A leaked audio recording of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has gotten his former counterpart, John Kerry, into trouble recently. In the confidential audiotape – originally not destined for public release – Zarif said Kerry informed him that Israel had attacked Iranian assets in Syria “at least 200 times.”
While Kerry – currently the White House Special Envoy on Climate – was forced to issue a blanket denial of any such conversation, Republicans have accused him of treason, demanding his resignation from President Joe Biden’s National Security Council.
The explosive leak on April 25 was part of a long interview the Iranian Foreign Minister gave in March during which he talked about a wide range of issues, including the power structure in the Islamic Republic and “the outsized influence” of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) in running state affairs.
It was not the first time that high-ranking political officials’ remarks about certain sensitive topics played into the hands of hardliners in Tehran and Washington. The two countries have had no diplomatic ties since the US Embassy seizure in Tehran, several months following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which makes such controversies even more serious.
During Donald Trump’s presidency, many Obama administration alumni wrote their autobiographies detailing the developments leading to the historic 2015 Iran nuclear deal — formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Many such memoirs have been translated in Iran, some by publishing houses close to the resourceful, pro-establishment institutions. Standing out among them are the personal accounts of John Kerry – a war hero and former Senator and Secretary of State, and Wendy Sherman – a chief US negotiator in the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran. Both offer a detailed, behind the scenes look of the years-long talks. Top Iranian diplomats, though, are yet to publish their own accounts of the challenging negotiations.
The memoirs by American officials have served as perfect fodder to Iranian opponents of diplomatic relations and improved ties with the West.
The memoirs by American officials, especially the parts about the JCPOA, have served as perfect fodder to Iranian opponents of diplomatic relations and improved ties with the West. Such individuals have incessantly described the nuclear accord as a “bad deal,” “bitter historical experience,” or “sheer loss” to attack Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his team of diplomats who negotiated the deal with the United States, France, Britain, Germany, China, and Russia. Hardliners in Iran have on many occasions selectively weaponized American officials’ words to pile up pressure on their reformist rivals and promote their political agenda.
John Kerry, who served as the US Secretary of State from February 2013 to January 2017, published his fifth book and first memoir “Every Day is Extra” almost three years after the JCPOA was signed.
In Chapter 18, titled “Preventing a War,” Kerry recounts the long and difficult journey preceding the Iran deal. The chapter opens with Kerry and Zarif holding the first meeting of its kind between a US Secretary of State and an Iranian Foreign Minister “in almost 40 years” in New York.
While Kerry’s account is spiced up with scenes of heroism and hyperboles to reinforce his own version of the story, he praises Zarif and his colleagues for being highly qualified diplomats up to the task. Kerry acknowledges the Iranian negotiators were subjected “to some of the vicious criticisms” back home.
What perhaps Kerry didn’t expect at the time of recounting his recollections was that his portrayal of the final days of the talks in July 2015 would ultimately feed hardliners’ anti-Western narrative and be exploited repeatedly in the following years for politically motivated attacks against Iran’s Foreign Ministry.
According to Kerry, Zarif’s demanded more concessions to make the deal “fair.” In response, Kerry said he would offer his counterpart something “without cost to the US.”
That offer turned out to be delisting dozens of Iranians from the US sanctions list whom “the Treasury Department had already been prepared to remove.” As Kerry explains, at the time, other American diplomats and Treasury experts were skeptical that the Iranian side would accept that offer because they believed those on the sanction list were “small players”, which “may not be enough.”
“But I was convinced that what mattered was the gesture and respect for the difficult choices the Iranians had made,” Kerry writes.
Ignoring other notable details that Kerry incorporated in this chapter, and the various constraints and complexities of the marathon talks, Iranian hardliners and their network of news media and social media trolls, have mostly seized on this part of the book. They use it as evidence that the US has offered Iran nothing but “superficial and insignificant concessions” in return for curbs on the country’s nuclear activities.
Iranian hardliners described Kerry’s approach toward Iran as “humiliating” and a prime example of the US’ “hideous and deceptive tactics.”
Moreover, they described Kerry’s approach toward Iran as “humiliating” and the above episode as a prime example of the US’ “hideous and deceptive tactics” against Iranian negotiators who they claim “lacked courage,” were “inept,” and saw the US in a position of strength.
In 2018, Wendy Sherman, who served as Kerry’s Under-Secretary for Policy in the Obama administration, came out with a new memoir titled “Not for the Faint of Heart: Lessons in Courage, Power, and Persistence,” which The Washington Post described as “the definitive account of the nuclear negotiation with Iran.”
The claims made by Sherman in her book, raised more eyebrows among the relentless critics of Zarif and his team, setting off a firestorm in Iran. Though she later regretted it, Sherman’s 2013 statement to the US Congress that “deception is the Iranians’ DNA” was used to add fuel to the fire.
According to hardline and conservative media in Iran, Sherman’s book paints just “a tiny fraction of trickery and deception employed by the American negotiating team” during the Iran nuclear talks.
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The “Femme Fatale” of Diplomacy
Notably, out of the many fascinating details Sherman provides about the Iran talks, from the lens of US national interests, two instances have triggered the most controversy in Iran.
First is Sherman’s account of the final leg of the 2015 negotiations in Vienna. Sherman writes that she burst into tears “out of frustration” withIranian lead negotiator Abbas Araqchi’s objection to key points in the final UN resolution, claiming those tears created an awkward situation and made the Iranian diplomat dismiss his objection.
Hardline media have described this rare incident as another example of “deceitful tactics” used by the Americans to impose their will and restrictions on the Iranian team. One hardline website even ran a headline quoting Sherman as saying: “I played the victim card during talks with Iran.”
When the US Senate confirmed Sherman for the No.2 post in the State Department in the Biden administration, these media outlets in Iran referred to her appointment as “the femme fatale’s comeback.”
Furthermore, Sherman presents detailed character portrayals of her Iranian negotiating counterparts, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and his deputies, Abbas Araqchi and Majid Takht Ravanchi, even calling them by their first names. She writes that in the process of the nuclear talks, “amid a host of topics, nuclear and non-nuclear, cultural and political that we could not talk about,” she and Araqchi “made a permanent human connection,” which continued even after the conclusion of the JCPOA.
“Araqchi still sends me a greeting at Christmas time, and I send him greetings at Nowruz, the Iranian New Year. Although as a Jew, I don’t celebrate Christmas, I do appreciate the holiday sentiment,” Sherman explains.
Yet, due to Sherman’s account of such friendly gestures, the JCPOA critics in Iran found another pretext to underline the “foolishness and ignorance” of Iranian diplomats, in this case, Abbas Araqchi— though in the opinion of many foreign policy experts he is among the most professional diplomats in Iran. First and foremost, his critics have condemned Araqchi for developing such “morally improper” relations with a female diplomat from a hostile government, and second, they ridicule him for sending Christmas greetings to a Jew.
Outlets have accused Iranian diplomats of having been bewitched with “devious American negotiators” and developing “emotional relations” with them.
Other outlets have even accused Iranian diplomats of having been bewitched with “devious American negotiators” and developing “emotional relations” with them to the extent that they call each other by their first names – implying an inappropriate level of familiarity.
“Over time I learned to tell which of Zarif’s dramatic turns were for effect and which meant he was truly upset, and thus whether I should strike a conciliatory tone by addressing him as ‘Javad’ or call him ‘Minister,’ by which he would know that I was ticked off and not buying his dramatics,” Sherman recounts.
The Impact on the 2021 Vienna Talks
In Vienna, Iran and world powers have been trying since April to revive the nuclear deal, which has nearly collapsed since former President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the agreement in 2018.
The Republican opponents of nuclear diplomacy in the US have been criticizing Biden for seeking to reinstate the accord, while Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has accused hardline opponents in Iran of obstructing his government’s efforts to lift crippling US sanctions.
In the run-up of Iran’s presidential elections in June, an anti-government campaign has been intensified “to reverse the [current] realities” and discredit moderate politicians, including those involved in the nuclear deal. In the leaked recording, Zarif for the first time reveals domestic and foreign efforts that sought to sabotage the 2015 deal, even though he was later forced to express regret for making such remarks.
In the run-up of Iran’s presidential elections in June, an anti-government campaign has been intensified to discredit moderate politicians.
In response to the new wave of attacks aiming to “derail” the talks in Vienna, the Iranian Foreign Ministry issued a statement in April, declaring that the organizers of such attacks have delved into the memoirs of American politicians with “morbid obsession” to find faults with the Iranian negotiators and justify their “baseless” narrative.
“In their autobiographies, the same American officials have complained about the perseverance and months-long diplomatic battles with the Iranian officials to the extent that those talks came close to collapsing several times,” the statement reads.
While investigations are underway to identify who leaked Zarif’s audiotape, President Rouhani said it was undoubtedly meant to stir trouble in the middle of ongoing nuclear talks in Vienna. The leak’s aftershocks were also felt thousands of miles away by John Kerry. Though, regardless of whether the allegations made in the tape were accurate or not, it seems Kerry has come out unscathed.
One important take away from this episode could be that certain historical facts, such as sensitive information about Iran-US nuclear negotiations – given their four decades of hostilities, need more time before being shared with the public. Otherwise, these revelations, often taken out of context, risk playing into the hands of hardliners in both countries, further complicating the chance of diplomacy.