On September 16, Iran’s foreign minister arrived in New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly and continue talks with the world’s six major powers on the nuclear issue. During two wide-ranging interviews and an event, Mohammad Javad Zarif discussed Tehran’s position on the Islamic State, nuclear negotiations, prospects for U.S.-Iran relations, the Syrian conflict and other issues. At the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), he fielded additional questions about Iran’s foreign policy. The following are excerpts from his interviews with NPR’s Steve Inskeep and The National Interest’s Jacob Heilbrunn and the CFR event with Margaret Warner.
The Islamic State
“It is interesting and it is important for all of us to take that reality in perspective while we address various issues and as Iran, which has been a responsible power in the region. We have looked at the situation around us from that perspective, and that is why we've played a central role in dealing with ISIS. I wouldn't call it Islamic State, because it's neither Islamic, as President Obama rightly pointed out, nor a state. It's a terrorist organization, a sophisticated terrorist organization that has come to being because of a number of reasons. But Iran has taken a leading role in that.
“And while Iran was not invited to Paris, which I would call a coalition of repenters, because most participants in that meeting in one form or another provided support to ISIS in the course of its creation and upbringing and expansion, actually at the end of the day, creating a Frankenstein that came to haunt its creators.
“But Iran has been, as even attested to by President Barzani of the Iraqi Kurdish region, the first that came to the aid of the Iraqis in dealing with that problem. We don't hesitate in providing support to our friends, to deal with this menace. We believe that we need to deal with this menace. This is not a threat against a singular community, nor a threat against a singular region. It was not confined to Syria, nor will it be confined to Iraq. It's a global threat.
“There are thousands of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria. And they come from all over the world. And that is why they have very little mercy for the people they occupy and they rule over. It's a very dangerous phenomenon, and we all need to be aware of how to deal with this issue. It will not be eradicated through aerial bombardment, because we need new tools to deal with these new realities.”
“We do not support foreign military involvement in the region. We believe that foreign forces should -- if they are asked by the governments in the region, then we don't interfere with the decision of sovereign states in the region. But as a principle, we do not believe that injection of foreign forces, either air or ground, solves our problem.”
“The best thing is to allow the Iraqis to fight this. This is the fight for the Iraqis. They should fight this. They should be provided with the assistance necessary to fight this. The Iraqi Sunnis should be provided with the necessary assistance to fight this. The Iraqi Sunni leadership, the Iraqi Sunni political community, has been uprooted from its places of origin.”
Sept. 17, 2014 at a Council on Foreign Relations event
“The problem is that the United States and the coalition it is trying to assemble have not yet decided to pursue a serious policy. You see, this group, the so-called Islamic State, is not a new phenomenon. It didn’t come out of the blue. Actually, it’s been there since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It was the outcome of the invasion. But then, with the support of the United States and some of its allies in the region, it became the monster that we see in Syria. It was a source of a menace or a new sense [of menace] when it was in Iraq. But then it became a monster, it became a fighting force with all this international appeal to disenfranchised youth, particularly in the West, over ten thousand foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria coming from the West. So it is a huge threat... people believe that this is a threat particular to our region, but it’s a threat that should concern the West as much as it concerns us. But it became such a big, huge problem after people provided it with money, with arms, with international support in Syria.
“And had it not been for people like Iran and others in the region who knew the type of force that was opposing the Syrian government, now you would have been faced with a terrorist organization which did not operate from a base in Mosul, in Iraq, but in fact from Damascus. And that should tell you the extent of miscalculation that existed. Now, if the United States and its coalition—which I call the coalition of repenters—if they are really prepared to learn a lesson from the past and deal with this problem, because ISIL is the same terrorist organization, whether in Iraq or in Syria. They cannot fight this only in Iraq....They could [not] fight it by weakening the government in Iraq, they cannot fight it in Syria by weakening the government in Syria. You need a strong central authority in order to be able to deal with this terrorist menace. If they’re thinking about a strategy to undermine the Syrian government in Damascus, which is the most important force resisting ISIL in Syria, and at the same time want to fight ISIL, this is a contradiction in terms.
“So we need for the United States and its coalition partners to come to the realization that you cannot differentiate between this threat when it is in Syria and when it is in Iraq, or when it is threatening one segment of the Iraqi population or another. Unfortunately it took the United States and its allies two full months before they reacted, even in Iraq—let alone Syria. Two full months! Had it not been for Iran and our immediate support that we provided to the government of Iraq—the central government in Baghdad—and the Kurdish Regional Government in Kurdistan, then both [would have] fallen to ISIL before the United States even could react or create a coalition. So I think what is needed for everybody is a realistic assessment of the threat in the region, and an attempt to deal with that threat.
“If anybody helped save Baghdad from ISIL, if anybody helped save Erbil in Kurdistan from ISIL, it’s been Iran. Nobody else. We’ve been there before anybody else arrived. In my joint press conference with the president of the Kurdish region, Mr. Barzani, he said publicly that Iran was the first country which came to the aid of Iraqi Kurds to repel ISIL, with advisers and equipment. So Iran is the only country in the region that is capable of helping in the maintenance of stability.”
“Well, I don’t want to look at the past. I hope that our friends in Saudi Arabia have now come to the realization that this is as much a threat against them as it is to Iraq or Syria—or even more a threat against them. And if that is the case, we’re willing to look forward and to work with them in order to address this threat. But certainly policies that were followed in the past eleven years, both in Iraq and Syria, have not been conducive to stability and to fighting terrorism.
“The United States is a major military power, probably the greatest military power on the face of the earth. That has created an illusion in the United States that it can coerce, that it can order people around, that it can instruct people on how to deal with their problems. That's not how we see ourselves. We see ourselves as a friend of the Iraqis, a friend of Iraqi Shias, a friend of Iraqi Sunnis and a friend of Iraqi Kurds. And we have helped all various groups in Iraq in defending their territory against these terrorists.”
Prospects for U.S.-Iran Cooperation on ISIS
“Our interest is to have a region free from extremism and terrorism. If that is how the United States defines its interests, then there may be a commonality. We have not seen that unfortunately, because we continue to see United States hesitation in dealing with this terrorist group when it comes to Syria.
“We need to live with this threat, or deal with this threat. For the United States, it may see this, in my view, erroneously, as an option. The United States is dealing with this as an option. The option in Iraq. The option in Syria. There are no options here. This is a challenge that you need to deal with it squarely and seriously and not based on double standards.
“The only problem is how this [diplomacy] could be presented to some domestic constituencies — primarily in the United States, but even in places in Europe — that could please them, or some may say could appease them because some of them are not interested in any deal.
“So if they think any deal with Iran is a bad idea, there's no amount of — I don't want to call it concession — no amount of assurance that is inherent in any deal that could satisfy them, because they're not interested in a deal, period. And they'll try to use excuses to kill a deal.
“But I think if you compare any deal with a no deal, it's clear that a deal is much preferable. We have had almost 10 years of trying to help one another in the nuclear area, and the net result has been nothing to be proud of. If the United States believes that sanctions have been so effective, then it should answer the question, those who are pushing for continued sanctions and more sanctions, to see what these sanctions have achieved. Have they achieved any of the policy goals that they intended to achieve? That is — the two policy goals that they wanted to achieve were, the obvious one, the stated one, was to push Iran into abandoning its nuclear program. It was never a nuclear weapons program. It was a peaceful program and Iran did not abandon it. If at the time of the imposition of sanctions, we had less than a couple of hundred centrifuges, now we have about 20,000. So that's the net outcome.
“If the hidden intention of these sanctions was to create a wedge between the government and the populous, than that proved to be erroneous, too, because last year in the presidential elections 73 percent of the population participated in the presidential election, putting their trust in the government and voted for a man who said he wanted better relations with the West because he believed the previous president mismanaged this thing.
“We are ready [to make a deal]. We are ready to stick to the negations. We are ready to stay with the negotiations until the very last minute. We are ready for a good deal, and we believe a good deal is in hand. We only need two sides to be able to have a deal — two willing sides.
“We are not talking about suspension. We're talking about limiting Iran's nuclear program. Now, again, it's a problem of perception. Iran has the capability to produce centrifuges. It's not like a country that imports its technology… What we need to do is to put in place mechanisms to ensure that Iran would never produce nuclear weapons. We are prepared to put those mechanisms in place. If you say that Iran should abandon its enrichment program, you cannot abandon science. You cannot abandon technology.
“I don't think we're close, but I think we can be. The fact that we're not close means that the United States and some of its Western allies are pushing for arbitrary limitations which have no bearing whatsoever on whether Iran can produce a nuclear weapon or not. What we are prepared to offer and what we have offered are actual scientific methods of ensuring that Iran will never produce a nuclear bomb. We've said that we don't want a nuclear bomb.
“There is every reason not to have a nuclear bomb. If you look at Iran’s security environment, in the immediate neighborhood—by the immediate neighborhood I mean the Persian Gulf—we are already, because of the size, geography, resources, human resources, military ability...we are the strongest. By far. Most stable country in the region. So we need to go out of our way to convince our neighbors that we don’t have anything against them. We are engaged in confidence-building measures with them. So, not only do we not need a bomb for our immediate neighborhood, a bomb, or even a perception that we have a bomb, will further deteriorate our position, because immediately, our neighbors will seek security assurances from outside. So what we consider to be a conventional superiority that Iran certainly has in the region, if we try for strategic superiority, we will even lose our conventional superiority.
“In the larger security environment of Iran—that is, against the threat by Israel or the United States—Iran cannot imagine to engage in any type of deterrence, either directly or even through proxy, with these external threats, or extra-regional threats, through a nuclear device, because we cannot compete in that area.
“Again, a nuclear bomb will deteriorate our security. And at the end of the day, let me just make one point, that nuclear weapons have not created security for anybody. Just look at what happened to Israel.”
“For the past eight years, there have been sanctions imposed on Iran—by the United Nations with the pressure of the United States, and by the United States. The net result of all these sanctions is that when the sanctions started to be imposed, we had less than two hundred centrifuges. Today, we have twenty thousand. So if people start calculating, they’ll see that sanctions have produced all these centrifuges. So Iran can claim that we have withstood all this pressure—we have paid the economic price, but withstood the pressure. At least we gained this. Now, I’m asking the United States, what did you gain from sanctions? What is it? If you want to show what the United States gained from sanctions, I doubt that they can have anything to show for it. If they say they brought Iran to the negotiating table, I tell them that we were prepared to negotiate. When [then nuclear negotiating team head] Dr. Rouhani and I [then Iran's ambassador to the UN] were negotiating in 2005, there were no sanctions and we were prepared to negotiate. So nothing, no sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table. The only thing that these sanctions have produced is the resentment of the Iranian people that the United States is putting pressure on them. Nothing else.”
“The fact is that the United States government has shown such an, for the lack of a better word, infatuation with sanctions that it has continued imposing sanctions even though it had promised in the Geneva Plan of Action, which we adopted last November, not to impose new sanctions. Now of course Americans are very good in finding technicalities and fine print so that they could justify that these are not new sanctions, but the fact of the matter is that the Iranian people believe that the United States has been less than honest in dealing with this issue, has imposed new sanctions, however they frame it.
“Last week, an Iranian patient who must have been an admirer of the United States sent a blood sample to the United States for a second opinion… And the laboratory refused to test that blood sample because Iran was under sanctions… this is the net income of the United States from these sanctions. That somebody and his family who must have been admirers of the United States, otherwise they wouldn't have sent their blood sample to the United States, are now resentful, if not hateful, of the United States because of what has been done. So if you see [Iranian] people and their leaders skeptical of the way the United States deals with issues, it's because the United States is so wedded to its coercion. Whether it's military coercion, or whether it's economic coercion, that it even blinds the United States to finding a solution that addresses U.S. interests.”
“But it seems to me that unfortunately some in the United States look at sanctions as an extremely important asset for them, and find it very difficult, because the entire argument is whether we can have a deal so that sanctions can be removed, so all that the United States needs to do is to get an agreement that can lead to the removal of sanctions. There is nothing else that we’re asking the U.S. to do. We are not asking for security guarantees, we are not asking for any money, we are not asking the United States to do anything—simply to remove the sanctions.”
“I want to take one step at a time. I believe we need to deal with the nuclear issue now. Obviously, if we resolve the nuclear issue, there will be one less obstacle in reducing tension, at least, between Iran and the United States. I do not believe that tensions in our relations are inherent or unavoidable. There are policies that give rise to tension, and I don’t think that these policies need to be there. So I’m hopeful that once we address this fundamental issue of the nuclear problem, then the road will be much less cumbersome to deal with other issues. But I don’t see, all of the sudden, a radically different type of relations coming out. But there will be much less tension, it will be much more conducive to understanding and coordination.”
“The Syrian people should determine who will govern them. I believe people have entrenched themselves, particularly in the West, in arbitrary positions that have made Syrian people pay with their blood. Why didn't they allow the Syrians to decide for themselves. It's because the United States is not confident that if there were a free and fair election even monitored by the United Nations and the international community, anybody other than the current president would have won the votes of the Syrian people. That's why they want to be judged the outcome of the democratic process. I believe what they should insist — and that is why Iran six months ago proposed a four-point plan which would call for cease-fire, would call for a national unity government, it called for revising the constitution so that you would disperse power rather than centralize it in one person, and then to have an election monitored, supervised by the international community. Why didn't they accept that? Why did they even dis-invite Iran from Geneva too because of the fact that we did not accept a precondition for the Syrian government to leave.
“We do use our influence, and we did use our influence. Otherwise, the four-point plan that we proposed about six months ago required us to spend a lot of political capital in Syria, had the West and particularly the neighbors accepted that proposal. Unfortunately they insisted on a precondition, a precondition that at the end of the day has caused the death of so many people in Syria. Because without that precondition, without the precondition that… Assad must go. Without that precondition we could have had a deal long time ago. But people entrench themselves in a situation that precluded even the possibility of listening to alternates.
“Without that precondition [that Assad must go] we could have had a deal long time ago. But people entrench themselves in a situation that precluded even the possibility of listening to alternates.”
“The problem is that people have entrenched themselves in a position that this gentleman or the other gentleman should not have a role in the future of Syria. That's not for us to decide. We are not saying that Assad or anybody else should be the future president of Syria. We are saying that if this man is so brutal, allow the Syrians to kick him out of office. Put conditions on how the elections should be run, not on who should run in the election.
“The so-called Syrian moderates, go look at what's happening on the ground in Syria. They control no territory. They can have no influence in fighting against either ISIS or the Syrian government. Syrian theater is either controlled by the government or by ISIS and its sister organizations.
“Now, they kill more of each other than they kill of government -- I mean, ISIS -- and this puts to rest any illusion that people have about sectarian conflict, because ISIS has killed more Sunnis in Syria, has beheaded more Sunnis in Syria than Shias.
“This is a bunch of demagogues using resentful youth from all over the world with an ideology that borders on savagery. This is the problem that people have not been able to face, and simply they try -- I heard the other day Senator McCain saying that if we had armed the moderate Syrian opposition, this wouldn't be like this now. He is wrong. Simply wrong.
“We have been categorical in our rejection of any attack against civilian population by anybody, and we made that clear to everybody, both in Syria as well as elsewhere. We do not condone attacks against civilians. We do not tolerate attacks against civilians, as we did not tolerate the use of chemical weapons and we were very clear and explicit about our views on these issues.
“We were victims of military attacks against our civilian population for a long eight years. And, therefore, we are very much aware of the implications of these brutalities. And we are very clear about our objection to any attack against any civilian by anybody.
“We have influence, but we do not control anybody. Our views about the need to respect civilian lives is very clear, and we have made it very clear to President Assad and to others.”
Sept. 17, 2014 at a Council on Foreign Relations event
Islamic State Activities in Lebanon
“Several incursions into Lebanon in one spot. And each time it was confronted by the Lebanese army, which tells you that ISIL is a threat that cannot be contained in any country. And if we do not contain it, if we continue to have these short-sighted policies of whether containing ISIL in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria will help boost the government in Damascus, unless we abandon these illusions and deal with ISIL, it will become a threat against other countries in the region as much as it is a threat against Iraq, Syria and Lebanon today. It will be more of a threat. So, I think the Lebanese example is a good example. I think that the people of Lebanon, various forces inside Lebanon, various groups, both Sunni, Shia, Christian, Druze, all of them understand ISIL is a threat against all of Lebanon, and they’re dealing with it, and I think others also need to follow suit.”
“I see Bonn as a good example of what can be done [for Afghanistan’s future]. Bonn exemplified cooperation by all Afghan groups—all serious Afghan groups, not the Taliban—and everybody else in the international community. That’s what I think is needed right now. We need an international agreement in Afghanistan, otherwise we open the possibility for a greater role for the Taliban and other extremist forces. You already have, unfortunately, a very strong and dangerous presence in Afghanistan, so there is a need for various political forces inside Afghanistan to come to terms with each other so that they preclude the possibility that the extremists could take advantage.
“We live in a dangerous neighborhood. But we have been a very responsible regional power. We have helped countries in the region. We have not used coercion. We have never expanded for the last 300 years, almost three centuries. Iran has not waged a war against anybody. We have defended ourselves, but we have never waged a war against no country. We are the largest, most powerful country in our immediate neighborhood. We go out of our way to convince our neighbors that we want to have good neighborly relations. Now, unfortunately there has been an environment of suspicion, partially fed by the conception that you can buy security from outside. That's a perception, and that's an illusion. You cannot buy security.”
“Usually, usually when you have a lot or money you have the illusion that that money can buy everything. So when you have a lot of power — the United States has a lot of military power and believes its coercive power can win it a lot of things, and it has failed time and again to achieve that. So we see this and we see the possibility that Iran can play a positive role in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon as a force, as an influence that works with the people of these regions. That's why I'm saying that we cannot impose a government on Iraq, we cannot impose a government on Syria, we cannot impose a government on Lebanon.”
“Iran has been a responsible power in the region. We believe that the era, the age of coercion is over. Now you need to work with indigenous forces in various countries towards more stable, more democratic systems. These cannot be imposed from outside. This is only a possibility if it is homegrown, if it is indigenous. The reason that we have influence in the region is not because we are this omnipotent power like the United States, but because we chose people that we worked with seriously and with care and based on the interests of the people in the region, rather than some illusion about our own national advantage. So I think it is possible for everybody, not just for Iran, to play a stabilizing role in this region, and it is in the interests of everybody in the region to do that.”
Jason Rezaian – Correspondent for The Washington Post
(a dual citizen of Iran and the United States reportedly detained in Iran since July)
“Whatever he has done, and I'm not in a position, nor do I have information to share with you about what his charges are, but whatever he has done, he has done as an Iranian citizen, not as an American citizen. And he is facing interrogation in Iran for what he has done as an Iranian citizen.
“Now, I hope that all detainees will be released. I believe that it is in the interest of everybody to work for a more positive atmosphere. And that's what I've done in the past several months. But I believe that people have to face justice, if they committed crimes. Of course if he didn't commit any crimes as an Iranian citizen, then it is our obligation as the government of Iran to seek his release.
“I don't know, because if he is arrested — which he is — and the Tehran Judiciary has — which is an independent branch of government from the executive — has said that he is under arrest, under interrogation, then he must be charged at a certain point with a crime.
“No, we have no obligation — the judiciary has no obligation to explain to the United States why it is detaining one of its citizens. His lawyers know. He knows his charge. I'm not supposed to know, but he knows his charge. Now let me tell you that there are Iranian citizens who have committed no crime, and they are being held in countries in East Asia on pressure from the United States. One of them died in prison a couple of month ago, for a crime that he didn't commit.
“But the point that needs to be made is that an Iranian citizen is being held by Iranian authorities on suspicions dealing with Iranian law. And nobody's water boarding him.”
Media and Internet Freedom
“In Iran, a large segment of Iranian population who are very traditional believe that it is the job of the government, the responsibility of the government to create social conditions that are safe. That the children, when they go on the Internet, do not face profanity, do not face prostitution, do not face pornography, so that it is the job of the government to create a barrier for them, to create that social security net for them. And the debate in Iran on how this can be done is an ongoing debate. It's far from being settled. It's clear where I stand on that debate, but I do not, nor does the government, determine the outcome of a domestic, social debate. It's a social debate that needs to be addressed. Even when we introduced high-speed mobile internet, there were a lot of objections from more traditional center in Iran. So that's an ongoing process and I hope at the end of the day, from my perspective as an Iranian citizen, not necessarily as an Iranian official, that one day these platforms will be free. It doesn't mean the Iranian people don't have access to platforms such as these. But I hope that as we go along we can reach that social consensus.”
Criticism of Iran's Government
“Just open any newspaper in Iran and it's filled with criticism of the government. So of one group in the government of another tendency in the government, so it depends on which newspaper you pick. You pick a newspaper close to the government, you will see criticism of our opposition. You pick up a newspaper from the opposition, you'll see very, the harshest possible... even allegations.
“Certainly this government does not believe in jailing anybody for expressing their views. If people commit a crime, and there should be a proper procedure for investigating a crime for reaching a conclusion, based on the rule of law, then they should face punishment. Not saying that our legal system is perfect. I mean, you've gone through, after 200 years, or over 200 years of established legal procedures here in the United States. You went through water boarding. You went through situations that were less than adequate protection under the law. Now we have the same situation. We're only 35 years into this new system where we respect the rights of the people.”
Gaza and Israel
“We have our views about Israel. Those are our views. And we will remain with our views, and we regret the fact that historical developments have proven our views to be correct. But that is not the area that we engage in. We engage in our own territory. We engage within our own neighborhood. And it is for the people of the region to determine how to deal with their problems.
“But we support people defending their territory. We condemn when innocent civilians, over 2,000 of them, are killed in Gaza. We do not accept people saying that this was self-defense. It was disproportionate to any development in the region.
“So our position is very clear. We do not hide our position. We're not shy about our position. We make it very clear. But that does not mean we engage in any military activity against any other power.”
Sept. 17, 2014 at a Council on Foreign Relations event
“Well, the question is whether people are content with something other than the status quo during the Saddam administration. We had a minority regime in Iraq, and there are people -- not in Iraq, because I have -- when I was there in Iraq, I met with Kurds, I met with all Sunni leaders, and I met with Shia leaders. There are areas of dissatisfaction that is shared by everybody.
“It doesn't mean that Maliki or anybody else was very much loved or appreciated in Shia areas. I've been to Najaf, and some of the grand ayatollahs felt as much basically alienated by the government than people -- than Sunni leaders that I met in Baghdad.
So let's not make this a sectarian issue. This has been a very difficult process, and we hope that the process would include everybody. It doesn't mean that people could inject their satisfaction into Iraq in order to restore the status quo during Saddam's reign.
“That -- if anybody's interested in any semblance of democracy, that will never happen in Iraq, unless you want to have a dictator such as Saddam Hussein who's willing to have a minority rule in Iraq with the iron fist that he had, more than an iron fist.
“It can't be a Shiite Saddam Hussein, and I never believed that it ever was a Shiite Saddam Hussein. It is a government that faces a very serious problem of terrorism. It is a government that faces a very serious problem of injection of foreign capital, foreign assets, foreign military equipment, as well as passage through neighboring countries for these terrorists who -- I mean, these people do not fly into Iraq. You know? They come from somewhere, and they don't come from Iran.
“So if they don't come from Iran, you can look at the address. And I believe the address -- every location of that address was sitting around the table in Paris.”
Sept. 17, 2014 at a Council on Foreign Relations event
for the full transcript of Zarif’s interview with NPR.
for the full transcript of Zarif’s interview with The National Interest
for a full transcript of the Council on Foreign Relations event.