Zarif on Nuclear Deal, U.S.-Iran Tensions

At the Council on Foreign Relations on September 21, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif dismissed broad new U.S. sanctions and stipulated that Washington would have to provide financial compensation “for damages incurred” by Iran if it wanted to reengage in the 2015 nuclear deal. “It’s nothing new,” he said. “The United States has exerted all the pressure it could on Iran. It had hoped that these sanctions will bring a population to their knees. It didn't.”

Asked about prospects for U.S.-Iran diplomacy under a new president, Zarif said that the United States would have to first win Iran’s confidence. “I want to see first the United States going back to its commitments, compensating Iran for its losses, giving us guarantees that it won't do it again,” he said. “The United States needs to find a seat at the table before it starts raising questions. It does not have a seat because it left the room. And while it left the room – it doesn't matter which president did it – while he was out of the room he tried everything to torpedo that room, he tried everything to destroy that room. Now, if it wants to come back to that room, it has to rebuild the room, then enter the room, sit at the table, and then, as I said, prove your brotherhood before you ask for inheritance.”

On detainees, Zarif publicly offered an exchange with the United States. “Let's do a universal deal. I repeat, we can exchange all prisoners. Period,” he said. At least three Americans were still detained by Iran as of mid-2020. At least 11 Iranians were reportedly held in the United States. 

On the same day, the Trump administration reimposed U.N. sanctions that had been lifted as part of the 2015 nuclear deal. It also announced new sanctions on 24 government organizations, companies, officials and suppliers connected to Iran’s conventional arms, nuclear and missile programs. U.S. sanctions have slashed Iran’s ability to export oil, its primary source of foreign exchange, since Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in May 2018. The economy shrank by an estimated 8.2 percent in 2019, according to the World Bank. 

The following is a transcript of the discussion hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations on September 21.


Fareed Zakaria: Foreign Minister, the first thing I do have to ask you about is a topic that has raised an enormous amount of international outcry, which is the execution of the 27-year-old wrestler Navid Afkari. This is a 27-year-old young man who was engaged in protests against the government two years ago in Shiraz. He was executed. He was hanged. And as you know, this occasioned protests far and wide, well beyond the usual places – the United States and the European Union, the U.N., human rights groups and the International Olympic Committee, the World Players Association – many of them saying that this was really an extraordinarily brutal act. I want you to respond to the international outcry against this execution.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif: I think it is important to set the record straight. First of all, as you know, we have an independent judiciary and the government is not involved in the decision-making of the judiciary. In fact, judges in the judiciary have their own independence from the central authority of the judiciary.

Second point is the issue about capital punishment is a live issue. There is a lively debate in the United States, in Iran, elsewhere, whether capital punishment is good or bad, whether it serves the purpose of deterring crime or whether it does not. And I don't think in the span of one hour, even if we had more, we could settle that debate. All of us have our personal views. But the point is capital punishment is in the Iranian criminal court as it is in many of the United States’ states. Recently, people have been executed in the United States. A gentleman was executed in Texas who was 18 years old when he committed a crime. I don't think anybody would ask Secretary Pompeo to explain that. But be that as it may, I think it is an important issue.

Third, I am not in a position to judge the decision of the court. A court is a court. It makes its own decision. Obviously, there are people who like the decision of the court, whole like the ruling of the court. And there are people who do not like the ruling of the court. The fourth point that I have to make is that this gentleman, and I feel sorry for his family, as I feel sorry for the family of his victim, was executed not because of participating in demonstration, but because of a murder. He was accused of a murder, he went through a court proceeding on a murder charge. There were private claims against him by the family of the deceased who was killed.

He was not executed for participating in a demonstration. Many people participate in demonstrations, and none of them are executed. Those who commit crimes, including arson, including others, are punished, but not for participating in demonstrations. Again, I have to underline, I have no weight, I have no standing in an Iranian court because a court is between the prosecution, the private claimants and the defendant. I cannot judge the decision of a judge. As I said, people may like it. People may not like it. The government cannot intervene and did not intervene and did not know about the carrying out of the sentence. But we’re not in a position even to be in the process, to even know about these developments. This is the law. This is the independence of the judiciary. And we have to accept it.

Zakaria: Foreign Minister, you know that human rights groups claim that these charges were trumped up, that he was arrested and executed as a political prisoner. Amnesty International has released recordings of his saying “I want you to know that an innocent person was executed.” His mother claims that he was forced, tortured into confessing. And Amnesty [International] concludes that this was a horrifying travesty of justice. And so I think the argument is that this is an indication, people use this as an argument to say, this is an indication that Iran is being ruled by a government that engages in these kind of brutalities and therefore cannot be seen as a responsible international actor.

Zarif: Well, again, as I said, in almost every case, the families of the defendant, the defendant himself, do not believe that justice has been served. And that is not for me to decide. If there are discussions, and there are discussions in Iran, about whether this was a right decision or not, the discussions had their own legal process of being heard in the judiciary itself or indeed in the parliament. There is a special committee of the parliament which can hear this type of discussion. The judiciary itself has a process for these arguments to be heard.

But I cannot accept that the people would simply label an action by Iranian judiciary automatically as an act of brutality. They have to be privy to the information. The information should be made public. The judiciary believes that it has enough evidence that it made the decision based on the evidence, not for a political crime but for a murder. This case was a case of murder. And I have no way of judging the decision of a judge. I'm not a judge, and I am not privy to all the information that the judge was privy to.

Zakaria: Do you believe that it is legitimate for countries to look at the Iranian system? You may say it's an independent judiciary. But many outside observers do not. Do you think it's legitimate for countries to look at that behavior of what is going on inside Iran, by its government, both the parts of the government that you may control and not control, and draw their own conclusions about whether Iran is a responsible member of the world community?

Zarif: Well, I think they should look at our behavior, our international behavior. We have respected our international obligations. We have respected, for instance, the JCPOA, which has an international obligation. We've never invaded any country. That is the criteria by which a responsible government should be recognized.

What a court decides is a proceeding of the court. The fact that in the United States, the majority of capital punishment cases involving black defendants does not create any concern about U.S. government. From your point of view, it's the judicial system. And since you refer to your own judicial system as an independent justice system, you wouldn't be asking, if you were a foreign reporter, of Secretary Pompeo, why Texas executed this individual.

I think the same applies to Iran. The behavior of governments internationally indicates whether those governments are respected international actors. And today, as we stand, it is the United States which is considered by the international community as an irresponsible actor that violates international norms, that acts arbitrarily based on, basically, ability to use force and power.

Zakaria: If Vice President Biden would win and become President Biden, he has indicated that he would return the United States to adhering to the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal, as long as Iran abided by it as well. But he has said he would use it as a starting point to begin negotiations to strengthen the deal, to extend its duration and to deal with some other issues. Are you willing to commit that were this to happen Iran would engage in those negotiations?

Zarif: Well I think Iran, as a participant in the JCPOA, which has observed the rules of JCPOA, which has exercised a lot of restraint and patience, is in the position to say how we want to proceed, not the United States.

The United States has an extremely bad record. I think it is the United States that has to show its commitment to this deal, that it will not violate it again, that it will not make demands outside the scope of the deal, that it will compensate Iran for the damages. The United States withdrew from JCPOA without any reason. It incurred a lot of damages on the Iranian people. You know, today, Iran is not able to even buy vaccines for influenza because the United States does not allow us to transmit the money. Right now, as we speak, our order to buy vaccines for influenza—not for COVID, vaccines for influenza—is waiting for an authorization by the United States to pay our own money, not to pay their money. We’re not asking anybody for a donation.

So, I think the United States, whoever is the president – it's immaterial who sits in the White House for us. What is important is how they behave. And the United States has behaved extremely irresponsibly, dangerously in the international community. So, it is up to the United States. The United States has to be taken to account. It is up to the United States to prove to the rest of JCPOA participants, particularly to Iran, that it's going to act responsibly. That is not going to make demands outside the scope of the JCPOA. And it's going to basically stop causing damage to Iran and compensate us for all the damages, billions upon billions of dollars of damage that they have inflicted upon Iran just because somebody didn't like the previous president of the United States. It’s none of my business that this president or the next president like their predecessors, don't like their predecessors. It is the United States that has to act responsibly in the international community which unfortunately, it hasn't.

Zakaria: Foreign minister, as you point out, the damage caused by the United States by the resumption of sanctions has been very dramatic. I mean, your currency is down 50 percent this year.

Zarif: More than 50 percent.

Zakaria: So if you want to try to get Iran's economy back on track, the question I'm asking is, if a President Biden were to say, “I will return to the to the deal, but I would also require that Iran commit, as the United States were, to new negotiations, follow-on negotiations to extend the deal, to strengthen it,” are you willing to go to enter those negotiations?

Zarif: First of all, the damages that were inflicted upon Iran were wrong. They have to be corrected. That's without condition. Nobody is in a position to put conditions for making good on their own promise. So, let's put that out of the way.

Now, Iran has never been hesitant to negotiate. But we do not negotiate what we already negotiated. The United States should come to realize that because it's a major power, it cannot dictate. The United States did try its best to get a good deal. The previous administration where candidate Biden was vice president knew it was a good deal. Now, we're not going to negotiate a deal – a deal is give and take. A deal is that I don't get all I want. The United States didn’t get all it wanted. The Europeans didn't get all they wanted. There were eight parties to this deal. That is seven countries plus the European Union, eight parties to this deal. None of those parties got all they wanted.

Now, they cannot come back now and say, “I want to get everything that I wanted because I didn't get it the first time around.” This is not good faith. Good faith is the basis for any international agreement. So, the United States first must come clean, must get its act together, must come back to be a lawful member of the international community, start implementing its obligations, and then talk about the rest of the deal. We have a saying in Persian, “first prove your brotherhood and then ask your for your inheritance.”

Zakaria: I just want to be clear, because this is important, because the deal was signed five years ago. Some of the provisions start to get sunset pretty soon. So, you are saying you are open to renegotiating?

Zarif: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. Because those were parts of the deal. The United States accepted those. We spent more time negotiating those limitations than anything else. Those were parts of the deal. I accepted less commitment from the United States because I did not want to give them more. A deal is a process of give and take. The United States, Secretary Kerry, then-Vice President Biden, remember this very well. There was a give and take. Any attempt to undermine those gives and takes is a sign of bad faith. And as I said, the United States must prove that it's worthy of the trust that is required for its re-entry into the deal before it sets conditions.

Zakaria: Let me ask you to comment on a big event that's taking place in the region recently, that is the normalization of relations between Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. It does look from the outside that this is a deal motivated by concerns about Iran and Iran's behavior, where you have the Israelis managing to create an alliance with moderate Gulf states which will leave Iran even more isolated in the region.

Zarif: I guess isolated is a relative term. Just look at the Security Council and look at who is isolated in the Security Council. I don't think Iran feels isolated. Thirteen countries in the Security Council were objecting to U.S. actions. We all know that the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have had relations with Israel for the past 15 years. Even the Israeli ambassador in Washington publishing his picture with Yousef [Al Otaiba], the UAE ambassador, tweeted that “I'm now happy that we can share the picture of our friendship that we have had for a long time.” So, let's not joke with each other. This was just a photo op for President Trump, to get his rates up in certain states where he was in trouble. And I guess that was the purpose. It didn’t serve any other purpose. So, let's not put more meat into something that didn't have much meat.

Zakaria: Bahrain is a Shia majority country, although it has a Sunni monarchy. Do you have any message to the Shia of Bahrain?

Zarif: The message should be given by those who shout about democracy to the government of Bahrain while it has been trampling the rights of its majority. I mean, this is the type of allies the United States and Israel have in the region.

Zakaria: Do you think it will cause trouble in Bahrain that it has normalized relations with Israel?

Zarif: I don't think Bahraini government ever had good relations with its population. It's a minority rule, and I think those problems continue. And that's the problem. The United States and the Western world have given a green light for Bahrain and for Saudi Arabia, for that matter, to crush the people of Bahrain. And that is not one of the biggest victories of the United States for human rights or democracy, and I believe those who are rather vociferous about human rights should think about this as well. I mean it's not for us to decide what the Bahrainis do, it is for them to decide, and the Bahrainis already know that they are ruled by minorities.

Zakaria: I have to ask you about Syria, what is really still in some senses the biggest human rights tragedy over the last decade – at least half a million people dead, five million people displaced. Your government has been a staunch supporter of the Assad government in in Damascus. What is the strategy for some kind of peace, sustainable peace in Syria? Is it that Assad is going to reconquer all of Syria, which seems highly unlikely? Is there going to be a de facto partition? Where do you see this going?

Zarif: Syria does not have a military solution. And this is not a new belief. When I assumed this office in 2013, I provided a four-point peace plan that included an immediate ceasefire and a broad-based inclusive national unity government, and it included constitutional talks. Now, we, along with Russia and Turkey, have been able to start a process since end of 2016, which has brought hostilities much much lower. I mean the intensity of the conflict in Syria is today much, much lower than it was in May 2016. So, we were building on that, and the constitutional committee is meeting. And we believe that's where the outcome will come.

Now, there were countries in this region, who believed in a military solution in Syria and in Yemen, as they believe in military solutions in Libya, in Somalia, in Sudan, everywhere. They believe in military solutions in those places, Iran is not even involved, but you have conflicts there because there are countries, all of them U.S. allies, who believe in military solutions. Now, if they fail. It's not our fault. It's the fault of their doctrine, of believing that the victory is around the corner.

In 2015, we suggested a peace proposal for Yemen. But the Saudis believed that in three weeks, they could win militarily. You know that in 2011 some of our neighbors in the south believed that they would win Syria within weeks. Now, 11 years since then, 10 years since then, five years since the atrocities in Yemen started, we have been calling openly for peace, for political dialogue. We have shown it in Syria. We pushed all Syrian parties to the negotiating table, we have been conducting, I mean they have been conducting, with our support, with our help, with our encouragement, discussions in Geneva, and we hope those discussions will continue.

So, to answer your question, no. I do not believe partition is the answer. I do not believe military victory is the answer. I believe that all Syrians need to settle their differences politically, and I believe, all with influence in Syria should come together to help them, not to agitate them to continue fighting.

Zakaria: Just a few days ago, Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, announced that the United States government has found evidence that Iran was engaging in escalating cyber-attacks against the United States. This is a claim that is also corroborated in part by Microsoft, which has identified certain Iranian actors, apparently sponsored by the government. Why is Iran escalating cyber warfare against the United States?

Zarif: First of all, it is the United States that had acknowledged engaging in cyber warfare against Iran, even to the point of destroying very sensitive nuclear structures that could have ramifications with the death of hundreds of thousands of people. If you don't believe me just watch “Zero Days.” So, I mean there were articles written, there was even a documentary made in the United States about those attempts. Those are on the record, an acknowledgement by the U.S. government.

Now there are allegations that Iran is engaged in trying to infiltrate the U.S. electoral system. I mean this is nonsense. For us, it doesn't matter who goes to the White House. I mean, if we had an interest in the victory of one candidate or the other that argument could be made, but it seems that President Trump is using every opportunity to basically question the results of the U.S. election, which is something of news for all of us, for a president to question his own country's election.

Zakaria: You really don't care whether Trump or Biden wins?

Zarif: Not at all. It's not our business. For us, the behavior of the U.S. government is important. For us, it's not important who sits in the White House. As a foreign government we cannot bank on something we cannot control.

Question: The Trump administration has asserted that Iran has the capability to increase its stockpile of enriched uranium to the point where it could have sufficient fissile material for a nuclear weapon by the end of the year. Is it Iran's intention to enrich its low enriched uranium to the point where it would have enough fissile material for a weapon by the end of the year? Do you have the capability? And do you intend to do it? And then secondly, in your discussion, you said that “a deal's a deal,” you don't want to rewrite the JCPOA. Are you excluding a more-for-more arrangement, in which Iran would extend the sunset clauses or maybe do away with them entirely, in return for more benefits, in terms of sanction relief for in the economic sphere?

Zarif: On your first question, I don't buy these arguments, but if you believe that 1000 kilograms of low enriched uranium is enough for a bomb, we had enough low enriched uranium for a bomb—for eight bombs—between maybe 2010 to 2015 when we accepted the JCPOA and we didn't make a bomb.

Now we have about 3,000 kilograms, which, according to these analysis and calculations, is enough for three bombs already, so we don't need to wait until the end of the year, but we don't intend to build the bomb! We've said that we don't believe that nuclear weapons increase our security or increase our stability. In fact, they haven't increased the stability of those who had them, even against domestic threats. Look at the only possessor of nuclear weapons in our region. Is it secure? Is it stable? It's not, so nuclear weapons, in our strategic thinking, don't provide security. In our religious belief, they are forbidden. So, it's immaterial how much enriched uranium we have.

But according to JCPOA, our limit was 300 kilograms of 3.6 [percent] enriched uranium, and we've always said that if other members of the JCPOA go back to their commitments Iran is prepared to go back to its commitments. We were not the ones who broke our commitment. We went through the procedure that JCPOA provides. We exhausted that procedure. It took us over a year and a half after the U.S. withdrew from JCPOA to exhaust those procedures; we informed other members of JCPOA six months in advance in November of 2018 that we had exhausted the procedure – the so called VRM procedure that the United States decided not to use – and then in May of 2019 we started moving away from certain of our commitments which is recognized in JCPOA.

So, this is the situation as it stands. The United States decided to violate JCPOA, it decided to break JCPOA, it decided to leave JCPOA, it decided to prevent others from implementing JCPOA, and it's reaping the rewards. Now, as simple as that. On more-for-more, I want to see first the United States going back to its commitments, compensating Iran for its losses, giving us guarantees that it won't do it again. I mean, the United States needs to find a seat at the table before it starts raising questions. It does not have a seat because it left the room. And while it left the room – it doesn't matter which president did it – while he was out of the room, he tried everything to torpedo that room, he tried everything to destroy that room. Now, if it wants to come back to that room, it has to rebuild the room, then enter the room, sit at the table, and then, as I said, prove your brotherhood before you ask for inheritance.

Zakaria: If you are asking the United States to provide compensation for having withdrawn from the JCPOA before you will engage in negotiations about more-for-more – more sanctions relief for more strengthened current commitments on the nuclear deal – you're effectively saying that you will not engage in new negotiations with the United States because you know it is not a practical reality that any president could provide compensation to Iran because the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal. So, is that just a poison pill? You are saying you do not want negotiations with the United States?

Zarif: No, that's not what I'm saying. Just put yourself in our shoes, just switch places. Had we broken the deal, let’s assume, had we built a bomb, had we destroyed a city in the United States with our bomb, and then said, “Okay now we want to come back to the negotiating table.” Would you accept?

Zakaria: I'm just telling you, you know this country well, practically, the United States is not going to provide you with compensation because the Trump administration withdrew from JCPOA. If that is what you're asking for, it's not going to happen, and in fact, in effect, you're saying the deal is dead.

Zarif: No. The deal is very much alive. The Security Council showed the United States was isolated in the world. And now the Trump administration used power politics, used bullying, in order to destroy the deal. Now the next administration wants to use the bullying to come back to the deal. So, the bullying is there.

And you know, I know the U.S. pretty well, but you know Iran pretty well too. We don't succumb to pressure. Today, we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War. You know that war. You know that everybody supported Saddam Hussein. You know that everybody gave them all the weapons, even the Western countries gave him chemical weapons. Where is Saddam Hussein now? And where Iran is now? So, if we wanted to accept bullying, Saddam Hussein was still around, and Saddam Hussein would be creating a lot of terror in this region. We didn't accept his bullying when he was bombing us with chemical weapons. We won't accept anybody else's bullying.

Question: I remember very well the atmosphere after the JCPOA was reached. And I remember that one of the things that soured the atmosphere was the continued detention of dual American-Iranian citizens like Siamak Namazi. I wanted to ask whether there is any possibility that Iran will show mercy toward someone like Siamak who worked very hard in support of U.S.-Iran relations starting in the 1990s, and who remains behind bars all these years later. Is there any possibility for a humanitarian release?

Zarif: Thank you for bringing that question. I think it's very important. I think it was a year before last, but I addressed the same question of the council under better circumstances – it was live and I was there, and I responded to a question either by you or somebody else from the audience that we are ready for a universal exchange. And I have to make the case clear: I do not have a standing in the Iranian courts because these are domestic issues. These are Iranian citizens. And I have no standing. The only way I can get a standing is through an exchange. And I have suggested a universal exchange.

You saw the article in The New Yorker, I'm not referring to an article in our news. You had an article in The New Yorker about an Iranian who refused to spy for the United States, and he was kept in jail in the United States. But finally, we were able to release him through an exchange. And I'm willing to do more. There are Iranians in U.S. prison who are there only because they refused to betray their country. And we are prepared to exchange all of them, and all those who have been kept in jail. There were Iranians who were on their way to the airport in another country, and because of U.S. pressure, they've been back to jail after the court had acquitted them. So, let's not put one person in front of another. Let's do a universal deal. I repeat, we can exchange all prisoners.  Period.

Question: Are you concerned over the U.S. announcement of sanctions snapping back as while you've been speaking the Trump administration has announced new sanctions against Iran's defense ministry? And is Iran still seeking retribution for the U.S. targeting of General Qassem Soleimani?

Zarif: Well, the sanctions that the United States has been imposing on Iran, it's nothing new. Secretary Pompeo, I think, as we speak, is trying to gain some attention by having a press conference, it seems, at this very moment, announcing new sanctions. I don't think that's anything new. And I don't think it will have any more significant impact on Iran.

The United States has exerted all the pressure it could on Iran. It had hoped that these sanctions will bring a population to their knees. It didn't. That's why they withdrew from JCPOA. That's why they started maximum pressure. That's why they took a resolution to the Security Council. That's why after they failed, they started this so-called process of snapback. And I have to say that the words “snapback” doesn't appear in either JCPOA or Security Council Resolution 2231. And they failed.

Now, they are taking retribution not against us, but against the entire world by saying that anybody who does not accept—I mean, it’s as if somebody said: There is a U.N. Security Council resolution. And if you don’t accept it, I’m going to kick you. This is the type of global democracy the United States believes in.

As far as General Soleimani is concerned, the United States made a great mistake of assassinating in a clear terrorist way, somebody who was the number one enemy of ISIS. General Soleimani was revered, not only in Iran, but elsewhere. Again, the cognitive problem was that Secretary Pompeo, on the night of assassination of General Soleimani, put on his Twitter a clip of people dancing in Iraq showing that people of Iraq were celebrating the death of Soleimani. And we saw that the next morning that tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis came to the streets of various Iraqi cities mourning the killing of Soleimani. So Soleimani has a lot of people seeking revenge for his for his murder.

Zakaria: Are you though, saying the Iranian government is still considering the possibility of some kind of retaliation? Or are the books closed on that?

Zarif: No, the books are not closed. President Trump ordered the assassination of a national hero for Iran and a hero for the region. So, the books are not closed. I'm not in the business of making threats, but the book is not closed.

Question: I'm not sure that you fully answered Fareed's question about why it is that the United States is continuing to see significant cyber activity against targets here, not only reported by the government but, as Fareed pointed out, by Microsoft and others. Are these government sanctioned? Are you aware of them? Are you investigating them? And what do you make of the speculation here in U.S. intelligence circles that Iran has now come to the conclusion that there isn't really a whole lot of disruption that you can do right now given your economic situation and given the state of the presidential race, in which you said you really had no preference. Has there been a decision made to be less disruptive in the region than Iran at various moments has been in the past?

Zarif: Iran has not been disruptive in this region. We have defended our interests, and we have fought against terrorism. If the United States has tried to hurt our interests, then we defend ourselves. If the United States crosses are airspace, crosses our territory, we defend ourselves. And remember, this is called Persian Gulf, not Gulf of Mexico. It's close to our border, our waters, and about 7,000 miles away from your borders.

So, let's be very clear. We're not disruptive in our own region. The country that is disrupting our region is the United States, [which] spent seven trillion dollars in our region, destroyed our region, brought extremism to our region, and then it claims that we have reduced being disrupted? This is nonsense.

So as far as the United States wants to be the judge, jury and executioner for every case, well it can say, “Iran was disruptive in the past, it's not disruptive now. It will do this, do that.” These are just speculations, not speculation. These are just propaganda by the U.S. machinery. And I wouldn't buy it. And I hope you wouldn't either.

On cyber-attacks, as I said, the case that you personally documented was the United States cyber-attacks against Iran. Our hands are not tied. Iran has capabilities, but we do not condone cyber-attacks. But we will defend ourselves when we are attacked. We will defend ourselves. And again, we do not have limited means of defending ourselves

Question: I was in Doha just a few months ago when Iran announced its HOPE initiative for peace in the region. And I was wondering, from your perspective, what has Iran undertaken to advance peace in the region, and what countries and specific activities can you point to as part of the Munich Security Conference - Doha announcement of this new peace endeavor?

Zarif: Let me let me just give you a bit of historical background. In 1985, at the height of the tanker war in the Persian Gulf, where the United States came to the aid of Saddam Hussein, along with several other countries, we suggested a peace initiative in the Persian Gulf which became paragraph eight of Security Council resolution 598, which ended the Iran-Iraq War. Then we continuously suggested that countries in the region should come together and work for peace.

When I became foreign minister, I resuscitated those ideas by suggesting a regional dialog forum in 2014, suggesting a non-aggression pact in 2018. And then the president suggested the Hormuz Peace Endeavor or HOPE during the [U.N.] General Assembly last year. What we did in order to follow it up. And these are very simple ways of starting dialog, of starting confidence building. Exactly what happened in Europe. A few decades ago, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, an organization on security and cooperation on Europe, based on a basket of principle, a basket of confidence building measures, and we suggested all of that.

And then after President Rouhani came back from the General Assembly last year, he wrote letters to every head of state of the Persian Gulf, that is Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, UAE, Oman, Qatar and Iraq. All of them responded to us with the exception of the three famous ones, UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia decided to respond to us via Kuwait in a very harsh way. We provided a positive response even to their harshest. In their response, they didn't even address the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. They addressed the emir of Kuwait. We had addressed them directly. We had addressed the king of Saudi Arabia in a totally proper way. He responded with an extremely negative letter addressed to the emir of Kuwait, not to us. So, I think they want to resolve the differences with Iran until the last American soldier. Whether you want to do it or not, it's up to you.

But I believe the problems in our region need to be settled through dialog between regional countries. I do not believe this serves anybody by giving basically a carte blanche to countries to reject all sorts of endeavors for peace. I said from 1985, we put on the table suggestions for peace. And unfortunately, none of them had been taken seriously by those countries in the region who hope that they can pay for their security. And the United States is very much willing to sell them all the arms. But is the U.S. capable of providing them protection? I don't think so. I think protection cannot be bought from outside. I think protection should be gained through interaction in the region. And we are prepared to do that.

Question: Mr. Minister, you said that countries should be judged by their international behavior. I'd like to turn your attention from the Gulf to the Caspian Sea to neighbors who have proven their brotherhood. Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan could benefit from a gas pipeline crossing the Caspian. The littoral states have agreed on a demarcation. The environmental issues have been taken care of. So, is Iran prepared to support something that benefits these two brothers and benefits Europe for a new source of gas?

Zarif: I was fortunate to conclude, after 22 years of negotiations, the comprehensive legal convention of the Caspian. This was done in 2018, and I think it was signed by President Rouhani in 2019. The next stage is the state that you referred to has not been concluded, and that is the demarcation of the baselines, which is, for our parliament, the condition to present the comprehensive Caspian legal convention to the parliament for ratification. We are engaged in good faith with our neighbors in order to determine to agree on a baseline for all five countries of the Caspian.

These are difficult negotiations, very technical negotiations. And, as you pointed out, in the comprehensive convention, there are provisions for how a gas pipeline could be built in the Caspian. In our view, there are more economical ways of getting Turkmenistan gas to Europe, and we are prepared to help. We do not believe that the gas pipeline is feasible economically. But from an environmental perspective, there are ways of doing that in the convention, and we are prepared to go through the mechanism of the convention in order to make that a possibility.

But again, a land pipeline is more environmentally sound and a more secure way of getting Turkmenistan gas to Europe. And we are prepared to provide all the help that we can, pending a sea pipeline.

Question: A lot of the same people in a potential Biden administration were working with you. And the relationship between the U.S. and Iran, I think there was, by all accounts, a real thawing. These people have said that, if Vice President Biden were elected, that his administration would engage with Iran fairly early in an effort to not just get the JCPOA on track but resume that thawing. And I'm wondering if you see what's happened over the last few years as an anomaly with the Trump administration and whether there is hope that if Vice President Biden is elected that some kind of détente with Iran can be furthered? Or do you think that the damage that was done under President Trump would make that impossible in the near term?

Zarif: I really don't believe anything is impossible, but I believe it's going to take a lot of effort. We showed our readiness to engage in difficult endeavors. We did that with Secretary Kerry. It wasn't easy to start the negotiations which resulted in the JCPOA. Those were extremely difficult negotiations based on not mutual trust, but mutual mistrust. And we succeeded.

Now, I think a sign that good faith is that is not to try to renegotiate what already has been negotiated. This is extremely important. And I think, after these very difficult years of President Trump, it is important for the United States to send the right signals to Iran that it is willing to end this basically policy of pressure and, for the lack of a better word, bullying.

Question: I would appreciate your perspective on the current discussions on peace in Afghanistan and its implications for Iran.

Zarif: Iran has always been a participant in any peace effort, from the Bonn conference in 2001 – where Iran played a leading role in getting independent government in place in Afghanistan – to all regional attempts.

We believe that there were major flaws in the attempt by the United States in the recent process. I believe the United States engaged in an all-out effort to simply get out of Afghanistan, which is good, but it should not be at the expense of the people of Afghanistan and at the expense of the democratic process in Afghanistan, at the expense of the achievements of the of the international community and the Afghan people over the past 20 years. And I think, for the United States, the ultimate objective was to simply find a way to leave Afghanistan. It did not have to impose all of that on Afghanistan and on the region. So, we are very pessimistic about the process that the United States led, and that is why we did not participate in that process.

But we support any and all intra-Afghan dialogue. We believe that should be in keeping with the democratic achievements of the people of Afghanistan, with the participation of all parties, including the Taliban. We do not believe that it should be ruled by one party, but it should be with the participation of all parties. We believe that the future of Afghanistan should be decided by all Afghans without foreign interference, and regional countries should play a role in assisting and facilitating and not dictating.

I think the United States has not played a positive role. We indicated that since Dr. [Zalmay] Khalilzad started his endeavors, we said that it was on the wrong footing, that it was not based on assumptions and principles that would serve long term peace and stability in Afghanistan. We have observed very closely the discussions in Doha. They are, unfortunately, at a stalemate. We will do whatever we can in order to help that process. But the damage that has been done by the United States by this process is very difficult to undo.

Question: Do you have any reaction to the reports that the Russian government was paying Taliban soldiers to kill American soldiers?

Zarif: I have no information of that nature. I know that everybody in our region is concerned about the rise of DAESH [ISIS] in Afghanistan. And there has been cooperation in order to fight DAESH. But I have no information on the allegation that you just provide that. I don't think it should be correct. But I have no way of knowing.