Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has lashed out at Tehran's top diplomat in a powerful rebuke that could hobble Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as international nuclear talks continue in Vienna and a presidential election looms.
Khamenei did not identify Zarif by name in his televised speech on May 2, but he cited as "a big mistake" his leaked criticism of the conduct of foreign policy that frequently left him out of the loop.
The embattled Zarif publicly apologized earlier in the day for comments he made in a recording that emerged last week in which he criticized the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its forrmer commander, assassinated General Qasem Soleimani.
"This was a big mistake that must not be made by an official of the Islamic republic," Khamenei said.
"Nowhere in the world does the Foreign Ministry determine foreign policy," Khamenei, who holds the final word on religious and political decisions, told the country. "There are higher-ranking officials that make the decisions and policies. Of course, the Foreign Ministry is also involved."
Zarif was a key participant in the talks that resulted in the 2015 nuclear agreement between world powers and Iran to curb Tehran's nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief.
He is helping steer tense multilateral talks that began last month to revive the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) after U.S. President Joe Biden signaled his desire to return to the deal, which his predecessor Donald Trump exited in 2018.
Zarif wrote on Instagram on May 2 that he hoped Soleimani’s family and the Iranian people would forgive him for the controversial comments.
The leaked recordings have touched off a firestorm in Iran less than two months ahead of a presidential election. On the recording, Zarif criticizes the IRGC's involvement in diplomacy and charges that Soleimani maintained separate relations with Russia.
He also criticized his lack of influence within the country's theocratic political system, saying that he was often left in the dark on important foreign-policy decisions.
Soleimani was killed by a U.S. drone strike near Baghdad in 2020 and, since then, has been lionized in Iran as a martyr. Prosecutors in Tehran have launched a criminal investigation into the leak, while hard-liners have accused Zarif of "betrayal" and the "defamation" of Soleimani.
The leaked audio was from an interview with Zarif that was recorded on February 24 as part of an "oral history" series, the interviewer, prominent economist Saeed Laylaz, said in an audio file that was posted online.
Zarif can be heard repeatedly saying his comments are not for publication.
After the disclosure, the Foreign Ministry said the most controversial excerpts were taken out of context from a seven-hour conversation.
Zarif has said he does not plan to participate in the June presidential election, in which Zarif ally and incumbent President Hassan Rohani is ineligible after serving two terms. In the past he has often been mentioned as a possible challenger to the hard-line faction.
Russia has long been one of Iran's closest allies and has consistently supported Tehran at the United Nations. Moscow called the assassination of Soleimani a "reckless step" that threatened regional stability.
On April 28, Zarif posted on Instagram a video of himself visiting the memorial to his "longtime friend" Soleimani in Baghdad. He wrote that he favored a "smart adjustment" between the diplomatic and military spheres in Tehran.