Iran’s Foreign Minister, Muhammad Javad Zarif, took part in an oral history project intended for internal use by the clerical dictatorship in February and on 25 April the audio was leaked—so goes the story. There is every reason to think this is a controlled leak, which is to say an information operation or a piece of strategic messaging—more pejoratively, propaganda or disinformation: choose the terminology as you will—intended to assist the Iranian theocracy as it works through its negotiations on the nuclear file with the new American administration of President Joe Biden. Still, there are some insights from this episode, as with an interview Zarif gave—focused on Afghanistan—in December.
THE CONTENTSOF THE RECENT “LEAK”
The headline “revelation” from the “leak” is that Zarif criticised Qassem Sulaymani, the leader of the expeditionary Quds Force unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) until President Donald Trump killed Sulaymani in Baghdad in January 2020.
The recording in which Zarif said this was of a three-hour session with a friendly economist and journalist, Saeed Leylaz, for the Centre for Strategic Studies, a “think tank” run out of the office of Iranian president Hassan Rowhani, ostensibly for the purpose of recording the history of what we might call the Sulaymani Moment so that lessons could be drawn from it.
Zarif’s main problem was that Sulaymani dominated the Islamic Republic with the “military field” and conspired with Russia to undermine Zarif’s diplomacy on the nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Zarif underlines that he is subject to restriction not only from the Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i but the IRGC, too.
Zarif also criticised Sulaymani “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 [Iranian civilian] government and deploying Iranian ground forces to Syria”, as The New York Times summarised it. As it happened, Zarif’s objection—even by this tape’s testimony—was not to Sulaymani underwriting the exterminationist campaign of Syrian ruler Bashar al-Asad, it was just that Zarif wished he would transfer war materiel to Syria through the “private” Mahan Airlines rather than the then-recently de-sanctioned state-run Iran Air.
There are smaller complaints from Zarif about, he says, going to see then-Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abd al-Mahdi on 8 January 2020, days after Sulaymani’s demise, to warn Al-Mahdi that in forty-five minutes the Iranians would be carrying out an overt missile strike on the Ayn al-Asad Airbase in western Iraq that houses American forces—only to find that the Americans knew before he did. And then, hours later, when a panicked IRGC accidentally shot down a Ukrainian airliner and killed 176 people, Zarif was kept out of the loop.
NOT QUITE WHAT IT SEEMS
As should be self-evident, this “leak” is littered with red flags. The most obvious is the idea that Sulaymani worked with Russia to undermine JCPOA, and specifically that Sulaymani’s July 2015 trip to Moscow to plan out the Russians’ overt intervention in Syria two months was part of such an effort. Vladimir Putin’s government has been, from the beginning, a staunch supporter of JCPOA, and given that any statement to the contrary is so flagrantly untrue within the Iranian regime, it begs the question of what purpose such a lie would serve on an internal project—except, of course, if this was not intended to stay under wraps.
The New York Times rather amusing says that the audio “was not meant for publication” and we know this because Zarif “can repeatedly be heard saying [so] on the audio”; one might suspect he doth protest too much.
There are other more subtle things that are just “off”, such as the idea that Zarif was pressured separately by Khamene’i and IRGC as if the Guards did not answer to the Supreme Leader. What this seems to be in furtherance of is the idea that there are schisms within the Iranian regime, and by implication that the West can get what it needs from Iran by cultivating and strengthening the more engageable faction—through concessions to the regime.
This has been the primary takeaway from the “leak” for the liberal and Left-wing supporters of the JCPOA, a vindication of their conception of the Iranian regime as divided into “hardliners” and “moderates”, with the latter being allies in finding peace, as against America’s hardliners in the Republican Party who supported Trump withdrawing from the JCPOA and are now encouraging Biden not to go back into it, who are in effect allies of the Iranian extremists.
This liberal vision is near-perfectly divorced from reality. There are political factions within the Islamic Republic, as in any large state apparatus, grouped in this case into two broad camps known as Reformists (Zarif and Rowhani) and the Principlists (Khamene’i and IRGC), but “reformists” does not have the connotations in this context that that word does in general English usage and the domination of the Principlists over the state is so total that not even a wholesale Western capitulation to the Reformist diplomats in Vienna could have the Principlists supplanted.
The conservative critics of the JCPOA, picking up on this, have argued—quite correctly—that the main actual information in this audio is Zarif’s admission of the extent to which he is a powerless frontman, and therefore how useless it is for Western leaders and diplomats to be fostering relations with Zarif since, even if he was not such an unctuous and mendacious character, he has no freedom to operate independently of the most extreme forces in Iran, who control the country.
As with nearly everything else these days in the English-speaking world, however, the discussion of the JCPOA—and by extension, this “leak”—has been swamped by American politics. Thus, American conservatives have seized on a line from Zarif saying that then-Secretary of State John Kerry told him about Israeli strikes against IRGC positions in Syria to argue that Kerry betrayed Israel’s trust and leaked classified information to a hostile foreign state, an action shading close to treason. Kerry has had some highly inappropriate dealings with Iran, but there is no conceivable universe in which Zarif did not know Israel was behind the strikes in Syria. Moreover, the Republicans falling on Kerry over this and creating divisions within the American polity is playing directly into what this statement was designed to do.
THE MEANING OF THE “LEAK”
What, then, was the intention of this “leak”? One, already mentioned, is political warfare against America, to weaken America by setting it against itself, and the ultimate purpose of that is so the Islamic Republic has an easier time of things in negotiations. The timing of this “leak”, as the negotiations in Vienna enter a crucial phase, the last chance to get sanctions lifted before the presidential “election” in Iran in June, cannot be ignored. This “election”, too, might be a causal factor: rumours abound that Zarif intends to run for the presidency, and this would not be a bad way to go about, energising his constituency by showing how he stood up to the Principlists and alleviated the economic pain in the country.
Over at the Middle East Institute, Kasra Aarabi argues that Zarif will not be allowed to win in the “election”, even if the Guardian Council permits him to run, because the Supreme Leader needs to keep the IRGC and Basij loyal—so long as they stand, no amount of popular resistance can overwhelm the clerical autocracy—and that is achieved by ensuring that one of their hezbollahi faction are given the presidency. There have been calls for Zarif’s resignation by elements who regard him—not unlike some American liberals—as being “moderate” and even secretly pro-American, which Zarif emphatically is not. But, says Aarabi, it will benefit Khamene’i, now or after the “election”, to be seen to heed these calls and to send Zarif into “exile”, where he can—like Hossein Mousavian—act as a reliable if deniable advocate for the Iranian regime in the West.
This is plausible, and it would have additional scapegoating benefits: some critics have already asked how Zarif is supposed to be trusted with state responsibilities if he cannot even keep an audio tape safe. In the shadow of the recent campaign from Israel, which began even before the Americans killed Sulaymani with the capture (however it happened) of the so-called Atomic Archive, and has involved striking down a senior Al-Qaeda official in Tehran, assassinating the nuclear scientist behind the weapons program Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, and blowing up Natanz enrichment facility, if Zarif is sent abroad under a black cloud of accusations of giving away state secrets to the enemy, it tacitly suggests the source of the compromises has been cast out—and takes attention away from the fact that Iran’s regime is riddled with spies and IRGC has been singularly unable to prevent or respond to any of these attacks, just as Tehran previously failed to do anything about the elimination of Imad Mughniya.
Perhaps setting up for what Aarabi suggests, Zarif has now apologised to the family of Sulaymani, even as Principlists scream “sedition” and the Supreme Leader accuses Zarif of abetting enemy propaganda. On the other hand, the Reformists have named Zarif as one of their slate after this episode, and he appears to be their most popular candidate.
Things should be much clearer after 11 May when the deadline for presidential candidates lapses.
ZARIF SPEAKS ABOUT AFGHANISTAN
The last major effusion of information from Zarif was a few days before Christmas 2020, and in that case it was openly intentional, a sit-down interview for an hour with Lotfullah Najafizada of TOLO News, Afghanistan’s first 24/7 television news station, which also has an excellent print side to its operations. Unlike the interlocuter Zarif had for the “leak” tape, during the almost hour-long interview with TOLO, Najafizada was marvellously adversarial and drew from Zarif answers that at least in places approached what we might legitimately call “information”.
The most important part of the TOLO interview was confirmation that Iran intends to send the Afghan Shi’a jihadists it mobilised to send to Syria to fight to keep its proxy regime alive back to Afghanistan to use as tools in the coming civil war after NATO leaves and ultimately to impose to Islamic revolutionary model that Iran has implemented in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. This policy will be sold as a counter-IS move, despite the fact it will inflame rather than dampen the conditions in which IS thrives, namely sectarianism.
Zarif is evasive about Iran’s policy toward the Taliban. Conceding that Iran has forged relations with the Taliban, Zarif will not say directly whether he thinks the group is a terrorist organisation (not that this stopped the Taliban getting annoyed) and claims that relations are meant to facilitate peace—even as he elsewhere admits they began long before the peace process and claims the relations relate to the Taliban’s control of the border area. Zarif admits that the Taliban leader has been in Iran, but denies that there is a leadership council (Shura) of the Taliban on Iranian soil, which there is.
Zarif reiterates time and again that Iran sees the Taliban as a part of the solution in Afghanistan, albeit they would prefer it to be in effect a coalition with the government, rather than having monopoly power. An interesting part of the interview is when Najafizada questions Zarif on whether he regards the Taliban’s governance model as a Sunni version of the clerical theocracy that he serves; Zarif does not, though his reasons are rather weak.
The whole issue of Iran-Taliban relations gets wrapped up with who controls Iran’s foreign policy: Zarif consistently claims it is a consensus across all agencies of the Iranian state, but under Najafizada’s questioning it becomes rather clear IRGC calls the shots—and did all the way from back at the start, in 2001, at the Bonn Conference that created the current Afghan republic.
Zarif speaks more sense than is comfortable about American policy in Afghanistan: the reckless “deal” made as part of an election campaign; the precipitate withdrawal that is in nobody’s interest, least of all the luckless Afghans’, risking twenty years of steady if fragile progress; and the U.S. duplicity in its public statements that call for an inclusive settlement, even as it undermines the Afghan government and abets a Taliban conquest of the whole country.
Zarif concluded the interview with an unambiguous statement that he would not run for the presidency in June 2021.
Interestingly, Zarif starts by dodging the question of whether Afghanistan is “occupied” by the Americans and perhaps rather surprisingly says Afghanistan is an “independent” country that has “many achievements in the areas of democracy, human rights, women’s rights, and the rights of minorities over the past nineteen years”. It all makes more sense when Zarif adds that this has happened “since the Bonn Conference of 2001”, which was in effect a U.S.-Iran cobble-up to create the first post-Taliban government in Afghanistan, an enterprise Zarif was deeply involved in.
In what would become a pattern in the interview, Zarif says, “We have always opposed the presence of foreign troops in the region”, and Najafizada cuts him off, telling him that they will get to that, but this was not the question he was asked: Iranian officials have used the word “occupation” about Afghanistan, what is his view?
Zarif says that foreign troops, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan, are regarded by Iran as “forces that disrupt peace and security” but “we are not making decisions separate from the governments of these countries. Their governments are independent and make their own decisions.” To the extent either Baghdad or Kabul can make decisions on their own, free from Iranian interference, it is not for lack of Tehran trying.
Najafizada then points out that Zarif was at Bonn, and therefore “helped in the process to allow the U.S. to come into Afghanistan”.
Zarif says Iran did not help the U.S. entry into Afghanistan, since the Bonn conference was held after the U.S. had assisted the Afghan “resistance” (his word) and the so-called Northern Alliance in overthrowing the Taliban regime, and Iran only supported the establishment of an “independent and democratic” government in Afghanistan. Zarif does concede, though, that Iran and the U.S. were “the two key actors” in shaping the forces that participated at Bonn.
Asked if Iran’s policy has changed after Sulaymani’s death, Zarif says that Tehran has always supported “the Afghan government and the Afghan people”. Zarif claims that “Sulaymani, in the Bonn Conference, played a crucial role, as I did, if not more, in bringing democracy to Afghanistan”. This is a subtler admission, months before the leak last week, that IRGC controls Iranian foreign policy and always has. (For example, Zarif could have added that simultaneous with the Bonn conference, Sulaymani—without a by-your-leave from the Foreign Ministry or anyone else—gave personal permission for Al-Qaeda’s leadership to enter Iran, where it still is.)
Quizzed about whether Iran would implement in Afghanistan the strategy it had in Iraq, where, after Sulaymani’s death, the Iranians had used their influence to have the Baghdad parliament move resolutions calling for the expulsion of foreign troops, Zarif gives a most interesting reply:
“We want a lawful and calculated withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan … it should be a responsible transition to the Afghan security forces. We do not want it in the current form as the Americans go and negotiate with the Taliban.”
Translated, Zarif is accusing the U.S. of a precipitate and reckless withdrawal from Afghanistan, and engaging the Taliban in a manner that is unwise at best, and in this he is quite correct.
Zarif denies that the Iranian regime has gained any benefit from the U.S. removing the Taliban from power and remaining in the country. “We do not have this perception”, says Zarif, because the presence of foreign troops stokes nationalist sentiment, which is then “exploited” by radicals like the Islamic State (IS), Al-Qaeda, and the Taliban.
Zarif confirms Iran’s long ties to Abdullah Abdullah, the former “Chief Executive Officer” and current Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, and to the nominal president of Afghanistan between 1992 and 2001, Burhanuddin Rabbani, plus many of the armed factions that made up the “Northern Alliance”, the anti-Taliban resistance after 1996 that was formally named the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan and cannot be said in any serious sense to exist any longer, even if the brand name is sometimes still invoked.
In denying that Iran shares a goal with the U.S. in Afghanistan, Zarif says:
“[W]e do not know exactly what the U.S. position about Afghanistan is. If it is reflected in their talks with the Taliban and in their agreement with the Taliban, we certainly oppose it. We see that as a dangerous act. It is not in the interest of the Afghan people. It is just a domestic decision[.]”
Zarif is not wrong about this, though his follow-up claim to support “the Afghan people, including the Taliban”, in finding a settlement, is exactly what the U.S. says—as Najafizada pointed out—and it absurd of Zarif to claim that Iran has “never sat with a foreign group to decide about the future of Afghanistan”, given the Iranian theocracy’s deep relationship with the Taliban (to say nothing of Al-Qaeda) and how far into the past Tehran’s meddling in Afghanistan goes.
Najafizada, letting nothing pass, alludes to this, saying, “We will discuss in detail your relations with the Taliban. There are many questions”, at which point Zarif volunteers: “We will surely work with the Taliban, but we do not sit with them to decide about the future of Afghanistan and sign an agreement”. Najafizada says directly that Zarif is “not clear” and provoke many questions. (Again, apart from the extensive covert support, Iran has provided overt political support to the Taliban that goes beyond “sit[ting] with them”.)
Pressed to define the Taliban—whether it is a terrorist group—Zarif notes that the group killed eight Iranian diplomats at Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998 and “has committed many terrorist acts”, but before applying the label ‘terrorist’ “it is necessary to consider the Taliban as part of the future solution, [albeit] not [the whole] future solution for Afghanistan.” Prevented from wandering off by Najafizada, Zarif has to be clearer: “[W]e have not removed the Taliban [from our list of] terrorist groups, in our laws. … They are [terrorists] as they are in the United Nations’ laws. We follow the United Nations.” (Even Zarif grins at this point.) Asked one more time if this means Iran considers the Taliban to be a terrorist group, Zarif again ostensibly defers to the U.N., adding: “But we do believe that the Taliban is a reality in the future.” There are “two realities”, Zarif goes on, the Taliban controlling large swathes of the country on the one side, and on the other side the political and social changes achieved by twenty years free of Taliban rule.
On the Mazar-i-Sharif episode, Najafizada asks whether Iran wishes for revenge or has forgiven the Taliban. Zarif says: “We have neither forgiven nor have we forgotten. On taking revenge or not, we decided it then.” Troops were moved to the border, an Iranian invasion of Afghanistan was apparently imminent, but, says Zarif, Tehran “concluded that such a war would certainly harm the Afghan people, not only the Taliban. Therefore, we withdrew from waging war and taking revenge. … It’s a pain we tolerated for the sake of the Afghan people.”
In terms of whether U.S.-Taliban relations harm Iran, Zarif says, “What is harmful for Iran and Afghanistan is that the U.S. signs an agreement with the Taliban and wants to impose it on the Afghan people”, which is true.
Najafizada turns to Iran’s relations with the Taliban, which Kabul itself has said includes providing weapons and training, and treating their wounded, “like the ISI [Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence]”. Zarif furiously denies all:
“We do not do any of those three things. We do not supply them militarily, we do not treat wounded Taliban, but we have serious talks with them. I personally met [Taliban co-founder and one of its primary ‘diplomats’] Mullah [Abd al-Ghani] Baradar, just like the officials of other countries met the Taliban delegation either in Doha or in their respective capitals. Unfortunately, the Afghan government does not have control over a large area of the border between Iran and Afghanistan, and we are obliged to defend our people.”
This amounts to a security partnership with the Taliban, Najafizada says, at which Zarif answers only indirectly, saying the Taliban “have a presence” and there have been “exchanges” with Iran, but that Tehran has always “taken the Afghan government on board”, i.e. kept them informed, of such things, and “we provided help” whenever the Afghan state has needed it. About two weeks before the interview, Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s deputy of political affairs at the Foreign Ministry, had been sent to Kabul and “explained everything”, according to Zarif.
Asked what had been exchanged with the Taliban, Zarif says: “We shared demands raised by the Afghan government”. Does this make Iran a mediator? “No”, says Zarif, “we are a neighbour” and Afghanistan and its “future” is “important for us”.
There is a testy exchange on Iran having protested the 12 September 2020 round of peace talks, with Najafizada pointing out that Tehran was essentially alone in refusing participation and issuing a negative statement about proceedings, while Zarif insists that Iran objected to the U.S. management of the process only.
It has to be conceded that much of Zarif’s reasoning for objecting to September meeting is simply factually correct. “[W]e will not participate in an electoral campaign program of the United States”, Zarif said, which the meeting “turned out to be”, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s behaviour while there. “[Donald] Trump sacrificed Afghanistan for the sake of his election campaign and … very great harm [has been] inflicted on the future of Afghanistan” by the so-called deal reached with the Taliban in February 2020.
Keeping up with the difficult questions, Najafizada asks why then-Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour had been in Iran right before he was killed in 2016. Zarif says:
“We have never claimed that we do not have relations with the Taliban. Mr Mullah Baradar also came to Iran and met Iran’s Foreign Minister. Likewise, he might also have had some meetings with our authorities. [Pause] We have never hidden it. The Afghan government is also aware of it.”
When Najafizada points out that this was before the peace talks—that is, before contacts with the Taliban had any justification—Zarif throws it back at him by saying, “All had ties with the Taliban before the start of the peace talks. Do you think the U.S. developed relations with the Taliban after the peace talks [began]?”
Not letting Zarif off that easily, Najafizada presses for an answer:
Najafizada: What [did Mansour’s trip to Iran] contribute to the peace process?
Zarif: To my knowledge, his trip [to Iran] was just a transit, under an alias.
Najafizada: A two-month transit?
Zarif: I do not know.
Najafizada: Didn’t you meet him?
Zarif: No, I didn’t. The first time I met a Talib was when I attended the Islamic Conference in Jeddah as a mediator between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. I think the man I met was the Taliban’s minister of information. … My second meeting with a Talib was with Mullah Baradar in Tehran.
Najafizada: Your ties appear old.
Zarif: That meeting was organised by the Afghanistan committee of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation [OIC]. … They were striving to make peace between warring groups in Afghanistan, and I attended the conference as a representative of [then-Iranian president Muhammad] Khatami …
Najafizada switches gear to ask Zarif directly about the Taliban leaders being housed at Mashhad and Zahedan. Zarif’s answer is singularly unpersuasive:
“I do not know. Some people, who have relations with the Taliban, might move back and forth to Iran. But they certainly do not run any headquarters or bases in Iran. … I have also heard about [the Taliban’s Mashhad Shura], but I do not really have any information about it.”
An incredulous Najafizada refuses to let it drop at this lame deflection, and demands it be clarified whether Zarif is denying the Taliban have a leadership node based within Iran or whether he is claiming he doesn’t know about it. Zarif’s smile fades and he tries a new means of deflection:
Zarif: We have three million refugees from Afghanistan in Iran.
Najafizada: This is the same thing Pakistan says.
Zarif: No, I explained the nature of our relations with the Taliban. We neither created the Taliban, nor did we recognise [their government from 1996 to 2001]. You might remember that there were three countries who recognised the Taliban government: Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. We did not recognise it. Therefore, our relations with the Taliban come from necessity because of their presence along our borders.
The best disinformation is that which mixes a lot of truth in with the lies, and, as can be seen here, Zarif is very good at it. Zarif’s barely-disguised accusation that the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment invented the Taliban and imposed it on Afghanistan is entirely correct, likewise about the states that recognised the Taliban-Qaeda regime after those forces took Kabul in 1996, but it does not make it true that Iran has developed relations with the Taliban out of circumstantial or tactical necessity.
Zarif expressed himself concerned that the Taliban propose to treat the Shi’a as a minority akin to Christians or Buddhists, despite even the present Afghan constitution recognising all schools of Islam as legitimate sources of law. The Taliban have specifically raised in Doha the prospect of not treating Ja’fari fiqh (jurisprudence), the Shi’i madhab (school), on a par with the Sunni schools. Asked what Iran proposes to do about this, Zarif says it is a matter for Afghans to deal with.
Keeping up the difficult questions, Najafizada asks Zarif how Iran would view the establishment of a Sunni version of Iran’s Veleyat-e-Faqih (or wilayat al-faqih) system of government, which is what the Taliban is proposing. Zarif says: “We have an Islamic Republic here. We would appreciate if someone establishes its Sunni version. But the Islamic Emirate is certainly not its Sunni version.” Iran’s view is that the current constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, as the country is formally known, is the basis for moving forward, says Zarif.
Continuing the same theme, Najafizada asks: “Can we draw analogies between the [Islamic] Emirate [i.e. the Taliban’s ‘Islamic system’] and Velayat-e-Faqih [the ruling system in Iran]?” Zarif says these are “two different subjects”. Disclaiming any expertise in Islamic jurisprudence, saying he is an international lawyer, Zarif nonetheless ventures: “The Emirate and Velayat-e-Faqih are two [different] ways of ruling.” Zarif says it is entirely down to Afghans if they want an Emir al-Mu’mineen (Commander of the Faithful) to run the country because “the people’s votes are decisive in an Islamic republic”, which is at best debateable, and it is laughable when Zarif goes on to say that “even a Supreme Leader is elected by the Assembly of Experts, which is elected by the [Iranian] people.” “We have no permanent and unelected position”, Zarif adds, for good measure claiming that the “indirect” election of the Supreme Leader—who can in theory be removed by the Assembly of Experts—is no different than the Electoral College in a U.S. Presidential Election.
Zarif is hesitant when asked whether the Taliban wants peace. The Taliban want peace “by their own principles”, says Zarif, before saying they “should pursue a peace settlement, which means … recognising all parties’ perspectives, rather than saying that we will agree to a peace settlement when all parties surrender to us” [emphasis added]. The latter is “victory in war”, not peace, Zarif points out. Asked if Zarif he told this to his Taliban guests, Zarif said he had.
Iran would sign-on to a regional settlement for Afghanistan, provided it is not dominated by foreign states and Iran is expected to ratify decisions taken by others, says Zarif, and the issues of drug trafficking, migration, and instability have to be dealt with. Zarif wants the neighbouring states to form the primary circle in dealing with Afghanistan, and then those further afield can help if they want to in a secondary capacity. In terms of Doha hosting the peace talks, Zarif says Iran has “very good relations with Qatar” and is happy for them to play this facilitating role.
Not being seduced into comfort by Zarif’s manner, Najafizada’s adversarial questions continue: Zarif has said Iran wants the Americans out, but they should only go responsibly; he says Iran wants peace, yet they refuse to attend the peace conference; and Iran speaks of its support for the Afghan constitution and republic, while maintaining strong relations with the Taliban. Added to this there is within Iran a Guards Corps, Quds Force, the Intelligence Ministry (Ettela’at), and Foreign Ministry—all involved in various ways in Afghanistan. So, what is Iran’s policy, and who makes it and speaks for it?
Zarif says foreign policy is made by a “national consensus” and he speaks for them. Zarif claims Iran’s Afghanistan policy is based on “the people of Afghanistan” and finding “an inclusive decision-making [process]” to decide the way forward—and in Iran’s perception this absolutely includes the Taliban.
Unsatisfied, Najafizada pushes Zarif on this. Zarif denies that there is a bifurcation in Iranian policy—either because of more than one actor, or because it is one actor with two faces—and claims that Iran is the only state that has said the present Islamic Republic and constitution in Afghanistan should be the basis for the future set-up. “I clarified why we have developed relations with the Taliban”, Zarif says. “When we support the government of Afghanistan, … we are all present”, referring to the various factions of the Iranian government.
Zarif insists when pressed further about the Iranian interference in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan that this is a national policy, arrived at by consensus across the Iranian state. Sulaymani was, by Zarif’s account, in Iraq to help fight IS and other extremists, and was “martyred” on his way to a meeting with the Iraqi Prime Minister.
Sulaymani’s successor Esmail Qaani visited Bamiyan without any apparent official imprimatur, Najafizada pointed out, and Zarif said that Qaani is well-known to Afghan authorities, was visiting “friends”, and it “is good for us to have contact with the whole of Afghanistan”. In justifying this, Zarif repeats that Sulaymani’s role with his old friend Rabbani at Bonn “was perhaps better than our (i.e. the Foreign Ministry’s) role” in creating the post-Taliban Afghan state.
“That is why I ask who really makes Iran’s foreign policy?” Najafizada replies. “I explained: we are working in harmony”, says Zarif, who claims he got democracy and counter-terrorism put on the agenda at Bonn—and this can be read in the “book written by the U.S. envoy” (presumably meaning Ryan Crocker)—but of course this was done in full coordination with Sulaymani.
Zarif is vague when asked about the likely Taliban takeover once NATO leaves. Saying, again, that “the people of Afghanistan, with all parties”, will decide the matter, Zarif adds, “We believe the Taliban alone is not capable of governing Afghanistan” and the situation will not return to the way it was in the 1990s. Asked what can possibly give him that confidence, Zarif simply repeats that the Afghan people have to handle this matter, and Iran “respect[s] any decision made by Afghans”, which is a dodge since a Taliban takeover is another word for the reimposition of Pakistani occupation—a Taliban victory, when it comes, will not be a reflection of Afghan popular will, but Pakistani state power.
Abruptly changing pace, Najafizada asks Zarif why Iran is sending Afghans to fight for Bashar al-Asad’s regime in Syria. Zarif claims, “We do not send anyone to Syria”, and is immediately countered on the matter. “You sent 25,000 Afghans”, says Najafizada, referring to Liwa Fatemiyun, the Afghan division of IRGC, though the name of the unit is not mentioned just yet.
Zarif’s counter-pleading is not persuasive: “[N]obody goes to war on behalf of a foreign country to a third country. Our brothers would go to [Syria] voluntarily. Some Iraqis went and some from other countries took part in [the war in Syria].” Indeed, Iran mobilised Shi’i jihadists from as far afield as the Ivory Coast to rescue Asad, but “voluntary” misses the point of ideological commitment to absolute Veleyat-e-Faqih and its total obedience to the Supreme Leader. Charged with facilitating this movement of fighters, Zarif says it was merely to help the anti-IS effort, since IS is “a common enemy to all of us”.
After claiming that Afghans “went to fight for their beliefs” [emphasis added] and even displayed Afghan national flags and pictures of Afghan president Ashraf Ghani at their bases in Syria, one possibly the most important exchange of the interview ensues:
Zarif: [The Afghans in Syria] are the best forces with a military background in the fight against Daesh (IS). The Afghan government, if willing, can regroup them.
Najafizada: What for?
Zarif: For the fight against Daesh and for the fight against terrorism and for the protection of Afghanistan security.
Najafizada: Inside Afghanistan?
Zarif: Wherever the Afghan government wants.
Najafizada: Where are these forces?
Zarif: Most of them have rejoined normal life. As now the war is over in Syria, they have rejoined normal life—working.
Najafizada: Where, in Iran?
Zarif: Maybe, they are in Iran or perhaps they are not in Iran.
Najafizada: How many are their exact numbers?
Zarif: I have learned the same number as you say.
Zarif: I have heard 5,000—that less than 2,000 of them are in Syria.
Reading between the lines, this would appear to confirm the fears of some analysts that Iran will transport its Fatemiyun fighters back to Afghanistan under the cover of the anti-IS campaign to use them as a tool in the coming all-out war of all against all—gravely exacerbating the sectarian tensions in the country. (Iran has given further signals that this is what it intends to do in the months since Zarif’s interview.)
The next section of the interview is an extremely combative one , with Najafizada refusing to accept Zarif’s lies that his government did not recruit and send Afghans to die in Syria. Zarif tries to claim that Iran simply armed Afghans who turned up in Syria willing to fight IS, but Najafizada points out that Afghans in Iran “are not allowed to subscribe to a mobile sim card” and can’t even visit public parks, so “it is interesting” they have “free movement” when it comes to getting to Syria. Zarif, having admitted that Iran provides “compensation” for Afghans who die in Syria, clearly realises he is on dangerous ground in terms of the U.N. conventions he has championed throughout the interview, which forbid coerced recruitment of refugees, sticks to his claim that Iran cannot be expected to keep track of three million refugees, some of whom fall victim to human traffickers and other misfortunes.
Circling back to the Fatemiyun Division, Zarif initially dodges the question, saying Iran helped all those who wanted to fight IS in Iraq so that IS would not have to be fought in Afghanistan. But then the conversation turns more concrete:
Zarif: The Afghan government is fully informed that we are prepared to help the Afghan government regroup these forces under the leadership of the Afghan National Army in the fight against terrorism.
Najafizada: Do you back the idea of Fatemiyun forces being regrouped against Daesh inside Afghanistan?
Zarif: It depends on the Afghan government’s decision. If so, they must fight in Afghanistan under the leadership of the Afghan government as all forces in Syria were fighting under the leadership of the Syrian government. We were supporting them under the leadership of the Syrian government.
This is a more direct confirmation that Iran’s regime wants to send Liwa Fatemiyun back to Afghanistan so it can become formally recognised as an official part of the state, while acting as a parallel, and eventually dominant, independent force under Iranian control, as has happened in Lebanon with Hizballah, in Syria with the National Defence Forces, in Iraq with al-Hashd al-Shabi in Iraq, and in Yemen with arguably Iran’s most successful such case, Ansarallah (a.k.a. the Huthis).
The concluding parts of the interview were mostly boilerplate: Zarif saying the Americans had wickedly applied sanctions even during the pandemic and should lift them and re-enter the JCPOA; that Iran’s neighbours should be careful about aligning with Israel since they might pay the price; journalist Ruhollah Zam was “executed” by an “independent” judiciary (he doesn’t mention the abduction in Iraq) and that it is not his concern to have an opinion on it, merely to respect the law.
Asked if he will run for the presidency, Zarif says: “This response will be the shortest answer to your question: Absolutely no. … I know my capabilities and I don’t see myself as capable to do this job.”