Zarif on Nuclear Deal, Prisoner Exchanges

On December 3, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that Iran would return to full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal if the United States formally rejoined the historic accord that President Trump abandoned in May 2018. But Iran will never renegotiate the deal, he said. “The United States must cease its violations of international law, it doesn’t require any negotiations,” he told a virtual conference hosted by the Mediterranean Dialogues initiative. 

In language that suggested Iran was seeking diplomatic solutions to escalating tensions, Zarif also said that Tehran was willing to engage in a prisoner exchange. “It is in the interest of everybody,” he said. At least three Americans and several other people who have dual nationality, between Iran and Western countries, are detained in Iran. Zarif alleged that Iranians were being held “illegally” in Africa, Europe and the United States. On November 26, British-Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert was released in exchange for three Iranians imprisoned in Thailand for a botched 2012 bomb plot allegedly targeting Israeli diplomats. 

During the campaign, President-elect Joe Biden pledged to reenter the nuclear deal if Iran came into compliance. Tehran abided by its obligations for a year but as the Trump administration ratcheted up its “maximum pressure” campaign, especially through punitive economic sanctions, Iran began incremental breaches in July 2019 to pressure European countries to offset U.S. sanctions. As of November 2020, Iran had amassed 12 times the amount of low-enriched uranium – which could be reprocessed and enriched further to a higher purity that could fuel a nuclear bomb – permitted by the nuclear deal.

Zarif’s remarks came a day after the Iranian parliamentary and the powerful Guardian Council approved a law ordering the government to immediately begin enriching uranium to 20 percent from 4.5 percent. It also mandated President Rouhani’s government to terminate U.N. inspections of its nuclear program unless the United States lifted sanctions by February.

The Rouhani administration opposed the legislation but pledged to implement it, Zarif said. He stressed that Iran would not carry out additional breaches of its obligations if the United States and Europe came back into compliance. “The remedy is very easy,” he said. “Go back to full compliance, normalize Iran's economic relations with the rest of the world, stop making new conditions, stop making outrageous demands.” Zarif claimed that Iran should be compensated $250 billion for financial losses suffered after the Trump Administration reimposed economic sanctions in November 2018. The following are Zarif’s remarks from the 2020 Rome Mediterranean Dialogues arranged by topic.


Nuclear Deal

“On the United States rejoining the nuclear agreement, the United States walked out of the nuclear agreement but did not walk out of the United Nations. It has responsibilities, obligations as a U.N. member, as a Security Council member. And there is a Security Council resolution, 2231, which the United States must observe as a permanent member of the Security Council. The United States has been in grave breach of that resolution because the Trump administration has been a rogue regime.

“Now, if President-elect Biden wants to continue to be a rogue regime, then you can continue to be asking for negotiations to implement its commitments. The United States has commitments under the resolution, which it has to implement. It's not in a position to set conditions for that. You do not set conditions to stop at the red light. If the previous car passed the red light, that's a violation. That's not a law-abiding citizen. You're not supposed to follow that. The United States must stop. The United States must cease its violations of international law. It doesn't require any negotiations.”

“We will not renegotiate a deal which we negotiated. The deal was about give and take. It wasn't about one side asking and the other side giving. The fact is that the United States and other European partners started with 20 plus 10. They wanted 20 plus 10 years of restrictions. Iran started with none. We agreed somewhere in the middle, 10 plus a few more. This was the subject of two years of negotiations. It will never be renegotiated, period, because that's a sign, a clear case of bad faith. If you want to negotiate something, and if you didn't get anything you wanted, you would want to renegotiate.” 

“The JCPOA provides for Iran not implementing in whole or in part its obligations in return for the other side not implementing or in reprisal or in retaliation or as a remedy for, whichever way you want to use it. But because JCPOA was negotiated based on mutual mistrust, we put in place a mechanism that if one side does not live up to its obligations, the other side can in fact reduce its commitment or withdraw together. 

“Now, what Iran has done is since the United States withdrew from the agreement and imposed heavy restrictions on Iran, President Trump has called it economic war. He called it several times economic war, which is a crime against humanity because he is targeting ordinary Iranian citizens. The Europeans have not been able to implement their part of the deal. The Europeans say that we have we are in full compliance. They are simply not, because compliance with the JCPOA, based on the letter of the JCPOA, is not simply passing a couple of legislations or suspending or removing a couple of legislations. 

“Implementation, compliance, means that they have to have effects for these actions. And we don't see any effect. We don't see any European company in Iran. We do not see any European country buying oil from Iran. We do not see any country, for that matter, buying oil from Iran. We do not see any European bank even prepared to send us our money. 

“One of the members of the JCPOA has a court order to pay Iran several hundred million pounds. But they are refusing to do that because they say that they cannot transfer the money because of U.S. sanctions. So, the Europeans cannot claim that they are implementing the JCPOA. So, we are within our rights to reduce our commitment, and that has been the decision taken by the government over a year ago.” 

“The United States must implement, without precondition, its obligations under the JCPOA as required by Security Council Resolution 2231. It doesn't have to be a member of JCPOA to implement obligations under Article 25 of the charter as a member of the United Nations, let alone a permanent member of the Security Council.

“Then Iran, once the United States to implement its obligations because we were not the country that withdrew. It is the United States that withdrew. It has to show its good faith. It has to show its bona fides. We have proven in our bona fides in 15 consecutive reports of the IAEA, including five that were issued after President Trump's withdrawal from the JCPOA. So, our bona fides are very clear. The United States needs to reestablish its bona fides. It never established it. It needs to even establish its bona fides for the first time. And then Iran will go back to full compliance.
“I'm repeating. Full compliance with the JCPOA, with or without this new legislation, because this new legislation is intended to bring the Europeans and the United States back into compliance. Once they are in compliance, the intent of the legislation is served, and we will be meeting our obligations. Then the United States can rejoin the JCPOA. Members of the JCPOA will have to make a decision on how this can be done and what steps need to be taken.

“As I've said before, the JCPOA or any international agreement is not a revolving door. It's not that you can come in, impose restrictions on others, benefit from the privileges of membership, and then all of a sudden decide to leave and inflict $250 billion of damage on the Iranian people. And an enormous number of lives that we have lost during this pandemic because of the fact that we did not have access to the best quality of medicine because we did not have access to financial resources that were necessary for us to impose, for instance, a full lockdown, because a full lockdown requires a lot of resources. Iran is a rich country. We were able to put a full lockdown, but we were not able to do that only, and I stress, only because of U.S. restrictions on U.S. economic war. So, the United States is responsible for all these damages that it has imposed on the Iranian people, most of it irreparable. We will have to be satisfied that this is not repeated.”


Parliamentary Legislation on Nuclear Program

On December 1, the Iranian parliament passed a law requiring an escalation in production of uranium enrichment, the fuel for a nuclear weapon and peaceful energy. It also called for ending U.N. inspections if oil and banking sanctions were not lifted within a month. On December 2, the Guardian Council passed a modified version of the law. The Council extended the deadline to lift sanctions from one to two months. The resolution demanded that the government begin enriching uranium up to 20 percent immediately.

“The government was not in support of the action by the parliament. We believe that the national sentiment and national sensitivities are very serious, and we believe that the murder, assassination, terrorist act against one of our respected scientists, Dr. Fakhrizadeh, was an act of international aggression which had to be condemned. We are still waiting for Europe, for some European members, certainly the E3 (Britain, France and Germany) to condemn it. We appreciate that some have, but the three have failed to condemn a clear act of terrorism against Iran.

“So, this is where we stand. There is a legislation in the parliament. We did not like it. And we made it very clear. But like any democracy, when that legislation goes through all the legal procedures -- and it is it has almost completed those legal and constitutional procedures -- it becomes law. It becomes an obligation for the government to implement, and we will implement because it is the law of the land. 

“Now, it's not irreversible. The title of the legislation is to restore Iranian rights and to make sure the sanctions are removed. The Europeans and the United States can, in fact, come back into compliance with the JCPOA and not only this law will not be implemented, but in fact, our actions that we have taken in light of paragraph 36 of the JCPOA will be rescinded. We will go back to full compliance. 

“The remedy is very easy, and the remedy is foreseen in the JCPOA. Go back to full compliance, normalize Iran's economic relations with the rest of the world, stop making new conditions, stop making outrageous demands. And as soon as you do that, as soon as you come back to the letter of the JCPOA, let alone its spirit, come back to the letter of the JCPOA, and we will immediately do that. 

“In the meantime, the legislation by the parliament, if it becomes the law of the land, we will implement it. We have no other option. That is the case in any democracy.”


Regional Security

“The issue of missiles and the issue of regional security were deliberately put aside by all sides [in the talks that led to the 2015 nuclear deal], not because they gave a concession to Iran, but because the other sides were not prepared to end their malign behavior in these areas.

“Look at the issue of weapons. Last year, the West sold to the Persian Gulf more weapons than it sold to any other part of the world. Over one hundred billion dollars’ worth of weapons were sold to this region. Is the West ready to stop this malign behavior?

“The West supported the war in Yemen. The West supported the annexations, not officially, but in fact, the annexations of Palestinian lands. The West supported Israeli terrorism. Why is Israel committing acts of terror against Iran, including the terror of our nuclear scientists last week inside Iran, without condemnation, without consequences from the West?

“So, is the West ready to stop its malign behavior in our region? Because they were not ready to deal with that, we decided to put those issues aside. When they are ready to deal with those problems of their own malign behavior in the region. When means the United States, when the U.K., when France, when Germany are ready to put an end to their malign support for a terrorist regime, for violations of human rights in Yemen, for cracking down on people, for the dismemberment of a journalist in Turkey by their very close ally, Saudi Arabia, then they can start talking about other things. As long as they're not able to put up, they have to shut up.”

“Ask them [European leaders], are they willing to put a limit on defense spending at the same level as Iran? Are they willing to send the same amount of weapons to Saudi Arabia, UAE or other countries in the region to the level that we are making. If they're willing to do that, then they can start talking about Iran.”

“Ask him [Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister] if he is willing to bring his country's military expenditure to a sixth, to a seventh. They are spending $67 billion on arms. Last year, our total military budget was $10 billion. Are they willing to cut their military spending to almost 15 percent if they want to equate with us?”

“Our proposal for the Hormuz Peace Endeavor has been on the table. Unfortunately, it is the blank check that the United States has given to its allies and its clients in the region that has prevented restoration of peace and stability in our region. We have extended an open hand to all our neighbors in this region to start engaging. Members of the P4+1 who have raised the same suggestion -- like Russia, like China --they've suggested that Iran and its neighbors should start talking together, should start engaging with each other. The countries in the region, once they understand that there will not be a blank check from President Trump and company, then they will accept to start talking to Iran to start addressing mutual grievances.

“Believe me, Iran has huge grievances about the past and present. From the time that [the United States and Western countries engaged] in supporting Saddam Hussein to gas our people with chemical weapons, to shower our people with missiles, to the present when they are financing every terrorist organization that is operating in Iran. Huge grievances by Iran, but we have an open eye and open ear.

“We can listen to their grievances. But we suggest to them that we should all be forward looking. We should look at the future. We should discuss the future. We should talk about what we can do together in order to save our region from a disaster that has been caused by four years of the Trump administration.”

“We need to realize that times have changed, that today we either live together or die together. We cannot live at the expense of each other. We need to make a cognitive transformation. Deterrence doesn't make sense anymore. You cannot have security at the expense of the insecurity of others.

“We need to change our paradigm. Some call this a realistic paradigm, the one that we have been living under. But is it realistic to have so many people killed? Is it realistic to have such huge humanitarian catastrophes and continue to stick to this so-called realistic paradigm?

“I think we can change. I think the global situation has changed. We live in a changed global environment. We live in a global environment where the human being, an individual, has become a global actor and individuals can have a global impact. That brings with it responsibility. That brings with it a need to have hope for the future, but at the same time to work for the future.”


Prisoner Exchanges

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not have a standing in Iranian courts, but we will gain standing once there is a possibility for an exchange. I have suggested a global exchange of Iranian prisoners. Last week, in two different channels, we received three Iranian prisoners. We can always engage in that. It is in the interest of everybody. There are Iranian prisoners in Europe illegally. There are Iranian prisoners in the United States illegally. There are Iranian prisoners in Africa who have been ordered by the court to be released. But because of pressure from the United States, they continue to be in detention. All of them can go back to their families, and Iran is ready to reciprocate. We can do it tomorrow. We can even do it today.”


COVID-19 Pandemic

“The situation in Iran is pretty bad with our third wave hitting us during the during the autumn season, where we have other viruses coming like influenza. Our medical personnel are doing their best. We have extremely competent medical professionals. But the load has been too heavy for too long, and it is exhausting.

“Unfortunately, we're suffering from something more than the rest of the world is, and that is an economic war. This is way beyond restrictions. The United States even prevents us from using our own money in different countries to pay COVAX for the vaccine. If they say otherwise, they're simply lying. We've been trying, our Ministry of Health has been trying, our central bank has been trying to transfer money we have in billions in other countries to WHO for COVAX. And we haven't had much success. That has hampered our effort to fight the disease, and that, in every definition of the word, is a crime against humanity being committed by the Trump administration in its last days.”