United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Zarif in New York: Nuke Deal, ISIS, Syria

On April 29, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said negotiators from Iran and the world’s six major powers will be working “nonstop” to meet a June 30 deadline for a final nuclear deal. “It’s not a perfect agreement. It’s not perfect for us, it’s not perfect for the United States, it’s not perfect for our European Union partners. But it’s the best we can get,” he said. Zarif also addressed pressing issues such as ISIS, Syria, Yemen, sectarianism and Iran’s relations with the Gulf states at an event organized by the New America Foundation and the New York University Center on International Cooperation. 
When asked about Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, imprisoned in Iran since July 2014 on charges of espionage, Zarif expressed hope that he “will be able to clear his name before a court.” The foreign minister was in New York to attend Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT) conference at the United Nations. The following is a rush transcript of the event by The Iran Primer.

Washington Post Correspondent David Ignatius: Dr. Zarif, it’s a pleasure to welcome you here. I want to thank Barnett Rubin and Suzanne DiMaggio, and all the people who have organized this gathering. I’m going to ask you this morning about the nuclear negotiations, and I’m going to ask you about the regional issues, but I want to start with some stories that are in this morning’s newspaper that are on all of our minds. First, I want to ask about the stopping and the seizure of the crew of a vessel, flagged the Marshall Islands, called the Maersk Tigris in what the Pentagon described as an internationally recognized maritime route in the Persian Gulf – within your waters, you have claimed. And what I’d like to ask is your reassurance to this audience and to everyone listening that Iran respects free navigation in this most crucial and sensitive waterway.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif: Good morning everybody, it’s good to be here with all of you. And thank you, David, for accepting to moderate this discussion, and I’m grateful to two of my old friends, Suzanne DiMaggio and Barnett Rubin for having organized this. And I see a lot of old friends in the audience, hello to all of you it. It’s good to be back talking with you.
As you know, I wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times a couple weeks ago in which I repeated a long-time policy of Iran on the freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf. For us, the Persian Gulf is a lifeline, and nothing is more important for us than freedom of navigation in those waters. And we are committed to respecting the freedom of navigation. This ship has had some rather peculiar activity as I hear from the lawyer of the company that filed a suit against this company, I think about some 15 or 16 years ago, for evading to pay or to deliver the cargo. That’s quite some time ago. And it has gone through court proceedings in Tehran, based on what I hear from the lawyer, public statements by the lawyer for the past 14 years. And it is the final decision by the court that the ship’s owners are supposed to pay the damages that are incurred on the private company that had the lawsuit against this company in an Iranian court with jurisdiction over this matter. And simply, our naval forces implemented the authority of the court. That’s the legal case, and it’s being followed as a legal case. It’s not a security issue or a political issue. For us, freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf is a must. And we are prepared not only to respect it ourselves, but we call upon all others to respect freedom of navigation.
Ignatius: Usually a legal matter of this sort is enforced through legal proceedings in the courts. There was a question in many people’s minds whether in seizing this ship Iran was sending a message in a time of tension in the region, especially in Yemen.
Zarif: Well it had nothing to do with Yemen. In Yemen, unfortunately incidents are taking place; humanitarian assistance is not allowed to enter Yemen. Military operations, in spite of the fact that there was an announced ceasefire, continued to take place, actually started several hours after the announcement was made. We certainly hoped that cooler heads would prevail and we would move towards resolution of that issue. As you know, we have a four-point plan that we presented publicly, and I alluded to that plan in my op-ed in the New York Times. And working with everybody based on that plan, I had a very long discussion with Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations upon my arrival here in New York, and we exchanged some thoughts on how we proceed on convening a meeting of Yemenis in order to find a solution, and for everybody else to facilitate that. Unfortunately, in spite of the fact that humanitarian assistance was a major part of any agreement, that is being refused. But this has nothing to do with that. This is a legal case. The ship was asked to come to port; it refused. And our naval forces took action to escort it to the port. I think we shouldn’t read too much into it. Some people do try to read too much into anything that is taking place now in order to torpedo a process that is independent of all of these problems.
Ignatius: We’ll return to regional issues and to specifically your proposal for negotiations in Yemen a bit later, but I want to turn now to the subject of the nuclear talks taking place between the P5+1 and Iran. You met with Secretary Kerry here in New York for a conversation. And I want to ask you whether you were able to put together a timetable or roadmap for completion of this agreement by the June 30 deadline that’s been set. And also, Dr. Zarif, just your brief summary of what are the remaining areas of disagreement and dispute that have to be resolved to get to an agreement.
Zarif: On your first question, actually we did set a timetable in order to move forward. We agreed to work basically nonstop starting right after we finish this first week of the NPT Review Conference. But tomorrow morning our colleagues will start at the political directors and deputy foreign minister level to bring together all the elements of a draft document. We’ve done some work last week in Vienna, again at the political directors level, both between Iran and the United States and between Iran and P5+1, and I believe they will continue starting tomorrow morning to finalize that. It will have, as those involved in multilateral diplomacy would call brackets in the text, that are commonly agreed parts we have now. But I think we have general agreement on the concepts, which we call parameters of an agreement. Now how we transform that agreement into a written, legally binding document, which will be endorsed by a mandatory resolution of the Security Council. That is the area where we need to do a lot of work, because usually in these negotiations the devil is in the detail. And we have done some detail during our discussion in Lausanne, but there is some left, and it includes all areas. It’s not one specific area of difficulty. We need to put down on several pieces of paper, not just one piece of paper, all the details of an agreement. I believe it can be done. I believe it should be done. I believe it’s an opportunity for all of us which should not be missed. And I expect people to start working in good faith and move forward.
Ignatius: Could you give us some idea of what’s still in brackets, these areas that you’ve got to resolve disagreements.
Zarif: What’s in brackets, it’s wording on almost everything. Wordings are usually, I mean you have one way of expressing some of the concerns, others may have a different way. But there are wording problems that relate to all issues. I don’t think the problems are insurmountable. I think they can be resolved, and I think they will be resolved. So if you want to pinpoint one specific area where there is a problem, I’ll be able to tell you if I decide to tell you, at the end of the week when they finish this. I usually don’t want to negotiate in public, because that’s the worst thing you can do, negotiate in public. You heard me say that several times and a lot of people in Iran have heard me say that several times, and some people are not happy with me saying that.
But we’re committed to this process. We’ve spent a lot of political capital on this process. I think a lot of people have spent a lot of political capital on this process. This is an opportunity which should not be wasted because we try to score points with each other at this stage. As you remember, I tweeted a couple of hours after, maybe less than a couple of hours after we reached the agreement in Lausanne, that the agreement is good as it stands. Nobody needs to spin it. And I believe we don’t need to spin a good agreement. It’s a good agreement, it’s an agreement that does not reflect all the needs of everybody. Obviously, if you wanted an agreement that reflected every need of every player in the room you’ll never have an agreement. So everybody has to be flexible, everybody has to compromise. And I think people recognize the significance of this opportunity to reach an agreement. It’s not a perfect agreement. It’s not perfect for us, it’s not perfect for the United States, it’s not perfect for our European Union partners. But it’s the best we can get. It’s the best anybody can get. And it’s balanced, in my view. Whether we can live with a balanced agreement, only time can tell. And we have two months of it.
Ignatius: I’m going to try you on a couple of the details, despite your warning. But I want to ask you, people would want me to persist on this and I will, but I want to ask you first about the timetable. The Supreme Leader said in a speech, and I’m quoting here, that the June 30 deadline is not unchangeable, and if this period extends there will be no problem, which seemed to stretch out the possible negotiating time. But I want to ask whether you and Secretary Kerry have committed to and believe it’s possible to get this agreement by the 30th of June.
Zarif: Well, we certainly want to finish this even before the 30th of June, if possible. What the leader has said and what I believe anybody in their right mind would say is that if we move quite a bit and if we believe there is a good chance of reaching an agreement, we should not kill this opportunity for a few days more or less. No time deadline is sacrosanct, and we have all agreed that this is a human process, this is not a divine process where you have definitive deadlines. Even the divine can change its view, at least according to Islamic philosophy, those who believe this philosophy, even the Almighty can change its view. So this is where we are. But we want to finish this way before June 30. And we will do everything, and as I told you when we started, that we want to use every opportunity, including working around the clock, starting next Monday. Starting tomorrow, actually, here in New York, and then next Monday somewhere in Europe, to finalize all the elements of the agreement.
Ignatius: I’m going to ask you to focus, if you will, on one area of this agreement that is especially important to countries around the world that have concerns about the Iranian nuclear program, and that is transparency in inspections. In the joint statement that you and the E.U. High Representative Mogherini both read on the day that the deal was announced, you said that the IAEA would receive enhanced access to Iran’s nuclear program. Several days later, Supreme Leader Khamenei said that any inspections and surveillance should be limited to conventional mechanisms. Is there a discrepancy there, or is the language I read that I quoted from you and Representative Mogherini the operative language?
Zarif: If you’re familiar with the NPT arrangements, all members of the NPT or at least most members of the NPT have a safeguard agreement with the IAEA, based on which the IAEA will be able to inspect nuclear facilities. Some members of the NPT have, in addition to the safeguards agreement, an additional protocol, which enables the IAEA to have within the internationally legally defined framework, access to undeclared areas, provided they have evidence to prove that such access is necessary. And Iran, in fact, did implement the additional protocol from 2003 to 2005 voluntarily; it is prepared to do it again. And that is the highest level of international transparency that is available, and Iran is prepared to accept that highest level of international transparency. And that’s the standard. It has not been accepted by the NPT member states as the standard of verification, and I think that’s one of the issues the review conference in the next three or four weeks will discuss. There will be some members of the NPT that are reluctant to accept the additional protocols as the standard for verification, but Iran is prepared within an agreement to accept the additional protocol. And I think with that, you will have all the transparency you need, which is legally defined, it’s not arbitrary.
What the leader has said, and what we will continue to say, is that we will not accept arbitrary encroachment on our sovereignty. That we will not accept it, nor will any other respectable country in the world. But we accept the standard level of transparency that is required, in order to make sure – to remove any doubt, because we believe there is nothing hidden in our nuclear program, that our nuclear program has been the subject of scrutiny. And you may want to know, that according to the 2013 report of the IAEA – not any recent one, the report prior to implementation of the latest agreement that we had in November of 2013 – according to the report that was issued in June 2013, after Japan, Iran had the most inspections of any country in the world for the past 10 years. The most inspections. And Japan has 10 times the number of nuclear facilities as Iran. But we had, after Japan – they had 170 facilities, we have only 17 – but with 17 facilities, we were second only to Japan. So the IAEA has seen everything, and if you’re looking for the smoking gun, you’re going to wait a long, long, long time before you get one.
Ignatius: Just so we’ll understand what this language means in practical terms, suppose that several years from now, the agreement is signed, the IAEA gets information which leads it to believe that prohibited activity is taking place at Parchin, or at a military base somewhere in Iran. Would the IAEA have access to that base to make sure the suspicions are not correct? Help us understand this.
Zarif: Well there is a mechanism, that’s what the additional protocol is all about, in order to investigate concerns about undeclared facilities. What is declared is declared, they have regular access to it. But if undeclared, the additional protocol provides a mechanism and a procedure for access. Our agreement, if reached, provides more clarification about the procedure, which, when the agreement is finalized you will see, it provides a rather clear cut approach for checking such allegations, substantiating them, and then moving forward with resolving them. The additional protocol is there, its mechanisms are there, its procedures are there. And the agreement has, more specifically, specificity with regards to some of it.
Ignatius: I’m going to turn to a question of special interest to the Iranian public, which I hope is watching on television as we’re talking, and that is the question of sanctions relief. There’s been some disagreement about exactly what this framework, these parameters, provide in terms of sanction relief. I want to ask you to clarify that for everyone. First, and when – in your understanding of the agreement – when will most nuclear related sanctions be lifted? If you could speak to that first.
Zarif: As our understandings stand today, I don’t think there is any divergence here. If we have an agreement on the 30th of June, within a few days of that, we will have a resolution in the Security Council under Article 41 of Chapter 7, which will be mandatory for all member states, whether Senator Cotton likes it or not. [audience laughter] I couldn’t avoid that.
Ignatius: I’m tempted to say you’ll pay for that, but you already know that.
Zarif: As a permanent member of the Security Council, the United States should be at the forefront of pushing for respect of the integrity and authority of the Security Council. The resolution will endorse the agreement, will terminate all previous resolutions, including all sanctions, will set in place the termination of all E.U. sanctions, and the cessation of the application of U.S. sanctions. And the reason for the change in terminology is that we don’t want to get bogged down into domestic procedures in the United States. I’ve studied and lived in the U.S., I know enough about the U.S. constitution and U.S. procedures. But as a foreign government, I only deal with the U.S. government. I do not deal with the U.S. Congress, I do not deal with the U.S. Supreme Court. That is, the responsibility of bringing that into line falls on the shoulders of the President of the United States, and that’s the person with whom we are making this agreement. So he will have to stop implementing all the sanctions, economic and financial sanctions that have been imposed on Iran by executive order and by Congressional decision. However he does it, that is his problem. As it will be my problem to implement certain measures. Nobody under international law can advance arguments of domestic procedure in order to avoid implementing international obligations. That is correct for Iran. That is correct for the United States. No difference. However, equality is a principle of international law under which we all operate.
So this is it. On the day of the agreement, we will have a resolution through the Security Council, or a couple days later, depending on when we receive news. And that will put into motion certain steps that we will take in order to prepare for the measures we agreed to take. We will have to bring down the number of centrifuges to a certain number in that time, to bring down the number of centrifuges to a certain number in Fordow, to bring down our stockpile of enriched uranium to a certain rate. To do something about our heavy water reactor in Arak, so that we can redesign part of that reactor – not the entire reactor, because it will remain a heavy water reactor, as you know from the agreement, and even the so-called fact sheet by the White House. But it will be redesigned so that it will be more modern, more usable for our purposes, and at the same time it would reduce proliferation concerns, and it will be done in a joint venture process, which will both provide us with better technology, and at the same time provide the other side with greater confidence.
All of these measures that we need to take, they will have to start at a point. And that point is where we take preparation for those measures, and the sanctions will be removed. How this will be done, I mean we know the concept. The concept is these will be simultaneous. How much time it will take for each of these, how much time it will take for the United States, how much time it will take for Iran, how much time it will take for the E.U., these are issues that are being discussed, but they have to have a timeframe that will make them simultaneous. It won’t take much time for the Security Council to adopt a resolution, and that’s when the entire process will get into motion.
Ignatius: The process begins, but just to be clear, is it when it’s verified that the steps that are agreed – for example the conversion at Arak, the reduction of the number of centrifuges – when it’s verified that those steps have been taken, is that the moment at which the sanctions come off?
Zarif: These are steps that will take only a few weeks to implement. And sanctions are off. The time that they will take effect is the time that our steps have taken effect. So all sides will take preparatory steps, and we can’t get into greater detail about this because I don’t want to put anyone into any difficulty, but the time when we adopt the resolution, if we reach an agreement, then that’s an important thing.
Ignatius: A final buzzword from the parameters agreement that should be reached, is the snap back, so called, of sanctions. This is important to the U.S. and its negotiating partners. It basically says, and I’m quoting from the U.S. fact sheet that was released in Lausanne, if at any time Iran fails to fulfill its commitments, these sanctions will snap back into place. And I take it this snap back provision is part of what you’ve discussed, but it’s reciprocal. Maybe you could explain both aspects.
Zarif: Yeah, actually that’s the problem with fact sheets. Once we have the agreement, you will see that the reciprocity in that even starts with if Iran believes that the other side is not implementing its side of the deal. It has, through a procedure, it’s not automatic. But you see, we didn’t spend all this time, 16 months of negotiations, the longest negotiating session of a U.S. Secretary of State in probably history since 1919 I was told, to prepare a document that we are going to shred once we go back home. So we didn’t do this in order to simply snap back. But we have a reciprocal procedure, unfortunately because of the mutual lack of confidence that exists, so that if each side believes that the other side is not living up to its commitment, it can, after completing certain procedures, revert back. This is reciprocal, it requires a certain procedure that has been agreed upon before it is done. So we can respect the agreement, but then we can go back. And the other side can go back.
Now, one thing that needs to be mentioned here is the record. Over the past 18 months, the president of the United States, in addition to the Director General of the IAEA and a whole range of other people, are on record saying that Iran has implemented every single detail of its undertaking under the November 2013 Geneva Agreement.
Unfortunately I cannot say that about the United States. There is a lot to be desired in the way the United States, particularly the Treasury Department, has implemented its part of the obligation. So if people are worried about snap back, they should be worried about the U.S. violating its obligation and us snapping back. Not Iran violating its obligations and the U.S. reverting back to sanctions. And that is a point the United States should be seriously concerned about. This is not a game. This is a serious exercise. And we expect the other side to be as committed to implementing this deal. This is not a voluntary stroke of a pen agreement that can be changed in another stroke of a pen. The United States is accepting a commitment. A commitment that requires certainty for our negotiating partners and for our training partners. And we expect the United States to live up to its commitments. And we have a provision for snap back if the U.S. fails. So if the United States wants to sell it as an achievement for the United States, be my guest. But it is a reciprocal situation.
Ignatius: So if Iran judges that the U.S. is not complying with aspects of this agreement, Iran is reserving the right to withdraw from the agreement when it makes that conclusion. Am I understanding you?
Zarif: No, no, no. No side can just make the conclusion and withdraw. There is a procedure. We want to maintain the integrity of this agreement. We have invested a great deal in this. So there is a procedure that needs to be followed, and it takes about 60 days for this procedure to be completed. But once that procedure is completed, and if the other side commits a material breach – or the terminology we use is significant non-performance – of the obligation, then it provides the other side with the possibility of resorting to various procedures in order to make sure they can be rectified, whether they can be corrected, and a lot of issues can be rectified or corrected because this is not sort of a trigger happy situation where everyone is looking for an excuse to get out of this agreement. We need actually to find excuses to keep the agreement alive, as we did over the past 18 months. I mean, there were many instances in which I took the heat when there was an apparent American at least lack of good faith in implementing part of the deal, when they increased or added new entities to the sanctions, previous sanctions, or similar measures. But we believe that we needed an excuse to find a solution, not an excuse to break the solution. So that part of the political will needs to be predominant, if we want to use this opportunity.
This opportunity is basically, not once in a lifetime, but once in a decade at least. We had a similar opportunity in 2003 to 2005. I was a part of that, President Rouhani was a part of that, some friends sitting in this room were a part of that. And we blew it then, because people were looking for an excuse not to have an agreement, rather than for an excuse to have one. Now this agreement is totally different from that agreement, but it rests on very similar grounds. I think it would be a travesty to lose this possibility.
Ignatius: Let me ask you a final question about the agreement that really is a bridge to talking about regional issues, and is also very much in line with this week’s theme of nonproliferation. If Saudi Arabia asked to have the same arrangements that Iran will have under the framework agreement that you’re seeking to conclude, would that give Iran confidence that Saudi Arabia’s nuclear program was exclusively peaceful, and would you object to Saudi Arabia doing the same thing Iran will do under this agreement?
Zarif: We would welcome it, actually. We would welcome the same opportunity for all members of the NPT. Now, you need to know that on Monday, the first day of the NPT review conference, I was the first speaker. Now the United States claims that is represents the international community. But when it came to the NPT review conference, I was representing 120 members of the international community. And if you read the statement I delivered on behalf of those 120 members, you see that the single biggest concern of the international community is the continued presence of nuclear weapons in the United States and the other P5. So that’s the single biggest threat to international peace and security, that the P5 continue to have nuclear weapons. The second biggest threat is that Israel continues to have nuclear weapons. And this is from the point of view of 120 member states.
And then the third point that I raised there, and that is the position of not only 120 members, but probably closer to 180 – now in the NPT we have 191 members – and I think 188 of that 191 members of the NPT believe that every state has the right to choose its fuel cycle priorities. That is, if Saudi Arabia decides to have an enrichment program under the similar monitoring that Iran does, not only will I accept it, I will welcome it. Because that’s their right. That’s their right. And rights need to be applied across the board without discrimination. So they’re welcome to do it. Now the United States has a discriminatory standard called the “1-2-3” standard, which is a bilateral issue. We don’t have that bilateral agreement with the United States, so we’re okay with our own situation, and we’re not looking to any bilateral agreement with the U.S. in the area of nuclear cooperation. If others are not looking in that particular field, then they should have the right. What they will do in their bilateral relations with the United States is a bilateral issue on which I have no control, if they take obligations in a bilateral agreement with the U.S., then that’s a bilateral agreement, that’s not a multilateral agreement.
Ignatius: Dr. Zarif, isn’t that a somewhat worrying and dangerous prospect, that over the next 10 or 15 years your neighbors will be pursuing nuclear programs of their own. Is that a world in which Iran is really going to be more secure?
Zarif: A peaceful nuclear program under necessary international monitoring, under necessary international supervision is nothing to worried about. That’s why you have the NPT. In the 1960s, there was a bargain. The bargain was, a group of countries accepted for a brief period of time, at that time it was 25 years, for the United States and four permanent members of the Security Council to have nuclear weapons temporarily. And they accept not to have nuclear weapons, but the other side of the bargain was that they could have nuclear technology for peaceful use. And now, unfortunately the United States and other nuclear weapons states are not observing their part of the bargain, not fulfilling their part of the commitment and expect us to do more than enough. The non-nuclear weapons states have every right to have access to peaceful technology.
And again, in my statement on behalf of 120 members of the international community, I said this distinction between sensitive and non-sensitive technology is, with all due respect, hype. Pure hype. Because everything in this area is sensitive. And if you say, you cannot enter the sensitive areas, you’ve got to believe the overwhelming majority of the international community doesn’t buy that. They don’t believe that. The problem is, it’s interesting and sometimes I find this – really it is ironic, but it is laughable that Netanyahu has become everybody’s nonproliferation guru. [audience laughter] It is laughable, isn’t it? He is sitting on 400 warheads, nuclear warheads that have been acquired in violation of the NPT. Israel is not a member of NPT, but those who provided them with the technology were members of the NPT and violated the NPT to provide them with the technology, and we know who they were. And now they are the proponents of nonproliferation. And Bib Netanyahu has become the guru in this area. So we’ve got to become real, and look at this realistically. If there is a threat, it comes from Israel’s nuclear options. Not from Saudi Arabia having a peaceful nuclear program. We certainly won’t be threatened.
Ignatius: Let me continue on this track of talking about region affairs, and take as my starting point your interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times several weeks ago, in which you said it is time for Iran and other stakeholders to begin to address the causes of tension in the wider Persian Gulf region. And you called for a collective form of dialogue. A lot of tantalizing ideas, but I want to ask you about specific pathways forward. You mention Yemen as an area where you’d like to see intra-Yemeni dialogue among the Houthis, among the different factions. What has happened on that track? Have you been in contact with the Houthi leadership, have you urged them to come to a meeting or meetings I am told are taking place in the UAE with some participants in this process. Tell us how you’d like to see dialogue and a solution in Yemen go forward.
Zarif: Let me take you back a few years. In 1986 – that’s quite a few years – as a junior diplomat I wrote a letter, that was signed by then foreign minister Dr. Velayati – in which we suggested that we should have a regional security arrangement in the Persian Gulf. One year later, in 1987, the Security Council adopted Resolution 598, which helped end the Iran-Iraq war. Paragraph 8 of that resolution calls on the Secretary General of the United Nations to convene a conference leading to the establishment of a security mechanism in the Persian Gulf region. These were our suggestions. So this is not something that I invented two weeks ago when I wrote this op-ed. Immediately after becoming foreign minister – I’m jumping because I did a lot of this when I was ambassador here, I have written similar things during that time – and we said that after 1991, 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, we said had you put that mechanism in place, we might not have had to go through this real tragedy that has basically engulfed our region for the past, I don’t know how many years, 20-some years.
And then when I became foreign minister, the first op-ed piece that I wrote was not in New York Times or in Wall Street Journal or anywhere.I wrote in Asharq al-Awsat, an op-ed in Arabic. The title was “Our Neighbors Are Our Priority,” in which I repeated this same suggestion. We are committed to this. We want to have dialogue with our neighbors because we believe there is, almost on every issue, complementarity of interests between us and our neighbors. Now we know that the following policies that we find totally objectionable; we do not believe that you can bombard people to submission, it won’t succeed and it didn’t. And it will not create more stability in the region. We don’t believe that you should create sectarian strife in the region, I think it is dangerous for everybody, detrimental to everybody’s security. So what we do with Yemen, I think the concepts are clear. We have raised this in the meeting we had with the Turkish president, I raised it with others. We have a four point plan. First of all, the most important thing, before we get to the four points is that the security of every country, the domestic affairs of any country is the business of the people of that country. People outside should not set preconditions for them.
I think the world has set preconditions for Syria, and we’ve seen the last four years. We should have allowed the Syrian people to decide, not for people from outside to say this guy should not be there, this guy should be there. That wasn’t a decision by the Syrian people, with this big -- some people tried to make that decision for them. And that perpetuated the conflict. So that’s a very important criterion. People of Yemen too should decide what would be their future. But how we see that we can help, we believe there should be a ceasefire. We don’t have a ceasefire. We’ve heard lip service to a ceasefire. But we’ve seen that following the announcement, almost on a daily basis we’ve had military operations. We’ve had airstrikes. We should have a humanitarian ceasefire. The situation in Yemen is dire. The humanitarian situation is catastrophic. And, unfortunately, over the past four days, four Iranian airplanes carrying humanitarian supplies to Yemen were intercepted and returned. And we had informed our Saudi neighbors what the cargo was. And, unfortunately, they were intercepted to the point that an overzealous pilot bombing out of existence the runway in an airport in Yemen in order to prevent our plane from landing. This is the extent to which they have gone.

Third, an intra-Yemeni dialogue. Everybody in Yemen should engage in a dialogue without preconditions. And I do not believe that is taking place in the U.A.E., because the U.A.E., unfortunately, became a part of the conflict. It has to take place in a place that is not a part of this conflict. And I believe the United Nations is contemplating Geneva. And I think probably the least common, the lowest common denominator, unfortunately, that may be the only way.
And the fourth element of our plan is to establish, by the Yemenis, a broad-based government that has friendly relations with all its neighbors, including Saudi Arabia. Obviously, it is a big neighbor of Yemen and other G.C.C. countries and Iran and others. We are all important players in the region. We don’t want to exclude any player in the region. We believe that the process of dialogue, by definition, needs to be inclusive. Exclusion is the problem of the current paradigm. We need to include everybody in the process, include everybody in the outcome, and to have a broad-based government with good relations with its neighbors. Now, it should be a Yemeni-owned and a Yemeni-operated process. We can facilitate. I have done that. Barney Rubin knows, he was involved in Afghanistan in the Bonn Conference. We had a successful experience there. In Bonn, we facilitated. The Afghans talked. But we stayed there, for, I don’t know, two weeks. We stayed there on the sidelines. We allowed the Afghanis to talk, and anytime they needed our help, we were just there, ready to help. I think Yemen should be the same, and I think the United Nations has enough experience doing that and we’ve been talking to them, and I hope they can do it.
Ignatius: This idea of a forum for resolving regional disputes, specifically applied to Yemen, we’ll come to Syria in a minute, is very promising. But if your Arab neighbors were here, taking part in this conversation, the first thing they would say is, “We need assurances that Iran is not going to send weapons, trainers, IRGC forces, into our countries.” Any one of those leaders would say, “We look around our region, we see Baghdad, we see Damascus, we see Beirut, we see increasingly Yemen, in effect under control of Iranian proxies.” So how do you reassure them that you’re not going to be meddling in their internal affairs in those countries.
Zarif: Well, I think we’re going to be more respectful of the people of our region to believe that Iran can run all these capitals with proxies. I mean nobody, believe me, nobody can run Yemen, other than Yemenis. People have tried. Believe me, people have tried in the past. And that’s why we believe Yemen was a quagmire for those who got involved. Everybody in their right mind believes Yemen was an area that you should stay away from. Allow the Yemenis to resolve their problems. Help them. Yemen is not a theatre of war. It is a theatre for humanitarian—Iran, you see, is a force, that cannot be neglected in this region, as Saudi Arabia is a force that cannot be neglected in our region. We’re not trying to exclude anybody. I didn’t ask Saudi Arabia not to be invited to Geneva II because they supported Daesh [ISIS], because they provided arms to Daesh, because they provided financial assistance to Daesh. I didn’t ask another country to be excluded because every month, a thousand new recruits are crossing its borders into Syria and Iraq to join Daesh. I didn’t ask it because it was impractical. It was imprudent to exclude any regional country. But I was excluded from attending Geneva II.
I think it is important for people to deal with realities. I can tell you that Iran wants peace with all its neighbors. We believe that peace in the immediate neighborhood, in the Persian Gulf region, is imperative for our security, for our prosperity. But we do not allow people to arbitrarily decide that Iran should not play a role in this region because that decision will not hold any water, will not have any impact on the ground. Iran is a serious player in the region.
Let me give you just one very brief example. Some of my friends have heard this. After the United States changed the government in Iraq, you call it liberation, whatever. After we had the new Iraqi government, President Talabani came to the [U.N.] Security Council. I was Iran’s ambassador, a Persian, non-Arab, and President Talabani came and hugged me. And he shook hands with all the Arab ambassadors. And the Arab ambassadors came to me and said, “Why is it like this?” I told them, realistically, for 30 years you supported the wrong guy, and we supported the right guy. You should not forget the fact that the United States and all these countries in the region supported Saddam Hussein when he was using chemical weapons against my people, against the Kurds, against others. If you want to forget it, I won’t let you. And the region made that wrong decision.

Now, people in the region feel very close to us because we were on the right side of history. And I think we will benefit from the fact that we were on the right side of history with the people of the region.
Ignatius: So just to return to this core issue form the standpoint of your Arab neighbors, in this regional dialogue that you’re proposing, which is very interesting…
Zarif: …international law, and one of the most fundamental principles is noninterference in the internal affairs of other states. Iran is committed to that principle. Unfortunately on our eastern borders, our people are being abducted by terrorists who are paid by certain foreign countries.
Ignatius: So, I want to switch the focus specifically now to Syria. High Representative Mogherini said yesterday, inviting the kind of Iranian role in region problems that you described, that she would favor that major role, she said. And she indicated that she would be interested in seeing that happen in the case of Syria. My sense is that we’re now in a period where the U.S. and Russia try to convene a smaller group of countries that could reconvene a kind of version of what we called the Geneva II, a peace process for Syria, political transition process for Syria. And then Iran would then be invited as this got going. The U.S. has formally lifted its objections to Iran eventually taking part in such a conference. Does that seem like an idea that’s right? Is it time to move toward real discussion of political transition, stabilization, the end of this terrible war in Syria?
Zarif: Well I guess I answered that. Iran always wanted this. There were others who were trying to exclude Iran to their own detriment. Now we believe any outcome in Syria should be Syrian-owned, and then it should be facilitated by countries in the region. And there is a lot that can be done. There is a need for global involvement in terms of suppressing terrorism, I mean financing of terrorism, recruitment of terrorists. We are dealing with an issue of immense significance. Daesh is no longer a problem limited to Syria. Now the recruitment of Daesh in Afghanistan is mind boggling. And there are ideological clashes between Taliban and al Qaeda and Daesh. The joining of Daesh and al Qaeda in Yemen is alarming. The fact that Boko Haram is…
…should find out or should see for themselves this monster that they created, like the previous monsters that they created, and there are quite a few of them. Saddam Hussein was a monster of their own creation. Taliban, another monster of their own creation. Al Qaeda, remember the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan? Another monster of their own creation. People, at least as you say here, old habits die hard. And this is one old habit —to create temporary oppositions to your adversaries, which live to bother you and to become a nightmare for everybody. So we need to come to the realization that we need to fight this phenomenon. Iran and Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region have a common interest in fighting this whether it is in Syria or in Iraq. And Syria is an important place where we need to focus on, because you cannot fight these terrorists and allow them to take refuge in Syria. This is what is happening now. There is a successful operation in Iraq, but they go back and regroup in Syria. So we need to focus on Syria.
I cannot comment on a proposal that I don’t know about. I mean U.S.-Russian joint action, I think any resolution to this issue should come from the region or from the United Nations or from Syria itself. But we are not closing the door on any option to find a peaceful resolution in Syria.
Ignatius: Any option sounds like it includes the issue of political transition. You spoke about the growth of Daesh –
Zarif: Option, not precondition.
Ignatius: Well I don’t mean to say precondition here. But any person from the region, I think, who is concerned about Syria, would say that the biggest recruiting poster for Daesh today is the continued presence of Bashar al Assad as president of Syria with his campaign of barrel bombs and other attacks on civilians, so that is what people say would be an issue for the process you’re describing. Would you agree that that’s an acceptable --
Zarif: I find that premise to be unsupported by facts of the last three to four years. And I believe the reason we have the continued bloodshed in Syria is because people insisted on that precondition. You have to allow a dialogue. Now, we said from the beginning, that the Syrian situation does not have a military solution. You need to have a similar political process in Syria with a ceasefire, with a national unity government, with inter-Syrian dialogue, and reform and finally leading to a new situation in Syria. But the Syrians should be the ones who will decide what will be elements of the new situation. If people from the outside want to set preconditions for the Syrians, what should be the outcome? You see, it is as if you are negotiating about something and you want to have an agreement about the results of the negotiation before you start the negotiation. This is what the negotiation is all about. Syrians, you sit down together and decide what would be their future. You cannot tell them that this person should not be part of future, the other person should not be part of the future. You should allow the negotiations to resolve that. I’m not saying whether this is good or bad. I’m saying that this will prevent a negotiation from taking place and unless you have a negotiation, you will not have a solution. And unless you have a solution, you will have continued bloodshed.
So people who are accusing the government of Syria and who are saying that the government of Syria has the blood of so many people on its hands should go back and do a little bit of soul searching and tell themselves what prevented a ceasefire in Syria three years ago, what prevented a ceasefire in Syria two years ago, what prevented a ceasefire in Syria last year. The only thing that prevented a ceasefire in Syria during all that time was a precondition. What prevented a freeze? Why is the freeze in Aleppo frozen? Go ask Staffan de Mistura who froze the freeze in Aleppo. Was it the government in Damascus or the opposition? People should come to realize that opposition and fighting has become a business. That business should end. And we should have a peace process geared towards national reconciliation and a national unity government in Syria. And I do not arrogate to myself the responsibility of deciding what the outcome of that process will be before the Syrians sit around the negotiating table and start discussing that.
Ignatius: Mr. Minister, I want to ask you one more question, and it is a personal one because it involves my colleague, Jason Rezaian —who has been imprisoned in Iran for more than a year* on charges of espionage, that his family, his newspaper, and now the U.S. government, the voice of President Obama last Saturday, say they are false. So I want to ask you, in the spirit of the moment. We’re talking about momentous agreements. In the spirit of what President Obama has called mutual interests and mutual respect, wouldn’t this be a good time for the release of my colleague Jason?
Zarif: Well, as I told you in Munich. And I am telling you again that I hope that nobody will be lingering in prison, including a lot of Iranians who committed no crime across the world, but are waiting in prison to be extradited to the United States for violating U.S. sanctions, which are illegal anyway. One of them died in the Philippines in prison. So I’m not trying to make a quid pro quo, but I am just saying of course that The Washington Post has a much better publicity campaign about Jason than we have about our people who are lingering in prisons in Southeast Asia and elsewhere who committed no crime. Unfortunately, your friend and my friend, Jason is accused of a very serious offense. And I hope that he is cleared in a court. But he will have to face a court. He is an Iranian citizen. It is unfortunate that some overzealous, low-level operative tried to take advantage of him. And I don’t go into further detail because that is a pending case for the court. And I hope that he will be cleared of that charge.
But the fact is that there are people who take advantage of the needs of some people who try to get a visa to come to the United States, for their wives to come to the United States, and make demands that are illegal and dangerous and damaging to the professionalism of a journalist. But I still continue to hope that Jason will be able to clear his name before a court.    
Ignatius: As I said in Munich when I asked you the same question, I appreciate your expressing your own personal sympathy for Jason and Jason’s case. I want to turn now to the audience for questions. And I would first like to recognize, assuming that he is here, Frank Wisner, who has been active in track II, sort of the support for this process for so many years with Suzanne DiMaggio, our host here. And I just want to note the immense role that Frank and his colleagues have played. So Frank, question from you.

Wisner: David, thank you. Minister, if I could add my own appreciation to having you and this very important occasion be as frank as you have been. I’d like to ask you if you would take a step back in your presentation this morning to a fascinating description of your vision of the region taking us back to 1986 and your suggestion that Iran is committed to the shaping of a new architecture of security for the region. Let me ask you to think about that and take us a bit further. Two questions. First, trust is a problem, so how do you build trust? What steps can be taken to convene the parties to that understanding? Second, what kind of understanding does Iran have in mind when it talks about new security architecture for the area?

Zarif: Thank you Ambassador Wisner for that very pertinent question. I think you would not need confidence building measures if you had plenty of trust in any region. And we had situations, I mean my model is CSCE and then OSCE in Europe, which was built on absolute mistrust and confrontation during the Cold War, but led to a significant organization that has been able to operate for the past many years.
So what is important is to take the necessary steps. So what needs to be done, first, is a set of principles that everybody should share. And I tried to allude to those principals in my op-ed piece, principles that everybody accepts, but it is important for us to reiterate them. Sovereign equality, independence, respect for borders, inviolability of international borders, non-interference in internal affairs, peaceful settlement of disputes, you see now the use of force that is unfortunately taking place —all of this would be the starting principles as they used in the Helsinki Process, they called them tickets. For you to enter this process, you need to accept these principles.
Then there are confidence building measures [CBM}. CBM can include anything from promoting cultural exchanges and tourism to interaction between religious leaders. Now we have a very serious problem. And that is the problem of sectarianism in our region. And there is a need for our religious leaders to start interacting in order to find common ground. This is a problem that would not be limited to one country or one area, it will be a global problem if it gets out of hand. And there is no reason for that. Islamic sects has lived together for the past 1,400 years. And there have been short instances of clashes, but in every case those clashes were not theological, they were political. So political leaders abused theological differences in order to advance their political cause or their political game in my view. And we are committed, as the minority in the Muslim world [Shiites], we have an existential interest in preventing a sectarian clash. Nobody in Iran would be looking for a sectarian clash because we will be undermined in a sectarian war.
So these are, Frank, all the measures that we can take in order to move this process forward, and I believe a vision should develop in our region. Security cannot be bought. Security cannot be imported. Security must be fostered from within. And I think that is an important understanding, maybe even self-evident to many. But it requires a great deal of soul searching for our region to come to that conclusion.
Ignatius: I want to begin with a question about Saudi Arabia, with which you have tried some diplomatic outreach from what I read and what I hear. And the question, this is unsigned but an interesting one, is Mr. Minister, King Salman reshuffled the government today, including changing the crown prince and foreign minister. How do you see this affecting relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and I guess more generally, I’d ask how is your diplomatic engagement with Saudi Arabia going?
Zarif: We have good bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately it has been marred in the past several weeks by the sexual molestation of two of our pilgrims in Jeddah airport by Saudi police officers. But the Saudi authorities are promising us, including the new crown prince who is the minister of interior, who promised us, our ambassador, about two weeks ago in a private meeting that they would bring them to justice to the full extent of the law. And this was a very, very serious crime. But other than that, bilaterally we don’t have any difficulty with Saudi Arabia. And we are prepared to engage with them multilaterally because we do not see a – I mean, we see that we have common challenges and common opportunities in the region. We don’t see our interests in the region to be mutually exclusive. This is our perception. I certainly hope that they have the same perception, because as you say, I’m not a dancer but it takes two to tango. So, I mean, I won’t be able to do this alone. We require serious partners in Saudi Arabia to engage in serious discussion. So that’s what we’re interested in.
We respect the decisions of the government of Saudi Arabia, we recognize the government of Saudi Arabia as the sovereign government in that country, and we respect their decision. It is the decision of the king of Saudi Arabia to change his foreign minister, we will deal with now former ambassador Adel al Jubair, now foreign minster Adel al Jubair, we have respect for him and we have respect for his predecessor Prince Saud.
Ignatius: This is a question via Twitter by Anand Ghiradnaradzai —I hope I am pronouncing that right — who is a New York Times reporter. The question is a simple, direct one. Why does hatred of America have such force in Iran, and how can we, and I include how can you, dissipate it? 
Zarif: Well, it’s the behavior. And I believe skepticism of the U.S. is … in Iran. I don’t find that appealing. But it is a reality in Iran. Even American polling organizations who have taken polls in Iran indicate that a large majority of Iranians want a resolution, but an even larger majority of Iranians don’t trust the United States. So it’s a good place to begin. I think we have an agreement, or we will have an agreement. It is in the interest of everybody, and even the [supreme] leader says that this will be a test for us, whether we can, in fact, engage in other areas. Now, our engagement with the United States is limited to the nuclear issue. This is the easiest issue to resolve because there are no contradicting objectives. We have very similar objectives. We want no weapon. And we want to have normal relations, with the West, not yet the United States, with the West. If we reach that understanding, which shouldn’t be that difficult, we can build on it. And we can see whether this provides a good foundation to engage in other areas. We haven’t made that determination yet because the jury is still out. Once we have agreement, if we have one, once we start implementing that in good faith, we will see whether we can dent that wall of mistrust that unfortunately exists between our two countries.
Ignatius: I brought along a quotation from the supreme leader. “If the other side stops its usual obstinacy, this will be an experience for us. We will find out that we can negotiate with it over other matters as well.”
Zarif: That is what I was referring to.
Ignatius: So I want to come back to – that seems like an invitation of something. I want to come back to the question, this is from Tara Kangarlou from Al Jazeera America, who asks, if/when an Iran deal is reached, would you support establishing diplomatic relations with the United States.

Zarif: It is too early and too premature to say that. We need to take one step at a time. I don’t see that in the immediate future. I want to be able resolve this issue, to remove that cloud from our region, and as I said in my article in Asharq al-Awsat that our region is our priority. And I really believe that we really need a stable region. That’s my priority. My priority is to move and work with our neighbors in the region to deal with these common threats, Daesh, extremism, sectarianism —these are immediate threats to them, they are immediate threats to us and, if people believe it, immediate threats to the world at large. So that’s where I want to focus, once we move from this issue. Even as we deal with this issue, we are focusing on that.
Ignatius: You have spoken at length, and interestingly, about the region, about regional stability, so there’s one obvious question that hasn’t been asked, and has been submitted by a member of the audience. Would you negotiate with Israel without prior conditions?
Zarif: No, because we have a situation where those who are directly involved have been the subject of continued violation of their most elemental rights, the right to exist, the right to statehood. They have to resolve those problems. It’s not our land that is occupied. It’s not our people that are driven from their homes. It’s not our people who are being bombarded once every two years in Gaza. So they have to address their problems. They shouldn’t look for scapegoats or smokescreens.
Ignatius: So does that mean if those problems involving the Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere, if those problems were resolved, would Iran then be willing to?
Zarif: Why do we need to? It’s not our problem. It is a problem that the Palestinians have faced for 60 years. And from our perspective, it’s a policy of aggression, of domination that had prevented a resolution of this crisis over the past 60 years. You’re looking at the wrong address. Iran is not your problem. We’re not doing anything. It is the policies that have continued to simply neglect the right of an entire nation to live as a state, Palestine. And once that issue is resolved, then Iran is nowhere to interfere.

Ignatius: Let me take a question from Carol in the audience, who is from the Franklin St. Policy Group. If the nuclear deal proceeds as expected and sanctions are lifted, what are the possibilities for more open democratic political processes in Iran.
Zarif: Well, everybody can have more democracy. But I ask you, you find one state in our region in which all the past 34 years, government administrations have changed hands through elections and each government has presided over the election of its opposition into office. Find a single, other, single, I mean single. In every so-called democratic country in our region you have at least two coup d’états in the last 34 years. In Iran, every election, and you want me to name the elections? President Rafsanjani elected, President Khatami, who at that time was his opposition, President Khatami elected, President Ahmadinejad who at that time was in opposition, it continues, President Ahmadinejad elected, President Rouhani who at that time and now is in the opposition. So find another single example in our region. So before preaching human rights to Iran, please preach it to your allies.
Ignatius: I noticed that when you came back from Lausanne to Tehran, there seemed to be a lot of Iranians who were pretty happy about what you’d done, and were pretty excited by it, which led a lot of us observing Iran from afar to think that yeah, there was a desire to move out of this period of isolation into something new, something more open. I’m not wrong about that, am I?
Zarif: No, you’re not. The Iranian people want, I mean the Iranian people went to the polls, trusted the polls. 73 percent of the Iranian population trusted the polls after everything that had been said about Iran, and I was in the opposition during the last eight years. I was at home most of the time in early retirement, so you don’t expect me to be very friendly to President Ahmadinejad. But the point is Iranians decided in a free election, after all the publicity, after everybody inviting them to stay home, after every foreign radio and television station telling them that your vote doesn’t count —they said no them and went to the polls in large numbers. 73 percent of them chose a president who wanted to have interaction based on dignity with the rest of the world. Of course they’ll be happy if that reaches a positive conclusion. That’s the platform on which Rouhani was elected, interaction with dignity. So these two words are the operative words. If interaction succeeds without dignity, I don’t think any Iranian will come to the streets to welcome you. And I believe they will choose, any of them, any time— I will choose dignity over interaction. If I am supposed to sacrifice my national dignity in order to be able to interact, then I’ll stay home.
Ignatius: Let me ask you a question, this may be our final one, we’ll see. On the subject of American politics
Zarif: I don’t interfere –
Ignatius: I’m not asking you – Senator Cotton aside – here is the question, and it is an interesting one. Many of the candidates preparing to run for president in 2016, particularly the Republicans, have suggested that they will take a tougher position with your government. Do you worry about this or do you believe the status quo will essentially remain no matter who wins in 2016?
Zarif: I believe the United States will risk isolating itself in the world if there is an agreement and it decides to break it. And I don’t think anybody will find that decision by the United States acceptable, and I think what runs in the world today is how people perceive a decision to be legitimate. I believe the United States, whether you have a Democratic president or whether you have a Republican president, is bound by international law, whether some Senators like it or not. And international law requires the United States to live up by the terms of an agreement that this government enters into it. You know that. Maybe Senator Cotton doesn’t. But you know that 90 percent of U.S. overseas agreements are executive agreements. And that is not recent. From 1933 onward, you have executive agreements that have stood the test of decades, various administrations, even a change in global environments. … Afghanistan is an executive agreement. All sorts of stuff has happened in the world and you had executive agreements which haven’t changed and which have continued to operate. … None of them have been ratified by US Congress and they stand.
If the US Senate wants to send a message to the rest of the world that all of these agreements… 90 percent of U.S.-international agreements are invalid, then you will have chaos in your bilateral relations with the rest of the world. I mean you are welcome to do it. But I don’t think that would be something that even the most radical elements in Congress want to see.
Ignatius: Well, with that message to Congress join me in thanking Mr. Zarif.
Zarif: Thank you.
*Jason Rezaian has been imprisoned since July 2014.
Photo credit: Robin Wright

Connect With Us

Our Partners

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Logo