Mohammed Javad Zarif Says Russia Wants to Stop U.S., Iran Nuclear Deal in Leaked Interview

"You can definitely never release this part," Mohammad Javad Zarif told an interviewer about Russia's interest in stopping the nuclear deal between Iran and other world powers, including the United States.

Zarif, Iran's foreign minister, took part in a seven-hour interview with a well-known economist that was to be held for posterity at a think tank associated with the Iranian presidency, according to Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh, the Associated Press reported.

Khatibzadeh did not dispute the tape's authenticity but said the release of the recording was "illegal," and "selectively edited."

Iran International shared a file with a little over three hours of the interview with an AP correspondent based in the United Arab Emirates on Monday.

"If Iran hadn't become Mr. (Donald) Trump's priority, China and Russia would have become his priority," Zarif said. "If, because of hostility with the West, we always need Russia and China, they don't have to compete with anyone, and also they can always enjoy maximum benefits through us."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks during a panel talk at the 2020 Munich Security Conference (MSC) on February 15, 2020, in Munich, Germany. The annual conference brings together global political, security and business leaders to discuss pressing issues. Johannes Simon/Getty Images

Portions of the leaked interview first aired overnight on Iran International, a London-based, Farsi-language satellite news channel once majority owned by a Saudi national. Tehran has criticized Iran International in the past for its airing of a militant spokesman who praised a 2018 militant attack on a military parade in Ahvaz that killed at least 25 people, including a child. British regulators later rejected an Iranian complaint over the segment.

The release of the comments by Zarif set off a firestorm in Iran, where officials carefully mind their words amid a cut-throat political environment that includes the powerful paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, ultimately overseen by the country's supreme leader. Zarif has been suggested as a possible candidate for Iran's June 18 presidential election, as well.

Zarif's comments might complicate talks in Vienna aimed at bringing Tehran and the U.S. back into compliance with Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

This is not the first disruption since talks began earlier this month, as sabotage struck the Natanz nuclear facility in Iran. AP also reported that Tehran has begun enriching small amounts of uranium up to 60% purity, the highest level seen so far in Iran. Uranium is considered weapons-grade when enriched to 90%.

Russia had a frosty relationship with then-President Barack Obama, whose administration secured the deal with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Russia and Iran also at times have strained relations, despite being battlefield allies in Syria.

China and Russia have been vocal proponents of returning to the nuclear deal. Their missions in Vienna did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

Zarif sounded relaxed and chatty during the interview, at one point joking that he should have sold the expensive liquor he and others found when they took control of the Iranian Consulate in San Francisco in 1979. The economist conducting the interview repeatedly suggested Zarif should run for president as Rouhani is now term-limited from running again.

Zarif dismissed the suggestion. However, the state-owned polling center ISPA has put the diplomat as fourth in a theoretical matchup with the hardline judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi leading. Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf came in second and third, respectively.

However, ISPA warned of the possibility of a turnout as low as 39%, based off its April telephone survey of over 1,500 people. It offered no margin of error. Iran's theocracy partially bases it legitimacy in turnout numbers, so such turnout could be a threat.

In the interview, Zarif repeated an earlier claim by officials around Rouhani that they had not been told by the Revolutionary Guard that it accidentally shot down a Ukrainian jetliner in January 2020, killing all 176 people on board.

The recordings also include Zarif offering criticism of Guard General Qassem Soleimani's separate relations with Russia as well. A U.S. drone strike in 2020 killed Solemani in Baghdad, an attack that at the time brought the U.S. and Iran to the brink of war. Soleimani's funeral processions in Iran drew millions of people to the streets.

"I have sacrificed diplomacy for the battlefield more than the price that (those on) the battlefield (led by Soleimani)...paid and sacrificed for diplomacy," Zarif said. He added that Iran gave up much of what it "could have achieved from the nuclear deal" for the sake of advancement on the battlefield.

He added that Soleimani refused to stop using the national carrier Iran Air for Syrian operations despite Zarif's objections. Iran Air has been sanctioned by the U.S., exacerbating a long-running crisis that forced it to fly decades-old aircraft, often lacking parts for repairs.

Despite his criticism, Zarif acknowledged Soleimani's importance in Iran.

"I believe that the U.S., by hitting Martyr Soleimani, dealt a blow to Iran that would not have been as bad even if they had hit one of our towns," he said.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who pushed the Trump administration's pressure campaign on Iran, later linked to a story about the leaked tapes on Twitter. He described it as an "exquisite strike" that "had a massive impact on Iran and the Middle East."

"You don't have to take my word for it," Pompeo wrote.