Zarif on New Diplomacy with U.S.

Two days after President Biden’s inauguration, Foreign Minister Zarif called on the new Biden administration to take two major steps to renew diplomacy with Iran: remove all sanctions imposed during the Trump administration and reenter the 2015 nuclear deal “without altering its painstakingly negotiated terms.” Iran would then roll back its violations of the agreement, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), he wrote in an article for Foreign Affairs

ZarifIran’s top diplomat also ruled out expanding the scope of the original deal, brokered jointly by the world’s six major powers, to include Iran’s ballistic missiles. Western policymakers “would do well to remember that as a powerful player in the region, Iran has legitimate security concerns, rights, and interests—just as any other nation does,” he wrote. Tehran was willing to discuss regional problems with its Persian Gulf neighbors, but not under the direction or sponsorship of the United States or its European allies.

On February 1, Zarif proposed a mechanism to break a deadlock over how compliance for compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal could work. He suggested that Josep Borrell, the E.U. foreign policy chief and the coordinator of the deal’s Joint Commission, could “choreograph” U.S. and Iranian actions. 

Yet Iran still has fundamental policy differences with the United States, notably on the Arab-Israeli conflict. “In my personal opinion, we should define our relationship with the United States: To tell the U.S. that ‘we will not cooperate with you on the issue of Israel and we will disagree with you,” Zarif told Etemad daily on January 23. “We have no problem working with you on the question of oil. We have no problem with ensuring the security of the Persian Gulf, though we believe that foreign presence in the Persian Gulf causes insecurity and you should not be there.” 

Between the election and the inauguration, Zarif had repeatedly said that Iran would respond in kind to a U.S. initiative. “If Mr. Biden signs an executive order, we will sign one too,” he said in an interview on January 12. Biden administration officials insist that Iran must roll back its breaches in the 2015 accord, which began as a tit-for-tat response to the Trump administration’s imposition of hundreds of sanctions. Iran has insisted that the United States must honor its obligations under the nuclear deal, which Trump abandoned in 2018, by lifting sanctions. One fundamental issue in renewing diplomacy will be which country moves first. The following is a breakdown of what Zarif has said since Biden took office and in the interim between the election and the inauguration. 


After Biden's Inauguration 


Remarks in an online video on Feb. 9: "With a new administration in Washington, there is an opportunity to try a new approach. But the current window is fleeting. Soon, my government will be compelled to take further remedial action in response to the American and European dismal failure to live up to their commitments under the nuclear deal. This remedial action—as directed by our Parliament, and in accordance with our rights within the JCPOA—entails an enhancement of our nuclear program and a reduction in our cooperation with IAEA inspectors. It can be averted only if the United States decides to learn from Trump’s maximum failure rather than lean on it.

"Iran has time and again proven its readiness for engagement and cooperation toward shared goals and objectives with our neighbors. Our consistent aim in all our endeavors has been to build a more stable, peaceful and prosperous region, and we have proposed initiatives in this regard.

"I hope that our neighbors will have learned that they cannot bank on outsiders to provide them with security. We need to rely on each other, as geography promises that we will remain neighbors forever.

"We Iranians do what we say. And most importantly, we always keep our word. On the anniversary of our revolution, I reiterate Iran’s invitation to make use of the current window of opportunity to embrace dialogue, and do away with the futile hostility towards the Iranian people."

Interview with CNN on Feb. 7, 2021: “Well, the United States needs to lift the sanctions, not waive them. The U.S. needs to remove the sanctions. And compensation was never a pre-condition.

“We said that we will discuss that once the United States is back in the deal, and that is for a very clear reason.

“The deal or any international agreement is not a revolving door. They cannot simply come and go as they please. So the United States must make it clear and must give guarantees to Iran and other members of the deal that the behavior of President Trump will not be repeated.

“Because the international community has suffered enough from the lawlessness of somebody who acts on a whim. You've seen what has happened in the United States, you've seen what has happened in Congress. The people of Iran have felt that for four very, very long years. We're not prepared to feel that again.”

Question: “Your ambassador to the United Nations said that the window is closing for Iran to rejoin the deal. Can you give me a timeline, what does that mean? How long is Iran willing to wait before there is an even more substantial departure from the deal?”

Zarif: “Well, we have a statutory requirement to reduce the presence of U.N. inspectors, not to simply -- not to completely finish it but to reduce the presence of U.N. inspectors on somewhere around February 21st. I think what will happen then is that you will not see the additional protocol implemented in Iran.

“That doesn't mean the window is fully shut because if the United States and its partners return to the deal, return to full compliance, Iran will reverse its actions. All the actions we are taking are reversible.

“But, obviously, it would be much simpler if the United States decided to make good on its commitments earlier rather than later.

“And it is good for the United States' reputation. Because President Trump not only destroyed the reputation of the United States domestically but he destroyed the reputation of the United States internationally. So the sooner the current administration returns to international obligations, the sooner it can start rebuilding its reputation across the globe.”

Question: “Just very quickly, though. So is the ballistic missile issue non-negotiable, it's a nonstarter?”

Zarif: “The entire nuclear deal is non-negotiable because it was fully negotiated. We need to implement something that we negotiated; we do not buy the horse twice.

“You put yourselves in our shoes. You agreed to a deal, you agreed to give and take. You agreed to sacrifice certain demands that you had because you agreed not to deal with certain issues.

“For instance, we agreed that the limitations on arms purchases and deliveries for Iran would last for another five years, we just ended in October. That cannot be reinvented or renegotiated. The time is gone. We waited for five years.

“The United States did not implement the deal but we did implement the deal, and we did fulfill our promises and we are going to fulfill our promises again if the United States fulfills its promises.

“Let's start with something that we agree. We agreed on the JCPOA, the United States should start making good on its promises that it violated for very, very long year for Iranians.

“You know that the Iranians were deprived of food and medicine during Trump administration, despite all the lies that they told American people.”

Interview with CNN on Feb. 1, 2021: “The United States needs to come back into compliance, and Iran will be ready, immediately, to respond. The timing is not the issue. The issue is whether the United States, whether the new administration wants to follow the old policies, the failed policies of the Trump administration or not.”

“The United States has to accept what we agreed upon. We decided not to agree upon certain things, not because we neglected them, but because the United States and its allies were not prepared to do what was necessary. Is the United States prepared to stop selling arms to our region? If it wants to talk about our defense, we spent a seventh of Saudi Arabia on defense with two and a half times its population. Is the United States prepared to reduce hundreds of billions of dollars of weapons that it's selling to our region?”

“Clearly, there can be a mechanism to basically either synchronize it or coordinate what can be done. As you know, JCPOA has a mechanism built into the deal. That is the joint commission, and the joint commission has a coordinator. … Now it is Josep Borrell. He has two hats. One hat is his high representative of the European Union for foreign defense policy. The other hat is the coordinator of the joint commission. He can put his hat as the coordinator of the joint [commission] and sort of choreograph the actions that are needed to be taken by the United States and the actions that are needed to be taken by Iran.”


Op-ed in Foreign Affairs Jan. 22, 2021

“The incoming Biden administration can still salvage the nuclear agreement, but only if it can muster the genuine political will in Washington to demonstrate that the United States is ready to be a real partner in collective efforts. The administration should begin by unconditionally removing, with full effect, all sanctions imposed, reimposed, or relabeled since Trump took office. In turn, Iran would reverse all the remedial measures it has taken in the wake of Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal. The remaining signatories to the deal would then decide whether the United States should be allowed to reclaim the seat at the table that it abandoned in 2018...That return to the table will be jeopardized if Washington or its EU allies demand new terms for a deal that was already carefully constructed through years of negotiations.”


In an interview with Etemad daily on Jan. 23, 2021

“In my personal opinion, we should define our relationship with the United States: To tell the U.S. that ‘we will not cooperate with you on the issue of Israel and we will disagree with you.’”

Iran “will not allow you to interfere in its internal affairs, but we have no problem working with you on the question of oil. We have no problem with ensuring the security of the Persian Gulf, though we believe that foreign presence in the Persian Gulf causes insecurity and you should not be there.”

“The Supreme Leader has said this is a test. If it proves successful, then we might approach other matters in the same way.”

“Iran and the United States are two different entities. We represent a civilization, but the United States wants to convert us into something else. America does not represent a civilization but believes in American Exceptionalism. This is what brings America face to face with Iran. I don't believe in causing tensions, but I believe we should protect and preserve our identity.”



After the November 2020 Election

In an interview with on Jan. 12, 2021

Zarif: “After the Americans withdrew from the JCPOA, they restored previous sanctions and also intensified sanctions under new names and titles. Therefore, the mere return of the U.S. to the JCPOA will not suffice. … Instead of saying that it will enforce the terms in the JCPOA precisely, the U.S. should lift the sanctions.”

“Practical steps include the normalization of Iran’s economic relations with the world. This means a resolution to all the measures that the U.S. has adopted that have caused Iran’s economic relations to become limited in scope. We have nothing to do with the U.S.

“However, if we want to enter into the details, they should remove the restrictions imposed on the sale of our oil. There are customers for Iran’s oil, but the Americans have prevented customers from buying Iran’s oil with their methods that involve aggression and pressure. Well, this should be stopped as well. Our banking relations should return to their previous state. The contracts that we had with various companies should be respected. Our banking branches should be restored to their previous state. They should also eliminate the problems they have caused for our transportation and insurance systems.

“In other words, that which exists in the second part of the JCPOA stresses the results from the actions taken. Mr. Biden is not just obliged to sign a document. The signature is necessary, but it is only one of the necessary conditions. The main condition is that we must see the results from the US actions. This has been stressed in the JCPOA, and also in the documents concerning the commitments of the EU and the US. What we have been telling the Europeans over the past four years is that although they have signed certain agreements and have lifted certain sanctions, the people of Iran have not seen any result. What the people of Iran see at the present time is that some European companies have left the country. These are the results that we are talking about.

“As for the issue of compensation, the Leader of the Islamic Revolution has said in his meetings with us and also in his public speeches that the issue of compensations is one that should be discussed in subsequent stages. It must truly become clear that the JCPOA is not a revolving door that you can enter from one side and exit from the other. After all, there are certain regulations for international relations. US actions have caused the people of Iran to sustain losses. Therefore, in later phases one of the issues that we will definitely bring up is the abuses they may try to do again, and so we will want to prevent such measures from being adopted by the US again. We should not forget that 50 Chinese companies were sanctioned by Mr. Trump over the past four years and our partners sustained losses as well. These losses should also be compensated for.”

“As I announced earlier, the public and private statements of the Leader of the Revolution are the same. He had said the same thing to us before. On the basis of his guidelines, we implemented the policy of “Manifesto for manifesto, signature for signature and action for action.” If they wish to return to the JCPOA and if they fulfill their commitments, we will fulfill ours as well. If Mr. Biden signs an executive order, we will sign one too. Whenever he puts it into action, we will put ours into action as well. These are stages that have become completely clarified, and they are not just orders. It is the US which has withdrawn from the agreement and must fulfill its commitments. As the Leader of the Revolution stated, return to the JCPOA is not the main issue. Rather, the main issue is fulfilling commitments.

Question: “If the two sides of the JCPOA wish to introduce new terms for lifting sanctions, what will our position be?”

Zarif: “They have no right whatsoever to do so. First of all, the JCPOA basically dealt with the nuclear issue in Iran, and it had nothing to do with missiles. Even if the United Nations Security Council resolution has mentioned missiles, it means missiles equipped with nuclear warheads. When Iran does not have nuclear weapons, then missiles equipped with nuclear warheads does not make sense either. Therefore, such terms are irrelevant. Besides, this is one of our red lines. Secondly, when the other side of the JCPOA sold weapons worth over 100 billion dollars to regional countries, they are not in a position to ask us to give up our weapons of defense. When they brought up this issue, we told them that missiles had nothing to do with the JCPOA. We also asked them, “Are you ready to stop selling your weapons to regional countries? Are regional countries ready to bring their military spending to the same level as Iran’s?”

“The Americans have a proverb that says, ‘What is mine is mine, but what is yours can be negotiated.’ If they are applying this to others, they should come to realize that they will never be able to apply this to Iran, which is the oldest nation in the world.”


At the Rome Mediterranean Dialogues on Dec. 3, 2020

“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.... 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 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.”

“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.”


Interview Entekhab on Nov. 30, 2020

“The relationship between an Iranian agent and an American senator is not a friendly one and can be described as a work-related one.”

“These relations cannot even be called personal and good; rather, they can be described as professional relations based on mutual respect.”

“When I was Iran’s representative to the U.N., I had several meetings with Biden at a specialized level. Biden surely has a different view toward foreign policy from that of Trump.” 

“Biden has had a role in the United States’ foreign policy arena since 1970 and is more familiar with foreign policy than Trump is, but this does not mean that his stances are acceptable. We should note that Biden’s positions reflect the U.S. government’s approach anyway.”

“The U.S. government will definitely have fundamental problems with the Islamic Republic of Iran during the Biden administration as did Obama. During Obama’s presidency, relations between Tehran and Washington were not friendly, either, and there were differences to some extent; however, part of unnecessary tensions between the two sides had subsided. But during Trump’s presidency, tensions between Iran and the U.S. were at their highest in 40 years. It seems there is no need for this trend to continue.”


Tweet from Nov. 18, 2020


Interview with Iran on Nov. 17, 2020

“If Mr. Biden is willing to fulfill U.S. commitments, we too can immediately return to our full commitments in the accord... and negotiations are possible within the framework of the P5+1 (six world powers in the accord).”

“We are ready to discuss how the United States can re-enter the accord.” 

“The situation will improve in the next few months. Biden can lift all sanctions with three executive orders.”

“This can be done automatically, and with no need to set conditions: the United States carries out its duties under (Security Council Resolution) 2231 (lift sanctions) and we will carry out our commitments under the nuclear deal.”