Zarif in New York on Nuclear Deal, Regional Issues

July 18, 2017

On July 13, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamad Javad Zarif arrived in New York City to attend a series of international meetings and U.N. forums. He discussed the nuclear deal and regional tensions in several interviews and appearances. The following are excerpted remarks.


Council on Foreign Relations event

Zarif: ...there has been a failure of the state system in the Middle East. Expectations have not been met. People believe that the state—and now I don’t mean just to say the Arab state, but primarily the Arab state—has been incapable of addressing the most important basic needs of the population. And that has given rise to anger, to resentment, to disenfranchisement. You do not have any other opportunity to vent out frustration.

People stood in line for 10 hours in Iran two months ago to vote… …That is totally absent in the rest of our region. So frustration with the lack of the possibility for the state providing for the most basic needs, including dignity, that’s one thing.

HAASS: Following up on that, the new crown prince of Saudi Arabia, when he was the deputy crown prince, gave an interview several months back and he said… …that we won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead we will work so the battle is in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.

What did you understand him to mean by that?

ZARIF: Well, it meant a threat, and a threat that they had been trying to make real for some time by helping terrorist organizations. You saw them participating in person in the rallies in Paris of terrorist organizations, who are chanting outside this hall too. They’re there. They support various terrorist organizations who are operating from Pakistan.

And finally they were able to bring some of them to our parliament, the place they hate the most, because that reflects something that we have and they don’t, and that is a type of democracy.

HAASS: But just following up on what the crown and the deputy crown prince said, are you worried that—the fact that you and Saudis and others are on opposite sides of the conflict in Yemen, could one way or another lead to direct confrontation?

ZARIF: Well, we certainly hope not, and we certainly hope that we can be… …We believe nobody is gaining from the continuation of the conflict in Yemen. We believe—I mean, I put a proposal four years ago for a resolution in Syria—four points: cease-fire, national unity government, constitutional reform, elections.

On Yemen, immediately after the war, in a meeting with President Erdogan of Turkey, President Rouhani presented another four-point plan: cease-fire, immediate humanitarian assistance… …I believe this can be the basis for cooperative arrangements between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

ZARIF: As far as the United States is concerned, we believe that for the United States, it has been, even during the Obama administration, more important to maintain the sanctions that remained rather than remove the sanctions that were lifted. So the Office of Foreign Assets Control, OFAC, has been reluctant to provide straightforward answers to those who wanted to do business with Iran because it was worried that a straightforward answer would undermine the sanctions that we had not debated and discussed or agreed to be lifted, sanctions dealing with other issues. We believe that they are not justified. But for OFAC, those were sacrosanct and those were more important than the sanctions that were being lifted.

HAASS: Let me raise a few other questions. One, there was a New York Times story over the weekend I’m sure you saw, essentially arguing that Iran now dominates in Iraq, thanks to a U.S. policy… …What confidence do you have that… …some version of Sunni terrorism 3.0 won’t emerge just like ISIS and al-Qaida did?

ZARIF: No, we believe that we need to have inclusive governments throughout the region. That is why we have come to the aid of the Iraqi Sunnis, Iraqi Kurds, as well as Iraqi Shi’as when they confronted ISIS.

Our policy has been consistent, Richard. We fought extremism in Afghanistan. We fought extremism in Iraq. We fought extremism in Syria.

U.S. allies supported extremism in Afghanistan. You remember, the only three countries that recognized the Taliban as government were Pakistan, a neighbor; Saudi Arabia; and the UAE.

HAASS: You mentioned the Kurds. Late in September, there’s a vote, as you know, to be taken by the Kurds in Iraq. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’m mildly confident they will vote for a state of their own, to that effect. You’ve obviously got a significant Kurdish population in your own country. There’s significant Kurdish populations elsewhere, including Turkey and Syria. What is—what is the Iranian government’s view towards Kurdish self-determination?

ZARIF: Well, we believe that the referendum is not the right choice. We believe that it would bring about centrifugal tendencies in Iraq that would be disastrous for the country, and it would not be limited to the Kurdish population. And I believe the impact on Iraqi security would be disastrous and the impact on regional security would be disastrous. So we have advised our friends in Iraqi Kurdistan—and all of them are our friends, from Mr. Barzani to others in Iraq—we have advised all of them that this is the wrong choice and they should not make this choice. I believe this is the common view of every country in the region, and in my discussions in Europe and elsewhere, I’ve heard that this is—I mean, they shared this concern that we have. And here, I do not talk to officials, but talking to think tanks, I believe the same tendency exists here in the United States. So I do not think that’s the right choice. But I believe that policies in our region—as much as we insist on national unity and territorial integrity of every country in the region, we believe that anti-Kurdish policies anywhere in the region would backfire.

HAASS: Would you qualify Turkish policies as anti-Kurdish?

ZARIF: Well, I do not—I do not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. I’m just an analyst making an analytical point. (Laughter.)

HAASS: Two last questions, in that case, analytically. The United States is considering introducing additional forces into Afghanistan. From your country’s perspective, this would be with the acceptance or at the request of the government. Would—is this something that you believe will make it more likely that Afghanistan will be able to wind down the civil war and forge a peace agreement?

ZARIF: We don’t, and we have shared that view with the Afghanistan government, that we do not believe that reliance on foreign forces will enable them to bring about a peaceful resolution. We support the peace process in Afghanistan. We are prepared to do whatever we can and by whatever we have in our capability to support that process. We have our view, but we respect the decisions of our neighbors. We always have. And the government of Afghanistan is a sovereign government. And if it makes a decision, we respect that decision. But we would disagree with them on the merits of that decision.

Zarif: [T]here are no communications between myself and Secretary Tillerson... ...My colleagues have regular contact with U.S. colleagues on the implementation of the nuclear deal. Later this week they’ll meet in Vienna, in joint commission, whose agenda is to look at our complaints about U.S. failures to comply fully with its obligations under the nuclear deal, JCPOA... ...But certainly, I mean, it’s not like the situation with the previous administration where probably Secretary Kerry and I spent more time with each other than we spent with anybody else.

Q: Jeff Laurenti. ... Somebody has to be in charge of the security forces, the security services. Since, seemingly, the government is not in charge of any of these, who picks them, why are they so hard to control, why are they a kind of bedrock of the hardline element, and what leeway do you have in the Foreign Ministry to admit U.N. human rights rapporteurs and such when these dark forces, we might think, seem to have such clout and control of their own?

ZARIF: Well, you made a lot of assumptions. Judges are parts of judiciary. They’re not selected by anybody. They go through a process that is in the judiciary to be admitted as judges. In our case, judges—we don’t have elected judges. In many countries, we don’t—you don’t elect the judges, but they go through a process. It’s not an arbitrary policy. It’s a—it’s a legal framework within which judges are appointed, are selected....

...As I said, our judiciary is independent, and I’m not here to defend another branch of Iranian government because it’s not—none of my business. They are an independent branch of the Iranian government, they carry their own decisions, but it is based on rules of procedure that are enshrined in law, not arbitrary. You may not agree with the law. I certainly do not agree with the law.

Q: Thank you so much. Helima Croft, RBC. I wonder if you could talk about the bills that are making their way through Congress that might impose additional sanctions on Iran. What would constitute, in your mind, a violation of the JCPOA? I mean, what would be that sort of red line where you would say this is, you know, a violation of the agreement, we’re not going to stick with it?

ZARIF: Well, we will make that decision when time comes. Whether it’s a violation? Of course it’s a violation. I mean, let me tell you something... ...You see, when you started imposing nuclear sanctions on Iran—when the U.S., I’m sorry to say you—when the U.S. government started to impose nuclear sanctions against Iran, we only had 200 centrifuges. When they started negotiating with us in order to remove those sanctions, we had 20,000 centrifuges. So if you want to see the results of sanctions, just 19,800 centrifuges is the net result of sanctions. (Laughter.)

HAASS: Just to be clear, you wouldn’t support, or you don’t support the use of sanctions against Russia for its occupation of Crimea?

ZARIF: I don’t support the use of sanctions, period. I believe use of sanctions are counterproductive. They hurt the wrong segment of the population. They never produce the results that you want. So as somebody who wrote his master’s thesis on sanctions in 1982, I can tell you that sanctions don’t work.

—July 17, 2017, in New York City


Interview on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS”

ZAKARIA: So, the - let me ask you about this issue of compliance for the deal. Four senators including Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz wrote a letter in which they said Iran is not in compliance with the deal, and very briefly, but they argue you are still acquiring nuclear materials. You have denied the IAEA, the inspection body access to the Parchin facility. And that you are operating more centrifuges than allowed. What is your response?

ZARIF: Well, when we negotiated the deal, we decided to make the IAEA, the only accepted body to monitor the implementation of the nuclear side of the deal. And the IAEA has verified, I believe seven times now since the implement day that Iran has implemented the deal faithfully, fully, and complete. Unfortunately, we cannot make the same statement about the United States. The United States has faith to implement its possible to bargain.

ZAKARIA: Specifically what?

ZARIF: For instance, when the White House made an announcement a couple of days ago that President Trump used his presence in Hamburg during the G20 meeting in order to dissuade leaders other - from other countries. To engage in business with Iran. That is a violation of not the spirit but of the letter of JCPOA, of the nuclear deal. And I believe the United States needs to bring itself into compliance with its part of the obligation under the deal, Iran has been complying, it has been verified by the IAEA.

ZAKARIA: What about the German intelligence reports that say there is still acquisition taking place, a nuclear acquisition?

ZARIF: Well, again, the IAEA is responsible body to monitor and verify and it has verified that Iran is complying with the deal. Let me point out here that the deal prevent Iran from continuing with its peaceful nuclear program. We - the deal is very clear, it's recognizes Iran's right to engage an enrichment. It is enrichment for peaceful purposes and I believe it was the realization that a knowledge that was - had been acquired by Iran domestically and through the work of our scientist could not be taken away from Iran and the best way was to have it monitored.

ZAKARIA: A lot of people wonder about this 10-year or 15-year period and they say, this is just a pause, one step period is over. Iran will begin a nuclear weapons program.

ZARIF: Well, Iran has made it very clear in the deal, before the deal that it does not have a weapons program. The IAEA again verified that the allegations about possible military dimensions of Iran nuclear program were uncompounded. The IAEA decided to close that factor. I think people want to basically engage in scaremongering. Iran has had the capability but decided not to go in the direction of producing weapons of mass destruction because we believe that not only they are against our ideology but also they do not augment our security. We believe that nuclear weapons would be a threat to our security rather than an asset for our security.

ZAKARIA: Let me ask you about Donald Trump's Middle East policy. He went to Saudi Arabia, met with the Gulf States and the focus of that meeting appears to have been to try to rally a kind of anti-Iranian alliance that the Saudis have wanted to do particularly with regard to the war in Yemen but also more generally, isolating Qatar which is as being too friendly to Iran. What is your reaction to that?

ZARIF: Well, all I can say is it's a misplaced and misguided policy. We know where these terrorists are coming from, we know those who attacked the World Trade Center. Where - citizens of which countries in the region. I can tell you none of them came from Iran. None of the people who were engage in acts of terrorism since 2001 came from Iran, most of them came from U.S. allies. I believe the ideology that is being spread by - unfortunately by our neighbors in Saudi Arabia, throughout the world is responsible for hatred, for extremism and for fanaticism that is bringing such a dark page of people who have nothing to do with Islam into the - into our region and even beyond our region. Look at ISIS, look at Musra, look at al-Qaeda, look at other terrorist organizations, all of them, none of them have anything to do with Iran, all of them receive not only the ideology but the financial assistance, their weapons, they're armed from other who call themselves U.S. allies.

ZAKARIA: There's so many hot spots in the Middle East, I don't know which one to start with. But let's talk about Syria. Iran is Syria's closest ally. You have sent militias in that have supported the Assad regime. The fundamental dilemma seems to be that there is a large part of Syria that will not accept an Assad government. There's still huge parts of the country that he does not control, but, on the other hand, they do not have the strength to topple that government.

What is the solution that allows the very large groups that simply seem unalterably opposed to the Assad government, and the reality that the Assad government does control, you know, maybe 12 million people?

ZARIF: Let me first of all say that our policy with regard to Syria, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region, has been consistent. We oppose terrorism, we oppose extremism, and we come to the support and aid of governments who continue to support extremism and terrorism. We did that in Afghanistan, in the early part of the century when we were vehemently opposed to the Taliban and al Qaeda government. We came to the support of the Iraqis, both in Irbil and in Baghdad in order to prevent a -- an ISIS takeover. We're doing the same in Syria. As far as aid --

ZAKARIA: You do not regard any of those forces fighting the Assad government as legitimate opposition forces?

ZARIF: There may be. There may be legitimate opposition in forces in Syria, and that is why, in 2013, a few weeks I assumed office as the Foreign Minister of Iran, I presented the four-point plan which later became the basis for Resolution 2254 of the Security Council.

Those four points are, in order to be realistic and in order to move forward rather than get bogged down in an unnecessary debate that will only prolong the conflict and will only prolong the killing and the pushing people into homelessness, we need to get real and get to the bottom of it.

First, a cease fire. I believe we need the cease fire. We always needed a cease fire. People put conditions upon cease fire. But it is created. We all need to engage in efforts to bring about a comprehensive cease fire, except obviously against those groups that are considered by the Security Council as terrorist organizations, which would include ISIS and Al Nusra.

Second part of our plan -- and of course, with cease fire comes humanitarian assistance, which is absolutely imperative. The situation is disastrous in Syria and people from both sides are suffering, and it is important to bring about humanitarian assistance.

ZARKAIA: And then political, some kind of --

ZARIF: No, the second part was a national unity government. A government that would include the current government as well as those opposition people who are concerned about the future of Syria and who want to participate in a better future for Syria.

The third part of our plan was constitutional reform so that the powers of the government would not be concentrated in one office, in one institution. Power would be so disbursed that people would feel that they have a part of the stake in the future of Syria, and it would bring everybody in a non-zero sum situation. Because usually you will not be able to resolve zero-sum games. Zero-sum games end up producing negative outcomes. So you need to --

ZAKARIA: And then elections.

ZARIF: And then elections based on that constitution.

ZAKARIA: What is the chance of this happening?

ZARIF: I think it's the basis of the Security Council Resolution 2254. People should stop putting conditionalities for the Syrian. We need to allow the Syrians to make that decision. If people believe that the current government is unacceptable to the Syrian people, they should insist that the election should be free and fair, and then at the -- as the outcome of the election, people who are running the government right now will not be reelected.

The point also is that it all depends on the constitutional reform. If the constitutional reform removes all the power from the -- from one office, you may not need even be concerned about who is the president because you will have other offices in the government --

ZAKARIA: I've got to ask you --

ZARIF: -- who will be responsible.

ZAKARIA: I've got to ask you about so many other -- Yemen. There are reports that Iran is escalating its support for the Houthis there in response to the fact that Saudi Arabia has escalated its support.

ZARIF: Well, again, on Yemen, before the war erupted in Yemen, before the senseless Saudi bombing of innocent Yemeni started in April 2015, and now we are two years into that war that everybody in Saudi Arabia was hoping to be finished within two weeks. We proposed an end to the conflict. Again, another four point plan: cease fire, humanitarian assistance, Yemeni dialogue, and establishment of a government based on the wish of the Yemeni people.

We believe the only way in all of these conflicts, we only need to accept in reality one sentence, there is no military solution.

ZAKARIA: OK, let me ask you about --

ZARIF: Obviously, obviously some of your allies in the region, some U.S. allies in the region --

ZAKARIA: Saudi Arabia.

ZARIF: -- want to win militarily until the last American soldier, and that's the problem.

ZAKARIA: You -- until the last American soldier. You understand television. You've got 30 seconds.

The Iranian -- the former Iraqi Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, says Iran now totally dominates Iraq. Its influence is paramount. People say the United States fought the war but Iran has been the beneficiary. You can --

ZARIF: I'm sure the person who wrote that "New York Times" article picked up a sentence from my friend Hoshyar Zebari's statement.

Iran has been on the side of the Iraqi people from the very beginning, and that is why we have come to the aid of the Kurds from whom Hoshyar Zebari come. When Irbil was being targeted by ISIS, Iran was the first country, as Mr. Barzani has said many times on public television that he asked many to come to his assistance and the country that came to his assistance immediately was Iran. Had it not been for our existence, and had it not been for the very brave struggle of the Kurdish people, Irbil would have been fallen to ISIS. Had it not been for our assistance, and had it been not brave struggle of the Iraqis, Baghdad would have been fallen to ISIS.

So we came to their assistance. We chose the right side. Unfortunately, our neighbors from the very beginning chose the wrong side. From Saddam Hussein, then they supported Saddam Hussein during his eight years of war against Iran, provided him with chemical weapons and everything else. In the region and from outside they make all the wrong choices. They supported ISIS. They supported extremists in Iraq. They supported Al Qaeda-affiliated elements.

And that is why they are reaping the fruit of what they themselves sowed in the beginning of this century and before that. So they should not complain about the fact that Iran made all the right decisions, came to the assistance of the people, and now is accepted by the people of Iraq. And they can continue to quote -- misquote politicians in order to create misunderstanding, but I think that you were referring to in "The New York Times" does not stand any test, any factors, and I don't know how it got to be printed.

—July 16, 2017, on CNN


Interview with the National Interest

Jacob Heilbrunn: Do you believe, in looking at Trump the man—is he someone you can do business with, or do you think that he is dangerously intemperate in his dealings with Iran, rhetorically, so far?

Mohammad Javad Zarif: Well, the rhetoric is not conducive to greater understanding, not just with Iran but with other countries as well. We need to be more careful about the signaling, because we’ve seen that wrong signaling in the past few weeks in our region, particularly after the Riyadh summit, has caused a rather serious backlash in the region—not between U.S. allies and Iran, but among U.S. allies. So I believe it would be important to keep that in consideration, to understand the complexities of the situation.

Certainly Iran started an understanding, not just with the United States, but with the P5+1, endorsed by the Security Council, and at this stage we are content with simply implementing that agreement. As we’ve said in the past, we wanted that agreement to be the foundation and not the ceiling. But in order for that to serve as a solid foundation, we want to make sure that the obligations by all sides have been fully and faithfully implemented. And if we get that, then we have an opening to further progress.

—July 17, 2017 in an interview with Jacob Heilbrunn


“Unfortunately up until now, the United States, while remaining at the very least possible level compliant with the agreement, has failed to observe, in times, the letter and mostly the spirit of the agreement by not allowing Iran to enjoy the full benefits of the nuclear deal. We believe they need to reconsider that position, because it is not conducive to the sustainability of the agreement.”

“The JCPOA is a multilateral agreement that was the result of many years of negotiation.”

“It was also the result of many years of pressure. After all those pressures failed to bring about the results that were expected from those who were imposing pressure on the Iranian people, there was no other choice but to reach a negotiated settlement.”

“I think at the end of the day, everybody will see that the agreement will represent an outcome that was the best possibility for all concerned [parties].”

—July 14, 2017 to journalists upon his arrival in New York City