Shakeup in Iran’s presidential office after leaked FM tape

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TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran's president on Thursday replaced the head of a government think tank after a recording of a conversation with the country’s foreign minister leaked out this week. The tape, meant for government records, provided a rare glimpse into the theocracy’s power struggles and set off a firestorm in Iran.

The conversation took place as an interview with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif by Saeed Leilaz, an economist. The tape was to be kept by the Strategic Studies Center, the think tank associated with Iran’s presidency.

In the recording, Zarif offers a blunt appraisal of diplomacy and his constricted role in the Islamic Republic.

Iran's presidency announced Thursday that Hessameddin Ashena, head of the Strategic Studies Center, had resigned and that Cabinet spokesman Ali Rabiei replaces him. Ashena was also reportedly present during the interview with Zarif.

The audio tape, leaked earlier this week to London-based, Farsi-language news channel Iran International, set off political controversy across Iran ahead of the country’s June 18 presidential election. While Zarif has said he does not want to run in the election, some have suggested him as a potential candidate to stand against hard-liners in the vote.

On Wednesday, President Hassan Rouhani, who after eight years in office is restricted by term limits from running in the June election, lashed out over the recording's release. He said the interview was part of a wider project with government officials and also urged for an investigation into how the tape was leaked.

Zarif can be heard saying at various points in the tape that it was not meant for release. The recording runs a total of some seven hours.

Also Thursday, the semi-official ISNA news agency reported, citing an informed source in the judiciary, that 15 people connected to the interview have been banned from leaving the country.

Zarif’s leaked remarks included cutting references to the limits of his power and those of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a top commander in Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard who was killed in a drone strike in Baghdad.

Earlier this week, Zarif expressed regret over the affair, saying his remarks had been misinterpreted. Rouhani portrayed the breach as intended to derail ongoing talks over the return to Iran's tattered nuclear deal with world powers.