John Kerry, the latest victim of Zarif’s big mouth - Analysis

It seems ridiculous that Zarif was unaware of the widely reported alleged Israeli airstrikes in Syria, begging the question why he's claiming he didn't know.

Then-US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Manhattan in 2016. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Then-US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Manhattan in 2016.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A leaked tape of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif critiquing Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Russia has now ensnared US climate czar John Kerry. Kerry, the former secretary of state who pushed for the Iran deal, has been accused in the past of continuing discussions with Iran even while out of office. He has now denied he provided Zarif with information on Israeli “covert” operations in Syria.
The Kerry-Iran story actually goes back more than a decade to when Kerry met with former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami at Davos in 2007. He was slammed at the time for comments that were critical of the Bush administration and appeared to be pro-Iranian.
Fast-forward to the leaked Zarif  tape. Zarif was speaking to a reporter and discussing the Iran deal and other details. The recording is from March, but Zarif refers to other meetings he had.
“Zarif added that Rouhani did not know about [IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem] Soleimani’s intervention in diplomacy,” Iran International, which broke the story, reported. “He also said that the Foreign Ministry was kept in the dark about Iran’s military operations in Syria. ‘It was former US Foreign Secretary John Kerry who told me Israel had launched more than attacks on Iranian forces in Syria,’ he said.” 
The details about Israeli airstrikes in Syria are not as sensitive as some reports have made them out to be. It was not a secret that Israel had carried out airstrikes or even targeted Iranian forces.
For instance, since August 2017, former IAF commander Amir Eshel said Israel had carried out around 100 attacks in Syria. By September 2018 it was reported that Israel had carried out 200 airstrikes in Syria in a year and a half, according to a senior IDF source, The Jerusalem Post and Ynet reported.
By January 2019 the Israeli military had struck Iranian and Hezbollah targets “hundreds of times,” according to reports. The same details in an interview with former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eizenkot included claims that Israel had struck “thousands” of Iranian targets in Syria.
So what did Kerry reveal to Zarif that was not already widely known? Did he tell Zarif these details before 2017?
In the US, the details from the leak have led to a political dispute in which Republicans have slammed Kerry. Kerry responded, “I can tell you that this story and these allegations are unequivocally false. This never happened – either when I was secretary of state or since.”
Zarif’s big mouth on the recording has obviously caused Kerry concern, as he felt the need to deny the story. This leads to a larger question about why Zarif was dropping Kerry’s name. It comes amid Zarif’s claims on the tape that he was not informed about basic details of Iran’s own operations, such as Iran firing ballistic missiles at a US base in January 2020.
What if Zarif is lying? This is a key question about the recording. Zarif is known to often mislead or outright lie to Western journalists and others. He typically does this for various purposes.
His latest narrative appears to be that he was sidelined by the IRGC. This makes him out to be a victim and also makes it seem like he is negotiating in good faith abroad while being undermined at home.
This plays into the Iranian regime’s narrative that posits “hard-liners” undermine the “moderates.” In reality, this is not the case. Zarif is part of the regime. He isn’t conducting his own policy. He was in Doha when the recording was released.
The question that emerges then is not really what Kerry told Zarif, but why Zarif is bragging about being told these details by Kerry? Zarif is feigning ignorance on basic things. He is pretending he can’t even read The New York Times, which had written about the airstrikes.
The idea that Zarif was told information on Israeli airstrikes by John Kerry and that he didn’t know about airstrikes on Iranian convoys in Syria appears ridiculous. Does he not read his own Iranian media? Does he not have any sources inside his own ministry?
Iran was quietly deepening involvement in Syria, the BBC reported in 2015. Zarif says he didn’t know about Iran’s role. He didn’t pay attention to the BBC? Is he the most uninformed foreign minister in the world? Or is he up to some game, trying to pretend he didn’t know as a way to get some benefit? What might Zarif receive if he can claim he didn’t know about Iran’s role in Syria?
He can make it seem like deals he negotiates are being “violated” by other elements in Iran. He can perhaps prepare himself for a post-ministerial career.
Zarif’s comments remind one of the scene in the film Casablanca when Capt. Renault is “shocked” to find gambling taking place at a café that he himself gambles in. Zarif is shocked to find out that there are Iranians in Syria and claims that Kerry told him about airstrikes.
Is it more reasonable that the Iranian foreign minister learns of Israeli airstrikes from the former US secretary of state rather than read media reports, or that he simply wants to convey something about his relationship with Kerry?
Kerry has a long history of being close to the Iranian regime, dating back to his meeting with Khatami in Davos in 2007 and likely before. He wanted to radically reorient US policy in the region to work with Iran. His goal in this was likely to achieve some personal fame as the individual who brought Iran in from the cold.
The US worked hard on the Iran deal in part because it was such a sunk cost and the US needed a diplomatic win. Kerry fronted that win. Without the Iran deal, which the US begged for at the time, there would be little to show for the efforts to work with Iran.
The US narrative at the time was that there would be “war” if there was no deal. In reality, there was no war, which was revealed when the Trump administration walked away from the deal.
Iran also wasn’t blocked from uranium enrichment; it openly enriches uranium in violation of the deal, while the other signatories beg Iran to stop. Kerry and Zarif cultivated a relationship in which they would help one another, ostensibly confronting “hard-liners” back home in both their countries. It was a symbiotic relationship. They would rise and fall together.
The leaked tape has embarrassed Kerry, resulting in his denial. It’s not clear how it will impact Zarif. He was already distrusted at home, and it’s not clear if he can be trusted abroad now to further Iran’s aims if he paints himself as ignorant of Iran’s own policies.
Nevertheless, this may work in his favor because he can continue to be the cherubic face of Iran’s regime.