Zarif in New York: Interview on Nuclear Deal, Regional Issues

ZarifOn April 21, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif discussed the nuclear deal, regional conflicts, ballistic missiles, and humanitarian issues with a small group of journalists. He outlined potential Iranian responses to a U.S. decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal in May. "The only scenario that we can live with is for the Europeans to talk to the Trump administration to start, once and for all, complying with the deal," he said. The following are excerpts, organized by subject.




Nuclear Deal

Q: So, have you come to bury the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] or praise it?

Zarif: No, I certainly have not come to bury the JCPOA. I already thought it was the intention of the president of the United States to do that. But... we believe that it is an international multilateral agreement and if the United States decides to try to bury, then they will have to suffer the consequences and be responsible for it.

Q: Can you give us a sense of what the options are for Iran after the U.S. decision -- what scenarios there might be?

Zarif: Well there are many options for Iran. Scenarios, you'll have to [do] the guessing. But Iran has a range of options, some foreseen in the JCPOA, including reciprocally withdrawing from the deal and resuming its nuclear program. And that may be one of the options that would be more probable. So... we'll keep those options open.

Zarif: Well, we know that the E3 [Britain, France and Germany] want to preserve the JCPOA. We believe that in order to preserve the JCPOA, they should insist on its proper implementation by all parties. And the only party that has been properly implementing the JCPOA has been Iran. And Russia and China never had sanctions on Iran, so they did not need to take any specific measures to make sure they are in compliance with JCPOA. The United States has certainly failed to comply. And it has, in fact, even prevented Europe from complying. Because European banks have not been able to do this because of US pressure. So, by extension, they have not been able to comply.

So what we expect President [Emmanuel] Macron and Chancellor [Angela] Merkel when they are in the United States is to insist with President Trump that this a multilaterally negotiated agreement and the United States as a part of the agreement, if it intends to maintain any credibility in the international community, has to live up to its commitments under the agreement, rather than try to demand for more without having at least fulfilled the commitments that exist already. To try to appease the President, I think, would be an exercise in futility, but it's up to President Macron and Chancellor Merkel to decide what they want to do.

We do not usually interfere in the internal affairs nor external affairs of other countries. They have the right to pursue whatever external affairs they want. But they cannot do it on our behalf.

Q: Do you have any expectations though that something might happen?

Zarif: Well, we did not ask them to come here to have expectations of the visit. They are coming here with a specific agenda and I don't think it is limited to JCPOA. I think they have trade and other issues and that's their prerogative, whatever they want to do.

Q: My understanding is that there are three different options.

Zarif: No there may be more. Three main options are being discussed by various people and you just need to watch the discussions. It is not... Iran is an open society and people present their views rather openly in the press. And if you just look at the press, you see all the options presented before you.

Q: One option is withdrawing from the deal reciprocity by Iran. A second one is withdrawing from the NPT [Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons] all together which would be a quite radical action. The third one is taking it to the joint commission and ...

Zarif: These are the more obvious options that are being discussed.

Q: And allowing the Europeans in the 45-day period to try to broker some kind [of agreement], so in effect it would not end with May 12. It would then have a 45-day period to try and find some arrangement to --

Zarif: Well that's the avenue that has been spelled out in the JCPOA. If you want to leave JCPOA, if you believe that another party is in material breach, or in JCPOA terminology, in significant non-performance of their obligations under the agreement, then you can invoke paragraph 36 of the agreement, to start a process. It can take up to 45 days. The object of that exercise is to bring the non-complying party into compliance.

That's the official object. Whether other things can be done during those 45 days by other members of JCPOA to assure that Iran will benefit from JCPOA is a hypothetical question that needs to be addressed at that time. But the objective of the process is to bring the United States into compliance. That's the most clear option, provided under JCPOA.

However, Iran has been writing to the joint commission for about two years. Eleven letters all together have been written to High Representative [Federica] Mogherini as the coordinator of the joint commission, explaining - including during the previous administrations - the violations by the United States of the provisions of JCPOA. So, some people in Iran may argue that that process has already been exhausted.

So that's another way. And some people are talking about more drastic measures.

Q: Such as restarting the program --

Zarif: That would be the first or second scenario. More drastic measures would be even more.

Zarif: The only scenario that we can live with is for the Europeans to talk to the Trump administration to start, once and for all, complying with the deal and not to continue the actions that they have been following for the past 15 months. That’s the only scenario that is acceptable to Iran. We don't believe that a country that has been in breach of its obligation for the past, at least 15 months, can demand for more.

Q: So all of these discussions, you know they are meeting and talking all the time, trying to --

Zarif: That is their prerogative. And we don't condone it. And we don't believe it's useful or fruitful or conducive to a better implementation of the JCPOA. And they know that. They know that to be our position.

Q: Do you see Iran taking this to the [U.N.] Security Council for that final --

Zarif: No, we don't need to take it to the Security Council because we, for us to leave the agreement, we need to simply resume our activities and paragraph 36 of the agreement provides us with that option.

Q: So you would leave [the deal]. There is no situation where you would force the U.S. to raise their hand and veto an extension of sanctions on Iran, and have the U.S. kill the deal once and for all?

Zarif: If they want to kill the deal they have that option to kill the deal. But they have to face the consequences themselves.

Q: So if you restart the program, how long would it take Iran to get a bomb?

Zarif: We don't intend to get a bomb. And now you can rely on the director of the Central Intelligence Agency to tell you that Iran never raced towards a bomb nor will race towards a bomb. End of story. I mean all of these manufactured crises that we've been living with for the past whatever, how many years, all the allegations of the United States, now the director of Central Intelligence Agency has... I believe he was under oath when he said that, huh? Usually when they testify in Congress, even for confirmation it should be under oath. He said, in testimony before the Senate, that Iran... I tweeted that, I think you can read my tweet and read the exact quotation from currently director Pompeo.

Q: So, if you restart the program, America does not have to fear Iran producing a nuclear bomb.

Zarif: America never should have feared Iran producing a nuclear bomb. But we will pursue vigorously our nuclear enrichment. If they want to fear anything, it’s up to them.

Q: Is there any chance that Iran would stay and simply work with the Europeans, the Russians, the Chinese and, say, isolate the United States and stay in the agreement?

Zarif: Well, I believe that's highly unlikely.

Q: Why?

Zarif: Because it is important for Iran receive the benefits of the agreement. And there is no way that Iran would do a one-sided implementation of the agreement. And it would require a major effort because right now, with the United States ostensibly in the agreement, a lot has been lacking in terms of Iran benefiting from the deal.

Q: Was that point just that the U.S. is actually abrogating the deal?

Zarif: The U.S. under President Trump never implemented the deal. It simply maintained some superficial compliance, that is to renew the waivers every three or four months. But that did not mean that the U.S. was in compliance because the compliance meant that the United States would not impede normal business with Iran. But the stated policy of this administration is to impede normal business with Iran, which is in violation of paragraphs 26, 28 and 29 of the agreement. I've repeated that so many times I know it by heart.

Q: I just want to clarify, the two options that could happen if May 12 comes and Donald Trump doesn’t waive the sanctions, you’re either going to go through the 45-day process or you are going to restart the nuclear program and leave the deal?

Zarif: That's two of the options. Not two options.

Q: Okay. What are the two top options?

Zarif: Let me just say, Iran is not a monolith. So, we have a multitude of voices in Iran and each are presenting a different option. And those options are being deliberated in Iran, and we will make a decision based on our national security interest when the time comes. But whatever that decision will be won't be very pleasant to the United States. That I can say. That's a consensus.

Q: Can you give us a little bit of reflection of where the public mood is, how it may have changed? What the supreme leader's thinking is, what guidance he is offering you when it comes to making, deliberating this, what questions he's asking. Give us a sense of kind of the range of what's happening inside Iran since a lot of us can't get visas to get their ourselves.


Zarif: I believe the public mood in Iran is one of deeper mistrust, because they believe that Iran entered these negotiations in good faith. Implemented its side of the bargain in good faith, has very viably has implemented its side of the bargain in good faith. And the United States has not only failed to implement its side but is even asking for more. That’s a very dangerous message to send to the people of Iran, but also to the people of the world. That you should never come to an agreement with the United States because at the end of the day, the operating principle for the United States is, what's mine is mine, what’s yours in negotiable.

Q: That's what you'd tell North Korea, right now?

Zarif: I think I don't need to tell them, it's out in the open for them to see.

Q: Before Secretary Tillerson left, did you see any attempt to have that kind of conversation [to build trust]? And is there, with Mike Pompeo coming on, is there any hope or glimmer or reason to think that there could be that kind conversation? Because I feel like this whole nuclear question is not really about Iran's nuclear activities, it's more about when the Trump administration said, you know they are violating the spirit of the deal with their missile programs. I don't even think they are even thinking in terms of the nuclear question because you have been complying with the deal. So how do you deal with the Trump administration on these larger issues of mistrust or have you just given up?

Zarif: First of all, there was no meeting between myself and Secretary Tillerson.

Q: No, I mean at the JCPOA--

Zarif: He was in a meeting, and he said that we don't like this deal. Other statements that he made were basically niceties. But he said the operating principle was that the president of the United States doesn't like this deal and that's why this deal won't stand. And that was not a very nice invitation for a conversation. Not to us. Not to other members of the nuclear deal.

Q: When you talked about the various different voices and the various different options

may explore, you talked about drastic, more drastic measures are being discussed, you know among the debate back home. Can you spell out what those drastic options are?

Zarif: Well, you see, I do not want to spell out everything that everybody is saying in Iran because many of them I don't agree with. But Iran has a lot of press and you tend to read them, to just look at the press and see what certain members of our parliament are saying about Iran's options.

Q: You didn't answer my question about the supreme leader. …

Zarif: The supreme leader is not an entity independent of the Iranian public view. The supreme leader and Iranian political establishment are sensitive to the concerns and aspirations to Iranian public. And today the Iranian public is agitated by the fact that the Iranian good faith implementation of the nuclear deal has been reciprocated by threats from the United States and by attempts at appeasement by others. This is the general sense of the Iranian public, which has an impact on the way the Iranian polity deliberates on various options that are available.

Q: But has he given you any guidance? And has he asked any questions? I mean he is very much... he has a very powerful voice.

Zarif: I think what he wants to make public, he makes public in his statements. And you don't expect me to tell you what he tells me privately because if he wanted to make them public he would have made them public in his public statements.

Q: You have always been working to try and build respectful relations between the United States and Iran, in my experience. Here we are now, after everything that's gone on with this landmark nuclear agreement dissolving beneath our feet. And I just wanted your personal reflections on whether this effort to build engagement between our two countries has been worthwhile and whether you still have hope that it can be revived after Donald Trump, as we know Donald Trump will not be our president forever.

Zarif: Well, it is, for anybody who has worked on trying to address these problems, it is disappointing. I think the type of comments that you hear in the U.S. political institutions, contradictory comments, are really disappointing. I believe the nuclear deal was not everything I wanted. Was certainly not everything John Kerry wanted. And was certainly not everything that Europeans wanted. Or the Russians or the Chinese. All of us had to compromise. That's the name of the game.

But the problem is, I think we need to probably stand back and look at the lessons that are going to be learned from this experience -- that you enter a negotiating room, you work for 12 years on an issue, at least two years of which would be basically permanent work by a lot of people, many more on your side than on our side, because I heard that the team that were negotiating the nuclear deal in the United States never slept, because you had people working in Vienna and you had people in Laurence Livermore Laboratory, people in other laboratories doing the calculations and all of that. And now they learn that we were never racing towards a nuclear weapon, and they based it on the time to calculate how long it would take us to race towards a nuclear weapon.

And then we reached an agreement based on give and take. And an important part of that agreement was the duration of limits. People use the word "sunset." There's no sunset, because I mean if they read three lines down the preface, there is the word "never." "Iran commits never to produce nuclear weapons." So, I think "never" is not synonymous with "sunset." But we did make an agreement on limitations, duration of limitations, and that duration was the subject of probably the lengthiest negotiation between Iran and the United States. It started on day one in Oman before the negotiations went public and ended on the last minute of the discussions. Actually last minute of the discussions, we ended that discussion. Same with missiles. All of these were the subject of lengthy negotiations.

And then for people to come, after you reach an agreement, after you implement that agreement, to say, "No, that's not enough." And for others to ask, "Why are you not flexible enough to accommodate?" What type of message, what type of a picture are you drawing? You're creating, not you, the situation is creating an impression globally that negotiations don't matter, that agreements don't matter, that I mean, Bolton used to say, I think he's at least honest, that we use international law when it suits our purpose. We use agreements when it suits our purpose. So why do you think others should come to an agreement with the United States?

Q: Have you given up on us?

Zarif: I haven't given up on diplomacy because I believe diplomacy is far superior to other means of conducting international relations.

Q: If the nuclear deal falls apart, will you ever engage with the United States again?

Zarif: I never use never.

Q: Obviously your currency is under great pressure at the moment. Do you think that the U.S. is actually taking any specific actions to remove dollars, squeeze the currency, that are approximating conditions of sanctions in any case? It's not just a fear --

Zarif: The United States, under the Trump administration, has done everything it could to prevent Iran from benefiting from JCPOA. Everything it could.

Q: Do you think the currency drop is a product of some of the rhetoric and actions by the White House?

Zarif: I do not know, but what I'm saying is, I mean I'm not in the business of accusing people for things I do not know. But I know that the United States has done everything it could to prevent us from engaging economically with the rest of the world, from benefiting, from using our money. They've done everything they could. They haven't succeeded in all their attempts, but they've done everything they could, and that is in itself a violation. So, basically, they have immunized us.

Q: If you haven't given up on diplomacy, are you hoping to meet with Ambassador Haley while you are here?

Zarif: Haley? Why should I?

Q: Isn't there a P5 [Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States]? You're not meeting with the P5?

Zarif: No. If there is a P5, our ambassador will meet with them, not me. Why should I? She's not my counterpart.


Syria, Yemen and Regional Issues

Zarif: You're talking about Iranian behavior in the region. … Was it Iran that invaded Iraq? Or was it Iraq that invaded Iran? Or was it then the United States that invaded Iraq? Was it Iran that invaded Kuwait? I mean just look at our region. Who has... whose behavior is cause for concern?

When the United States wanted to go into Iraq, although Iraq was our enemy, we told them that if you enter Iraq, you will create a mess in this region. We told them that your expectations-- I mean that's one of the few instances when we talked to the United States. And I did talk to the United States. And I told them that your illusions about going to Iraq are just illusions. This won't happen. They went to Iraq and now they are complaining why Iran has become stronger because they went to Iraq. We told them not to go. …

We told them that when 35 percent of Syrian territory was controlled by the government that this conflict does not have a military solution, that you need to bring everybody to the political table. But your allies, I mean I'm sorry to say your, U.S. allies were the ones who were sitting on the table at the ISSG [International Syria Support Group] and when I was insisting that there is no military solution to the crisis in Syria, they were saying that, “We will with the help of God, remove Bashar al Assad either politically or militarily.” That was their illusion. It wasn't ours.

When we told Secretary [John] Kerry that we should put an end to the crisis in Yemen. Just days after it started, it wasn't Iran that prevented a solution to the crisis in Yemen. It was U.S. allies who were trying to achieve a military victory in order to push their own domestic careers who prevented a political solution.

So, whose behavior are we talking to? Whose mistakes are we talking to? Whose policies are we talking to?

Now, we have been pushing for a more prudent approach by the United States. The U.S. has made all the wrong choices with its allies. Is it our fault that we haven't made the wrong choices that they have? Is it our fault that we haven't made the wrong choices that Saudi Arabia has? Just look at the past 40 years. Tell me a single right choice that Saudi Arabia made. Supporting the Taliban. Supporting al Qaeda. Supporting Saddam Hussein. I mean, I'm not making it up.

Q: Iran is supporting a leader in Syria who has used chemical weapons against his own people and may have just used them again. Iran has the power to do something about that.

Zarif: No, we prevented Damascus of falling in the hands of ISIS. As we prevented Erbil from falling in the hands of ISIS. I don't know why all of you forget the fact that Iran also prevented Erbil from falling in the hands of ISIS.

Why don't you ever tell us why did you support the Kurds? None of you have come and said you supported Barzani. But you always say you supported Assad. We have prevented to the extent of our power ISIS, who was initially supported, financed and armed by your allies, to take over Baghdad, Erbil and Damascus. Now you comfortably and conveniently leave out Erbil, because it doesn't fall within this theory of Iran trying to create a Shia crescent.

Q: Why does it have to be one or the other with the side? Why can't you keep ISIS from falling and also send a message to Assad to check it?

Zarif: Because we live in a real world. And in that real world you need to fight ISIS and at the same time we need to push for respect for international humanitarian law. We are not there to defend anybody. We are there to defeat some people.

Q: You were in Syria long before ISIS emerged.

Zarif: No we were in Syria when other... you see ISIS is nothing new. ISIS is the continuation of what your allies in the region created in the form of al Qaeda. In the form of Abu Musab al Zarqawi. These are the forefathers of ISIS. I mean ISIS did not emerge out of the blue.

The mentality, the ideology of ISIS, the ideology of [Jabhat al] Nusra, has been pushed by the petrodollars of Saudi Arabia for the past 40 years. That's the ideology that is popping up everywhere. When you go to a mosque here in New York, if you are a Shia and don't pray like them, they kick you out. That's the ideology that has been promoted. And that's the ideology that needs to be fought. This is nothing new. It didn't start in 2014 when ISIS started taking over Iraq. It started long before that.

Q: But you were in Damascus to help Assad stay in power militarily, politically, financially and --

Zarif: That's your facts. Your narratives. The reality is that Iran prevented the falling of Damascus, Baghdad and Erbil into the hands of extremists. Is it our fault that we saw the realities in the region better than your people did? I mean we saw the realities.

The realities in our region, we are part of this region. I said in the [U.N.] Security Council in February of 2002 that the only outcome - 2003 - that the only outcome of a U.S. invasion of Iraq would be a rise in extremism. 2003, a month before United States invaded Iraq. So now I'm being blamed for what the United States did?

Q: It seems that there are forces and proxies in Syria that are being built as a kind of permanent presence in Syria with military infrastructure, with bases. Is the intention to have a permanent military infrastructure in order to point at Israel? Is the intention to have a permanent political structure with those same forces inside of Syria? And do you fear that if you are doing that, that could cause an Israeli reaction and then lead to war?

Zarif: The purpose of our presence in Syria is very clear and that is to defeat extremism. Period.

Q: So, we can go back and forth again. But there are Israeli, U.S., Western governments, intelligence pointing out that there is a lot more military infrastructure than before, that that infrastructure is being built to stay there after the war to defend Assad finishes. And I'm wondering what that is for. What is the longer-term strategy in Syria? Are you trying to have more of a presence in the Syrian Golan? Are you trying to deter … Israel. And are you risking a conflict with Israel?

Zarif: Well, as I said, the purpose of Iran's presence in Syria in terms of military advisors is to defeat extremists and terrorists who would be a threat to the entire international community. Unfortunately, each time they are defeated in the battle fronts, we see both in the political realm as well as in the military realm, actions in order to give them some moralities. Morale boost. Those actions have been taken by Israel, whose rather strange relations with some of these elements have been, well documented, but have been reported. And some by the United States.

We need to further investigate reports that we have received about relocation of ISIS fighters to specific, from battle zones in Syria and Iraq, to specific locations elsewhere in our region. I can't go into the details because these are classified intelligence we are working on. But we will share it with other countries, about how certain prominent ISIS fighters have been relocated. Rescued and relocated.

Q: When you say rescued do you mean by Israel?

Zarif: No.

Q: So is the logical conclusion even if you don't want to get into specifics of location that you need either your own forces, your own presence or proxy forces in those places in order to prevent extremism and terrorism from spreading. Is that the logical conclusion of that?

Zarif: No. Not really. As soon as the political process gets under the way. As soon as we have stability in Syria. As soon as we have an inclusive government and an end to terrorism then the reason for that would be over.

Q: Do you mean Turkey when you are saying relocated in the region?

Zarif: No, not Turkey. Not Turkey. Much more vulnerable countries in our region. I can't go into more detail.

Q: Does Iran commit to withdrawing from Syria once there is a political process underway and a transition?

Zarif: We commit that we will not stay when we are not needed.

Q: What about Assad? Does he need to stay as part of that transition or settlement?

Zarif: That's a decision that the Syrian people have to make. You see we've been saying from day one, that we should not decide for Syrians. We should allow Syrians to make that decision. What we should do is to facilitate the process of decision making by the Syrians.

Now the Syrians may make a decision that we may not like, but we need to commit ourselves to accept the will of the Syrian people. And in the Astana process, this is what we started. We don't see eye to eye with Turkey. We have our differences with Turkey. But we committed to reduce tension and to start a process that would lead eventually Syrians deciding about their future.

And that's the first instance of that was organized in Sochi, where a lot of Syrians came to Sochi, went to Sochi for a conversation, beginning of a conversation, among Syrians. I didn't see anybody in the West applauding that, because that was not the type of political solution that they were looking for. They were looking for a transition away from Assad because the West believed to be in a position to decide for the Syrian people what's best for them.

Q: In your analysis, given a political settlement, if you get to that point, do you see any possibility that Assad wouldn't be elected by the remaining voters in Syria?

Zarif: There's always the possibility that anybody wouldn't be elected.

Q: But the likelihood would be

Zarif: We don't know. We have to give them that chance. Those who are worried about an election should respond to your question.

Q: The OPCW [Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] has a team on the ground now in Syria, and if there is a finding following their visit that there were chemical weapons used and they were used by the Assad regime, what will Iran's --

Zarif: Iran has been categorical that we condemn the use of chemical weapons. Irrespective of perpetrators or the victims. That's a blanket statement that I can give you. I cannot... you see you are making a hypothetical case, I'm giving you a categorical answer. We'll wait and see for the results. But that is our position.

I know that some people don't like what I want to say, because that brings out bad memories for you, but for eight years, we were victims of chemical weapons. I know you are nodding your head because you know that I will say that. But it is important to remind you of the hypocrisy of the West. It is important, you should not forget the hypocrisy.

I went to the president of the [U.N.] Security Council, a permanent member in 1986, a permanent resident member, so that gives you three choices… and I told him that chemical weapons were being used against Iran. And he said I am not authorized by the Security Council to talk to you about that.

We had seven reports of the secretary general, the report that you are talking about, on-site inspections. Not the previous one. They never went to Khan Sheikhoun. ... And they just draw conclusions.

But seven on-site investigations by the secretary general of the United Nations, going to the war fronts, going to the cities, to the hospitals where Iranians had been subjects of chemical weapons. I brought some of the victims of chemical weapons here in New York for everybody to see them. Seven reports. Uncontested. And not a single statement of condemnation of Saddam Hussein for their use. Not a single one.

The first resolution against the use of chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein was issued after the end of our war. Now you want to tell me to believe that chemical weapons is the best redline? Tell that to any Iranian, they'll laugh at you.

Q: Do you believe Assad when he says that he's never used chemical weapons.

Zarif: I believe that unless there is on-site investigation we should look at the military realities. And based on those military realities, it is highly unlikely that it was needed. I'm sorry to use this terminology. But we know when people use chemical weapons, it's under desperation. And the two times, recent times, that Syria was accused of using chemical weapons, the other side was desperate. Not the government. But we rely on an on-site, impartial investigation.

Q: So you disregard …

Zarif: They didn't go to the region! …They just relied on evidence. What evidence? Evidence can be produced. Saddam Hussein was accusing Iran of using chemical weapons. I mean let me tell you a story.

In the beginning, Saddam Hussein just refused the allegations. But after several delegations came and confirmed that Iraq was using, then Saddam Hussein started saying, okay Iran is also using chemical weapons. So, when they went to the war fronts and they checked the evidence, some Iraqis had been subjected to chemical weapons. But doing an on-site investigation, they concluded the chemical weapons that the Iraqis had been subjected to were actually carried by wind because war fronts were so close.

That's what an on-site investigation, why an on-site investigation is necessary. People need to go there while the evidence is still there and investigate that evidence. But they relied on other sources. So, if they rely on other sources, why do we need an investigation. … This time, the United States and France and Britain are even relying on media reports. [I’m] not here to question the seriousness of media, but media is not qualified as impartial investigator of such a serious crime. We have an international body. We have institutional mechanisms to investigate.

So, I want to be very clear. If anybody has a redline on chemical weapons, it's us. And that is why after the first documented use of chemical weapons in 2013, we were the ones who sent experts to Syria to make sure that the Syria government disarmed itself. But at the same time, we made our concern known, that the armed groups also had chemical weapons and they had not been disarmed. We registered that concerned. Unfortunately, it was not taken that seriously.

Q: On Yemen, some of the U.N. experts have found that the missiles fired by the Houthis of Saudi Arabia were of Iranian origin. Iran says it is not supplying weapons to the Houthis, so how did the missiles end up there?

Zarif: Well, it was unfortunate that they issued that statement before they even coming to Iran. So, they put themselves in a very difficult position of making a statement before even talking to an Iran. But we made it very clear that the Yemenis have enough missiles, interestingly enough, probably bought with financial assistance from Saudi Arabia during the time of Ali Abdullah Saleh. Just like the weapons of Saddam Hussein. The weapons that he used against them and bought with their money.

Q: But just to be really clear, do you rule out that there are any Iranian missiles in Yemen from a previous time, as well as any new supply?

Zarif: There are no new supplies. I do not know of any missiles from previous times. I doubt that there would be any weapons of Iranian origin. It's impossible to carry them to Yemen under the very strict embargo that even prevents food and drugs from getting to Yemen.

But let me make a very clear statement. As long as there is a war going on, people commit find the means to defend themselves. If we want to stop this, we need to stop the war. And Iran has been prepared from day one to use whatever influence, and it’s not huge, if anybody knows Yemen, they know that no foreign country can exercise a controlling interest. But whatever influence that we have, we have been and we still are prepared to use it in order to end this unnecessary war. This war is not going to have a military solution. This war is not going to end in somebody winning the war. This war is not going to advance anybody's career.

So, the best thing to do is to end this war. They believed when we tried in March and April of 2015 to end the war and the United States did play a role. They believed they need three weeks to achieve military victory. Now we are into the fourth year. Million people with cholera. Tens of thousands of causalities. Almost the entire Yemeni people suffering from malnutrition. And no end in sight.

Q: Are you having any unofficial talks with the Europeans about this?

Zarif: We have official talks with the Europeans on this. We have official talks. We make it very clear. I invited the spokesperson of the Yemeni, of the Houthis, the first time I met them, the only time I met them, in order to ask him what are their conditions for a ceasefire and peace talks?

And then I sent our special representative to Brussels with our deputy foreign minister to discuss with the Europeans on ways and means to end this Yemeni nightmare. We have had serious discussions with them, with others, as we have had for the past four years, three years.

Q: Have you met with the new U.N. envoy? Or will you?

Zarif: He has not asked to come to Iran yet. I think he was in Sanaa. And we are encouraging the Yemenis to engage with him. And I think they did engage with him.

Q: If I could go back up to Syria and again focus on the current and future, it seems like this is a critical moment of tension between Iran and Israel. You had when Israel downs the armed drone coming in the end of February and the April strike on the T4 base. The Iranian military has vowed revenge. So, what's a proportionate response, in your opinion? But obviously as the foreign minister, are you worried about, you know, the tension right now? And are you worried about this leading to a larger conflict?

Zarif: Well, you see the problem in our region is that Israel attacks other countries, violates their airspace, violates their territory. And it has become routine. And it becomes news only when somebody shoots down an Israeli plane, basically destroying the myth of the invisibility of Israel. That's when all of this started. And all of this is an attempt to somehow resurrect that myth. I'll leave it there.

Q: Was the Iranian drone that was shot down by Israel, was it armed?

Zarif: We've said very clearly that we did not operate any drone in Israel. That statement was made by our military. I'm not in a position to make that statement. I rely on our military.

Q: Did it leave from the Iranian base?

Zarif: We do not have a base in Syria.

Q: The T4 doesn't exist? That's not Iranian?

Zarif: T4 does exist, but it is not an Iranian base. Iran does not have a military base in Syria.

Q: But you operate out of 36 different bases in Syria. There's a very --

Zarif: We have military advisors. Military advisors stay in the bases of their host country.

Q: But you've lost eight generals and they are not just military advisors. They are on the frontlines.

Zarif: Actually generals are military advisors. But military advisors don't stay home advising, they go to the frontlines advising. Why are you looking at me like this? That's the role of the military. The military people don't sit behind desks. They go to war fronts. Whatever you call them. You call them advisors. Whatever you call them, these are military people. They go to the warfront. They get killed.

Q: So, you're not denying that you operate out of three dozen bases.

Zarif: I do not know how many bases. … I do not know how many bases the Syrians have. But we may be in every base that we have because we have military advisors in Syria.

Q: Do you operate any drones out Syria?

Zarif: We do not operate drones out Syria.

Q : Have you given the Syrians any drones?

Zarif: That I don't know. They might have. I mean we have good military, beautiful military equipment that we also send to people.

Q: So you may have given a drone to the Syrians that operated it that was the one that was shot down by the Israelis?

Zarif: I do not know. Iranian drones are available. We have said- I mean you cannot go to Macy's and buy one if that's what you mean by the market. But Syria has Iranian military equipment that they purchase from us.

Q: Do you have an appreciation for the possibility of an unintended escalation with Israel, beyond arguing Iran's position of why you're in Syria. You know something could get out of control very quickly. Do you recognize how dangerous it is?

Zarif: That should be a concern for everybody. Particularly for those who take adventurous measures.

Q: But isn't that your concern as well? We aren't trying to have a debate about the nature of what's happening. We are just trying to acknowledge that, you know, we are on an odd number right now, there's a vow of revenge. Something is going to happen. What is that? And are you worried about

Zarif: You want to prevent things from happening, you got to ask American allies to refrain from thinking that they have a free hand in other people's territory.

Q: For a second let's just say that already happened.

Zarif: It didn't happen.

Q: Well also if you withdraw from the nuclear deal and start enriching again, doesn't that make the likelihood that there could be some complication?

Zarif: The problem is, Iran has been observing the deal and others are saying that if the United States were to walk away from the deal, that Iran would continue to observe the deal. This is what Netanyahu has been saying. At the same time, you want me to believe that if we walk out of the deal that you might attacked. So, ask him to not argue that if you walk out of the deal Iran will stay in the deal.

You see, my problem certain point in history, people said that Iran was two months away from building a bomb and that's why Israel should attack. Now they are saying Iran was never two months away from building a bomb. And you're saying again- and they are saying also that if Iran walks out of the deal it won't be racing towards a bomb. That's from your, if he gets confirmed, next secretary of state, and if he doesn't, current CIA director, who is supposed to know.

So, Mr. Pompeo, who seems to be a very close friend of Israel, can tell his friend Bibi Netanyahu, that these people are not racing towards bombs, so don't worry. You are telling us to walk away from the deal. You've been pushing everybody in the United States to walk away from the deal. So why are you so worried about Iran racing towards a bomb if we walked away from the deal? Iran won't be racing towards a bomb.

Q: Can I ask you one more question? The British ambassador to Tehran went to Najaf, I think it was this week or last week, with the British ambassador to Iraq, and spoke with these Shia leaders and said, you know, please communicate to Iran that the British, you know, don't lump us in with the American policy towards Iran. We're different. It seems like there is this campaign by the Europeans to maintain relations with Iran, even as the U.S. hardens its stance, and I was just wondering if you feel that too, that the Europeans are trying to preserve or carve out their own relationship with Iran, that is you know separate from the American growing animosity?

Zarif: Well the Europeans would like to continue their relations with Iran. And we would like to continue our relations with Europe. So, and we have made good progress, in our relations with Europe. And we intend to continue making progress in that realm. Of course, there are certain activities by Europeans that we do not approve of, including their arming of the region, including their unilateral action against a sovereign state in violation of international law. And there may be actions by us that they won't like. So that doesn't mean that we need to be concerned about a sudden change in the nature of our relations.


Iran's Missile Program

Q: You obviously have the Europeans on side when it comes to the JCPOA, but they have been very critical of Iran’s regional activities. One of the things that comes up again and again is Iran’s ballistic missile program. Can you talk about whether there are any scenarios under which you would give up your new 2000-kilometer range missiles? And have you any plans to develop a missile [with a range] beyond 2000 kilometers?

Zarif: Well, we never publicize our defense program. But the fact of the matter is, you look at the situation in our region. We live in a dangerous neighborhood, where the West, particularly the United States, had been pouring billions upon billions of dollars of beautiful military equipment into our region. And they believe that, I mean President Trump, it seems, believes that 100 and some $10 billion worth of purchases were peanuts, they need to even buy more. That’s the type of weapons they are pouring into our region.

Most sophisticated weapons are coming to our region in the hands of countries who have stated clearly that they want to bring chaos to Iranian territory. Now we need measures to deter them. And since the international community stayed aloof and quiet and supportive of the aggressor when we were being bombed and chemical weapons were being used against us, we can only rely on our own means.

Now, in terms of missiles, that’s one our defensive equipment. But neither the range nor the performance of our missiles are longer or more extensive than those that our neighbors have. So, it is basically a violation of our road to self-defense, which is recognized under the United Nations charter. To ask us to abandon our means defense, while other are being asked to buy even more.

Q: But the French and British don't see it that way. They are obviously putting a lot of pressure on you about this program. Are there any concessions that you--

Zarif: No, we will not make concessions, and I don’t think people can put pressure on Iran. As I’ve said in the past, we are allergic to pressure and threats.


Prisoners in Iran and in the United States

Q: No meeting with you should take place without raising the issue of dual nationals. Many of the people of nationalities here, British, American, others, Canadian, have people who are in prison in Iran under what we consider phony charges of espionage and various other things. I know you've said many times--

Zarif: We have people in prison in the United States who, not only we consider under phony charges, but your judge considers to be under phony charges.

Q: Their judge yelled at the prosecutors when you mentioned the --

Zarif: But they put the guy in jail. He is now lingering in jail.

Q: Ahmed Sheikh Sadiq. I see you saying this is just tit for tat that, you know, you take these people to have them to trade for people, Iranians in general.

Zarif: I'm sorry to be a bit harsh. What I am asking you not to take high moral authority. All I'm asking is to calm down and let's walk together. This, unfortunately, happens. Our judiciary is independent. We try to have an impact on that judiciary, on humanitarian rights.

Q: Not doing too well.

Zarif: I do not think those who are asking for extradition of an Iranian pregnant lady. And not even allowing her to get bathed in Australia to go and deliver her baby outside prison. And that's not the judiciary of the United States, that’s the government of the United States that is doing that.

An elderly man lingering in jail with diabetes in Germany. All of these are for technical violations of sanctions years ago. And even not proof of technical violations, but allegations of technical violations of sanctions. They are lingering in jails in Australia, in Spain, in Germany, in ... I mean anywhere you look, you have some Iranians in jail. And these are there on the request of the U.S. government.

People who are in jail in Iran were not put in jail by the Iranian government. They are there because charges were brought up against them by the judiciary. They were tried by the judiciary, and since we do not have any authority over our judiciary, we cannot tell you how the proceedings went. All we can tell you is that we have tried on humanitarian grounds to provide access to them. And we will continue to try on humanitarian grounds to see if what we did last time, a humanitarian exchange, could be possible.

Zarif: When you make allegations, you say they are there on bogus charges. I don't know. I don't know whether they are there on bogus charges because I'm not in a position to judge. Our judiciary is independent, and I believe that we need to have the minimum respect. I mean people are there in jail, they are accused of committing an offense. I mean, this guy who is in jail in New York is accused of talking to me. That's his crime.

Q: No, it was some kind of tax --

Q: He took money and he didn't report

Zarif: No, no. You know why they brought the charges against him. You've read the proceedings of them. I mean they offered him to spy on us and when he refused to do it, they found a technical tax charge.

Zarif: I mean this is not my judgment, this is your judge's judgment.

Q: You said something about you would try for another exchange...?

Zarif: I said, we have tried in the past to do a humanitarian exchange. None of that on-going right now.

Q: Has the Trump administration tried to approach you more recently about that?

Zarif: There has been approaches, but we have not sensed the necessary, mutual respect that would be required for such an operation.

Q: About that Namazis.

Zarif: Well about the general humanitarian issues.