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By John Helmer, Moscow 

At the conclusion of their most recent meeting in Tehran on April 13, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (lead image, right) said of his Iranian counterpart, “we have held good talks with my friend, Foreign Minister of Iran Mohammad Javad Zarif [left], in a traditionally trustful and friendly atmosphere”. Lavrov didn’t know that, a few days earlier, Zarif had told an Iranian interviewer in a confidential tape-recording that there was nothing trustful or even friendly about his attitude towards the Russians, especially Lavrov.

According to Zarif, whose remarks leaked to the New York Times and other media on the weekend, “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.” To that end, Zarif claimed on tape, “General [of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Qassem] Soleimani traveled to Russia to ‘demolish our achievement’, meaning the nuclear deal.” 

If that is what Zarif said, and that was all he said about Russia, and about Soleimani’s trips to Moscow in 2015-2016, Zarif is lying.

The original tape recording was made a month ago; it was a three-hour conversation between Zarif and a journalist named Saeed Leylaz. According to Iranian officials this week, Zarif’s  interview was one of many conducted with government ministers and their deputies by a unit of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani’s office; it had been intended to be held in a classified archive of the presidency.   The purpose of Rouhani’s staff and the timing of the interview series, as well of the leak,  reflect intense party politics in Tehran, ahead of the presidential election scheduled for June 18. Zarif is a potential candidate, though he has been disclaiming his interest.  

The leaked excerpts, whose authenticity has been confirmed by Zarif’s ministry and by other state officials, appeared in an anti-regime publication, Iran International, in London on April 25.  Another variant in English of the published interview can be read here.   Iran International broadcasts from headquarters in London and is financed from Saudi Arabia.

During his conversation, Zarif was preoccupied to explain factional differences in tactics and strategy between himself and his ministry on the one hand, and the field military command led by Soleimani on the other.  

Qasem Soleimani (left) with Mohammad Javad Zarif, as published by Iran International.

Zarif’s references to Soleimani’s visits to Moscow and to his negotiations with Lavrov were  more extensive than those quoted so far in the western press. He says he deliberately insulted and “cursed” Lavrov during one of the final rounds of negotiations in 2015 over the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) for limiting Iran’s nuclear programs in exchange for the lifting of US and European Union sanctions. In Farsi, the JCPOA acronym is referred to as Borjam or Barjam.

In July 2015, Zarif said on the tape, Soleimani had visited Moscow “not[ing] that the trip was carried out with the will of Russia and without the control of the Iranian Foreign Ministry, and was aimed at ‘destroying the achievement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ with the will of Russia.”

“Diplomacy was sacrificed,” Zarif said. “They [Soleimani] played with us. This happens when the field [military command] decides,” he told supporters in response to a question about why there was military interference in government decisions. “When the field wants to dominate the country’s strategy, it happens that they can play with us…. He cited the Russian government’s treatment of Iran and pressure on the Islamic Republic during the Borjam case.”

Zarif “also stressed that Russia did its best to prevent the signing of the UN Security Council [resolution S/RES/2231/2015 endorsing JCPOA]. Zarif explained that Russia, despite Soleimani’s prior request to travel to Moscow and meet with President Vladimir Putin about the war in Syria, agreed to do so when it was the final week of the signing of the UN Security Council [July 15, 2015 ]. He also referred to cases of Russian attempts to strike at Borjam in the last weeks of its signing, especially in the field of fuel for the Bushehr nuclear power plant. However, Zarif said he was a serious supporter of relations with China and Russia.”

“The head of the diplomatic service [Zarif] noted that he had insulted Sergei Lavrov during a meeting with the Russian envoy [during the last stage of the JCPOA negotiations in Vienna in July 2015].  ‘At this point in the talks, when we did not reach an agreement and Lavrov told me you [Zarif]  had no instructions,’ Zarif said, ‘in the presence of US Secretary of State John Kerry, he [Zarif] replied, ‘This is not up to you.’ The Iranian foreign minister also added that in addition to this phrase, he also used ‘rude and undiplomatic’ words to address Lavrov. ‘We expect China and Russia to side with the United States, but China sees its competition with the United States in technology and geostrategy.’ Zarif also noted that it is not in Russia’s interest to normalize Iran’s relations with the West.”

Press reports of the time indicate that Soleimani was in Moscow in July 2015 to work out the terms and conditions for Russian military intervention in Syria to save Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and his army from defeat by US and Turkish-backed forces.   US officials leaked news of Soleimani’s arrival in Moscow on an Iran Air flight on July 24, 2015, claiming he then met with President Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.   

One of the terms agreed between Shoigu and Soleimani was the opening of Iranian airspace and provision of landing rights for Russian military aircraft enroute to Syria with the military equipment and supplies required for the expanded Russian role. Zarif claims on the tape that had he known, he would have been opposed. In the leaked excerpts Zarif does not say he opposed Russian intervention in Syria to reinforce Assad’s position.   

At the time of Soleimani’s visit to Moscow, the Obama Administration complained the Kremlin was meeting a terrorist and violating “international” sanctions banning Soleimani’s travel outside Iran.   The objective of the US media reports was to discredit the Iranian and Russian commitments to the terms of the JCPOA.

Source: https://www.youtube.com/

Elijah Magnier, a Middle Eastern reporter close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, has confirmed the Iranian version of Soleimani’s visit to Moscow. “In the summer of 2015, President Vladimir Putin agreed – after a private two-hour meeting with Major General Qassem Soleimani (who was assassinated by Donald Trump in Baghdad in 2020)  – to send his troops to Syria. After the Russian intervention in the Syrian war began, a significant change occurred in Israel’s behaviour towards Syria. Before 2015, Israeli attacks were very timid. They intensified in recent years mainly after it became clear that the Syrian army had won and most territories had been liberated and returned to the control of the Damascus government and its allies, excepting the north of the country. From the day when Russia decided to support the government in Damascus, it clarified to its allies Iran and Israel that it would not be part of their mutual conflict and would not support one side against the other.”  

“In July 2015,” Magnier reported the Iranian view in retrospect,    “Iran and its allies decided to retreat from all rural areas into the main Syrian cities due to the impossibility of protecting the immense territories controlled by Jihadists. This is when Iran sent its special envoy in Syria, the head of the IRGC – Quds Brigade General Qassem Soleimani, to Moscow, who later was followed by Admiral Ali Shamkhani, to lay out the military situation and clarify the difficulties faced on the ground. Soleimani met more than once with the highest Russian authorities and explained that it may be too late to protect all of Latakia from the jihadist rockets and missiles, and that the Russian base and warm water presence would definitely be in danger.”

“Putin didn’t feel ready to plunge into the Syrian quagmire,” Magnier reported Soleimani’s assessment. “Too many countries were involved and the shadow of Afghanistan was still haunting the Russian leadership. However, the ‘unintended consequences’ of the US policy towards Ukraine and its attempt, along with the European Community, to kick Russia out of the country and disrupt its huge economic income from gas selling into Europe was enough to make the Russian bear dive into the Levant.”

“Putin allocated more or less the existing Ministry of Defence yearly budget for training and weapons development to be invested in Syria. He seized the golden opportunity to move his chess game to make the US understand that Russia is no longer weak and is capable of protecting its interests outside its territory or comfort zone. The Russian message to the US was clear: if you want to play in our Ukrainian garden Moscow will play in your Middle Eastern forest.”

The interpretation of Russian strategy expressed by Zarif last month makes him appear to be more hostile towards the US than the Kremlin or Soleimani. This wasn’t the view held by the Syrians in Damascus.  

On July 13, 2015, before Soleimani’s trip, Thierry Meyssan, a Damascus-based reporter supporting Assad, reported the Syrian government’s interpretation of Russia’s handling of Iran. “Russia considers that it is in its interest to have, at its southern borders, an Iran which is strong enough to prevent a pro-Western invasion, but not strong enough to fall back on fantasies of a Persian empire. Vladimir Putin today enjoys excellent relations with the Revolutionary Guide Ayatollah Khamenei, as well as with the President of the Republic, Sheikh Rouhani. He noted the military successes of the  [Islamic] Revolutionary Guard Corps (IGRC] in  Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Bahrain, and also Iran’s formidable industrial development. Several times a week, Russian emissaries, both official and unofficial, travel to Tehran to exchange political, military and economic information.”   

“Russia’s other strategic interest in this matter is the future of Daesh [ISIS]” – Meyssan wrote, reflecting the view from Damascus. “There is no longer any doubt that this terrorist organisation, today commanded by Turkey and financed by part of the Saudi royal family, is ready to abandon Iraq and Syria to move on into the Russian Caucasus. Since September 2014, the management of the Islamic Emirate has been purged of its North African officers, practically all replaced by ex-Soviets, mainly Georgians and Uzbeks. Currently, the interior communications between the officers of Daesh, by walkie-talkie, are no longer in Arab, but almost always in Russian – Arab jihadists are now no more than cannon fodder. Moscow must therefore eliminate Daesh now, in the Middle East, or else be obliged to fight them later on her own territory, in the Caucasus.”

Lebanese and Israeli newspapers reported that Soleimani returned to Moscow in September 2015.  This was denied by one of Lavrov’s deputies.  A third Soleimani trip to Moscow was reported from Damascus to have occurred in mid-April 2016.

Between April and August of 2015, Lavrov provided a running commentary on his negotiations with Zarif,  and the detailed points restricting Iran’s nuclear weapons enrichment programme which were included in the final JCPOA documents. Read this record in April 2015, July 2015  and August 2015.    In his August 17, 2015, briefing, Lavrov was asked directly to comment on the extent of Russian military cooperation with Iran, and on Soleimani’s visit to Moscow. Lavrov noted that six months earlier, in January of 2015, “Defence Minister Shoigu visited Tehran and signed an Agreement on Military Cooperation, including in the context of the Caspian issue. Preventing threats and risks in that region that are prone to further exacerbation is an important task.”

Sergei Shoigu (left) with Iran's Defence Minister Hossein Dehghan (right) during their press conference in Tehran on January 20, 2015. The Agence France Presse caption reported the signing of "a military cooperation deal with Iran that his Iranian counterpart touted as a joint response to US ‘interference’”.

At his briefing, Lavrov was also asked to comment on US objections to Soleimani’s visit to Moscow. “First off”, he said,   “these rumours have already been commented upon, and I have nothing to add regarding that particular episode in a flurry of suspicions on behalf of our US colleagues. Rumours are just that: rumours.”

“Speaking about cold hard facts, though, the sanctions regulations have been conspicuously violated by the Americans themselves when, some time ago, they released several members of Al-Qaeda and affiliated groups included on the Security Council sanctions list from Guantanamo, where dozens of citizens of different countries are illegally detained. Four individuals on that list were exchanged for a US soldier who was taken prisoner in the Middle East. However, neither the Security Council nor the committee in charge of monitoring compliance with these sanctions were informed about the fact that these individuals were sent to a country that agreed to accept them. However, this particular episode was loudly brought to everyone’s attention. By the way, according to our sources, these four freed individuals are now trying or have already made it into Afghanistan to continue doing what they did before they were captured by the Americans. I said this for you to have a sense of how rumours stack up against facts.”

There is no evidence in Lavrov’s record that he acknowledged a difference of strategy between Zarif and Soleimani, or a link, let alone contradiction,  between the JCPOA negotiations with Zarif and the military negotiations with Soleimani.

The response in Moscow to Zarif’s latest allegations has been carefully muted. There has been no direct response from Lavrov or the Russian Foreign Ministry. None of the Russian experts contacted by the press has called Zarif a liar; no one believes him to be telling the truth.

According to a Kommersant report,  “how this all relates to Russia’s desire to undermine the JCPOA is unclear from the published excerpts.” The reporters Marianna Belenkaya and Yelena Chernenko acknowledged they had been present in Vienna when Zarif’s outburst at Lavrov occurred; they confirmed the details. “In the end,” they now report, Zarif “admitted that he had the authority to make concessions, and that evening the parties removed the last obstacles on the way to signing the JCPOA.” The Kommersant reporters also say that a claim, attributed to Zarif in the western press,  that Lavrov left the Vienna meeting in an angry huff, refusing to join Zarif in official photographs,  was false.

Alexander Maryasov (right), ambassador to Iran between 2001 and 2005, commented: “The words that Russia did not want the success of the JCPOA are surprising. No one else did anything to make the nuclear deal happen.” He said Zarif’s remarks are “a reflection of the internal political struggle…. The West also often tries to inflate that we have contradictions with Iran on Syria. Yes, we may have friction and differences in position, but we continue to cooperate and coordinate our actions.”

According to Yulia Sveshnikova, a Russian academic specializing on Iran,    “at the time [2015], there was a lot of speculation that the rapprochement of Iran and the United States would not benefit Russia, but Moscow has always understood that this rapprochement will not happen in a single day. The problems of Iran and the United States are not limited solely to the nuclear dossier. At the same time, Russia has its own logic for developing cooperation with Iran, and it had its own interest in the JCPOA, both for developing ties with the Iranians and in the context of the global topic of non- proliferation.”

The Rouhani administration, “and in particular Zarif, worked hard for the good of the country, but problems always arose in their way. According to Zarif, it was resistance from the security forces, as well as external circumstances. You can understand their feelings. It would not be surprising if the leaked recording is an attempt to influence the system from within.”

Anton Khlopkov (right), a Moscow think-tank director and specialist on nuclear proliferation advising the Security Council, says there is nothing new in Zarif’s reported remarks. “The interests of Moscow and Tehran in the framework of the negotiation process on the Iranian nuclear program do not always coincide. This is quite natural, since Iran has been found in violation of its obligations under the safeguards agreement with the IAEA, while Russia is the signatory of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, a permanent member of the UN Security Council,  and a member of the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] Board of Governors… in the framework of the negotiation process on the JCPOA, Russia insisted on using the existing tools of the UN Security Council and the IAEA procedures in implementation of the agreement being developed, while Iran in some cases offered to go along,  to ignore, or to change them according to the Iranian terms.”

“ ‘The materials published by the media prove that Persian diplomacy is a complex, non-linear process, with its own culture and traditions, and it is important, if we are talking about the prospects for restoring the effectiveness of the JCPOA, that the Iranian colleagues themselves do not get entangled in the diplomatic lace they create,’ he said. Khlopkov added that Zarif  ‘must find the courage to explain himself to his Russian colleagues.’”

“In relations with the Iranians,” adds the Moscow academic Said Gafurov, “you need to understand that they are masters of intrigue, and you need to believe them only on the form they have signed personally. As the well-known proverb says, diplomacy is the art of lying for the benefit of the Motherland. Perhaps Zarif was cunning as a diplomat. With some hidden domestic political goals, the Foreign Minister could allow himself to speak unflatteringly about Russia in a conversation with a certain interlocutor. I would advise you to ignore such – most likely, purely internal Iranian instances.”

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