In his long-anticipated reaction to a controversial leaked audio file from an interview with foreign minister Javad Zarif, Iran's leader Ali Khamenei chastised Zarif for his remarks and in so doing, revealed his true priorities.
Throughout the 190-minute interview, Zarif repeatedly pledged his allegiance to Khamenei and emphasised the support the two officials have for each other.
But Khamenei's reaction, delivered in a nationally televised speech a week after the leaked audio emerged, has called this relationship into question.
It proves Khamenei prefers the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its expansionist policies over diplomacy or loyalty to Iran's international commitments.
Not that Zarif has stood against any of those principles.
Zarif is an integral part of the regime, having joined its ranks as a 19-year-old university student in the United States. He was among the group that stormed the Iranian consulate in San Francisco at the height of the Islamic Revolution.
He has also stood up for Iran's interventionist presence in the region.
Friend of Soleimani
In the leaked interview, Zarif said he was a friend of slain IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani.
He made it clear that the IRGC dominates and dictates Iran's foreign policy, and that the battlefield (implying the IRGC-QF presence and intervention in the region's countries) has consistently taken priority over any form of diplomacy.
Zarif has been, and remains, unapologetic towards the public who has fallen victim to these policies, which have resulted in the IRGC's draining of the state coffers to fund its foreign interventions and illicit cyber activities via its regional proxies.
Following Khamenei's scathing critique, Zarif apologised to Soleimani's daughter and family rather than apologising to the Iranian people, who have for decades suffered from the regime's policies.
The Iranian public is under severe economic pressure and is suffering from the consequences of state money being spent on bolstering Iran's regional presence and its proxy wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. But the Iranian elites—most notably the Supreme Leader himself—have enjoyed unprecedented prosperity due to the corruption that plagues the country.
In spite of all the support and servitude Khamenei receives from Zarif, the supreme leader was angered because the leaked interview appeared to be critical of restrictions on the Iranian foreign ministry's decision-making.
It ultimately revealed the truth: that the "field", as Zarif repeatedly stated (implying battlefield), takes priority over diplomacy.
Khamenei's clear priorities
The Islamic Republic's priorities are clear: the IRGC decides and dictates them, and Zarif obeys them and makes sure they are implemented in the way the IRGC -- whose senior officials enjoy Khamenei's unwavering support -- desires.
A look at Khamenei's time in office shows that he has been a divisive figure in Iran, often using the IRGC to repress his detractors.
He maintains close ties with the IRGC, strongly supports it, allocates an increasingly significant budget to it year after year, and influences all its decisions, strategies and actions.
For decades, the IRGC-QF has funded and trained militias that use violence and political coercion with the ultimate intent of growing Iran's regional clout.
Meanwhile, grave mismanagement, both economic and otherwise, including in the regime's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has created a tragic situation, are added factors to the country's host of problems.
To remain in power and to keep the regime afloat, Khamenei needs reconciliation with global powers and successful negotiations with the West.
But amid all the issues he faces, Khamenei has stuck to his stance and, once again, chosen his priority: the IRGC's expansionist policies.
He has made it clear that he values the "battlefield" over and above diplomacy, peace and stability in the region, as well as over domestic economy and the well-being of Iranians.