On September 19, Iranian Foreign Minister warned that Tehran could respond to a U.S. or Saudi military strike with “all-out war.” He questioned Saudi resolve and told CNN that the kingdom was prepared to fight "to the last American soldier." Zarif said Tehran hoped to avoid conflict but added, “We won't blink to defend our territory.”
The Houthi rebels, allegedly backed by Iran, claimed responsibility for the September 14 attacks on oil facilities that cut Saudi oil production in half. But the United States and Saudi Arabia blamed Iran for the strikes. Iran denied the allegations and suggested that the strikes were carried out by Yemenis as an act of self-defense against the Saudi-led coalition air campaign in their country. On September 18, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referred to the attacks as an “act of war.”
In the CNN interview, Zarif again denied that Iran was involved in the attacks. “Now they want to pin the blame on Iran, in order to achieve something. And that is why I'm saying this is agitation for war because it's based on lies, it's based on deception," he said. Zarif added that the Houthis have increased their military capabilities and could have conducted a sophisticated operation involving missiles and drones. The following are excerpts from Zarif's interview with CNN.
PATON WALSH: What would be the consequence of an American or Saudi military strike on Iran now?
MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF, FOREIGN MINISTER OF IRAN: An all-out war.
PATON WALSH: You make a very serious statement there, sir.
ZARIF: Well, I make a very serious statement about defending our country. I'm making a very serious statement, that we don't want war. We don't want to engage in a military confrontation. We believe that a military confrontation based on deception is awful. We'll have a lot of casualties. But we won't blink, to defend our territory.
PATON WALSH: Put yourself in Saudi Arabia's shoes. If there was an attack on Iranian sovereign territory with cruise missiles launched from Saudi Arabia, what would Iran's response be?
ZARIF: Well, they're making that up. Why do they want to make that up, that it was from Iranian territory? The Yemenis have announced responsibility for that, they have provided information about that, they have answered all the Saudi disinformation about the fact that they launched this attack against Saudi Arabia in self-defense.
Now, they want to pin the blame on Iran in order to achieve something. And that is why I'm saying, this is agitation for war. Because it's based on lies, it's based on deception. But you lie and deceive when it serves your interest. It doesn't even serve their interest.
PATON WALSH: There is weakness, though, to Iran's denial about involvement in all this, and that is really the Houthi Yemeni rebels who you say, and who say themselves, were behind this. This is a ragtag group of rebels who've been under siege for years. They struggle to get medicines, they struggle to get food.
That indeed is part of your case, why the war must stop. How is the world expected to believe that they were able to magic (ph) up drones and cruise missiles of this technology, that flew across hundreds of miles of Saudi Arabia, through tens of billions of dollars of air defenses, without any external assistance, and took out 19 targets? That's a big ask, people to believe.
ZARIF: Well, you see, if you want to make your calculations based on this, Saudi Arabia should have been able to win this war against this group of besieged people exactly when they thought they would, four weeks after they started the war. But it's four and a half years. They have not been able to bring the Yemenis to their knees.
PATON WALSH: You are very sure that the Houthis did this? But there is one major inconsistency --
ZARIF: I'm very sure that Iran didn't do it.
PATON WALSH: Understood. But you have also said, consistently, you believe the Houthis did this.
ZARIF: No, no, no. I believe the Houthis made a statement that they did it.
PATON WALSH: So you're not sure they did it?
ZARIF: I cannot have any confidence that they did it because we just heard their statement. I know that we didn't do it. I know that the Houthis have made a statement that they did it.
PATON WALSH: They've shown you no proof?
ZARIF: I heard that they released some documents last night which I haven't been able to examine for myself, and I'm not an expert to examine them anyway -- to show that they were able to increase the range of the drones and missiles by jet engines in them. But I'm not an expert, so I cannot say.
PATON WALSH: But it puts you in a similar position to the Saudi Arabian government, to some degree, in that you're saying someone did this, based on a hunch, and you would say the same thing about their accusations.
ZARIF: No, I'm not accusing anybody.
PATON WALSH: Yes.
ZARIF: You can have a lot of accusations flying around based on who may benefit from this. Iran doesn't have anything to benefit from this. Iran wants security in the region, Iran wants stability in the region, Iran does not want war. Iran wants an end to all wars.
PATON WALSH: Would you call on the Houthis to release evidence that they did do this, to clear this misunderstanding up?
ZARIF: Well, I think they did release the evidence, but it's not up to us to ask the Houthis. I think the Houthis know what they did, and they know what they need to do. They released some evidence last night, and I think it is important for the Saudi government to understand what they're trying to achieve.
Do they want to fight Iran until the last American soldier? Is that their aim? Because if that is the aim, they can be assured that this won't be the case.
PATON WALSH: Why?
ZARIF: Because Iran will defend itself.