The Zarif Interviews: On the Nuclear Deal, US

This is part one of a series based on two interviews with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a one-on-one interview with Robin Wright and another with a group of American journalists (including Wright) on July 18 in New York City. The following are excerpted remarks on the nuclear deal and U.S.-Iran relations.


ZarifWright: I know that you have not spoken with [Secretary of State] Rex Tillerson, but has anyone in the foreign ministry, anyone in the Iranian government, talked to anyone in the U.S.?

Zarif: Of course. We have regular contact with the people at the technical level in the implementation of the nuclear deal. We even have our deputies talk to each other about implementation of the nuclear deal. So, there's nothing new. And we'll be meeting again before the end of this week in Vienna, both in a group setting as in bilateral.

Wright: Can you see any circumstances under which you would renegotiate [the nuclear deal] or add additional negotiations?

Zarif: No, not to the nuclear deal because you see this was a decision, a conscious decision that all of us took because we knew that we need to limit the discussion to the nuclear issue. And on the nuclear issue, this is the result of give and take. Of course, it doesn't include everything I wanted. And, certainly, it doesn't include everything that the United States wanted, but it was clear to both of us and to others that this was the maximum that we could achieve – each one having to accept certain give and take.

And now I think it would be extremely dangerous to even contemplate reopening these negotiations because now we all go into any possible negotiations with even higher expectations because some of the expectations that we had in the previous year have not been met. We have seen how the United States has reneged on some its promises. We have seen that it has been more important to the U.S. to maintain the sanctions that were not lifted rather than implement its obligations to lift the sanctions.

So, if you were to reopen negotiations and that is, again, I'm talking about an impossible situation, but if we were to reopen negotiations, the Iranian demands would be much tougher than anybody else's demands, and I don't believe that that would lead to any outcome. It was complicated enough to reach this deal already, and it would be impossible to reach another deal.

Wright: Do you hold out any prospect that Iran and the United States could have further discussions under the Trump administration?

Zarif: Of course. I mean, we can certainly have discussions on the nuclear issue. We are having discussions on the nuclear issue and I do not close the possibility that if we need to elevate the level of discussions to the ministerial level, it would be a difficult situation. I think we have done it in the past. I mean with the previous administration. Anytime it was necessary for us, after the conclusion of the deal, there were I mean not as frequent meetings between myself and Secretary Kerry but we did meet when it was necessary. And we're not opposed to the possibility of meeting between us and Secretary Tillerson if it is necessary for the implementation of the nuclear deal.

Wright: Have you tried to talk to anyone in the new administration?

Zarif: No, I haven't.

Wright: Do you know of any effort by anyone in the administration to reach out to Iran?

Zarif: I know of none and I believe there is none.

Zarif: It’s not clear what the administration is planning to do. They have been talking about scrapping the deal. I think now they have come to the realization that scrapping the deal is not something that would be something that would be globally welcomed to make an understatement. So now they are trying to make it impossible for Iran to benefit from the deal. And I think that has been a consistent policy that has been followed by one or both branches of the administration. I mean, of course the judiciary has been very active in this too. So, the executive and legislative branch have been very active in making sure that the international atmosphere will never be conducive for economic cooperation.

So, I mean that has been a policy that we saw during the Obama administration. But during the Obama administration, it was mostly pushed from Congress to create uncertainty about business with Iran. Now we see it both coming from Congress as well as from the administration, and I believe it has become now a rather tired routine that each time they want to certify or waive some sanctions that they are obliged to do through the JCPOA or statutory requirements in the U.S., they make sure that they do something negative.

Obviously, it is a sign of bad faith. Bad faith is against the principles of international agreements because all agreements have to be conducted, negotiated and implemented in good faith. And also, part of it is in violation of [the] JCPOA, because [the] JCPOA has specific requirements from paragraph 26 to paragraph 29 of the nuclear deal that deal specifically with the United States' obligation to make it possible for Iran to enjoy the benefits and not to intervene in the conduct of business activity between Iran and the world.

Now we hear a statement from the White House, which made it official, that President Trump, during his visit with G-20 leaders in Hamburg, was trying actually to violate [the] JCPOA. Very explicit. So, I think that's nothing new. It's not ambivalence, it's just outright hatred of [the] JCPOA, but I believe to be analytical, [the] JCPOA is not a deal that anybody likes -- should not be a deal that anybody likes.

Question: It appears as though there are people in the administration and close to the administration who want to actually push Iran to walk out of the deal. So, given what you say are violations by the Trump administration of the spirit and letter of the deal, will Iran be goaded into leaving the deal? Or will you stick with it and simply register your complaints?

Zarif: No, we don't register our complaints. There are mechanisms within the JCPOA, I mean, you know, in spite of what some people believe, [the] JCPOA was negotiated and drafted based on mutual distrust. It's not a treaty based on trust. It is totally based on mistrust. You will see that mistrust very clear and present in every sentence basically of the nuclear deal, on our side and on the other side. I mean it's not one-sided mistrust. It's mutual, and that is why there are mechanisms foreseen in the deal to deal with minor violations, to deal with major violations and to deal with what lawyers call material reach and we call in the JCPOA "significant noncompliance."

So, there are avenues for dealing with them and we use those avenues to deal with them, and if we have a case of significant noncompliance where Iran's most important rights in the deal would be violated, then Iran has the option to walk out, clearly stated in paragraph 36 of the deal. And at that stage, we would consider exercising that option if the benefits of the deal are outweighed by the cost, then we have made it very clear in the deal, in the resolution that was adopted by the [U.N.] Security Council, which is probably the first time in the history of the Security Council where the statement of the subject of the resolution to walk out has been noted by the Security Council. … I don’t think we’re there yet.

Question: Do tell us how you will respond to today's sanctions.

Zarif: We will reciprocate. These are designations by the U.S. We will add designations to our own list. You say the designation in our own list don't matter that much, the designations on the U.S. list don't matter that much. Because these people don't do business in the United States anyway. So, you can close all their bank accounts and you can prevent them from coming to the U.S, they are not coming anyway.

Question: On the nuclear deal though, there was one thing that on the implementation day, we all expected that the last American in prison in Iran, Siamak Namazi would be freed. He wasn't. He wasn't freed. And that cast a pall over the implementation for many people.

Zarif: We had expected that all Iranians would be freed from the United States, but there was an agreement. There was an agreement that we would...

Question: Was someone held back on the U.S. side?

Zarif: Oh yeah. Many. And many have been taken in since then. But that was not a part of the deal. Siamak Namazi and the people who were held back on the U.S. side were not part of the humanitarian deal to exchange citizens. And I think that unfortunately since then, a lot more have been captured by the United States. Both inside the U.S. and outside the U.S. including, as I said last night, a pregnant lady for a technical violation. Not for, I mean even the charge was not espionage. The charge is being a translator in a company that does engage in sanctions violations. Some ten years. And now living in Australia with her husband, and planning to have a kid, they arrested her. They asked the Australian government to arrest her. The same has happened, not with a lady but with a man in Spain.

Question: During the negotiations, you told us that Iran had found a second case of attempted sabotage on one of its nuclear facilities. I think it was a temperature regulator, you may recall this.

Zarif: Yeah.

Question: I'm wondering whether in the time since the deal has been in effect, if you have seen any other efforts by the United States and its allies to sabotage any of your nuclear facilities?

Zarif: Because at that time we would buy our equipment from basically the black market because we had to circumvent sanctions, there were possibilities for the United States through third parties to sabotage the equipment that we were purchasing. And that is why we had, at that time, a rather extensive operation trying to test every [piece of] equipment that we got in order to make sure that they would not harm our civilian population. Because had that piece of equipment that managed to get to Iran operated in the facility it would have caused a humanitarian catastrophe of immense proportions. But thankfully, our technicians were able to detect that before it was installed. But since then, since the nuclear deal, we are doing that on official basis, so companies that are sending us equipment will have to come and install that will be responsible for it, so thankfully that has not happened.

Question: You haven't seen any attempts at [sabotaging] your missile program? The way the North Koreans have?

Zarif: I'm not aware of any.

Wright: One, we see Iran being more visible, more active throughout the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and Syria, can you kind of outline for us what your goals are? What your differences with the United States are? And what you might share in common.

And secondly, we are almost four decades since the revolution, but we see inside Iran tremendous tensions between some of the earlier forces that were duking it out to define the revolution and what its goals were. Can you reflect for us, what…

Zarif: You're two hundred years from your revolution and there is still tension here in the United States. So, what are you trying to get in Iran?

But in pluralistic, non-monolithic societies you have different voices and different voice, different aspirations, different objectives, different priorities and those will come into force. You shouldn't be alien to that type of differences. The problem is people see themselves as pluralistic and everybody else as a monolith. Exactly the same is true in Iran. A lot of people in Iran perceive the United States as a monolith. Everything that happens is part of a master plan. Including what is happening right now. It is all preconceived master plan.

And that is how some people in the United States look at the situation inside of Iran. If you listen to Secretary Mattis the other day, that was what he was referring to. Neglecting the fact that people stood in line to select somebody who had been preselected. Which would defy the very basic sense.

So, four decades after the revolution, even a century after the revolution, I think that you should not expect Iran turning into a monolith. Iran will have heated debate on issues of serious significance to the community and the nation at large. We have similar tendencies as you do in the United States. I mean different, I don't want to call it class groups, but different segments of society, the poorer segments of society, the more resolute segments of society that have been made a class, all them have their own aspirations.

You can see that divide right here in the United States. I mean the divide that technology has made for instance, in the labor force. A very clear divide in the United States, which is pushing a certain agenda that you have seen in the last presidential election in the United States. The same is true in Iran. We have similar divisions within our society, which are not peculiar to Iran.

Wright: But you have a situation where the President's own brother has been charged with corruption.

Zarif: But you had a situation where President Carter's brother was charged with corruption and arrested. So I mean more similar…

Wright: Okay, let me put it a different way. Have the divisions in Iran made it more difficult for you to do your job?

Zarif: It's always easier to run foreign policy in a dictatorship. But I think that's a price we all need to pay. And that is the price that you are paying. And that is the price that we are prepared to pay in Iran to have a multi-voiced society. And it's much more difficult to work in that... of course it's more difficult. But when we say our judiciary is independent, or when you ask us the cases about foreign nationals and dual citizens being arrested, we tell you our judiciary is independent. It is independent. It is even more independent than the U.S. judiciary, because in the U.S. at least the President nominates the judges.

Question: If the Supreme Leader said, "Let these people go," they would be out though. That's the difference, right?

Zarif: Nothing is arbitrary in Iran. If the Supreme Leader wants to exercise his authority under the constitution for clemency, you know where the suggestion should come from? The head of the judiciary. The Supreme Leader cannot exercise clemency without a prior request being made to him by the Chief Justice, by the head of the judiciary.

Zarif: I mean the judges in the [U.S.] Supreme Court are nominated by the President, it doesn't mean they have to obey the President. I hope not. So, the independence of the judiciary is that there have been cases where people have been arrested, tried and nobody was happy with it. But, even the chief justice cannot order a judge, I mean procedurally. I'm not saying that nothing happens that people don't like, but procedurally, the head of the judiciary cannot order a judge to let go of somebody he considers to be in violation of codes. I'm not saying there are no flaws. All I'm saying is that there is a procedure. And independence of the judiciary is part of that procedure. And it is being applied.

We are not happy that the President's brother is under investigation. But, he is a friend. But we are all hopeful that at the end of the day justice will prevail because we all believe that he is innocent. We hope that he will be let go.

Question: Can you talk to us a little bit about your own ballistic missile program? So, the last week of the negotiations two years ago was spent with you and Secretary Kerry locked up trying to figure out what became the missile addendum, it wasn’t part of the agreement itself-

Zarif: It’s not an addendum, it’s part of the Security Council resolution.

Question: But it is certainly part of the Security Council resolution. And it’s the part of that whole set of transactions where I think the Trump administration can make the strongest case that, um, the spirit of the agreement, to use your phrase from before, has not been lived up to.

Zarif: No, the letter and the spirit of the agreement is very clear that missiles are not part of the letter or the spirit of the agreement. … Compare the terminology in Security Council Resolution 1929 and Security Council Resolution 2231. … 2231 calls upon Iran, so that’s the first difference, but the most important difference is not that. The most important difference is that Security Council Resolution 1929- and you said it right we spent a lot of time negotiating that- Security Council Resolution 1929 says “missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads-”

Question: Designed to be capable--

Zarif: No no no no. [Resolution] 1929 says “missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads.” Now you know that no word is added without a reason. In 2231, it says “missiles designed to be capable of carrying nuclear warheads.” Why is that word added? This Security Council Resolution is not our resolution, it’s the resolution that was drafted by the P5 (major world powers). Why is that word added? Because there was a debate, that Iran has shown that it’s not developing nuclear warheads, because you now have a mechanism to ensure that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons. Therefore, Iran does not have nuclear warheads. So our missiles may be, theoretically capable, but since we don’t have nuclear warheads they are not designed to be capable of delivering nuclear warheads.

Question: Do you think that the United States is intent on regime change [in Iran]?

Zarif: Well, as I said yesterday, the regime change [policy] is nothing new. It is a policy that the U.S. has pursued once successfully in 1953 and look where it got you. Then, ever since the revolution. We believe off and on that has been the official policy of the United States followed with different degrees of vehemence and vigor. But again, in a country where people stand 10 hours in a line to vote, regime change is an exercise in futility. And I think the misperceptions that we see in the statements by Secretary Mattis and Secretary Tillerson lead them to the erroneous conclusion that they can actually engage in regime change.

Click here for Zarif's comments on the Syrian conflict and chemical weapons.

Click here for Zarif's comments on Gulf tensions.

Photo credit: Mohammad Javad Zarif by Robin Wright, Homepage photograph by Bundesministerium für Europa, Integration und Äusseres [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons