A blackwash for Iran’s reformists

Lamis El-Sharqawy, Thursday 27 May 2021

Lamis El-Sharqawy keeps up with the latest in Iran’s internal affairs

A TV series that ridicules the Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, wasn’t enough of a warning against running for presidency. This preceded the release of a series of audio recordings leaked at just the right time to set off a firestorm before election season. More recently Zarif announced that he won’t be running for presidency “under any condition.”

“I don’t think Zarif was personally interested in running. But many in the reform camp believed that he was uniquely placed to mobilise their constituents who have become disillusioned with the prospects of reform in Iran,” said Ali Vaez, Iran Project director and senior adviser to the president at International Crisis Group.

It was widely speculated that the audiotapes, which were meant for release in an interview with Saeed Laylaz, were purposely leaked less than two months before the elections. Some believe that whoever leaked them had actually wanted to elevate Zarif’s stature ahead of the election, to help him stand out as someone who defied a theocracy, while others believe that it was a hardliner’s game to tarnish his image as he revealed confidential stories about the country’s foreign policy. Whatever they were, they appear to have scuppered his chance of running for presidency.

“The leaked tape of an interview in which he was quite candid about his criticism of the decision-making process in Iran and the country’s regional policies burned him out even before registration was open to presidential candidates. The tape was probably leaked by IRGC affiliated hackers who sought that outcome and were highly concerned about Zarif running for president,” Vaez told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Zarif was the best candidate for the reform camp and the hardliners too. He was widely suggested by the reformists as someone to challenge hardliners in the vote, while for the conservatives, he was needed to avoid a one-sided election which inhibits voter interests.

However, hardliners were keen to deter Zarif from having any opportunities in June’s elections as a part of the bigger political rift ongoing in Iran between the hardliners and the reformists.

About 78 per cent of Iranians are set to boycott the June elections, according to a recent poll by the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran (GAMAAN).

“Elections in the Islamic Republic in Iran are largely political theatre meant to fool the Iranian people and the outside world. The Iranian people no longer believe in these sham elections and will, in a historic rebuke of the regime, largely boycott them,” said Cameron Khansarinia, the policy director of the National Union for Democracy in Iran, based in Washington.

Rasul Montajab-Nia, a cleric and the secretary general of the Republican Islamic Iran Party, considered that Zarif is more of a cultured and experienced diplomat than other reformist figures like Vice President Es’haq Jahangiri who doesn’t have Zarif’s popularity.

Zarif’s efforts in keeping the landmark nuclear deal for Iran alive and handling Iran’s foreign policy crises for eight years while he was in office didn’t resonate with hardliners who don’t approve of his approach generally with the US as he pushes to revive the deal.

“Mr Zarif has served the regime dutifully for decades by promoting and whitewashing it in the Western press,” Khansarinia told the Weekly.

Despite being a sharp-witted diplomat with a background of education in the US, Zarif was never able to counterbalance conservatives at home who accused him of selling out his country after the US withdrawal from the nuclear pact of 2018. They also threatened him when the agreement was made in 2015 after years of negotiations.

“Javad Zarif always denied reports that he is interested in running in the elections. Meanwhile, he is viewed - wrongly of course - as pro Western and influenced by America because of his decades of experience living in the US,” said Sina Azodi, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council.

“Zarif is a technocrat who has previously maintained cordial and professional relations with a number of American lawmakers and diplomats. This is hard to accept for many hardliners who continue to view the US as Iran’s sworn enemy. Therefore, they view Zarif as weak and sympathetic towards the US, an accusation that has no basis for sure,” Azodi told the Weekly.

The leaks of the seven-hour interview, included comments by Zarif about the interference of the powerful Revolutionary Guard in foreign policy, complaining that he has “zero” influence over Tehran’s critical foreign policy decisions despite the fact that he is the foreign minister. They also revealed that Russia did not want the deal to succeed as that would result in Tehran normalising relations with the West.

The hardliners’ camp also saw the leaks as an opportunity to slow the pace of ongoing negotiations about the revival of the nuclear deal taking place in Vienna.

The released audiotapes of Zarif – it remains unclear who leaked them – were just part of an influence campaign on public opinion ahead of the elections against the reformist figure. “Gando”, a TV series produced by a production institute that’s close to the IRGC, has depicted Zarif as an incompetent minister who scuppers nuclear talks with world powers by hiring dual nationals who turn out to be spies for MI6, something he called out as “a lie from the beginning to the end.”

“I’d be grateful to Gando’s makers if they let us continue our current job,” Zarif said, later announcing that he would not run for the presidency.

Many challenges blocked Zarif’s way to a presidential bid, if he had any inner thoughts about it. Now he is concluding his term in office before the elections focused on “the current job” of discussing with Western powers the prospect of reviving the nuclear deal, and that’s all the hardliners wanted – to bid farewell to him.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Search Keywords:
Short link: