Late on Thursday, IranWire learned that the offices of Presidents Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had been raided earlier in the day by members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)’s Intelligence Unit.
Documents were seized from the two offices during the incident. It fell on the same day as government spokesman Ali Rabiei had said the Ministry of Intelligence, a rival organization to the Guards’ intelligence arm, was investigating the source of a controversial leaked interview with Zarif.
The interview was intended as part of an oral history project by the Presidential Center for Strategic Studies. But its contents, shared with Iran International, have created political tumult inside and outside Iran in the run-up to the June presidential election, with calls for the responsible parties to be found and tried.
On Thursday morning it was announced that Hesamoddin Ashena, President Rouhani’s media advisor and the head of the Center, had resigned. A number of other individuals are said to have been banned from leaving Iran because of suspected involvement in the tape’s production or publication.
The Center for Strategic Studies’ project, as Hesamoddin Ashena lamented on Twitter, had aimed to shed light on the achievements of Iran’s 11th and 12th parliaments. Instead, the leak of Zarif’s interview has been widely construed as a blow to the Rouhani administration in its final months.
Under pressure from sources such as the Revolutionary Guards, Ayatollah Khamenei’s office and some members of parliament, Rouhani announced on Tuesday that Ashena had “resigned” and been replaced by Ali Rabiei.
This was the first concrete step taken by the government to address the premature release of the tape. In the hours-long interview, Javad Zarif had described uneasy relations between the executive and the Revolutionary Guards, new details about the Quds Force’s regional operations, disagreements between himself and General Ghasem Soleimani, and the Guards’ attempts to cover up the downing of Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 in January 2020.
It seems unlikely that Iran’s principalists will be satisfied with Ashena’s resignation. There have been calls for Ashena to be arrested and Zarif impeached. Perhaps in a bid to stop the Guards going after Ashena themselves, it was reported on Thursday that the Intelligence Ministry had already opened a court case and was pursuing the matter.
Scramble to Find the Source
Meanwhile, Iranian media is rife with speculation about who could be behind the leak. The parliamentary correspondent of Fars News Agency, which is affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, tweeted that three billion tomans (more than US$733,000) had been paid to a number of government consultants as part of the oral history project.
She wrote that there were five other “well-known figures” besides Ashena who would have had access to the recording, some of whom had previous convictions for security-related offenses. Fars also reported that security agencies had warned Zarif about the “negative” record of these individuals through the president’s office, but their warnings, they claimed, had been ignored.
Other Iranian news agencies reported that the judiciary has banned 15 individuals from leaving Iran in connection with the leaked interview. On the morning of April 29, Ali Alghasi Mehr, Tehran’s prosecutor, said that so far nobody had been arrested. But he added: “Legal action will be taken against those involved in the process of producing this audio file, leaking it to unauthorized persons, and its publication on anti-revolutionary media, for negligence or for committing a crime.”
The interview has caused dismay across the Iranian political spectrum, including supporters of the government who expressed alarm at the apparent security breach. Even Zarif’s interviewer, the journalist and economist Saeed Leylaz, said: “I want to see if the security establishment is efficient enough to find this individual.”
In an open letter to Ashena on Monday, Mojtaba Zarei, head of the University Professors’ Basij Association, had called on him to resign and to close the Center for Strategic Studies until the issue of the leak is resolved.
Hossein Ali Haji Deligani, a member of the parliament’s board of directors, also called on the judiciary to step in and emphasized that even after current administration’s term expires, “Hesamoddin Ashena will remain accountable.”
The cumulative pressure from all sides led to Ashena’s resignation – though precedent suggests that in the Islamic Republic, officials rarely resign but rather are removed. This time, unlike in the past, the announcement of Rabiei’s appointment included no token words of appreciation for the services of his predecessor.
What Was the Leak For, and What Next for the Government?
Tasnim News Agency, which is affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, and several other media outlets reported that a number of MPs have filed complaints against Rouhani and Zarif and prepared a bill to impeach the foreign minister.
In an interview with judiciary news agency Mizan, Abolfazl Amouei, a spokesman for the parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said the committee had asked Zarif to attend its next meeting and answer questions about the leaked audio recording, as well as wider queries about the performance of the Foreign Ministry during his tenure.
Many analysists believe the leaked interview could put an end to Zarif’s political career. It is not clear whether Rouhani’s government shares this view. Earlier, in an exclusive report, IranWire revealed Zarif had confirmed it was his voice in another leaked audio recording about the downing of Flight 752. He has been out of the country and touring Arab states in the region since last weekend, when the tape first surfaced.
After the interview was leaked, Hossein Shariatmadari, Khamenei’s representative at the conservative daily Kayhan, claimed the recording had not been confidential and indeed, that it had been prepared by the government with the express purpose of publishing it in the future.
He called the interview “the government’s apology to America and its farewell letter after eight years” and wrote that the interview was really addressed to the US, to tell America that it was General Soleimani who prevented Rouhani’s government from following policies that the US and its allies had set.
On the other hand, supporters of Rouhani’s government believe the interview was leaked to sabotage the nuclear negotiations in Vienna by undermining Zarif and Rouhani’s administration. But whether the responsible parties are identified, let off the hook or misidentified, this event is a sign that the political ecosystem of the Islamic Republic is disintegrating from the inside out.