By Faramarz Davar
September 29, 2021
In his last weeks in office, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who served as foreign minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran from 2013 to 2021, published a six-volume treatise on Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the P5 + 1: the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.
Entitled The Sealed Secret, the book carries the subtitle “An Immense Endeavor for Iran’s Rights, Security and Development”. Besides Zarif’s own memoirs, the book also includes contributions and quotations from Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency during the pre-JCPOA nuclear talks, former deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi and Majid Takht-Ravanchi, a senior nuclear negotiator and Iran’s permanent representative to the UN.
Our sixth article on the book examines Zarif’s attempt to portray himself not merely as a man of peace and diplomacy, but also as an unflinching believer in the Supreme Leader and the regime: somebody who, just a few weeks after the provisional nuclear agreement was reached, advocated testing missiles and launching a satellite as a “retaliatory action” against the United States over fresh sanctions.
One of constant complaints voiced by Mohammad Javad Zarif in The Sealed Secret is over “untrue and false” reports by the Islamic Republic’s security agencies (or those close to them) about Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, the substance of the negotiations and the outcomes of the talks. According to Zarif, these false reports sometimes led to himself and others being scolded by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, both in private and in public.
The book describes how such reports prompted an early incident on February 11, 2014, during marches to commemorate the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. “Dr. Zarif and his spouse joined the crowd of people and marched a relatively long distance,” the book asserts. “Suddenly, in contrast with the friendly attitude of the people walking alongside them, they were faced with a group of young people chanting angry slogans. Unexpectedly, one of them, carrying the sacred flag of our country, ran up behind Dr. Zarif and tried to strike his head from behind with the flagpole… Deputy Foreign Ministers Dr. Abbas Araghchi and Hassan Ghashghavi had also accompanied Dr. Zarif on the march, and Mr. Ghashghavi’s mobile phone was stolen in the scuffle, probably for a specific purpose.”
According to The Sealed Secret, two “rumors” about the nuclear negotiators had been spread in the days leading up to the February 11 celebrations. Without specifying the source, the book states both were published by news agencies affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards and by MPs close to the IRGC Intelligence Unit.
“The two rumors were published at the same time,” it goes on. “One was that Iranian and American foreign ministers had discussed the Islamic Republic’s defensive missile program on the phone. The other was that the foreign ministry had prevented a group of North Korean missile experts from visiting Iran. This had led to the questioning of the foreign minister by MPs. It didn’t seem like an accident, but rather like a deliberate attempt to mislead.”
On the face of it, an apparent sabotage by IRGC-affiliated media makes little sense. The Geneva provisional nuclear agreement had just come into effect, there were to be no new sanctions, and Iran was now recovering millions of dollars’ worth of formerly blocked assets each month. Why would the IRGC and others want to make like difficult for the negotiators at a time when all sanctions were expected to soon be lifted?
Retaliating With Missile Tests
“This is a brief description of what was happening,” The Sealed Secret states. “On February 4, 2014, [then-US Deputy Secretary of State] Ms. Wendy Sherman had sent an email to Abbas Araghchi, informing him that a number of Iranian and non-Iranian companies were going to be sanctioned on Thursday, February 6. So Dr. Zarif called the defense minister, letting him know that the Americans had decided to sanction a number of individuals and companies on the aforementioned date, and suggesting that he prepare, in coordination with the president, to test missiles and launch a satellite on Thursday or Friday as a retaliatory measure. After consulting with aerospace supervisors, the defense minister responded that launching a satellite would not be possible because of technical problems – and missile tests needed time and preparation – [but] he would follow up.”
At that time, Mohammad Javad Zarif was widely regarded as a peacemaker and placatory presence on the international stage, with an understanding of good diplomacy. He still is today by some. But behind the scenes and by his own admission, he was asking Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan to launch a missile and/or satellite in an attempted show of force to the Americans. The new sanctions in question were not even nuclear industry-related, and covered only a few additional named violators.
Something similar to this ill-considered response also occurred after the final version of the JCPOA was signed in the fall of 2015. The Revolutionary Guards picked this moment to test a ballistic missile with “Death to Israel” painted on its side. The matter was referred to the UN Security Council and undermined the favorable atmosphere for Iran that had emerged immediately after the deal was signed in Vienna.
One short year later, President Donald Trump would turn on the JCPOA, calling it “the worst agreement in American history” and citing that very missile test as evidence. Trump would later unilaterally withdraw the US from the JCPOA, reimposing crippling and wide-ranging sanctions of Iran that have only expanded since then.
In the first place, however, it was not the IRGC but Zarif that came up with the idea of testing missiles and launching a satellite in response to fresh sanctions. And it was his long-time colleague, Abbas Araghchi, who emailed Wendy Sherman threatening the US with “retaliatory action” at that time.
A “Scolding” by Khamenei – and MPs and Officials Accused of Lying
After the US Treasury duly added the new names to the sanctions list, domestic opposition to the nuclear negotiations took on a different hue. In public statements, Ayatollah Khamenei pointedly observed that not only had negotiations not ended the sanctions, but the US has imposed new ones. Once again, he added that he was “not optimistic” about a positive outcome.
According to The Sealed Secret, Zarif himself then divulged to the P5+1 that he had been “scolded” by Ayatollah Khamenei and the climate inside Iran had become “unfavorable” toward him.
This was a fair assessment. At that time, some 24 MPs had just shared an open letter to Hassan Rouhani’s administration in which they abruptly demanded to know: “Why, at the behest of the American ambassador to the UN, should the foreign ministry prevent a visit to the Islamic Republic by experts from another country in order to develop the country’s missile capability?”
This allegation – specifically, that the foreign ministry had blocked North Korean experts from visiting Iran – is one of the two “rumors” that Zarif believes prompted the attacks on him at the February Anniversary of the Revolution march. Among the signatories were several prominent MPs known to be close to the IRGC’s Intelligence Unit, including Javad Karimi Ghoddousi, Esmail Kosari and Alireza Zakani.
According to Zarif’s chronicle, a delegation of North Korean missile experts had indeed been due to visit Iran. But, the book insists, the cancellation was not the fault of the foreign ministry but rather the result of a delay by the Supreme National Security Council in December 2013, two months before the MPs’ letter was published.
The book further asserts that a satellite test was meant to go ahead by order of President Hassan Rouhani, based on Zarif’s suggestion, after the US updated its sanctions list. The book claims that when the president of Sharif University of Technology – himself sanctioned for his connections with Iran’s nuclear program – was asked who had prevented the launch, he replied that Hossein Shariatmadari, Khamenei’s representative at Kayhan newspaper, had personally told him it was the foreign minister. Zarif contends that one or other party was lying and in fact, only technical problems had stopped a satellite launch going ahead.
A Long-Winded Bid to Save Face
The six-volume account by Zarif and his colleagues is scattershot, badly-organized and drawn-out. Their efforts are focused on proving their unflinching support for Ayatollah Khamenei, so overwhelmingly that they end up portraying Zarif as an advocate of testing missiles and launching satellites for show.
Clouding this declaration of fealty, however, is the fact that the book is filled with implicit and explicit criticisms of the Revolutionary Guards and IRGC’s wide array of proponents and affiliated media outlets. These, the authors assert, made life difficult for them by disseminating false and confusing information that in turn led to Khamenei’s public criticism of the foreign minister.
The Sealed Secret posits that these two attempts to smear Zarif ahead of the February 11 march – all of which took place in his first year as minister – were the first co-ordinated actions taken against him and the negotiating team by pro-IRGC elements, establishing a pattern that would continue for the next seven years.
In the closing months of Zarif’s tenure, Khamenei’s “unfavorable” stance toward him and his colleagues reached new heights. Earlier this year, after Zarif criticized the Revolutionary Guards and the late General Ghasem Soleimani for interfering with Iranian diplomacy in a leaked interview, the Supreme Leader called his statements “a repetition of the hostile talk of our enemies.” He also sternly rebuked Rouhani’s departing cabinet for “trusting the West” in his final remarks to them in July, and followed this up with a humiliating video message suggesting Rouhani was enamoured with the US. Whatever overtures the former foreign minister was hoping to make with The Sealed Secret, it seems likely they will now fall on deaf ears.