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Iran's Khamenei Calls Remarks by Zarif in Audio Leak 'Big Mistake'

FILE - A handout picture provided by the office of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei July 15, 2018, shows Khamenei (C) sitting between President Hassan Rouhani (R) and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) during a meeting in Tehran.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called remarks by Iran's foreign minister a "big mistake," Sunday, a week after audio emerged of the minister bemoaning the military's influence on diplomacy.

Top diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif, a long-standing key member of moderate President Hassan Rouhani's Cabinet, made the remarks in a three-hour confidential conversation first published by media outlets outside Iran a week ago.

The recording provoked anger from conservatives. But moderates have questioned who stood to gain from the leak, as presidential elections loom and amid pivotal talks seeking to revive a hobbled 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.

"The country's policies are made of different economic, military, social, scientific and cultural plans, including foreign relations and diplomacy," Khamenei said in televised remarks.

Saying "that one part denies the other or contradicts … is a big mistake that must not be perpetrated by officials of the Islamic republic," the supreme leader added.

Khamenei did not explicitly cite the leaked audio or Zarif's name, but the comments, in the last few minutes of an hourlong speech, were clearly targeted at the foreign minister.

The supreme leader emphasized that "nowhere in the world is foreign policy devised by the foreign ministry."

The diplomatic apparatus is only "the executor" of decisions made at higher levels, he said, noting that decisions are made by the Supreme National Security Council.

'Final word'

Zarif said in the recording that "the military field rules" in Iran and that he had "sacrificed diplomacy for the military field rather than the field servicing diplomacy."

On Sunday Khamenei said, "some of these remarks are a repeat of hostile remarks of our enemies, repeating America's rhetoric."

The U.S. and Iran have been at loggerheads for decades, but tensions ratcheted significantly during the administration of former President Donald Trump.

Trump three years ago unilaterally abandoned the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, imposing biting sanctions that have prompted Tehran to progressively abandon its commitments under the deal.

He also presided over a U.S. airstrike last year in Iraq that killed top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards' foreign operations arm.

Remarks by Zarif on the widely revered Soleimani in the leaked audio have hit a particular nerve among conservatives.

Hours before Khamenei's speech, Zarif had taken to Instagram to seek forgiveness from Soleimani's family.

Then, late Sunday, the foreign minister said that Khamenei's remarks "are the final word and the endpoint for expert discussions."

"I hope that with the help of God, me and my colleagues will be able to work with one mind and heart alongside other public servants for the perfect implementation of the supreme leader's orders," Zarif added.

He said Sunday he was "very sorry" that his "personal views" were published and exploited by Iran's "ill-wishers" and upset the supreme leader.

'Making enemies happy'

The foreign minister had previously described his leaked comments as his "understanding and analysis."

The leak came as remaining parties to the 2015 nuclear deal -- Iran, China, Russia, France, the UK and Germany -- were in Vienna seeking to bring the U.S. back on board.

Under President Joe Biden, the U.S. has signaled a willingness to return to the deal and the Vienna talks have sparked cautious optimism, notably from Russia as a third round adjourned this weekend.

President Rouhani, who is approaching the end of his second and final term, on Wednesday said the audio leak was timed to sow discord in Iran, just as the Vienna talks were "at the height of their success."