, following global controversy over his taped remarks, Zarif appeared in Baghdad, where the American strike occurred, bowing before a memorial for Soleimani and honoring his memory. Zarif has since made several comments effusively praising Soleimani.

The Iranian news agency ISNA reported Friday, citing an unnamed “judiciary source,” that 15 “people involved in the interview have been banned from leaving Iran.” The outlet did not identify any of the individuals involved or indicate that Iranian law enforcement had identified them as potentially stealing and leaking the Zarif tape. The fact that they have not been arrested, merely banned from fleeing the country, suggests that Tehran does not feel it has sufficient evidence to act against the individuals publicly yet.

Another Iranian news outlet, the state agency IRNA, reported that President Hassan Rouhani had fired the head of the Strategic Studies Center, the government agency that had arranged for the interview. IRNA claimed that Hessameddin Ashena had “resigned” and that Rouhani had appointed Ali Rabiei, who served as spokesman for Rouhani and his cabinet, to run the agency. Reports noted that Ashena was reportedly present for the recording of the controversial interview. The move indicated that Rouhani felt the need to place the agency under the power of a trusted loyalist. Rouhani said in remarks shortly after the Zarif interview went public that he believed the tape in question had been “stolen” and that he would find those responsible.

The Islamic regime has notably not made any public moves to punish Zarif, whose private remarks gave the appearance of significant conflict between the military and civilian wings of the regime and challenged the regime’s efforts to portray Soleimani as universally beloved. Rabiei, speaking on behalf of the presidential office before his promotion, blamed the scandal on the “vengeful television network” and a widespread “conspiracy” by unspecified actors, deflecting from Zarif’s role in making the statements in question Tuesday.

Iran International, citing Iran’s Tasnim news agency, suggested Thursday that the attempts by the Rouhani administration to protect Zarif have done little to calm IRGC leaders and “hard-liners” in the Iranian parliament. Lawmakers have reportedly proposed a motion for legal action against both Zarif and Rouhani over the national embarrassment. The motion text, as Tasnim reported it, deviates from the public sentiments of the Iranian regime by condemning the substance of what Zarif said in the interview, rather than the fact that the interview was published at all.

Zarif’s remarks, it claimed, “contains statements that are untrue, undermine the achievements of Qods Force commander in Syria, and insult a national hero and the Iranian people.” It went on to state that Rouhani should be held accountable for Zarif’s words, as his top representative abroad.

The IRGC itself has largely abstained from commenting on the scandal or addressing Zarif himself. The commander of the IRGC, Major Gen. Hossein Salami, defended his terrorist organization on Thursday, taking credit for the destruction of the Islamic State “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria. In reality, Kurdish forces backed by American military support were primarily responsible for the fall of the caliphate, particularly in Raqqa, the Sunni terror group’s capital.

“If it were not for this huge force … Daesh [ISIS], which is like a dangerous political virus, would now prevail the world,” Salami reportedly said. “If Hajj Qassem [Soleimani] had not stood, Daesh would have infiltrated this land and other lands today.”

Zarif’s remarks in the interview published by Iran International primarily focus on Soleimani, accusing him of undermining Iranian foreign policy by, among other things, trying to sabotage the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal and meeting with Russian and other friendly diplomats without the approval or knowledge of Zarif. Zarif also protested that the Foreign Ministry regularly had to yield to IRGC demands, but he had “never been able to ask Soleimani to do something that would serve my diplomatic moves.”

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