On the eleventh day of the Nowruz holidays, Iran’s foreign minister joined a thousands-strong chatroom to talk to people about Iran’s new bilateral agreement with China – and himself.

On Wednesday, March 31, Javad Zarif logged into social networking app Clubhouse to respond to Iranians’ questions and critiques about the long-awaited 25-year deal, which was signed over the weekend without their being informed of the contents.

He also repeatedly insisted that he had no designs on the Iranian presidency, and complained to viewers about the content of season two of the Revolutionary Guards-sponsored Iranian TV show Gando.

Zarif's appearance on Clubhouse was watched live by at least 4,000 people, and potentially up to 7,000. Not all of those in attendance were ordinary Iranians. Also in the audience were communications minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh, Reza Zabib, the Foreign Ministry’s director-general for the East, Yasser Hashemi, the youngest child of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a collection of serving and former MPs, and multiple advisers to Mohammad Baqher Ghalibaf, the current speaker of the Iranian parliament.

Zarif Clears Khamenei of Responsibility for China Deal

The most important point addressed in Zarif's nearly two-hour appearance on Clubhouse was the content of the Iran-China agreement. The controversial accords had been signed four days earlier by the countries’ respective foreign ministers after almost five years in the making.

Zarif said the agreement had been the result of his own proposals to the regime. There had, he said, been no pressure on the Foreign Ministry to sign it and no institution other than Hassan Rouhani’s government had been involved.

It came despite Ayatollah Khamenei's appointees having previously said the Supreme Leader had his own motives for wanting an agreement with China. Back in January 2016, in a meeting with the Chinese president Xi Jinping in Tehran, Khamenei had emphasized the need for such a deal and seemingly triggered the process then and there.

Hours before Zarif logged onto Clubhouse, Kamal Kharazi, Khamenei’s appointed chairman of the Strategic Council on Foreign Relations, had also made concerning remarks about the involvement of unelected officials in the deal.

The Chinese government, Kharazi claimed, had asked the Islamic Republic to put forward a representative for the negotiations on the basis that governments in Iran were liable to change over 25 years, compared to Chinese political “stability”. For this reason, he said, Khamenei had appointed his national security advisor Ali Larijani to play a key role in the talks.

On Clubhouse, Zarif insisted the allegations were not true and “an insult to the Islamic Republic”. In fact, he said, China had not made the request, but it was his proposal to Khamenei to have Larijani join the discussions.

Zarif: China Lost Confidence in the Regime in May 2020

The content of the 25-year agreement between Iran and China remains confidential. The Iranian government has stated that it does not oppose the publication of this document in principle, but it needs China's permission to do so.

The level of secrecy about what Iran was signing up to has been a cause for alarm for years. Last summer the Iranian authorities made a series of unconvincing statements to the public about it, and in the aftermath, in June 2020, a copy of the draft was leaked to IranWire and other media outlets.

The concessions listed in this draft were unprecedented in the 42-year history of the Islamic Republic. Iran, it stated, would commit to supplying China with crude oil for a quarter of a century in return for colossal Chinese investment and involvement in Iranian infrastructure, the nuclear program, the internet and social media, and banking platforms.

It also promised extensive military and security cooperation between the two countries. China, it stated, would gain control of developing the Makran coastline on the shores of the Oman Sea as well as new airports and ports in Iran. The two countries also undertook to support one another on the international stage.

During the Clubhouse meeting, Javad Zarif said the draft being leaked had “caused China to distrust the system” and had delayed the finalization of the agreement by nine months.

Complaints About “Case-Building” by IRGC Affiliates

On Wednesday, amid a torrent of protests and concerns over the Iran-China agreement, Yasser Jebraili, a former director of the IRGC-affiliated Fars News Agency and a current member of the Expediency Council, also broke in to criticize Zarif. He said a speech Zarif had given at Tehran University some years ago questioning Iran’s “defense achievements” had prompted Khamenei to organize a special tour of the country's defense programs for government officials.

For his part, Zarif implicitly accused Fars News Agency of trying to drive a wedge between him and the Supreme Leader. He replied that the Supreme Leader himself had said his remarks at Tehran University were distorted by Fars at the time.

During the chat, Zarif also complained yet again about the second season of Iranian TV series Gando. The show was produced for Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting under the supervision of the Revolutionary Guards. Both seasons one and two of Gando present Zarif and other members of the 2015 nuclear negotiating team as having been compromised by foreign agents. Last month Zarif wrote an official letter of complaint to Ayatollah Khamenei, asking him to exonerate him of the “treason” implied by the screenwriters.

An Inconclusive Discussion

Despite these tangents, the main focus remained on the Iran-China deal. Zarif repeatedly claimed that the agreement was not binding on either party and would not see Iran cede any actual territory to China. He also promised to post a full statement about the terms on his Instagram account, which has since been published.

The foreign minister logged off at about midnight, having said on several occasions that he was falling asleep. During the discussion, Zarif engaged with two Iranians inside the country. One railed against Khamenei and the divisive policies of the Islamic Republic, which they said would put people off voting in the 2021 elections. The other pressed Zarif on who ultimately held decision-making power in Iran: the unelected establishment, or the elected government.

None of the Iranian journalists for Persian-language media were allowed to ask questions. But an Iranian-born New York Times reporter was given the opportunity to speak. The journalist who had chaired the meeting then entered a different room on Clubhouse, and explained to viewers that the Foreign Ministry had only agreed to Zarif’s presence if no critics from outside Iran were afforded a platform.

During the chat, Zarif had also declared he was “not rich enough to buy an iPhone” – the platform Clubhouse works on – and had downloaded the unofficial Android version, ClubHouze, so as to participate. The Iranian opposition cleric Hassan Aghamiri replied sarcastically that he was willing to buy Zarif an iPhone so that he could respond to the unanswered concerns of the people, and told Zarif that in his view, Iranians had become so distrustful of the government that they no longer believed a word he said.

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