Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has confirmed the authenticity of an audio file attributed to him about the downing of Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752, IranWire has learned.
In a confidential meeting, Zarif reportedly confirmed the voice heard on the tape was his own, adding that he believed the file was leaked by his domestic opponents to tarnish his public image. Meanwhile, an official close to Zarif has told IranWire that he is growing “frustrated” and many inside the country believe he will have no role in Iran’s political future.
On February 9, the Canadian news network CBC reported that it had gained access to an audio file attributed to Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in which he suggested that the Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 was deliberately shot out of the skies over Tehran in January 2020.
In this audio file, the man reported to be Zarif also said that the truth would “never be revealed” by those at the highest levels of the Iranian regime. "There are reasons they will never be revealed," he said. "They won't tell us, nor anyone else, because if they do it will open some doors into the defence systems of the country that will not be in the interest of the nation.”
Now, according to information received by IranWire, Zarif has confirmed the authenticity of the audio file in a closed-doors meeting with a number of political officials. In addition, Zarif believes the audio file was leaked to Canadian authorities by his opponents inside Iran, to settle old scores with him and damage his public reputation.
In the early hours of January 8, 2020, the Revolutionary Guards shot down Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 near Tehran’s Khomeini International Airport by firing at two missiles at the plane, killing all 176 people on board. The Islamic Republic denied the incident for three days, attributing the incident to a technical defect, before later admitting a member of the Guards had been responsible but calling it “human error”.
In a 45-page report drawn up in December 2020 and first published in February 2021, Agnes Callamard, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, revealed a series of jarring new facts about the incident. According to her report, President Rouhani had been told several hours after the crash that the Revolutionary Guards’ missiles had been responsible, but he was then asked to remain silent.
Callamard also wrote: “Flight data reportedly reveals that after the first missile hit the plane, the passengers were still alive for 19 seconds, and if the second missile had not been fired the pilot could potentially have diverted the plane and avoided the tragedy.” So far, the Islamic Republic has not offered any explanation as to why the second missile was fired.
After CBC published Zarif’s audio file, Hamed Esmaeilion, a writer living in Canada whose wife Parisa Eghbalian and daughter Reera were among those killed aboard Flight 752, told IranWire: “Almost all the victims’ families believe the shooting was intentional. The Islamic Republic first raised the issue of technical defects and lied for three days straight; sometime later they said it was ‘human error’. Then an incorrect adjustment of the defense system was raised, and then they said there was a system error. But in this audio file, Mohammad Javad Zarif himself, who happens to be the Islamic Republic's chief negotiator in the case, assumes that the plane was deliberately shot down and admits that the truth will never be established."
Zarif’s audio file, which according to IranWire’s sources is authentic, and Callamard’s report go some way to refute the Islamic Republic’s claims about the downing of the Ukrainian passenger jet being an “unintentional human error”.
Simultaneously, it has been alleged that Zarif is now in a state of “frustration”. An official close to the foreign minister told IranWire that nowadays, Zarif tends to either be absent from President Rouhani’s more important meetings or leaves the meetings halfway through.
Rouhani’s administration, which is now in its final days, is still dealing with its biggest and longest-standing foreign policy challenge: negotiations with the West. IranWire has been told that to all intents and purposes, deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi is now at the helm of the Foreign Ministry and sometimes directly reports to Mahmoud Vaezi, Rouhani’s chief of staff, instead of to Zarif.
Araghchi, a former member of the Revolutionary Guards who still has close ties with the IRGC today, is expected to keep channels of communication with the West open until after the upcoming presidential election in June. “Araghchi knows that Zarif is not going to play a meaningful role in the future,” IranWire’s source said, “and that is why he is trying to put some distance between himself and Zarif, and to establish closer relations with other centers of power.”
The End of Zarif?
This conclusion seems to agree with Ayatollah Khamenei’s view of the current Iranian foreign minister. Back in February 2019, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad traveled to Iran and met with the Supreme Leader. General Ghasem Soleimani, the then-commander of the IRGC’s expeditionary Quds Force, was also present at the meeting, but not Foreign Minister Zarif.
After pictures of the meeting were published, it was reported that Zarif had resigned. “After the pictures of today’s meetings, Mohammad Javad Zarif has no credibility in the world as foreign minister,” Zarif himself was quoted as saying by the website Entekhab.
At the time, Mahmoud Vaezi, Rouhani’s chief of staff, denied that Zarif’s resignation had been accepted. But a few hours later, a reporter for the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) wrote: “When I asked an informed source whether the president had accepted his resignation or not, he said, ‘This is the end of Zarif.’”
Regardless of the truth of the matter, Zarif remained in post. Later on, while justifying Zarif’s absence from the meeting between Khamenei and Bashar al-Assad, General Esmail Qaani, who is now the commander of the Quds Force, said that people had been told about Assad’s meeting on a strictly “need-to-know” basis. Immediately afterwards, Hossein Shariatmadari, Khamenei’s representative at the daily Kayhan, asked Zarif not to insist on resigning.
Despite the intervention, ever since this incident and President Trump’s exit from the nuclear agreement, attacks on Zarif by principalists and people close to Khamenei have intensified day by day. The Supreme Leader has sometimes defended him, and sometimes joined in with the critics.
Next, Zarif publicly complained about the TV series Gando: a 2019 spy thriller made with the support of the Revolutionary Guards that aimed to portray American efforts to infiltrate Islamic Republic’s decision-making centers. The series also harshly criticized Zarif, Rouhani and their close associates. Once again Zarif talked about resigning, but this time in a letter to the Supreme Leader himself, in the summer of 2019. In this instance, however, Khamenei supported Zarif and announced that he was “not happy at all” with the foreign ministry and Zarif being “insulted.”
The Supreme Leader is known to call Zarif “dear friend” and has confirmed his “revolutionary” credentials. But the Revolutionary Guards and other institutions or individuals under Khamenei’s command regularly criticize and attack him, even though it is well known that neither Zarif nor other political figures dare to act beyond their assigned roles in the Islamic Republic.
Now, however, it seems that the last days of Rouhani’s administration will also be the final days of Zarif’s political career – especially since his ruminations on the Flight 752 disaster came to light. With efforts to restart negotiations between the US and Iran continuing apace, the fact that Abbas Araghchi is now at the effective helm of the foreign ministry has further eroded any trust that might remain in his proposals and initiatives.
Zarif is understood to have come up with several ideas to advance negotiations with the US before the presidential election. But according to IranWire’s sources, Khamenei’s view towards Zarif is best exemplified in how he was recently quoted by Mohammad Ghalibaf, speaker of the parliament: “Dr. Zarif’s proposals damage national security and are contrary to the stated positions of the Islamic Republic.”