I admit, I was suspicious from the get-go when I first learned of the “leaked” audio of Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in which Zarif expatiated on how the IRGC is always overriding the “civilian government,” and briefly alluded to John Kerry telling him about 200 times Israel attacked Iranian interests in Syria.
This passage was a wailing klaxon: Javad Zarif was reportedly speaking in a “three-hour taped conversation that was a part of an oral history project documenting the work of the current administration.” Right.
Followed by this: “The recording, of a conversation between Mr. Zarif and an economist named Saeed Leylaz, an ally, was not meant for publication, as the foreign minister can repeatedly be heard saying on the audio.”
And then this: “A copy was leaked to the London-based Persian news channel Iran International, which first reported on the recording and shared it with The New York Times.”
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Insert “rolling on the floor laughing out loud” emoji here. The foreign minister repeatedly said on the audio that his conversation was not meant for publication? So in other words, it was meant for publication.
Of course it was. There is no content damaging to Iran in the account of the audio given by the New York Times. Every syllable of it is intended to shape opinion and expectations in the West.
As a number of commentators have noted, most of what Zarif is reported to have said was about the IRGC’s primacy and overbearing ways in conducting the affairs of state. This may not be the oldest trick in the book, but it’s a tried-and-true one that gets Western pundits every time. During the Cold War, we called it the “hawks and doves in Moscow” theme: the specially curated theme that dealing with the Soviets was a delicate art of encouraging the doves and seeing the hawks coming.
Now the IRGC is the hawk contingent in Tehran, and Mr. Javad Zarif a “leaked” spokesman for the bleating doves. The advantage of the hawks-and-doves theme for an adversary like Iran is that, if you’ve bought into it, your interactions with the friendly doves are always being held hostage to the peril of sudden movements from the hawks.
The darned hawks are so alphaed up, demanding to be in charge – and smart Western counterparts see that even before leaks confirm it: “Mr. Zarif confirms what many have long suspected: that his role as the representative of the Islamic Republic on the world stage is severely constricted. Decisions, he said, are dictated by the supreme leader or, frequently, the Revolutionary Guards Corps.”
As an aside, decisions being dictated by the supreme leader sounds like what any sensible observer would expect in Iran’s political climate. This is hardly a significant or revealing disclosure. The supreme leader’s close relationship with the IRGC is also well known. Zarif has exposed precisely nothing here.
Rather, he has confirmed the longstanding suspicions of many. A happy conclusion for an info operation.
It gets happier. Oh, the itches you’ll scratch, if you can leak a tape (how it’s referred to in the reporting; sounds weirdly antiquated, of course) to Iran International.
According to NYT, Zarif “said some of Mr. [Qasem] Suleimani’s actions also damaged the country [Iran], citing, as one example, his moves against the nuclear deal Iran reached in 2015 with Western nations, the United States among them.”
So the doves were for the deal, and the alpha hawk was against it. Scratch.
Happier still: “Mr. Zarif said Russia did not want the agreement to succeed and ‘put all its weight’ behind creating obstacles because it was not in Moscow’s interests for Iran to normalize relations with the West.”
Russia Russia Russia. Scratch! (Aside, again: you had to sleep through 2015 to swallow this clanker. Russia was the most actively cooperating member of the P5+1, in terms of agreeing to perform joint actions with Iran to fulfill the JCPOA’s administrative requirements for the Iranian nuclear program.)
Happiness meltdown (follow the bouncing bold ball): “Mr. Zarif took issue with General Suleimani on other fronts, criticizing him for allowing Russian warplanes to fly over Iran to bomb Syria and for moving military equipment and personnel to Syria on the state-owned Iran Air airline without the knowledge of the government and deploying Iranian ground forces to Syria.”
Scratch it till it bleeds. Doves: they’re on your side, but like mushrooms, they’re fed nothing but, er, compost, and kept in the dark.
Well, and: “Mr. Zarif acknowledged on the tape that when it comes to negotiations, he is bound not just by the directions of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but by the demands of the Guards.”
And: “Mr. Zarif said he was kept in the dark on government actions — sometimes to his embarrassment.”
Sensing a pattern here. A little flattery is then nicely positioned to set up the poison dart: “On the night that Iran decided to retaliate against the United States for the killing of General Suleimani, two Quds Force commanders went to see the Iraqi prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, to inform him that in about 45 minutes Iran would be firing missiles at a military base where U.S. troops were stationed, Mr. Zarif said. The Americans knew about the strike before he did.”
Americans are better informed about Iranian tactical intentions than the doves of Iran are.
And in goes the dart: “Former Secretary of State John Kerry informed him that Israel had attacked Iranian interests in Syria at least 200 times, to his astonishment, Mr. Zarif said.”
The implication here, going strictly by the manufactured context, is that the omega dove is so in the dark, he has to rely on John Kerry to know what Israel is doing in Syria.
But I’m skeptical that (a) Zarif ever had any occasion, or the slightest personal motivation, to say that to an Iranian economist interviewing him for an oral history project; and (b) Zarif didn’t know perfectly well that saying such a thing would throw the U.S. political environment into a tizzy, while affecting Iran not at all.
This reference to Kerry acting in bad faith vis-à-vis Israel is unfortunately a credible one, given Kerry’s and the Obama administration’s career of outing Israel and issuing pointed, sometimes mafia-style warnings to her leaders, during his stint as secretary of state. Kerry may well have communicated such information to Zarif.
Kerry has denied doing it.
I can tell you that this story and these allegations are unequivocally false. This never happened – either when I was Secretary of State or since. https://t.co/BTOdFE1khW
— John Kerry (@JohnKerry) April 26, 2021
And the reference he tweets to “a government in the region” having already disclosed Israel’s involvement in 200 military operations in Syria can actually be seen as putting the icing on the cake of the Zarif interview – as an info op.
Many conservatives attacking John Kerry for discussing with Iran that Israel covertly struck 200 Iranian targets in Syria, per leaked audio. @StateDeptSpox notes that those strikes had already been disclosed by a gov't in the region (i.e. Israel) pic.twitter.com/ARZvri38pE
— John Hudson (@John_Hudson) April 26, 2021
This isn’t because it clarifies whether Kerry did or didn’t make disclosures. It’s because it clarifies that in the audio of his interview, Zarif literally exposed nothing about Iran, or information unique to his position as foreign minister. Even the “200 attacks” reference matches previous media reporting, according it a semblance of corroboration and increasing its appearance of plausibility, without putting Iranian sensitive information at risk. That’s classic info ops.
The citation is a statement by an Israeli intelligence official in 2018, in which the official said Israel had conducted 200 military operations in Syria in the previous two years. One thing that potentially does is imply that Kerry’s alleged disclosures were made after he left the State Department; i.e., at a time when there would have been the 200 operations alluded to by the Israeli official to inform Zarif about.
That said, we don’t know when Kerry is supposed to have made the disclosures. The telling thing about the “200 attacks” reference isn’t so much about Kerry. It’s about Zarif’s care to say nothing vettable that isn’t already in the public record. He used a figure put out by the Israelis and imputed bad faith to Kerry with it, seemingly as an example of how in the dark he, Zarif, is kept.
I have to say, my hat is off to Zarif and his scriptwriters.
This is a bit of their own sauce being slopped back on the U.S. media: the kind of thing they did to the Trump administration for four solid years. Kerry’s and Biden’s defenders are annoyed:
🧵here’s thing. on anything tangentially iran related, the opponents to this US admin are going to try make it politically toxic, 24/7, until the end of eternity. this admin has nothing to do with this zarif tape leak. still, it seems it would behoove it, to push back fast &hard https://t.co/GnhpGLf2R7
— Laura Rozen (@lrozen) April 27, 2021
I’m hopeful that the Israelis have seen through it already. For all we know, Kerry did tell Zarif about Israeli operations in Syria – but the Israelis would hardly be surprised by that, I think. Their nearer concern at this point is the pattern of leaks directly from the Biden administration’s State and White House personnel.
Meanwhile, the mischief-making by Iran continues. The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that back on 2 April (Good Friday, just before Easter), Iranian fast boats harassed two U.S. Coast Guard vessels operating in the Persian Gulf, interfering with their operations and zooming across the bow of one as close as 70 yards away. It was the first such incident in nearly a year (and, in fact, there have hardly been any such episodes since early 2018. After the one in April 2020, Trump tweeted that he had “instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.” There were no further such incidents until 2 April 2021).
This incident has afforded an opportunity to deploy the hawks-and-doves theme, handily supplied by Zarif:
American officials are typically unsure to what degree such incidents are directed by Tehran or are the result of rogue ship commanders working for the IRGC and taking their own initiative.
Over the weekend, a leaked tape surfaced in which Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, was heard saying that the IRGC often sabotaged Tehran’s efforts, taking matters into their own hands over the concerns of the country’s foreign ministry or government.
The WSJ report also notes that it occurred at a significant time: “The incident occurred April 2, just as the U.S. and Iran announced they would conduct negotiations toward renewing the 2015 multilateral nuclear accord. Those talks began earlier this month in Vienna. The episode hasn’t been previously disclosed.”
It’s a nice metaphor, really. Iran as the information fast-boat swarm, darting around harassing the big, imposing U.S. warships with their slow-moving information conventions.
As the Media Research Center pointed out on Monday, the U.S. networks ignored the zinger about Kerry in the Zarif interview. That seems par for the course. Given the overall character of the interview, I find it more interesting that NYT did include it. It would have gotten far less play if that poison-dart sentence had stopped at the Iran International outlet in London.
I’ll leave it for readers to decide who, if anyone, is being thrown under the us here. The ones who look, so far, like they’ve been shaken out of complacency are Kerry and the Biden-friendly media.