On September 23, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif criticized the United States for not sending a clear message to European banks that they are free to do business with Iran. In a wide ranging conversation with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, he also discussed the war in Syria, tensions with Saudi Arabia, extremism, the nuclear deal and other pressing issues. The following is an excerpted transcript from the Council on Foreign Relations event held in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
Fareed Zakaria: So, what is it? One year after the nuclear deal? And, the extraordinary thing is that we are in a situation where the American government claims that Iran has lived up to the deal, and the Iranian government claims that the American government has not lived up to the deal. What is the reality?
Mohammad Javad Zarif: Well, the reality is that the deal had a number of ingredients. First of all, it was a deal about nuclear. We decided, I think wisely, but only history will tell, not to deal with other issues because the history of Iran and the United States is so complicated that had we decided to deal with everything and every issue we had problems with between ourselves, and believe me, everyone would have had their say in that conversation – it wouldn’t have been a one-sided conversation – then we would’ve gotten bogged down in a discourse that would have never ended. So, we decided to limit it to the nuclear deal. That is a mistake that some people make here in the United States. They believe that this deal was supposed to resolve every difficulty between Iran and the United States. It’s a very clear, particular deal with specific requirements from each side. Our requirements about what Iran needs to do can be verified by the IAEA, and it has been verified several times by the IAEA. And interestingly enough, even the United States doesn’t contest it. Every member of the P5+1 and the IAEA have said repeatedly that Iran has lived up to every single comma in the deal as far as Iran is concerned.
On the part of the United States, to be fair to the United States, the United States has implemented its side of the bargain as far as the papers that were signed by the president and secretary of state. But as far as going out and trying to get it implemented actually – because it takes a lot to change the global climate that is afraid of the United States taking action against any bank that does any business with Iran – then it becomes a very difficult question to answer.
Zakaria: Give an example.
Zarif: Well, some of you know that European banks have been fined an exorbitant amount of money and sometimes even the numbers are difficult to say: $8.9 billion for Paribas; several billion dollars for HSBC. HSBC was so worried that they went and asked Stewart Levi, who used to be the undersecretary of the Treasury for the sanction to become their compliance officer. That’s the type of fear and terror that these fines created in European banks. So they want to come and start new business with Iran and they always have this Office of Foreign Assets and Control, OFAC. We have heard of OFAC more than any American I guess has heard of the name. OFAC goes out and tells these people it is ok to do business with Iran, but – and the buts and Ifs are so long – I mean there is one sentence that it is ok to do business with Iran and about five pages of Ifs and buts. So at the end of the day, these banks say we will take the safe road – we will forget about Iran. And that has been the outcome. No major European bank has started doing business with Iran eight months after the deal. And we believe that is a short coming.
There is also a short coming as far as the U.S. government is concerned. Now these are private companies taking private decisions. But the U.S. government even took six or seven months to give the license to air bus to sell 17 out of a 118 planes they requested. Fortunately, they gave a license Boeing to sell 80 of the 88 planes they requested.
ZAKARIA: You don’t think that was a fair and transparent process?
Zarif: As long as we are getting the planes, I am fine with it.
ZAKARIA: Let me ask you, as a consequence of from what I have read – from the people I talked to – that the deal is not particularly popular in Iran, and Rouhani and you are not as popular as you were after the deal because there was a sense that it was going to change things and it was going to improve the lives of people. Was the problem as some people argue that you promised people the moon – that their lives was going to be transformed – and that didn’t happen. Is the problem that this is inherently slow? Or do you think that these obstacles that the United States has left in place are really making it hard for the Iranian economy to get the benefits of the relaxation of sanctions.
ZARIF: I think that a good majority of the Iranian people support the deal and that has been proven by poll after poll. But what should be of concern for American decision makers is that a greater majority of Iranians today distrust the United States than they did before we entered the deal. That is before we had this deal, a majority of Iranians believed that resolving difficulties with the United States would be effective. Now the majority of Iranians believe otherwise, and that should send a very strong signal. So the deal is popular ...
ZAKARIA: This is based on the polling …
ZARIF: This is based on polling – not by us – by the university of Maryland. The University of Maryland conducts almost regular polling – annual, sometimes twice a year- in Iran through methods you use here in the United States. Of course, polling have difficulties, and you all know about this. We are talking in an election year here, so everyone is watching the polls every second.
ZAKARIA: We are hoping polling has difficulties.
ZARIF: So the problem is that Iranian people believe that the United States failed to fulfill its obligations. It’s not that we promised them the sun and the moon and everything else in between. We told them that this will remove the obstacles to Iran doing business with the rest of the world. We never said that this is going to remove the primary sanctions that the United States had against Americans dealing with Iran. We never had difficulty dealing with U.S. businesses. It’s the congress that prevents you as businesses from dealing with Iran, and that is why we believe that it would be impossible for us to go to congress and have congress change its own legislations as it was impossible for even the administration to go to congress to get an approval for the deal. So we are all happy that the congress did not reject the deal. That was all we got last October. So what is important is that we believe - and continue to believe - that the United States should not impede Iran’s economic interactions with the rest of the world. What we hear is that when the United States – both government as well as various organizations here in the U.S.; lobbies and all of the other organizations you all know about – when they go to Europe, they dissuade companies from doing business with Iran rather than give them comfort that doing business with Iran is ok. And I think that’s what the Iranian people see in this deal, and that is what is giving rise to a large number of Iranians having less and less trust in not the United states government but even the possibility of being able to engage on specific issues on the United States government.
ZAKARIA: There are so many things to talk to you about but I’m just going to move around. Do you think – I know the answer to this but I am going to ask you – that the ceasefire will hold in Syria? And what is the most effective path to stop what has really become one of the worst humanitarian crisis since World War two? Is there any path that will create political stability and end the civil war?
ZARIF: I hope and pray that the ceasefire will hold, but it’s not obviously. And there are a number of specific reasons why it’s not. I think there is a general philosophical reason for it and there are particular practical reasons for it.
The philosophical reason for it – it’s not that philosophical but the bigger picture problem – is that neither side – I mean they are not two sides, there are many sides in Syria; at least 70 something official groups fighting – has a clear perception of what is to be expected in a future of Syria. All images of the future of Syria are based on a zero-sum approach: Assad Stays, Assad goes, Assad stay for a year then goes, Assad doesn’t stay for a year. So it’s all about one person, focused on one individual, and focused on yes or no.
We do not have any gray scale in our perspective about the future of Syria. I think the only way out – Because I’ve gone through the nuclear negotiations: we started the nuclear negotiations with a zero enrichment option – that is Assad goes – and it didn’t work. Zero enrichment produced 20,000 centrifuges
Whereas when the United States government came up with zero enrichment, Iran would have been happy with a couple of thousand centrifuges. I negotiated it then too so I know I would have been happy. So now it is exactly the same, and this has produced so many casualties. I think that’s the philosophical problem. That is the bigger picture of the future problem.
The immediate problem is that there is— every ceasefire in the past two years in Syria has been broken because of the impossibility to delineate between those who are participating in ceasefire and those who are not participating in ceasefire. Now we put Daesh aside because that’s rather clear cut, although the accidental bombing by the United States in Deir al Zour the other day targeted the Syrians who were fighting Daesh and helped Daesh gain an airbase. And simply an apology will not reverse that strategic change.
But in the other side in Aleppo and elsewhere – it is impossible to delineate between al Nusra, who everybody considers to be terrorists, and those who are considered to be participants in the ceasefire. They fight together. This is not my claim, even the United States. If you read the first paragraph of the September 9th agreement between the Russia and the United States, it says it has to be delineated, and it’s not.
ZAKARIA: Well, because they also switch sides all the time.
ZARIF: They switch sides. It’s sort of like the flag of convenience that they change as they see fit, and then they have a public relations campaign once in every while to say that this group has now become kosher. I mean that it is not affiliated with al Qaeda and it is conveniently – al Qaeda goes out and says we freed them of their obligation to follow us. So this is an interesting - we should call it – game being played. This would have been funny if it weren’t tragic.
I think the problem in Syria is that many players continue to believe there is a military solution. And many players continue to believe that they can play with these various extremist organizations to gain strategic advantage.
ZAKARIA: So let us talk about the main players who you accuse of doing this. You had a pretty tough op-ed in The New York Times on Saudi Arabia.
ZARIF: I’m not always nice.
ZAKARIA: I have to say this will be recorded I think in history that at the Council of Foreign Relations today the Iranian Foreign minister described a Sunni Jihadist group as Kosher. I think that surely is a first.
ZARIF: I said you call them kosher.
ZAKARIA: It seemed to me that that piece on Saudi Arabia was very tough. You were essentially arguing - if one could read between the lines, one did not have to read too much between the lines – that Saudi Arabia continues to fund large numbers of militants in places like Syria. It is essentially exporting its Jihadi problem, and that is at the heat of instability.
ZARIF: Did I break any news to you?
ZAKARIA: But what I’m struck by is – In writing that piece, you are setting out a pretty tough stand. You don’t seem to believe that there is any possibility for a negotiation, a rapprochement between you and Saudi Arabia. You drew the line very hard.
ZARIF: I’m sure you read the entire piece because I end that piece by saying—
ZAKARIA: Two lines at the end, yes.
ZARIF: That is important because none of my Saudi neighbors have said that. I say that Saudi Arabia should be a part of the solution. I believe that our region cannot have a solution based on exclusion. This is exactly opposed to the Saudi philosophy which wants to exclude Iran from any deal in the region. I am sober enough, not reasonable, to believe that there cannot be a deal in our region based on the exclusion of one of the important parties. And I believe that Saudi Arabia is an extremely partner hopefully in this region.
ZAKARIA: Would you sit down with Saudi Arabia to negotiate over Syria?
ZARIF: Actually, it should be the Syrians who will negotiate over Syria, but Iran and Saudi Arabia and other stakeholders can in fact start developing that perspective about the future of Syria, and I did that. Actually in the last ISSG meeting – International Syria Support Group – in Vienna in the spring, I set out and suggested that we should now start discussing, in a brainstorming fashion; we don’t need to engage in formal negotiations – at least in a brainstorming fashion start discussing your perceptions about the future of Syria so that we can convey it to our friends in Syria so that they could have a better picture of the future of Syria.
I believe that is a must. All the players in Syria should start thinking about the future. A future that does not require violence. A future that does not require bloodshed. And I believe people in our region must answer this question. And the question is: Do they want an end to war in Syria? I can tell you bluntly that Iran and all its friends want an end to the war in Syria. Period. Today better than tomorrow.
ZAKARIA: In response to that op-ed, the Saudi foreign minister wrote an op-ed that let’s say it was a mirror image except it didn’t have that last line. What I wonder about is the popular perception is that Syria is stuck because the U.S. and Russia are on opposite sides or seem to be on opposite sides and are not getting along well enough.
It seems to me that if Saudi Arabia and Iran are as strongly antagonistic as they appear to be – the Saudi foreign minister said in that op-ed that let us not forget that Iran is the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world. Not words that you would use if you are trying to begin a negotiation process. My point is it seems as though the two, you and Saudi Arabia, are in a cold war.
ZARIF: First of all, unfortunately, the op-ed by my Saudi counterpart was a lot of rehashing about historical allegations. You don’t see anything recent in his article, whereas whatever I say in my article pertains to today. Not to allegations about 15 years ago, 20 years ago, or 30 years ago.
What I talk about is something that started 30 or 40 years ago after the victory of the Islamic Revolution and the west decided to turn a blind eye to and now you are waking up to a very, very nasty nightmare.
So this the difference between the approach. I am not trying to rehash old history. If I wanted to rehash old history, I would’ve said that Saudi Arabia was the country that supported Saddam Hussein to kill our people. And they did. For eight years. I am not rehashing old history. There is a lot of old history that can be brought to the surface. It doesn’t resolve our problem.
Our problem today is the fact that they are funding extremism in the hope that they can divert the attention from the in ability of the state system in their country and the rest of the region from addressing the difficulties and the anxieties and aspirations of the Arab youth into a perceived and manufactured enemy being either the Shias or the Iranians.
This is the attempt that they have made over the past several decades and the outcome of it would be the creation of a monster. You remember the Saudis have created several monsters for us. They created Saddam Hussein. The amount of money they poured into his army is unbelievable. He turned against them. They created the Taliban and al Qaeda. They turned against them. Now they are funding Daesh and al Nusra. They will turn against them. And once they turn against them, it will be a disaster.
So they simply want, and this is where I think Iran and Saudi Arabia have a common interest. The common interest is while perceive or believe that they can in fact divert the attention of the extremists in the Arab movement towards Iran, they know that at the end of the day they are the end target. They are the real prize. And if they understand that, they would understand that nobody will gain anything from supporting extremism, that extremism is an animal, a monster, a Frankenstein that will bite the hand feeds it.
And once that understanding sinks in, once the illusion - that we can have the Assad forces and the extremists kills each other off on the battle fields in Syria – fades away, then there is possibility for serious cooperation for Iran and Saudi Arabia to sit around the same negotiating table and talk about the future of Syria and help create an image that would attract the warring party, present to the warring parties a better future that would attract them to negotiate. We are ready to do that any time.
ZAKARIA: We will move on inevitably to another topic. Donald Trump says that if Iranian soldiers were to make obscene signs at American sailors, he would shoot them out of the water. He would shoot the ships out of the water. What is your reaction?
ZARIF: First of all, let us talk about geography. Our soldiers and our sailors are a few miles away from our coast. Yours, Americans are several thousand miles away, and then they get upset when our boats tell them not to get into our internal waters. That you are approaching Iranian waters. That is you encroach upon our sovereignty... Who know I mean we don’t have a love affair with the United States. We’ve had 40 years of difficulty with the United States.
Consider a gunship or a huge aircraft carrier approaching your waters. Your waters. We are not talking about the Gulf of Mexico or whatever, it is the Persian Gulf. And then they give them warning. But I have checked with our military, and they tell me that no Iranian ship has come closer to a hundred meters from any American ship in the Persian Gulf.
Now people may get cranky because they believe that this is getting out of hand and say it’s a few hundred meters, but our rules of engagement is not to get closer than a hundred – than a thousand meters, less than a mile, just about a—I mean less—just, what, 1.6—1,600 meters would be a mile so more than half a mile—shouldn’t get closer than half a mile to an American ship—to any foreign ship because, at the end of the day, the Persian Gulf is our lifeline. We sell all of our oil from the Persian Gulf.
For the U.S., the Persian Gulf may be some sort of vital interest that the U.S. has designed for itself, but as is we are there. How would you think if an Iranian warship were to come to the Gulf of Mexico, close to whatever Florida or Texas or whatever it is and say why are you getting close to me? I’m sailing in international waters, why are you getting close to me? You are close to us! We are not close to you! So we are not interested in any provocation with the U.S. Period. And I don’t talk about the internal politics of the United States as I do not want the American to talk about my internal politics.
ZAKARIA: Let me finally before I open it up just clarify one thing. In the previous answer, you said they are funding Daesh. Are you saying that the Saudi government is funding ISIS?
ZARIF: I’m saying that a lot of money from Saudi Arabia initially went to the establishment of these organizations. Whether today they are funding Daesh, I do not know. But I know that money is going to al Nusra. I know that arms are going to al Nusra. I know that al Nusra is getting new recruits. I don’t think angels are bringing them down as much as they want to believe. So they are coming from somewhere. Money is coming from somewhere. Weapons are coming from somewhere. It is not that difficult. These weapons are not guerrilla warfare weapons. They have tanks. They have missiles. They have anti-aircraft missiles. They have anti-tank missiles. They have serial numbers…
ZAKARIA: And they can only come from Saudi Arabia?
ZARIF: No, I am not making accusations. I am asking somebody to go check the serial numbers and ask the U.S. government to check its inventory.
ZAKARIA: I think the Iranian militias have more access to the battlefield in Syria than almost anybody. Couldn’t you get us the serial numbers and we could
ZARIF: If you ask for it.
Question: You are speaking about the support of the Saudis to Daesh and — or Nusra or others. It’s obvious that Iran supports and sponsors militias that are working in Syria other than Hizbullah. Why is it legitimate for Iran to support working in Syria? And why is it – I mean obviously you know that the ISSG yesterday had a meeting and I’m sure you were there – that it didn’t go two well between Kerry and Lavrov. Are you willing to help out with that ceasefire and do something, deliver in order to show good faith in what you are doing in Syria in support of Bashar al Assad? Of course you are there.
ZARIF: Last I checked, the United Nations still recognized the Syrian Arab Republic as the government of Syria. We support the government of Syria in its fight against foreign sponsored terrorists. That’s very clear. And we don’t shy away from that. And we believe it is important to fight terrorism.
Now are we prepared to help find a political solution to Syria which is involves sacrifices by all including the government? Of course we are. Are we prepared to help the ceasefire? Of course we are. In every ISSG meeting, I have insisted on two sentences. Very short sentences.
There is no military solution to Syria. There has to be a comprehensive ceasefire. Unconditional. These two sentences must be unconditional. Please go and ask people who participated in ISSG meetings and see who opposed it. One member participant in ISSG said: with the help of got, we will remove Assad from office politically or militarily. So they believe there is a military solution to Syria.
I believe there is no military solution to Syria. We are prepared to help with the ceasefire. I said exactly in the meeting yesterday what I said here that we have to address these two questions: one is two create a picture of an acceptable future in Syria that is acceptable to all. Nobody will like every bit of it, but at least everybody has to accept part of it. Two – find a way to delineate between Nusra and its reincarnations if you believe reincarnations are acceptable.
Question: During the past three years, you and President Rouhani, especially during your trips abroad, have very actively courted and talked to the Iranian diaspora, particularly the professional and business class, inviting them back to the country. However, the security and intelligent forces of your—of the Islamic Republic have consistently and routinely detained dual nationals who traveled back without any—without any evidence of wrongdoing, really, and they include, for example, the 80-year-old former U.N. official, Baquer Namazi; his son, Siamak Namazi; mother of two-year-old Nazanin Ratcliffe. My question is, how do you reconcile your invitation to the Iranian diaspora? How can they trust those invitations when in practice this kind of detentions and treatment of dual nationals continues?
And the answer is not really independence of judiciary of rule of law, as you know and I know. I appreciate if you explain the policy of yourself and Mr. Rouhani abroad versus the practices at home. Thank you.
ZARIF: Well, you gave the answer yourself. Because the judiciary in the Islamic Republic is independent. That’s the answer. But you made a statement and that is “we invite Iranian Americans and Iranians of any origin to come to Iran”. Obviously they all know and it is written in the back of their passport that when they go to their countries of origin, most countries do not recognize dual citizenship and they will be subjected to the laws of their country.
But you made, also, a statement – hundreds of thousands of Iranians, millions of Iranians live outside Iran. Thousands of them, hundreds of thousands of them, come to Iran on a regular basis and leave Iran on a regular basis without any impediments or any problem. Unfortunately, something happens to some of them. I’m not here to judge what has happened to the individuals you mentioned or others. We hope that their situations could be resolved amicably and we hope that they could return.
As you know, I played a role in getting the release of some in the past and we hope that this could continue in the future. I have to insist that the government – some people for political reasons, try to say that during the three years of President Rouhani, this has happened. President Rouhani has nothing to do with it. This is a judiciary. No president has anything to do with it. It is one of the hallmarks of our system. The judiciary is independent from the executive and it may have its draw backs but it does have its advantages.
ZAKARIA: Can I just ask a supplementary to that question, which is there is a perception that you and President Rouhani do not have complete control of the government—that there are hardliners in Iran who are—who try to embarrass you at every turn, who try to in some way complicate your ability to make the kind of outreaches you want to make and that sometimes they use the judiciary where they do tend to dominate—that this is part of a larger problem of your political weakness.
ZARIF: Well Fareed, let me say something close to home here because I want you to see the facts as you see it here. Once we talk about a foreign land, we look at it as a monolith. We want to see ourselves as pluralistic but we see others as monolith.
It happens to us too. The other day, four, five months ago, a New York court, right here, the Southern District Court of New York fined Iran $11 billion. You know what? For 9/11. So before this legislation that is pending in congress, and waiting for a veto and override, about justice for victims of terrorism, we are already supposed to pay $11 billion for 9/11. There wasn’t a single Iranian involved in 9/11. Everybody who was involved in 9/11 hated our guts and we still have to pay because of the US court system $11 billion of fines. The US Supreme Court, right after JCPOA, decided to reject the appeal by the Central Bank of Iran against a ruling by a previous court against Southern District Court of New York that confiscated $1.8 billion of Iranian funds, Iranian Central Bank funds for a terrorist claim.
Do you say that the courts in the United States want to undermine the U.S. government? At the end of the day, you say the courts in the U.S. are independent of the government and we say it out loud. The executive branch in Iran has no control over the judiciary. I think it is easy for the Americans to understand it, must be easy for the Americans to understand. You run the same system. Can justify – I asked Secretary Kerry – can you justify a Supreme Court decision? Can you justify Iran being asked to pay $11 billion for 9/11? Well it happened in the US court system and everybody takes it for granted that it can happen in a democracy where you have a separation of powers.
Question: You recently returned from Latin America and you visited Ecuador, Bolivia, Cuba, and Venezuela and Chile, my question to you is – can you share with us your impression of the humanitarian crisis, you probably evidenced, in Venezuela and your discussions and your impressions of what you saw on the ground while you were there? Thank you.
ZARIF: I have to tell you that, unfortunately, unfortunately, a foreign minister going to a foreign country, does not see what is happening on the ground. This is unfortunately. I’m not saying this is something to be proud of but if I tell you I didn’t see anything, it’s only natural I don’t see what’s happening in the streets in New York. Although I lived here for couple decades but I don’t see. I mean, I’m put in a car – shoved into a car actually – taken to wherever I want to go and taken out and back in the car. So that is all I see. So I didn’t see anything.
But, unfortunately, the push to drive down the oil prices has destroyed the economies of many countries, including in the Middle East. Some had too much reserves or a lot in reserves, and have been able to cushion that. Some, like Iran, reduced their dependency on oil and we’ve been able to have growth, economic growth, in spite of the low oil prices. Some people did not have this fortune. Where Venezuela depends on over 90% of its revenue on oil, how can it survive? This huge drop in oil price.
So it is a challenge but I saw a lot of opportunities in a lot of the countries I visited – in Nicaragua, in Cuba, in Venezuela, in Ecuador, in Bolivia, and in Chile – for greater cooperation between Iran and the United States. In spite of the picture that some conservatives are trying to depict here in the United States, this is not against anybody. This is for the economic development and wellbeing of our country and our people and the people in these countries. We are not there to hurt anybody. We are not there to conspire against anybody. We are just there to make business and we need that business.
Question: In terms of the oil price, what’s the outlook for getting a freeze done next week in Algiers? There was some discussion in Vienna today there might be an agreement, I mean, is it a priority of your administration to get an actual freeze?
ZARIF: It is a priority of our administration to have a just and reasonable oil prices and more, basically, tranquility in the market rather than the situation right now. How we reach that agreement and how we reach an understanding is something that needs to be worked out.
Obviously, Iran was outside this equation for a very long time because of the unjust sanctions and now we are back and we believe that we should have our share of the market. We had a specific share of the market, some others overtook our share during the time that we were out. Now, obviously they need to compensate because we are back.
Question: I would like to know why Iran is continually attacking Israel as being a Satan country?
ZARIF: Well if you listen to Prime Minister Netanyahu the other day in the General Assembly, you saw the reverse. We have a view of the problems in our region and the view is corroborated by the facts. That is, for the past 70 years, the rights of the Palestinians have been trampled upon. Iran has nothing to do with it. Iran was not involved and they continue to be trampled upon.
There is no outcome in sight and the entire anxiety and anger that is leading to the extremism and being exploited by the demagogues is a fact that the continued situation in Palestine, the continued suffering of the Palestinian people, remains the core of the issue in the Middle East.
People try to blame others for something that they had nothing to do. You want to address the problem, address the problem. The problem is occupation, the problem is violation of rights of – the human rights of the Palestinian people, the most basic human rights of the Palestinian people. The problem is expansionism. The problem is aggression. The problem is the use of force.
You see, we live in the 21st century – in 18th and 19th century, self-help and the use of force was a rule of the game – in the 20th and 21st century, use of force and threat of use of force are illegal. Israel, on a daily basis, threatens to use force against Iran. It actually engages in terrorizing our population, in killing our scientists. It threatens to use force against our nuclear facilities, even after the deal. It tried to torpedo the deal, breaking every tradition in the United States coming even to address congress without invitation from the president. So they have done all of that.
You find a single Iranian official having threatened to use force against Israel, you will never find that. We never threatened to use force against anybody. We say we will defend ourselves. If anybody is foolish enough to attack us, we will defend ourselves as it is our right. But we say it very clearly, publically, and without any qualification, that Iran will never use force against any other entity in the world.
ZAKARIA: Let me ask a supplementary on that. You must have seen the hacked emails of Colin Powell. One of them, he said: “Israel has two hundred nuclear weapons targeted on Iran.” Would you corroborate that?
ZARIF: He didn’t break any news to anybody. I mean, I don’t know. How do I know about Israel? But he actually corroborated what we had been saying all along. Israel was the only entity with nuclear weapons in the region and its nuclear weapons are a threat against peace, threat against security, will not bring security to anybody.
You see, we have to abolish this illusion – that nuclear weapons produce security. We have to abolish the illusion that nuclear weapons even produce a – safe guard a state. If they wanted to safe guard a state, they should have prevented the dismemberment of the former Soviet Union. Nobody had as many nuclear weapons as the Soviets did. Not even the United States. But where is the Soviet Union? So these illusions have to be abandoned. We all need to work towards a world free of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons do not provide security, they need not be there for anybody, including the five permanent members, if I may.
Question: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about Russia’s role in Syria. There’s been some mixed messages about how Iran is a little bit frustrated with Russia’s dominance of the military situation on the ground and perhaps there’s been some tension between Iran and Russia over this. Basically, over the last 24 hours as the ceasefire – obviously there’s been problems with but there’s been, some people say, up to a hundred airstrikes on Aleppo, I was wondering if you could speak in terms of the recent escalation of violence on the ground and whether you think this is just about terrorism or do you think that this is completely spiraling out of control now with Russian support?
ZARIF: Well, it can be just about terrorism and it can be spiraling out of control and I don’t think that these two statements are mutually exclusive. It is spiraling out of control and it is much more just than just about terrorism. I think a regional strategic, rebalancing act is being focused on Syria and it is creating a disaster for the entire region I think. We need to address those anxieties that are at the heart of this rebalancing act of the region, and that is a problem.
But as far as Iran and Russia are concerned, I mean we are not competing to play a military role in Syria. Obviously, nobody wants to do this. I don’t think the Russians are too enthusiastic about doing that. It is a necessity of fighting. You see, for some of us in that region, it's a serious imminent threat. Daesh for Russia is something that can pop up in Chechnya or in many of its neighborly countries of the Caucuses or central Asia. Even in its own republic. So it's a real serious threat. For us too. It’s on our border. I mean Iraq is just a neighbor and we suffered eight years of war there.
So I think we’re not competing with Russia. I think we have a similar objective. Obviously no two countries have exactly identical objectives but we have similar objectives and that is as far as fighting terrorism, fighting Daesh, fighting al Nusra. And I’m confident that Russia is as interested in bringing peace and a ceasefire, I mean they have engaged in lengthy negotiations with the United States, Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry have been at it together for a long time.
I mean we have our concerns about the details because we believe that some of the details. Exactly what I said, I mean I’m not talking about anything other than what I said here. The problem with delineation, the problem with vacant areas, who will populate the vacant areas when these forces – because there are parties – I mean this is a peculiar ceasefire.
This is a ceasefire where some of the warring parties are party to it and some are not. So if the warring parties vacate some of these areas, it is a good possibility that the bad guys who are not party to this agreement will go and actually populate the area that was vacated by the warring parties.
So these are questions that need to be answered and I think the United States and Russia agreed on the Joint Implementation – whatever JIC that they call it, the Joint Implementation Committee, I guess. But they are waiting for seven days of calm in Syria before, and this is on the insistence of the United States, before they create this joint implementation whatever. So what will happen during those seven days? It only takes a couple of hours to change the strategic balance in favor of Daesh or al Nusra. They have to think about these and I’m sure that Russians are thinking about these and I hope that the United States are thinking about this because a lot of people, a lot of people of your allies would be happy, unfortunately, if Daesh and Nusra were to take territory that is no occupied by the Syrians. And that’s bad.
Question: I want to congratulate you and thank you for your editorial in the New York Times. I think American Christians, especially, would like to know that Islam has some internal critics as well as its external critics. My question is, how do we get rid of the Wahhabis?
ZAKARIA: I feel as though you’ve answered this questions.
ZARIF: Let me just say that – please do not equate Wahhabism with Islam. It is not the same. It is a very small minority. Very small. I mean most of the Saudis are not Wahhabis. You tell a Saudi that you are a Wahhabi, they will be angry at you. They will tell you that I’m a Hanbali, not a Wahhabi.
Wahhabism is a school of thought, a political school in our view but, unfortunately, what the West can do is stop turning a blind eye. For the past four decades, Wahhabis have been able to propagate, to send their books, to send their literature of hate, to finance various mosques. That has to stop. And I think that it is in the long-term interest of Saudi Arabia and its allies that this stops.
Question: Obviously I’m an Orthodox Monk and there are many of us in Iran and, in fact, the Christian population in Iran swelled during the Armenian Genocide. The second oldest Christian church Mariata Mariyam is in Iran.
You talked about OFAC, it’s sometimes a problem for us too. You always mentioned that you’ve had forty years of problem with the United States but yet you have a PhD from the University of Denver. From the Iranian side, do you think that you could sponsor additional cultural exchanges so for example the Christians in the United States don’t have quite as much to fear from Iran with the rebuilding of traditional churches and the rebuilding of traditional Christian communities in Iran in which have had such great welcome over the centuries?
ZARIF: Well we still have. I mean we have two Armenian representatives in our parliament. Armenian churches in Iran are thriving. I mean we just finished a global Armenian Olympics in Iran hosted by our own Armenian community. Not too many people know that we have the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside of Israel. They do have their synagogues and they do have an assigned seat in the parliament, although their numbers are not high enough to get a seat because every 150,000 Iranian gets a seat in the parliament. But for religious minorities, it is an assigned seat that they will get irrespective of their numbers. So we have two Armenian representatives, one Assyrian representative – which is another variation of our Christian community – and one Jewish representative in the parliament and one Zoroastrian representative.
A former Jewish representative, now resides with his mother in Los Angeles so shouldn’t be – no he comes back to Iran, don’t worry – but his mother, even when he was a representative in our Majlis, his mother lived in Los Angeles and he used to come and go and visit her.
So, I mean, a lot of this image that has been created of Iran is just an image and you see all my picture on the billboards and taxis saying “death to America, death to Americans”, I mean, I never said that in my life. So I believe there is a lot to be gained from the two communities interacting but we need to build some confidence so that people in Iran would react positively, and people in the United States would react positively. We are prisoners of our perceptions and our presumptions and this has become a problem after we have built on these perceptions for forty years.
Question: Mr. Foreign Minister, the Turks are key players in the Syria conflict, have you talked to the Turks? And how do the Turks look at a solution?
ZARIF: Well actually we started talking to the Turks – I started talking to the Turks here on the East River, immediately after I became foreign minister I had a long conversation, the first time I walked wasn’t with Secretary Kerry, although it grabbed most of the attention, I walked with the foreign minister of Turkey and we had a long conversation about Syria but it’s had its ups and downs. Now for the past two months, we’ve had regular contact on Syria and we have done some good work about this future perspective of Syria. And I think, while the future of Syria must be determined by the people of Syria, those around Syria can help create some level of understanding and confidence and clear expectations so that the warring parties can actually engage and get out of these very strict positions they have imprisoned themselves in and start talking.
ZAKARIA: For both sides, it seemed to me, after the Iran deal, there was a hope that there would be something a little bit like the opening to China. That Iran would be a country that would integrate more and more with the international community, that the United States and Iran would be able to cooperate more in areas of the greater Middle East. The way, for example, the Iran cooperated with the United States or the United States cooperated with Iran, however you want to look at it, on the political solution for Afghanistan after the Taliban fell. Was that an illusion or could that have happened?
ZARIF: Well we said it very clearly, at the level of the supreme leader, that we look at this as an experiment. And if this experiment turns out to be positive, then we can work on another experiment. There is a lot of mistrust. We need to build trust one step at a time. I hope that the experiment that we are now undertaking will dent some of the mistrust rather than further the mistrust.
And I think that it is very important for the United States to understand that sanctions are not good policy. Sanctions have never produced the outcome that they intended to produce. You see, if you look at sanctions as a means of hurting people, of course they do. They do hurt. But as a means of achieving policy objectives, I think sanctions have imprisoned U.S. policymakers. I mean, look at Cuba, I was in Cuba twice in the past month, there is such a web of sanctions around Cuba that even the political decision of the President of the United States cannot rid the administration and the American people of this web of sanctions. It is impossible to free yourselves. So my call to the Americans is liberate yourselves from sanctions. Sanctions are not an asset. They are a liability.
Click here for the full event transcript by CFR.