Iran orders probe into 'conspiracy' of leaked Zarif audio

Tehran (AFP) –

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Iran's government said Tuesday an investigation had been ordered into leaked audio of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif bemoaning the military's influence, after its emergence stirred controversy ahead of presidential elections.

President Hassan Rouhani ordered the probe to identify who leaked the "stolen" three-hour recording that has sparked anger among conservatives in the Islamic republic.

"In the Islamic republic the military field rules," Zarif said in the audiotape, quoted by the New York Times. "I have sacrificed diplomacy for the military field rather than the field servicing diplomacy."

Comments he made about Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards' foreign operations arm who was killed in a US air strike last year, hit a nerve.

Rouhani's moderate government has sought to downplay the remarks, which were leaked ahead of June presidential elections and as Iran and world powers discuss ways to revive a 2015 nuclear accord.

"The president has ordered the intelligence ministry to identify the agents of this conspiracy," government spokesman Ali Rabiei said.

"We believe this theft of documents is a conspiracy against the government, the system, the integrity of effective domestic institutions, and also against our national interests."

- 'Personal opinions' -

Zarif has yet to comment on the controversy, but on Tuesday he posted an audio message on Instagram, saying "I believe you should not work for history... I say that don't worry about history so much, but worry about God and the people".

His ministry later published a video showing pictures of Zarif and Soleimani, accompanied with a quote it said was taken from the recording.

"I believe that our country suffered a great blow after the departure of martyr Soleimani," it read.

"These are my beliefs and I have declared them everywhere, even in private meetings."

Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh did not deny the authenticity of the recording but said on Monday that it was cut from a seven-hour discussion that included "personal opinions".

The government spokesman emphasised that "such differences of opinion" were common between Iranian authorities, and they eventually led to "a united policy".

Ultra-conservative Kayhan daily suggested the recording may have been leaked by Rouhani's government to boost its own popularity.

It said while Zarif had been "sacrificed", he provided Iran's enemies with "intelligence and ammunition".

Vatan-e Emrooz published a large picture of Zarif on its front page, with the headline "Despicable" in red.

"Diplomacy must follow the path of increasing the system's power," it said.

- 'Character assassination' -

Javan daily said Soleimani was "physically assassinated (upon) the order of the most wretched creature of the world... America's president".

But Zarif had "assassinated (Soleimani's) character", it added.

Reformist newspapers mostly questioned who stood to gain from the leak.

Shargh daily said Zarif's complaints heard in the audio do not show "a strong and independent foreign minister that would in turn herald a strong and independent head of state".

The leak was "meant to eliminate Zarif," it added.

Quoting veteran journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi, Arman-e Melli newspaper asked why Rouhani's government allowed itself to be "used by others" and questioned why it should remain in power.

Analyst Abbas Abdi was quoted by Etemad newspaper as saying that the leak "will not impact domestic policy, but its minimum result is Mr. Zarif definitely not being present in elections."

The top diplomat has been mentioned as a possible contender in the June 18 presidential election, even though he has said that he does not plan to run.

The election will see the moderate Rouhani step down after two terms in office and following a parliamentary election swept by conservatives last year amid a low turnout.

Aside from domestic politics, the leak comes as talks resume in Vienna aimed at getting the US to return to a nuclear deal and lift sanctions against the Islamic republic in exchange for it adhering to its nuclear commitments.

It also comes after the US navy said boats from Iran's Revolutionary Guards "aggressively" approached two American coastguard vessels in Gulf waters this month, the first tense incident between the arch-enemies this year.