Zarif said Qasem Soleimani had worked to subvert the nuclear deal
In leaked audio recordings made public on Sunday, Iran's foreign minister complained about interference by the Revolutionary Guard Corps in Tehran's diplomatic affairs, including efforts to undermine the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.
The audio, which was released by the London-based Iran International news channel, came from a three-hour interview with the foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, that the channel said was conducted in March.
Taken together, Zarif's unvarnished comments and the fact the audio had leaked, highlighted the sharpening public rivalries within Iran's political circles, as Tehran engages with global powers in a fresh attempt to revive the nuclear deal, and as Iranian elections approach.
Especially notable were Zarif's barbed comments about Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Guards' elite Quds Force, a towering figure in Iran's security establishment who was killed in a US drone strike last year.
Zarif said Soleimani had worked to subvert the nuclear deal, by colluding with Russia and by ramping up Iran's intervention in Syria's civil war.
"Almost every time I went to negotiate, it was Soleimani who said, 'I want you to make this concession or point,'" Zarif said. "I was negotiating for the success of the [military] field."
The interview was conducted by Saeed Leylaz, an economist and journalist who was as an adviser to Mohammed Khatami, a pro-reform cleric who served two terms as Iran's president.
In the excerpts published by Iran International, Zarif can he heard asking Leylaz not to publish certain parts of the conversation.
The channel said the interview was apparently intended to be released after Iran's current president, Hassan Rouhani, left office in August.
On Monday, Saeed Khatibzadeh, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, called the leak "illegal" and said the conversation was intended only for "historical" purposes, adding that there had been "a mutual commitment to maintaining its confidentiality," according to the semi-official Iranian Students' News Agency.
He said the government did not know who had leaked the audio, or why, but said the conversation also showed that "Iranian officials are dynamic and transparent in their expertise."
The leaked conversation was the latest salvo in what has become an increasingly caustic domestic Iranian debate over the nuclear deal, pitting "pragmatists" represented by Rouhani against a conservative camp wary of any engagement with the West.
The factional fights are not a secret in Iran, which hosts political debates that are more expansive and vigorous than most countries in the Middle East.
Even so, Zarif's comments, some of which could be seen as self-serving, were notably blunt. "The general structure of our Foreign Ministry is security-based," he said.
"There is a group in our country that has an interest in making everything security-based, to highlight their own role."
Iran's debate has intensified in the last few weeks as the Rouhani government, the United States and other global powers meet in Vienna to revive the nuclear deal, which languished after President Donald Trump withdrew from the accord in 2018.
In Iran, the argument has played out on the Internet and the airwaves, including with the recent broadcast of a documentary as well as a television series that were widely seen as attempts by hard-liners to undermine the nuclear talks.
The quarrels in Iran centre to some degree around the terms of the deal, analysts said, but more importantly amounted to jockeying between factions ahead of presidential elections scheduled for late June.
In the interview, Zarif addressed speculation about his own candidacy, saying he was "popular," while adding: "Popularity is not a legitimate reason to be able to run the country."