The Zarif Interviews: On Syria, Chemical Weapons

This is part two of a series based on 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 conflict in Syria and the use of chemical weapons.


Syria mapQuestion: The other day, a very senior administration official was talking about Syria. And he was saying there was a real risk of a hot war with both Russia, but then he made a point of saying also with Iran. … Do you share that concern when it comes to Syria?

Zarif: Well Syria is a dangerous place and there is always possibility of escalation. We know that the United States and Russia have a deconflicting mechanism that they agreed and when necessary we consult with Russia in order to not to engage in something that is an unnecessary escalation. So, we believe that if everybody is clear about their objectives in Syria and the objective is to fight terrorism and to fight ISIS, that is the stated objective of the United States, to fight ISIS, if that is the objective then there is no need to be a confrontation between various forces that are working against extremist settlements in Syria.

Question: Do you have that concern or fear right now when it comes to the U.S. that they expressed, or is it something that’s not?

Zarif: Well as I said Syria is a dangerous place and there is always a concern. Particularly when people decide to take the law in their own hands, as we saw with the missile attack against the base in Syria. Or with other incidents more recently. But I believe there is no need and no desire on our part and we've heard from the United States that they do not have a desire to escalate in Syria. So, if that is the case and the political will is not to get them tangled and exacerbate tension in Syria, then I think we can manage to avoid that.

Zarif: You see, we have had a consistent policy in the region. And since these are the same questions that I was asked last night, you'll get the same answer. We went to the aid to the Rabbani government in Afghanistan. Recognized that the Rabbani government in Afghanistan when the Taliban took over. Although we were a neighbor, and it may have been in our national self-interest to recognize the Taliban, because we were just about to have a war with them, but we didn't. We fought them. Eleven of our diplomats were killed in Mazar-e Sharif. But never the less we never recognized the Taliban.

ZarifWhen Iraq, even though we disagreed with the United States and we objected to the U.S. invasion of Iraq – but when a new government was established in Iraq, we were the first government to recognize it, to support it, to help it fight against terrorists. Same applies to Syria.

Now you have friends, the United States has friends and allies in the region, who are exactly on the opposite side. Look at UAE and Saudi Arabia, whom seem to be running many things in Washington today. They were the two countries that recognized the Taliban. You know three countries recognized the Taliban, and two of them were UAE and Saudi Arabia. They were the countries behind, particularly Saudi Arabia, behind the bloodshed after the U.S. takeover in Iraq. …

They supported every extremist organization. Now you've seen the statistics, 94 percent of operations against the United States and other Western countries since 2001, and I believe since 1998, because in 1998 the attack in Nairobi was the prelude to attacks in New York, have been carried out by Wahhabis, who are promoted, financed, supported, and at times armed by Saudi Arabia. So these are facts on the ground.

People say, well Iran has influence, because you made the right choices. Others made the wrong choices. We've been steadily against extremists in the region. Others have been steadily supporting extremists. And there is one other reason, we never try to exclude anybody from the region. We fought them trying to exclude us and we succeeded, but we never believe that the name of the game in our region could be exclusion. We don't have that theology.

They are losing because they are trying to exclude Iran from the region. That's how they set their objective and that was an unattainable objective. And that's why they believe they have lost. And in many of these cases they drag the United States with them, into this quagmire of trying to exclude an important player in the region from the political security calculus of the region.

Now, how can we resolve this, that's the more important part. I think we all need to come to the realization that there is not going to be a military solution. I've said that publicly. I've tried in every meeting of the International Syrian Support Group to incorporate one sentence, that there is no military solution. But there were people in those meetings who believe there is a military solution. And I believe, they hoped that that military solution would come from the United States. And as I've said before that they would fight, until the last American soldier, in order to achieve that military solution.

And I think that has not changed. The reason the wars in Syria and Yemen drag on is because some people believe that at the end of the day they will find a way of dragging the United States into this conflict or into these conflicts. And I think and I hope at the end of the day prudence will prevail. And people will not allow themselves to be dragged into something that is unnecessary and in reality, a quagmire.

Wright: But when you look at the issue of Syria, when you look at Iraq, to some degree Yemen as well, are there arrangements, terms, which the United States and Iran could agree to get there?

Zarif: I think there are terms that if everybody could agree, if important regional players could abandon this illusion that they can have a military solution. I mean, on Syria, we made it very clear, on Syria we have to define the problem in a way that is amenable to a resolution. Not define the problem in a way that is not amenable to a resolution. And people have been putting Assad as a centerpiece of the resolution and that is, by definition, an attempt to push everybody to a stalemate.

Now our suggestion has been don't insist on individuals, insist on procedures, so we can have a ceasefire. We can have an inclusive national unity government. We can have constitutional reform. And we can, at the end of the constitutional reform process have elections. Now we made this suggestion in 2013, before the presidential election. But as you remember, upon the insistence of some of your allies, I was disinvited from the meeting in Montreal, where I could have presented that suggestion. …

I believe the nuclear negotiations started with a zero-sum perspective. A perspective that some people want to reintroduce to the nuclear debate. Reintroduce, because it was dead. Believe me, a zero-sum perspective on the nuclear issue was dead in the beginning. And look where it took us. And the nuclear negotiations were successful only when that zero-sum approach was abandoned. I think the zero-sum approach to Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Bahrain needs to be abandoned.

Wright: And are you willing to talk to Secretary Tillerson? About Syria, about Yemen?

Zarif: We have to focus on the nuclear issue. And see where that takes us.

Wright: You were talking about pluralistic politics and it seems part of the problem with maintaining the Iran deal in the Trump administration is its rejection of the Obama administration because of partisan differences. Are you all thinking about trying to do outreach to Republicans or somehow separating some of what’s unpopular with the Trump administration about the deal from Democrats and trying to make headway with that?

Zarif: Well you see when we negotiated this deal, particularly for somebody like me who has studied in the U.S. and knew domestic politics in the U.S., there was this track, to get into domestic politics in the U.S. I do not think any multilateral global negotiation would succeed if you try to get into the domestic track. I think it’s not healthy. First of all, it’s illegal, because we’re supposed to not interfere in the internal politics of other countries.

Secondly, in multilateral negotiations or even in bilateral negotiations, you negotiate with the government, which represents the entire nation-state, not just one party, one segment, one group, one ideology, the entire nation-state. I think that’s the healthy, legal way of negotiating a deal, the only way to negotiate, otherwise you get bogged down into— situations that I mean you, I’m sure you get more than what you bargained for.

Question: Should Iraq and Syria remain unified unitary states?

Zarif: Oh of course they should. Anything short of the territorial integrity and national unity of Iraq and Syria would be a disaster, first of all for those countries and then for the region as a whole, and that is why we believe the attempt by our Kurdish friends to have their referendum in September is really inadvisable.

Question: Mr. Minister you said yesterday that foreign forces are inherently destabilizing. When will Iranian forces, and Iranian-backed forces, leave Syria?

Zarif: Whenever we’re asked. By the government. We’ve never been to any place uninvited.

Question: How many Iranian advisors are now in Syria, and how many in Iraq?

Zarif: I don’t have that information, and to be absolutely honest with you even if I did have that information I wouldn’t share it with you. I really don’t know. To be absolutely honest with you. I really don’t have figures.

Question: Can you tell us how many Iranians have died in Syria?

Zarif: Again, I mean I think that’s public knowledge, but I don’t have that figure. But that’s public knowledge, because their funerals are publicly announced, and you just need to count. It should be in the hundreds.

Question: So when we saw the chemical weapons attack, a number of months ago, that President Trump then retaliated against the Syrian airbase, I don’t think we heard much from Iran about the use of chemical weapons. And I’m wondering, since it was, obviously it’s been a long subject of concern for Iran within your region, how you view what is commonly believed here to be use by Assad’s regime of these weapons against his own people?

Zarif: Well, for those of you who have heard me make these statements yesterday, I apologize, but I have to repeat. Iran is opposed to the use of chemical weapons no matter who uses them and no matter who is the victim. That’s a statement, unqualified, without any reservation, that Iran makes. And we have a record to prove it. I will not buy this statement from any other country. Absolutely no other country. Because I’ve gone through the use of chemical weapons against Iran, I went to the [U.N.] Security Council, I told the President of the Security Council … this is in 1985, chemical weapons are being used against Iran, and we want the Security Council to react.

And he said I’m not prepared to talk to you about this, I’m not authorized to talk to you about this. You know the Security Council failed to condemn the use of chemical weapons against Iran until the end of the Iran-Iraq War. And there were reports by the Secretary General on the Iraqi use of chemical weapons against Iran, several reports, from 1985-6, till 1988.

The New York Times broke the story that when Iraq used chemical weapons against Halabja, the C.I.A. or the State Department ordered U.S. operatives outside to blame that attack on Iran. It was convenient to make that, eh, basically, what do you call it, let’s say clarification, after Iraq invaded Kuwait and it was fashionable to talk about the atrocities that Saddam Hussein has committed. But the United States prevented the Security Council even from condemning Saddam Hussein for attacking his own civilians, and Iranian civilians.

The first resolution by the Security Council against the use of chemical weapons naming Iraq came after the end of the Iran-Iraq War. So, please, don’t tell me, that the use of chemical weapons is a red line for the United States, because nobody in Iran will buy it. Nobody. Even the most American-oriented individual in Iran will not buy the argument that for the United States, the use of chemical weapons is the red line. And I’m sorry to say that.

For us, it is, and that is why we have condemned it. We make very strong statements that we cannot accept the use of chemical weapons. But we also made a statement that there is an international mechanism in order to investigate allegations of use of chemical weapons. We went through those mechanisms, although the Security Council did not pay any attention to the findings, after findings of the teams dispatched by the Secretary General to investigate chemical weapons use, the Security Council didn’t even care.

But this time, we said, we have information that chemical weapons were not loaded on the planes from the Shayrat Airbase, as was alleged by the United States. It would have been easy to confirm or reject that assertion. Just a team, sent to Shayrat, checking what they check usually, could find traces, whether chemical weapons had been loaded on the planes from that facility. But they refused. And our question is, why did they refuse? Why did they refuse sending a team- you know no team was sent to Khan Sheikhoun. They say they received samples from reliable sources, but who’s your reliable source? How can an international investigation not do an onsite investigation?

I did discuss this issue with OPCW and I asked them: why didn’t you go to Shayrat? Why didn’t you send anybody to Khan Sheikhoun? … Khan Sheikhoun is in the hands of those who are claiming that Syria used chemical weapons against them, why in the world didn’t they allow them to go in and investigate? It would have been easy for them to go in and investigate and check- I mean people talk to me about craters, on the ground, in the area that chemical weapons were used, but you know that chemical weapons do not create craters on the ground. Chemical weapons are not high-explosive, chemical weapons are put in very shallow shells and sent. They don’t create craters.

No no, no medical and health [effects] can be caused by chemical weapons as they are dispersed in the air by other means. You see, look at the surroundings. Chemical weapons were used a day after President Trump announced that removal of Bashar al Assad was no longer a priority. Why in the world would Bashar al Assad use chemical weapons under those circumstances? Give the man a little bit of common sense. Why would he do something a day after the President of the United States- I mean the other side had every reason to create a situation blaming it on Assad, but why in the world would Assad do it? But you don’t want to accept this theory? Why didn’t they send anybody to the site to investigate?

Believe me, anybody who’s capable of withstanding all these foreign companies, countries combined, has the common sense to be able to rule. Believe me, he [Assad] is not crazy. To use chemical weapons the day after- why would he use chemical weapons? The day after President Trump- I mean-

Question: Felt empowered. Could get away with whatever he wanted.

Zarif: Come on. Come on, he [Assad] knew that the use of chemical weapons would immediately invite a reaction by the United States even if President Trump didn’t want it, I mean it doesn’t, it doesn’t give any military reason- and there is every military reason for the other side to do it. But I do not want to talk about the-

Wright: So, do you really think that Assad never used chemical weapons?

Zarif: Robin, oh- oh no no, I’m not saying that. I’m saying that the Khan Sheikhoun case is very suspect. We asked for an outside investigation in Khan Sheikhoun and in Shayrat, we didn’t get it. We said if you give us any indication that chemical weapons are going to be used, please let us know, give us intelligence, and we will do our best in order to prevent, to the extent that we have influence, their use, because for us, chemical weapons are a red line pure and simple.

But the problem is, from my perspective, looking at it both analytically as well as from the perspective of a country that has suffered the use of chemical weapons, has hosted investigations by the United Nations, we know how meticulous those people were, they didn’t just go to the hospital. … If you covered it from Iraq you should know it even better, because Iraq accused Iran of using chemical weapons. We accused Iraq of using chemical weapons and they, after a couple of times when they just denied it, they accused us of using chemical weapons. The Secretary General sent teams to the battlefields and reported that Iraq had used chemical weapons against Iran, that Iraqi soldiers had been affected by the use of chemical weapons but that might have been the result of the wind taking the chemical agents from- so, this is how accurate they can get. So why didn’t they exercise the same accuracy and precision in Syria [in Khan Sheikhoun]?

Wright: They tried very hard but they got an extraordinary amount of medical evidence-

Zarif: No. An extraordinary amount of medical evidence was brought to New York when I was here, from the region, but that did not give- I mean I brought kids, to New York, a plane full of kids, to New York but that was not enough evidence for the United Nations...

Question: Well the military reason in Syria says, there’s a manpower shortage, and they’re worried about shutting down power to Homs, and then using chemical weapons to terrorize Idlib.

Zarif: You see, you can, the Syrian Army has the means to attack them with guided missiles, with bombs, with whatever, with rockets, all of these.

Question: They’re all bombs --

Zarif: Well- that is something that we are against too. We don’t accept the use of barrel bombs. And we have made it very clear that we don’t accept the use of barrel bombs. But what the point on the use of chemical weapons under those circumstances where there is no evidence of culpability - by anybody - the worst of that has been said by the OPCW has been that chemical weapons have been used in Khan Sheikhoun, and I believe that the standard, the threshold has been lowered significantly in order to make that assertion, because in the past, in our case, they wouldn’t have done it without doing an outside investigation. Even though it was dangerous.

I mean no preponderance of evidence was sufficient for the United States- eh, for the United Nations to make that determination during our war. As I told you, we brought the victims to New York but they didn’t make an assertion before they went to the site and investigated on the site. My question has been and will remain: why didn’t they do an investigation on the site?

Question: Extend that further, why do you suppose that is?

Zarif: No, I don’t want to accuse anybody of anything but I believe there was a reason for not doing that because President Trump had decided not to allow any investigation and to simply take action. And obviously, they didn’t want to put that action to the test of reality.

Click here for Zarif's comments on the nuclear deal and Iran-U.S. relations.

Click here for Zarif's comments on Gulf tensions. 

Photo credit: Mohammad Javad Zarif by Robin Wright