Abdollahian in New York on Foreign Policy

On September 24, new Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with Western reporters during the opening week of the U.N. General Assembly. In one session, only his opening remarks were on the record. In another interview with MSNBC, he provided more detailed comments on Tehran’s foreign policy under President Ebrahim Raisi. 

Amir-Abdollahian was nominated foreign minister
Hossein Amir Abdollahian

Iranian foreign policy follows a series of fundamentals. The way this administration executes policy may differ slightly, but the foundations remain the same, which is what is best for the system and nation based on respect and responsibility. We believe in independence in foreign policy and respecting territorial integrity. Without a doubt, we never meddle in the internal affairs of another country and never allow another nation to meddle in our country. These are the fundamentals. 

We have priorities, and principle among them is to have a balanced pursuit of foreign policy. We underline this principle: balanced foreign policy. For contact with all countries around the world, we have set agendas. The only country that carries no legitimacy and no relationship will ever be established is the fake Israeli regime. We do not recognize this regime as legitimate. On the destructive actions and policies of this regime in our region, we have precise positions. 

As far as diplomatic relationships, those are separate ties. However, as far as people-to-people contact in the arenas of science and research and the field of medicine, subject-matter experts, people-to-people exchanges have happened and will continue.

As far as the United States of America is concerned, our position is: it is one to watch. We will formulate positions based on the actions of President Biden and U.S. officials, not only based on the paradoxical statements that we have received from the U.S. government about the JCPOA [nuclear deal]. The Americans, on one hand, keep insisting on a return to the JCPOA and, on other hand, ask Iran to return to the table of negotiations. But Biden’s administration is – at the same time – standing up new sanctions against Iran. This is not a constructive message for Tehran. All the while we have stated our clear and unambiguous policies, since the inauguration of the new administration, especially about the JCPOA. During the meeting with [European negotiator] Enrique Mora, held in the hall of ceremony of the inauguration, I told him that Iran will not distance itself from negotiations. We see negotiations as essential. Iran recognizes negotiation as legitimate on the return of all sides fulfilling their obligations. This is an issue that is a foundation of our view of the negotiations – the return of all parties to full commitments. 

In another positive action during the last few weeks, we expressed support for the visit of [IAEA chief Rafael] Grossi to Iran, which resulted in a positive agreement with the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. However, in New York, I wish to share with media representatives that from the White House we keep receiving diplomatic and other contradictory messages. The administration in Iran is action-oriented. For us, the measure of the U.S. is important. 

More important than that is the commitment and the fulfillment by American officials to the terms of an agreement that they entered into. This cannot be on the one hand that America talks about a return to negotiations, all the while criticizing President Trump’s policies on Iran. As an example, we received message several times from channels: the U.S. officials say that – had we been in charge then – we would not have issued the command to assassinate [Qods Force General Qassem] Soleimani. He had a vital role in the fight against ISIS. Despite all these media message from the U.S., Biden keeps close to his heart the thick file of sanctions against Iran, even while seemingly pursuing negotiations and leveling new sanctions. We expect the U.S. to issue transparent and clear messages without contradictions. But more important than messages is comportment, the behavior of U.S. officials. This behavior can set a course of a return to the JCPOA. 

From the time that Biden took over the reins of power, we have not sensed or received any fact-based action. In the last few months, we have been unable to access our own funds in Korean and Japanese banks to import COVID-19 vaccines and equipment to save the lives of our people. We had requested a repayment from the British government from 42 years ago within that agreement, and suddenly the U.S. government has asked the British government to stop the action – to stop issuing payment for the long-held debt. We cannot access or use our own resources even for the purchase of specialized medication for chronically ill children. This is all due to orders issued and sanctions levied unilaterally by the U.S. Over the last few months, we have not seen an iota of positive action by the U.S. 

Iran will return to the negotiations. We are currently reviewing the Vienna file negotiations. Very soon, the negotiations will recommence, because we see the constructive type of negotiations that will lead to tangible results. 

In Iran, we are seeking the best type of relationships with neighboring countries. There have been good conversations between Tehran and Riyadh. We offered dynamic proposals to end the war in Yemen. We seek progress and development of Iraq, maintaining constructive relations with all countries, and also a special look toward the Asian countries, simultaneously with (focusing on) our neighbors. We have a balanced for policy and active (ties) with all countries. 

Naturally, foreign relations take shape due to interests. The U.S. must once and for all do away and rethink the destructive and wrong policies toward the Islamic Republic. Iran has a long history and civilization, so the U.S. must speak with a civilized tongue, not the language of threats and sanctions. The language of threats will not work against the great people of Iran. Our expectation is that U.S. officials, in a realistic fashion, would support negotiations and the JCPOA rather than [use] empty but beautiful words. They should take positive and measurable action. They should have no doubt that to continue previous comportment, the hands of Iran will not remain tied. 

 

Interview with NBC News

I want to ask you about your meetings with European officials here in New York. European officials have been urging you to return to the nuclear talks, and the president said this week that Iran would return to the talks within weeks. Is that a firm commitment?

We have had constructive dialogues with some of the officials of certain European countries, including Germany, Great Britain. We have constructive talks. They asked me during what timeframe would you anticipate Iran returning to the negotiations and whether Iran really intends to return to the negotiations. And I explained to them, we are currently undergoing a review process of the files of the previous rounds of negotiations, particularly the last few rounds in Vienna, and in the fact that we see negotiations as an important tool in the arsenal of diplomacy. There is no doubt about that. Our decision is to return to the table of negotiations and under very strict timeframes. We are reviewing, as I said, the results of the previous rounds of talks in Vienna. And I do believe that quickly we will be able to return to the table of negotiations.

However, the fundamental question should be this, what negotiation? My government is a new government. One of the unique points about the new administration in Tehran is that we are action oriented. Negotiations will not be for the sake of negotiations within the framework of our actions and results-oriented policies.

We do not have the opportunity nor the time to sit in meetings simply to drink coffee with one another. What is important for us are tangible results, results that guarantee the rights and the benefits of the Iranian nation. And this is dependent upon the goodwill and the behavior of our counterpart.

 

Secretary Blinken said that time is not indefinite for the two sides to reach mutual compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, the original deal, and that there could come a time where so much progress would be made by Iran that it would be irreversible. So when do you think your review might be completed? Can you project how quickly you might return to the talks and would you pick it up where they left off?

I believe that the administration of President Biden, almost within the first 90 days of taking the reins of power in the White House, had no intention toward the JCPOA. And I did say this to our European colleagues. Did you ask President Biden why he had let this much time elapse without thinking about the negotiations? So the reality of the matter is that for years we have not obtained any benefits from the JCPOA. However, we are reviewing seriously, and we are assessing. And I can tell you that we have had many meetings. And we will keep the window of diplomacy and negotiations open, and we will very soon return to the negotiations.

The U.S. side has wanted direct talks. Iran was insisting on indirect talks. Do you think it's time to have direct talks so that you can better assess what the administration wants for yourself?

I do believe that Mr. Biden's administration has not been able as of yet to give the feeling to the Iranian party whether they have a serious intention to return to the JCPOA, number one. And then if they return to the JCPOA, to the negotiations, do they intend to return to their commitments? We are witnessing a paradoxical type of behavior from the American officials in charge at the moment. One day they will request for us to return quickly to the 4+1 negotiations. On another day, they say that we are ready and willing to conduct bilateral negotiations. They say we are ready to return to the fulfillment of our commitments. However, there is no action taken in order to show and prove their true to the new Iranian administration, to the Iranian nation.

And worse than that, simultaneously, they have managed to put on new sanctions. In other words, President Biden was and is criticizing the behavior of his predecessor, Mr. Trump, vis-a-vis Iran. But at the same time, the volume of the file of sanctions that Mr. Trump built against Iran is being carried carefully by Mr. Biden.

So if you are seriously pursuing negotiations, what is the meaning of piling up new sanctions? This is a negative signal to Iran. We are a country that derives from an old civilization. Iran is a great civilization. However, during the past 42 years, we have not seen a proper comportment that would be civilized, that would be equal to civilized values. And even this goes back to the time prior to the victory of the Islamic revolution. But none of that has been coming from the White House. The comportment has simply given threats and sanctions.

 

Do you still see the JCPOA, the nuclear deal, as in your national interest?

We pay attention to the benefits envisaged within the JCPOA. It is important for us to have tangible results. In a return to negotiations we will not have any delays. As soon as we complete this review process and assessment, we will announce our readiness to return to the table of negotiations. But if all parties can in a committed fashion simultaneously return to the JCPOA, then it can be successful. It depends on the actions, verifiable actions, of our counterparts. And if they return fully to their commitments, the Islamic Republic of Iran will undoubtedly swiftly return to her commitments.

 

There are many reports that there was a very good deal on the table when the talks ended. Would you pick it up where they left off?

Well, everyone talks about a good deal. However, on the table, we see the colored lists furnished by the American government, blue list, red list. What we need is a return of trust. We do not have any trust in America's behavior. Why? Because the previous administration in Tehran spent eight years around the negotiation table. And the people ask of the new administration in Tehran, what has been the result of the JCPOA for the nation, for the people? And we don't have a reasonable answer to give them. I repeat, everything depends on our counterparts. If the United States of America and the three European countries, in the truest sense of the word, return to the fulfillment of their commitments, and they do not again make a play object out of the JCPOA for their political games, the Islamic Republic of Iran will be verifiably the most committed partner in the JCPOA.

 

Why has Iran not given the U.N. inspectors, the IAEA, full access to monitor compliance?

Rafael Grossi, Director General of the IAEA, 2019 -
Rafael Grossi, director general of the IAEA

In the Islamic Republic of Iran's Parliament, a bill was ratified [in December 2020] and became law. And prior to me starting my tenure as the minister of foreign affairs, I was working in the Parliament, and I went through the various stages of the drafting of this bill and the parliamentarian vote on it. … We will continue our collaboration with the IAEA. However, we are sorry and saddened that the IAEA, in some of its reports, has chosen to have a political behavior rather than an objective and technical behavior.

As the new administration in Tehran, we have sent at least one positive signal to our counterparts. The very first one was the talk with Enrique Mora, which happened on the day of the inauguration of my new president…I specified for him that we see negotiations as an important tool of diplomacy. We will not run away from negotiations. The second positive signal was that we allowed Mr. [Raphael] Grossi from the IAEA to travel to Tehran in the last few days, have a constructive and positive meeting with the director of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, and a good agreement came of it. So I do think if the IAEA fulfills her technical commitments precisely, it can play a very constructive role.

I have a criticism to levy on my European partners – and I told most of the foreign ministers whom I met. I asked them, instead of you asking and recognizing as the culpable party, America, for leaving the deal, it seems that you see it as your responsibility to be passive, to not fulfill your end of the bargain as the European parties to the deal, yet [you] expect Iran to fully live up to all of her commitments. Therefore, the IAEA can have the access that it used to have when the JCPOA works well for us. We expect not an iota more than what is contained within the text of the JCPOA. The complete adherence to the JCPOA is what we expect.

 

I want to ask you about Afghanistan. Is Iran going to recognize the Taliban in the coming weeks or months? Are you prepared to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate ruler of Afghanistan?

Afghan refugees
Afghan refugees received by the Iranian Red Crescent

We see it as a new challenge in Western Asia. We are in contact with all of the role players on the ground in Afghanistan, and the Taliban represent a part of Afghanistan's reality. However, the history of Afghanistan fully demonstrates and proves in Afghanistan that not a single ruler or party or ethnic group or tribal descendants can rule over the entire Afghan territory. We believe that an inclusive government made up of all of the social and tribal and ethnic parts that make up Afghanistan can be the only winning and positive formula. In the last few weeks, over 300,000 Afghan displaced people have entered Iran's borders, which make an aggregate.

Today, the number of total Afghans residing in Iran is almost four million, [including] a number of Afghan university professors and technocrats... We're still not clear as to why the Americans came and occupied Afghanistan, and we fail to understand why it left the way it did. We're unable to explain to our children what the American policies did to Afghanistan, what damage they inflicted upon Afghanistan by the wrong policies... It must be held to answer to the international community, to Afghan girls and women, and every Afghan citizen

 

Does that mean that you would not recognize the Taliban as the sole government?

We are in contact with everyone. We encourage all sides to move towards the formation of a completely inclusive government. If the formation of this inclusive government of Afghanistan does not take place swiftly, perhaps a new overwhelming wave of refuge seekers and displaced people will indeed overwhelm all neighboring countries. And here I would like to say that the international community must pay closer attention to the humanitarian need in Afghanistan, the need for subsistence for the refuge seekers and displaced folks who are going to neighboring countries, and carry its own share.

 

There was a report in The New York Times this week that Israel allegedly had a new weapon, a robot machine gun, and managed to assassinate Iran's top nuclear scientist last November remotely with a sharpshooter who was a thousand miles away. If this is possible, what does it say about the security inside Iran against, allegedly, a very complex plot?

What we know is that the Zionists are not even capable of securing matters for themselves inside the occupied territories of the Palestinians. If you look at the pictures and video clips coming out of the occupied lands, you will see that they have to erect meters-high walls of cement in order to protect themselves. And in our opinion, the Zionist regime really has no value for us.

 

Do you think that report is accurate?

If we obtain reliable proof, beyond dispute, we will respond in kind, swiftly and without any equivocation, just as in response to the assassination of our national hero, late General Soleimani. We did not hesitate to launch a retaliatory attack on the air base from which that act of terrorism had been carried out.

 

You were reportedly very close to Soleimani. Do you still want to avenge his death or do you consider the matter closed?

Amir-Abdollahian kissing Soleimani's head
Abdollahian kissing Soleimani's head

From our viewpoint, the file, so to speak, will not be closed. Those who were the perpetrators and carried out that act of terrorism against the national hero and the champion of Iran in the fight against terrorism must be brought to justice. We keep pursuing international legal channels carefully on this file in order to reach our objective. The role of the late General Soleimani in creating security in our region and in wiping out Daesh, ISIS, and in the help it rendered to the people and the legitimate governments of Syria and Iraq carved himself a respected page in the history of the region. The file of the late General Soleimani is not something that can be closed with superficial actions. All of the people of Iran, with a sense of national pride, still think and speak of the late General Soleimani, and they expect of us to bring the pursuit of this file to a successful end, which means obtaining justice.

 

He was considered a terrorist by the United States, that that assassination was carried out, that that attack was carried out by the previous administration.

In my opinion, the individual or individuals who gave the initial command for this act of terror. They are the true terrorists.

 

Iran has had talks with Saudi Arabia. Relations broke off in 2016. It's believed that Iran is involved in a proxy war with Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Do you see a political solution to that war?

First of all, the Yemeni issue is an issue between the Yemenis, and it's unfortunately ongoing with Saudi Arabia. Iran has had no meddling or intervention in this matter. We see the only solution for Yemen as a purely political one. But simultaneously, we welcome and we have always welcomed the regional dialogue, including with Saudi Arabia. We have started new talks with Saudi Arabia, and I think that we are on the right path.

 

During the previous talks in Vienna, there were parallel talks about a possible prisoner swap for dual citizenship Iranians, Iranian Americans, who are in prison – four in particular. Is that still possible? Could those talks be picked up where they left off? Is a prisoner swap a possibility?

We see a prisoner swap and its potential as a purely humanitarian issue. And we think that without even bringing any table of discussion or negotiation with Yemen or any other topic, we can reach an agreement on the prisoner swap and act on it.

 

And this would include both Mr. Namazis, and Mr. Tahbaz, and Mr. Shargi, who are currently in prison in Iran?

Our judiciary, as you may know, in Iran, acts independently. As the administration and myself as the minister of foreign affairs, from a humanitarian viewpoint, we will do our best in order to follow through where is needed, play a role in bringing about the freedom of those who are detained. Of course, those whose penalties have been proven and yet can receive reviews and clemencies can be placed in the list of potential detainees to be swapped.

 

This is the first interview from your new government with an American television network. Do you have a message for the American people?

First of all, we have had no problems or quarrels with the people of America. We believe that what has caused problems in the relationship between the two countries have been the wrong policies of the White House. Our people, throughout our history, going back even prior to the victory of the Islamic revolution, in the last 42 years since the revolution, have witnessed negative behavior and hateful behavior from the American government. And today in New York, we're speaking under conditions in which even when the need arises to bring the most specialized medications into the country, for example, to maintain the health of chronically ill children. There is no financial mechanism or financial channel that enables us to do that with our own funds.

Again, I said we are an action-oriented administration. We judge based on the comportment of Mr. Biden's administration. We will base our decisions on that behavior. I hope that even for one time, the wrong policies of the White House can be reviewed in a serious fashion instead of using the language of threats and sanctions. The language of respect to the rights of nations should be the focus of attention. The Iranians are a civilized people–answer respect with respect. In the face of threats, they resist. They do not respond in the same language of threats and bullying, but with a dignified and freedom-seeking language that reflects the greatness of the Iranian people.

 

Is time running out for Iran's willingness to go back to the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement?

We believe that diplomacy always works. However, if other parties to any deal do not return to the fulfillment of their commitments, then we will not remain in the deal and fulfill our side of the bargain. In the return to the commitments, each and every moment of each and every chance must be taken and used positively. I like to reiterate and underline the fact that Iran was the very last party to, on a step-by-step basis, reverse her commitments according to the letter of the JCPOA, which are fully reversible.

So since day one, we remain faithful in the implementation of fulfillment of our commitments. Yet America failed to live up to any of her commitments. Yes, we do hear beautiful words from Mr. Rob Malley. However, on the ground, there is nothing tangible.

What matters for us is behavior is the action. Even in order to improve vaccines – COVID-19 vaccines to save the lives of our people in the deadliest global pandemic of the last century – all the Americans under sanctions prevented us from accessing our own funds in South Korean and Japanese banks. Three scientific institutions in Iran, even under these cruel sanctions, they have been able to produce indigenous COVID-19 vaccines. However, [American] behavior, their hateful comportment towards the Iranian people, even when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine, can never be erased from the collective memory of our nation. The Americans must, if they have sincere will, make up for those mistakes.

 

Regarding the nuclear deal, is there a time where you think Iran's economy can rely on a new growing relationship with China and you can live under these sanctions because you have a way of working with China and other nations to the east?

No, I shared this with my European counterparts... Iran is a massive market. The unilateral American sanctions and the passive behavior of the Europeans has only caused the West, and the Europeans in particular, to almost completely lose full access to the Iranian market. Certainly, there are commercial and economic rivals who wish to fill that void. We cannot wait forever. We're a big country. We have a vast economy. We have great resources. We will never remain on the sidelines with our hands tied behind our backs.

 

U.S. officials say that you have made so many advances that with your faster centrifuges and with enrichment that you are within a few months of being able, if you chose to build a bomb. Do you choose to build a bomb with the uranium that you have enriched so far, the stockpiles?

These words are baseless accusations by the U.S. officials. We have a religious edict issued by the highest religious authority that forbids and recognizes as unholy the use of any weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear [weapons]. We will continue pursuit of our peaceful nuclear program. However, the baseless accusation that Iran intends to achieve nuclear weapon capacity is absolutely baseless.

 

Why enrich uranium as much as you have? Why use these centrifuges if it's just for peaceful purposes?

In order to procure and provide for our scientific needs and procure what is needed for the peaceful nuclear program of the country. That is the basis that we use to make our equations and calculations.

 

Photo Credits: Amir-Abdollahian via Khamenei.ir (CC By 4.0); Amir-Abdollahian kissing Soleimani via Alef.ir (Free use with citation); Afghan refugees via ISNA