A Conversation With Javad Zarif
A Conversation with Mohammad Javad Zarif
Minister of Foreign Affairs, Islamic Republic of Iran
Host, Fareed Zakaria GPS, CNN
Foreign Affairs Minister of Iran Mohammad Javad Zarif joins CNN’s Fareed Zakaria to discuss regional politics, nuclear security, and U.S.-Iran relations. Zarif discusses the Iran nuclear deal, Syrian crisis, and Iran's relationship with Saudi Arabia.
ZAKARIA: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you all for coming. We have a rare opportunity with a very distinguished guest, so I will—I will keep introductory remarks to a minimum. I just want to make sure that I remind everybody this is a rare Council meeting in that it is on the record, but it does not change the requirement that you turn your cellphones off and any other devices that might make—that might make any kind of noise while we’re doing this.
My guest needs no introduction. He has a favorability rating in Iran which has declined now to 75 percent. (Laughter.) I don’t think it’s quite that high in the United States. (Laughter.) But Mohammed Javad Zarif is the foreign minister of Iran. He was ambassador to the U.N. He’s a career diplomat. He is also an academic with a Ph.D. I think fair to say that he is the most distinguished diplomat Iran has had for many decades, and we have all seen him as he spearheaded Iran’s negotiations for the nuclear deal.
Pleasure to have you here, sir.
ZARIF: Good to be with you. Thank you.
ZAKARIA: So, what is it, one year after the nuclear deal, well, and the extraordinary thing is that we are in a situation where the American government claims that Iran has lived up to the deal, and the Iranian government claims that America has not lived up to the deal. What is the reality?
ZARIF: Well, the reality is that the deal had a number of ingredients. First of all, it was a deal about nuclear. We decided—I think wisely, but only history will tell—not to deal with other issues, because the history of Iran and the United States is so complicated, that had we decided to deal with everything and every issue we have problems with between ourselves—and believe me, everybody would have had their say in that—in that conversation—it wouldn’t have been a one-sided conversation—then we would have gotten bogged down in a discussion that would have never ended. So we decided to limit it to the nuclear deal. That’s a mistake that some people make here in the United States. They believe that this deal was supposed to resolve every difficulty between Iran and the United States. It’s a very clear, particular deal with specific requirements from each side. Our requirements, what Iran needs to do, can be verified by the IAEA, and it has been verified several times by the IAEA. And interestingly enough, even the United States doesn’t contest it. Every member of the P-5 plus one and the IAEA have said repeatedly that Iran has lived up to every single comma in the—in the deal as far as Iran is concerned.
On the part of the United States, to be fair to the United States, the United States has implemented its side of the bargain as far as the papers that have been signed by the president and the secretary of state are concerned. But as far as going out and trying to get it implemented actually—because it takes a lot to change the global climate that is afraid of the United States taking action against any bank that does any business with Iran—then it becomes a more difficult question to answer.
ZAKARIA: Give an example. Explain what you mean.
ZARIF: Well, some of you know that European banks have been fined exorbitance—amounts of money. I mean, sometimes even the numbers are difficult to say: $8.9 billion for Paribas; several billion dollars for HSBC. HSBC was so worried, that they went and asked Stuart Levey who used to be the undersecretary of the Treasury for these sanctions to become their compliance officer. That’s the—that’s the—(laughter)—that’s the type of fear and terror that these fines created in European banks. So they want to come and start a new business with Iran, and they always have this Office of Foreign Assets Control, OFAC. We know OFAC better—we have heard of OFAC more than any American, I guess, has heard of the—of the name. (Laughter.) OFAC goes out and tells these people that it’s OK to do business with Iran, but—and the buts and ifs are so long—I mean, there is one sentence that it’s OK to do business with Iran and about five pages of ifs and buts. So at the end of the day, these banks say we’ll take the safe road. We’ll forget about Iran. And that has been the outcome. No major European bank has started doing business with Iran now eight months after the deal. And we believe that’s a shortcoming.
There’s also a shortcoming as far as the U.S. government is concerned. Now, these are private companies taking private decisions. But the U.S. government even took six or seven months to give the license to Airbus to sell 17 out of 118 planes they requested. Well, fortunately they gave a license to Boeing to sell 80 of the 88 planes they requested. (Laughter.)
ZAKARIA: You don’t think that was a fair and transparent process? (Laughter.)
ZARIF: Well, as long as we’re getting the planes, I’m fine with it. (Laughter.)
ZAKARIA: But let me ask you, as a consequence, from what I have read, from the people I’ve talked to, the deal is not particularly popular in Iran, and Rouhani and you are not as popular as you were right after the deal because there was a sense that it was going to change things and it was going to improve the lives of people. Was the—was the—was the problem, as some people argue, some of your critics—that you promised people the moon, that their lives were going to be transformed, and that didn’t happen? Is the problem that this is inherently slow? Or do you think that these obstacles that the United States has left in place are really making it hard for the Iranian economy to get the benefits of the relaxation of sanctions?
ZARIF: I think still the good majority of the Iranian people support the deal, and that has been proven by poll after poll. But what should be of concern to American decision makers is that a greater majority of Iranians today distrust the United States than they did before we entered the deal; that is, before we had this deal, a majority of Iranians believed that resolving difficulties with the United States would be effective. Now the majority of Iranians believe otherwise, and that should send a very strong signal. So the deal is popular.
ZAKARIA: This is based on polling. This is—
ZARIF: This is based on polling by—not by us—by University of Maryland. The University of Maryland conducts almost regular polling, annual, sometimes twice a year in Iran through methods that you use here in the United States. Of course, polling have their difficulties and you all know about this. (Laughter.) We’re talking in an election year here, so everybody is watching the polls every second.
ZAKARIA: Well, we’re hoping polling has its difficulties. (Laughter.)
ZARIF: So the problem is that the Iranian people believe that the United States failed to fulfill its obligation. It’s not that we promised them the sun and the moon and everything else in between. We told them that this would remove the obstacles to Iran doing business with the rest of the world. We never said that this was going to remove the primary sanctions that the United States has against Americans dealing with Iran. We never had any difficulty dealing with U.S. businesses.
It’s the Congress that prevents U.S. businesses from dealing with Iran. And that is why we believe that it would be impossible for us to go to Congress and have Congress change its own legislation, that it was impossible even for the administration to go to Congress and get an approval for the deal. So we are all happy that the Congress did not reject the deal. That was all we got last October.
So what is important is that we believed and continue to believe that the United States should not impede Iran’s economic interaction with the rest of the world. What we hear is that when the United States, both government as well as various organizations here in the U.S, the lobbies and all of the other organizations you all know about, when they go to Europe, they dissuade companies from doing business with Iran rather than give them comfort that doing business with Iran is OK.
And I think that’s what the Iranian people see in this deal. And that is what is giving rise to a large number of Iranians having less and less trust in not the United States government, but even the possibility of being able to engage on specific issues with the United States government.
ZAKARIA: There are so many things to talk to you about that I’m just going to move around. Do you think that—I know the answer to this, but I’m going to ask you—do you think that the ceasefire will hold in Syria? And what is the most effective path to stop what has really become one of the worst humanitarian crises since World War II? Is there any path that will create political stability and end the civil war?
ZARIF: Well, I hope and pray that the ceasefire will hold. But it’s not, obviously. And there are a number of specific reasons why it’s not. I think there is a general philosophical reason for it and there are particular, practical reasons for it.
The philosophical reason for it, I mean, it’s not that philosophical, but the bigger-picture problem is that neither side, and there are not two sides, there are many sides in Syria, at least 70-some official groups fighting, nobody knows a clear perception, has a clear perception of what is to be expected in a future of Syria. All images of the future of Syria are based on a zero-sum approach: Assad stays, Assad goes, Assad stays for a year then goes, Assad doesn’t stay for a year. So it’s all about one person, focused on one individual and focused on yes or no.
We do not have any gray scale in our perspective about the future of Syria. I think the only way out, I mean, because I’ve gone through the nuclear negotiations, we started the nuclear negotiations with a zero enrichment option. That’s if Assad goes, and it didn’t work. Zero enrichment produced 20,000 centrifuges.
Whereas when the United States government came up with zero enrichment, Iran would have been happy with a couple of thousand centrifuges. I negotiated it then, too, so I know that I would have been happy. (Laughter.)
So now it’s exactly the same. And this has produced so many casualties. So I think that’s the, if you want to call it a philosophical problem, that’s the bigger-picture-of-the-future problem.
The immediate problem is that there is—every ceasefire in the past two years in Syria has been broken because of the impossibility to delineate between those who are participating in ceasefire and those who are not participating in ceasefire. Now, we put Daesh aside because that’s rather clear cut, although the bombing by the United States, the accidental bombing by the United States of Deir al-Zor the other day targeted the Syrians who were fighting Daesh and helped Daesh gain an airbase. And simply an apology would not reverse that strategic change.
But on the other side in Aleppo and elsewhere, it is impossible to delineate between Al-Nusra, who everybody considers to be terrorists, and those who are considered to be participants in the ceasefire. They fight together. This is not my claim, even the United States. If you read the first paragraph of the September 9th agreement between Russia and the United States, it says it has to be delineated and it’s not.
ZAKARIA: Well, because they also switch sides all the time.
ZARIF: They switch sides. I mean, it’s sort of like the flag of convenience that they change as they see fit. And then they have a public relations campaign once in every while to say that this group has now become kosher. (Laughter.) That is, I mean, that it’s not affiliated with al-Qaida and it is conveniently—conveniently al-Qaida goes out and says we freed them of their obligation to follow us. So this is an interesting maybe we should call it a game that is being played. So, I mean, this would be funny if it weren’t tragic.
I think the problem in Syria is that many players continue to believe there is a military solution. And many players continue to believe that they can play with these various extremist organizations to gain strategic advantage.
ZAKARIA: So let’s talk about the main player who you accuse of doing this. You had a pretty tough op-ed in The New York Times on Saudi Arabia.
ZARIF: I’m not always nice. (Laughter.)
ZAKARIA: Now, I have to say, this will be recorded, I think, in history that at the Council on Foreign Relations today the Iranian foreign minister described a Sunni jihadist group as kosher. (Laughter.) I think that that surely is a first.
ZARIF: I said you called them kosher, not us. (Laughter.)
ZAKARIA: It seemed to me that that piece on Saudi Arabia was very tough. You were essentially arguing, if one could read between the lines, and you didn’t have to read that much between the lines, that Saudi Arabia continues to fund, you know, large numbers of militants in places like Syria. It is essentially exporting its jihadi problem and that that is at the heart of the instability.
ZARIF: Did I break any news to you? (Laughter.)
ZAKARIA: But what I’m struck by is, in writing that piece, you are setting out a pretty tough standard. You don’t seem to think there is any possibility for a negotiation, a rapprochement between you and Saudi Arabia. You drew the line very hard.
ZARIF: I’m sure you read the entire piece, because I end that piece by saying—
ZAKARIA: Two lines at the end, yes.
ZARIF: —yeah, yeah. But that’s important because none of my Saudi neighbors have said that. I say that Saudi Arabia should be a part of the solution. I believe that our region cannot have a solution based on exclusion.
ZAKARIA: But do you believe right now—
ZARIF: This is exactly opposed to the Saudi philosophy which wants to exclude Iran from any deal in the region. I am, I think, sober enough—not reasonable, at least sober enough to believe that there cannot be a deal in our region based on the exclusion of one of the important parties. And I believe Saudi Arabia is an extremely important partner, hopefully, in this region.
ZAKARIA: Would you sit down with Saudi Arabia to negotiate over Syria?
ZARIF: Actually, it should be the Syrians who will negotiate over Syria.
ZAKARIA: But there are going to be outside—
ZARIF: But Iran and Saudi Arabia and other stakeholders can, in fact, start developing that perspective about the future of Syria.
ZAKARIA: And you would be willing to—
ZARIF: And I did that. Actually, in the last ISSG meeting—International Syria Support Group—in Vienna about—in the spring, I set out and suggested that we should now start discussing, in a brainstorming fashion—we don’t need to engage in formal negotiations—at least in a brainstorming fashion start discussing your perceptions about the future of Syria so that we can convey it to our friends in Syria so that they could have a better picture of the future of Syria.
I believe that is a must, that all the players inSyriashould start thinking about the future, a future that does not require violence, a future that does not require bloodshed. And I believe people in our region must answer this question, and the question is: Do they want an end to war inSyria? I can tell you bluntly thatIranand all its friends want an end to the war inSyria, period, today better than tomorrow.
ZAKARIA: In response to that op-ed, the Saudi foreign minister wrote an op-ed that let’s say was a mirror image except it didn’t have that last line. And what I wonder about is—you know, the popular perception is that Syria is stuck because the U.S. and Russia are on opposite sides, or seem to be on opposite sides, or are not getting on well enough.
It seems to me that ifSaudi ArabiaandIranare as strongly antagonistic as they appear to be—the Saudi foreign minister in that op-ed said, let us not forgetIranis the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world—not words that you would use if you were trying to begin a negotiating process. My point is it seems as though the two, you andSaudi Arabia, are in a cold war.
ZARIF: Well, first of all, unfortunately the op-ed by my Saudi counterpart was a lot of rehashing of old historical allegations. You don’t see anything recent in his article. But whatever I say in my article pertains to today, not to allegations about 15 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago.
What I talk about is something that started 30, 40 years ago after the victory of the Islamic Revolution, and the West decided to turn a blind eye to, and now you are waking up to a very, very nasty nightmare.
So this is the difference between the approach. I’m not trying to rehash old history. If I wanted to rehash old history, I would have said thatSaudi Arabiais a country that supported Saddam Hussein to kill our people. And they did, for eight years. I’m not rehashing old history. There is a lot of old history that can be brought to the surface. It doesn’t resolve our problem.
Our problem today is the fact that they are funding extremism in the hope that they can divert the attention from the inability of the state system in their country and the rest of the region from addressing the difficulties and anxieties and aspirations of the Arab youth into a perceived and manufactured enemy, being either the Shias or the Iranians.
This is the attempt that they have made over the past several decades, and the outcome of it would be the creation of a monster. You remember the Saudis have created several monsters for us. They created Saddam Hussein. I mean, the amount of money they poured into his army is unbelievable. He turned against them. They created Taliban and al-Qaida. They turned against them. Now they are funding Daesh and al-Nusra. They will turn against them. And once they turn against them, it will be disaster.
So they want a—they simply want—and this is where I think Iran and Saudi Arabia have a common interest. The common interest is, while they perceive or believe that they can, in fact, divert the attention of the extremists in the Arab movement towards Iran, they know that at the end of the day they are the real target. They are the real prize. And if they understand that, they would understand that nobody will gain anything from supporting extremism, that the extremism is an animal, a monster, a Frankenstein that will bite the hands that feeds it.
And once that understanding sinks in, once the illusion that we can have the Assad forces and the extremists kill each other off in the battlefields of Syria, once that illusion fades away then there is a possibility for serious cooperation for Iran and Saudi Arabia to sit around the same negotiating table, talk about the future of Syria, and help create an image that would attract the warring party, present to the warring parties a better future that would attract them to negotiate. We are ready to do that anytime.
ZAKARIA: All right, I’m going to move on to, inevitably, another topic. Donald Trump says that if Iranian soldiers were to make obscene signs at American sailors, he would shoot them out of the water—he would shoot the ships out of the water. What is your reaction? (Laughter.)
ZARIF: Well, first of all let’s talk about geography. Our soldiers and our sailors are a few miles away from our coasts. Yours, Americans, are several thousand miles away. And then they get upset when our boats tell them not to get into our internal waters, that you are approaching Iranian borders, that if you encroach upon our sovereignty—who knows? I mean, we don’t have a love affair with theUnited States. We have had 40 years of difficulty with theUnited States.
Consider a gunship or huge aircraft carrier approaching your waters—your waters. I mean, we are not talking about theGulf of Mexicoor whatever. It’s thePersian Gulf. And then they give them warning. But I have checked with our military and they tell me that no Iranian ship has come closer to a hundred meters from any American ship in thePersian Gulf.
Now, people may get cranky because they believe that this is getting out of hand and say it’s a few hundred meters, but our rules of engagement is not to get closer than a hundred—than a thousand meters, less than a mile, just about a—I mean less—just, what, 1.6—1,600 meters would be a mile so more than half a mile—shouldn’t get closer than half a mile to an American ship—to any foreign ship because, at the end of the day, the Persian Gulf is our lifeline. We sell all of our oil from thePersian Gulf.
For theU.S., Persian Gulf may be some sort of vital interest that theU.S.has designed for itself, but ours is just right there. We’re right there. Well, how would you think if an Iranian warship were to come to Gulf ofMexico, coast of, whatever,FloridaorTexasor wherever else, and then say: Why are you getting close to me? I’m sailing in international waters. Why are you getting close to me?
You are close to us. We are not getting close to you. (Laughter.) So we are not interested—we are not interested in any provocation with the U.S., period. And I don’t talk about the internal politics of theUnited Statesas I do not want the Americans to talk about my internal politics. (Laughter.)
ZAKARIA: Let me finally, before I open it up, just clarify one thing.
In the previous answer you said “they are funding Daesh.” Are you saying the Saudi Arabian government is fundingISIS?
ZARIF: I’m saying that a lot of money fromSaudi Arabiainitially went to the establishment of these organizations. Whether today they are funding Daesh, I do not know. But I know that money is going to al-Nusra. I know that arms are going to al-Nusra. And I know that al-Nusra is getting new recruits.
I mean, I don’t think that angels are bringing them down, I mean, as much as they might want to believe. So they are coming from somewhere. Money is going—coming from somewhere. Weapons are coming from somewhere.
And it’s not that difficult. These weapons are not guerilla warfare weapons. They have tanks, you know? They have missiles. They have antiaircraft missiles. They have antitank missiles.
ZAKARIA: And you think they—
ZARIF: They have serial numbers.
ZAKARIA: And they could only come fromSaudi Arabia?
ZARIF: No, no, I’m not making accusations. I’m asking somebody to go check the serial number and then ask theU.S.government to check its inventory. (Laughter.)
ZAKARIA: I think if you could—the Iranian militias have more access to the battlefield in Syria than almost anybody. Couldn’t you get us the serial numbers and we could—
ZARIF: If you ask for it.
ZAKARIA: All right. I’ll open the questions. Ma’am, in back there. Yeah.
Q: Hello. It’s Raghida Dergham of Al-Hayat. Nice to see you both.
You are speaking about the support of the Saudis to Daesh and—or Nusra or others. It’s obvious that Iran supports and sponsors militias that are working in Syria other than Hezbollah. Why is it legitimate for Iran to support militias working in Syria? And why is it—I mean, obviously, you know that the ISSG yesterday had a meeting, and I’m sure you were aware that it didn’t go too well between Kerry and Lavrov. Are you willing to help out?
ZAKARIA: Let’s keep it—
Q: Are you willing to help out with that ceasefire practically and do something—deliver in order to show good faith in what you’re doing in Syria in support of Bashar Assad? Of course you are there.
ZARIF: Raghida, last I checked—
ZAKARIA: There are two questions.
ZARIF: Oh, two questions, OK.
ZAKARIA: One on the militias, one on the—nobody else will be allowed two questions, right? (Laughter.)
ZARIF: So should I answer?
ZARIF: Even though she asked two questions? (Laughs.)
ZAKARIA: I think—I think we’ll allow it.
Q: Thank you.
ZAKARIA: She’s an old friend of the Council. (Laughter.)
ZARIF: Last I checked, the United Nations still recognizes the Syrian Arab Republic as the government of Syria. We support the government of Syria in its fight against foreign-sponsored terrorists. That’s very clear and we don’t shy away from that, and we believe it is important to fight terrorism.
Now, are we prepared to help find a political solution for Syria which involves sacrifices by all, including the government? Of course we are. Are we prepared to help the ceasefire? Of course we are. In every ISSG meeting I have insisted on two sentences—very short sentences.
There is no military solution to Syria. There has to be a comprehensive ceasefire, unconditional. These two sentences must be unconditional. Please go and ask people who participated in ISSG meetings and see who opposed it. One member participant in ISSG said with the help of God we will either remove Assad from office politically or militarily. So they believe there is a military solution to Syria.
I believe there is no military solution to Syria. We are prepared to help with the ceasefire. I said exactly in the meeting yesterday what I said here—that we have to address these two questions. One is to create a picture of an acceptable future in Syria that is acceptable to all. Nobody will like every bit of it but at least everybody has to accept part of it to find a way to delineate between Nusra and its reincarnations, if you believe reincarnations are acceptable.
ZAKARIA: Sir? And you have to identify yourself.
Q: Yeah. Hadi Ghaemi from Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. A pleasure to see you in New York again.
During the past three years, you and President Rouhani, especially during your trips abroad, have very actively courted and talked to the Iranian diaspora, particularly the professional and business class, inviting them back to the country. However, the security and intelligent forces of your—of the Islamic Republic have consistently and routinely detained dual nationals who traveled back without any—without any evidence of wrongdoing, really, and they include, for example, the 80-year-old former U.N. official, Baquer Namazi; his son, Siamak Namazi; mother of two-year-old Nazanin Ratcliffe. My question is, how do you reconcile your invitation to the Iranian diaspora? How can they trust those invitations when in practice this kind of detentions and treatment of dual nationals continues?
And the answer is not really independence of judiciary of rule of law, as you know and I know. I appreciate if you explain the policy of yourself and Mr. Rouhani abroad versus the practices at home. Thank you.
ZARIF: Well, you gave the answer yourself. Because the judiciary in the—in the Islamic Republic is independent, that’s the answer. But you made a statement and that is we invite Iranian Americans and Iranians of any—of any new nationality to come to Iran. Obviously, they all know and it’s written in the back of their passport that when they go to their countries of origin most countries do not recognize dual citizenship and they’ll be subjected to the laws of their country.
But you made also a statement. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians, millions of Iranians, live outside Iran. Thousands of them, hundreds and thousands of them come to Iran on a regular basis and leave Iran on a regular basis without any impediment or any problem. Unfortunately, something happens to some of them. I’m not here to judge what has happened to the individuals you mentioned or others. We hope that their situations could be resolved amicably and we hope that they could return.
As you know, I played the role in getting the release of some in the past and we hope that this could continue in the future. But I have to insist that the government—some people, for political reasons, try to say that during the three years of President Rouhani this has happened. President Rouhani has nothing to do with it. This is a judiciary—no president has anything to do with it. It’s one of the hallmarks of our system. The judiciary is independent from the executive, and it may have some drawbacks but it has its advantages.
ZAKARIA: Can I just ask a supplementary to that question, which is there is a perception that you and President Rouhani do not have complete control of the government—that there are hardliners in Iran who are—who try to embarrass you at every turn, who try to in some way complicate your ability to make the kind of outreaches you want to make and that sometimes they use the judiciary where they do tend to dominate—that this is part of a larger problem of your political weakness.
ZARIF: Well, Fareed, let me say something close to home here, because I want you to see the facts as they—as you see it here because once we talk about a foreign land, we look at it as a monolith. We want to see ourselves as pluralistic but we see others as monolithic.
It happens to us, too. The other day, four or five months ago, a New York court—right here, the Southern District Court of New York—fined Iran $11 billion. You know what? For 9/11. So before this legislation that is pending in Congress and waiting for a veto and override about justice for victims of terrorism, we are already supposed to pay $11 billion for 9/11. There wasn’t a single Iranian involved in 9/11.
Everybody who was involved in 9/11 hated our guts, and we still have to pay, because of the U.S. court system, $11 billion of funds. The U.S. Supreme Court, right after—right after JCPOA decided to reject the appeal by the Central Bank of Iran against a ruling by a previous court against Southern District Court of New York that confiscated $1.8 billion of Iranian funds—Iranian Central Bank Funds—for the terrorist claim.
Do you say that the courts in the United States want to undermine the U.S. government? At the end of the day, you say the courts in the U.S. are independent of the government, and we say it out loud. The executive branch in Iran has no control over the judiciary. I think it is easy for the Americans to understand. It must be easy for the Americans to understand. You’re on the same system. Can you justify about Secretary Kerry? Can you justify Supreme Court decision? Can you justify Iran being asked to pay $11 billion for 9/11 when this happened in the U.S. court system and everybody takes it for granted that this can happen in a democracy where you have a separation of powers?
ZAKARIA: So, the back.
Q: Ivan Robredo (sp). Good afternoon, Mr. Foreign Minister.
You recently returned from Latin America and you visited Ecuador, Bolivia, Cuba, and Venezuela.
ZARIF: And Chile.
Q: And Chile. My question to you is, can you share with us your impressions of the humanitarian crisis you’ve probably evidenced in Venezuela and your discussions and your impressions of what you saw on the ground while you were there? Thank you.
ZARIF: I have to tell you, unfortunately, unfortunately, a foreign minister going to a foreign country does not see what is happening on the ground. This is unfortunate. I’m not saying that that’s something to be proud of. But if I tell you I didn’t see anything, it’s only natural. I don’t see what’s happening in the streets in New York, although I lived here for a couple of decades. But I don’t see. I mean, I’m put in a car, shoved into a car actually—(laughter)—taken to wherever I want to go and taken out and back in the car, so that’s all I see. So I didn’t see anything.
But unfortunately, the push to drive down the oil prices has destroyed the economies of many countries, including in the Middle East. Some had too much reserves or a lot in reserve and have been able to cushion that. Some, like Iran, reduced their dependence on oil and we’ve been able to have growth, economic growth, in spite of the lower oil prices. Some people did not have this fortune, where if Venezuela depends over 90 percent of its revenues on oil, how can it survive this huge drop in oil prices? So it’s a challenge.
It’s a challenge, but I saw a lot of opportunities in all the countries I visited, in Nicaragua, in Cuba, in Venezuela, in Ecuador, in Bolivia, and in Chile, for greater cooperation between Iran and the United States. And in spite of the picture that some conservatives try to depict here in the United States, this is not against anybody. This is for the economic development and well-being of our people and the people of these countries. We are not there to hurt anybody, we are not there to conspire against anybody, we’re just there to make business. And we need that business.
ZAKARIA: All right. We have so many questions that I’m going to ask people to really try to be very brief in their—
ZARIF: Are you asking me, too?
ZAKARIA: No, no, no. I was trying to be delicate rather, exactly. (Laughter.)
Yes, ma’am? Yeah, yeah.
Q: On the oil price, negotiations are going—
ZAKARIA: Can you—can you identify—
Q: Oh, sure, Helene McCraw (ph) from Bank of Canada.
In terms of the oil price, what’s the outlook for getting a freeze done next week in Algiers? There was some discussion in Vienna today there might be an agreement. I mean, is it a priority of your administration to get an actual freeze?
ZARIF: It’s a priority of our administration to have just and reasonable oil prices and more, basically, tranquility in the markets rather than the situation right now. How we reach that agreement and how we reach an understanding is something that needs to be worked out.
Obviously, Iran was outside this equation for a very long time because of the unjust sanctions. And now we’re back and we believe that we should have our share of the market. We had a specific share of the market, some others overtook our share during the time that we were out. Now, obviously, they need to compensate because we’re back.
ZAKARIA: Sir, in the middle there? Yeah.
Q: Mr. Foreign Minister, good to see you.
ZAKARIA: Could you identify yourself?
Q: George Schwab, National Committee on American Foreign Policy.
I would like to know why Iran is continually attacking Israel as being a Satan country.
ZARIF: Well, if you listened to Prime Minister Netanyahu the other day in the General Assembly, you saw the reverse. We have a view of the problems in our region. And the view is corroborated by the facts. That is, for the past 70 years the rights of the Palestinians have been trampled upon, Iran has nothing to do with it, Iran was not involved, and they continue to be trampled upon.
There is no outcome in sight. And the entire anxiety and anger that is leading to the extremism and being exploited by the demagogues is the fact that the continued situation in Palestine, the continued suffering of the Palestinian people remains at the core of the issue in the Middle East.
People have tried to blame others for something that they had nothing to do. You want to address the problem? Address the problem. The problem is occupation, the problem is violation of the human rights of the Palestinian people, the most basic human rights of the Palestinian people. The problem is expansionism. The problem is aggression. The problem is use of force.
You see, we live in the 21st century. In the 18th and 19th century, self-help and the use of force was a rule of the game. In the 20th century and 21st century, use of force and threat of use of force are illegal. Israel on a daily basis threatens to use force against Iran. It actually engages in terrorizing our population, in killing our scientists. It threatens to use force against our nuclear facilities. Even after the deal, it tried to torpedo the deal, breaking every tradition in the United States, coming even to address Congress without invitation from the president. So they have done all of that.
You find a single Iranian official having threatened to use force against Israel, you’ll never find that. We never threatened to use force against anybody. We say we will defend ourselves. If anybody is foolish enough to attack us, we will defend ourselves as it is our right. But we say it very clearly, publicly and without any qualification that Iran will never use force against any other entity in the world.
ZAKARIA: Let me ask a supplementary on that. You must have seen the hacked emails of Colin Powell. One of them he said Israel has 200 nuclear weapons targeted on Iran. Would you corroborate that?
ZARIF: He didn’t break any news for anybody, I think.
ZAKARIA: Would you corroborate that?
ZARIF: I mean, he’s in the know. I mean, how do I know about Israel. (Laughter.) But he should—he actually corroborated what we have been saying all along, that Israel was the only entity with nuclear weapons in the region and its nuclear weapons are a threat against peace, threat against security and will not bring security to anybody.
You see, we have to abolish this illusion that nuclear weapons produce security. We have to abolish the illusion that nuclear weapons even safeguard a state. If they wanted to safeguard a state, they should have prevented the dismemberment of the former Soviet Union. Nobody had as many nuclear weapons as the Soviets did, not even the United States. But where is the Soviet Union? So these illusions have to be abandoned.
We all need to work for a world free from nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons do not provide security. They need not be there for anybody, including the five permanent members, if I may.
ZAKARIA: Ma’am at the back in the blue? Yeah, yeah.
Q: Elise Labott with CNN.
Foreign Minister, thank you for joining us today. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about Russia’s role in Syria. There’s been, you know, some mixed messages about how Iran is a little bit frustrated with Russia’s kind of dominance of the military situation on the ground and perhaps there has been some tension between Iran and Russia over this. And basically in the last 24 hours as the ceasefire, obviously there’s been problems with it, but there have been, some people say, up to a hundred airstrikes on Aleppo. I was wondering if you could speak in terms of the recent escalation of violence on the ground and whether you think this is just about terrorism, or do you think that this is completely spiraling out of control now, with Russian support?
ZARIF: Well, it can be just about terrorism and it can be spiraling out of control. And I don’t think these two statements are mutually exclusive. It is spiraling out of control. And it is much more than just about terrorism. I think a regional, strategic rebalancing act is being focused on Syria. And it’s creating disaster for the entire region. I think we need to address those anxieties that are at the heart of this rebalancing act of the region. And that is a problem.
But as far as Iran and Russia are concerned, I mean, we’re not competing to play a military role in Syria. Obviously, nobody wants to do this. I don’t think the Russians are too enthusiastic about doing that. It’s a necessity of fighting.
(Coughs.) Excuse me. You see—
ZAKARIA: Javad, have some water.
ZARIF: I did.
For some of us in that region, it’s a serious, imminent threat. Daesh, forRussia, is something that can pop up inChechnya, in many of its—in neighborly countries of the Caucuses andCentral Asia, even in its own republic. So it’s a real serious threat for us too. It’s on our border. I mean, Iraq is just a neighbor and we suffered eight years of war there.
So I think we are not competing with Russia. I think we have a similar objective. Obviously no two countries have exactly identical objective, but we have similar objectives, and that is as far as fighting terrorism, fighting Daesh, fighting al-Nusra. And I’m confident that Russia is as interested in bringing peace and a ceasefire—I mean, they have engaged in lengthy negotiations with the United States. Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry have been at it together for a long time.
I mean, we have our concerns about the details because we believe that some of the details—exactly what I said. I mean, I’m not talking about anything other than what I said here: the problem with delineation, the problem with vacant areas. Who will populate the vacant areas when these wars—because there are parties to the—I mean, this is a peculiar ceasefire.
This is a ceasefire where some of the warring parties are party to it and some are not. So if the warring parties vacate some of these areas, it’s a good possibility that the bad guys who are not parties to this agreement will go and actually populate the area that was vacated by the warring parties.
So these are questions that need to be answered, and I think the United States and Russia agreed on the joint implementation whatever—JIC that they call it, Joint Implementation Committee (sic; Commission), I guess. But they are waiting for seven days of calm in Syria before—and this is on the insistence of the United States—before they create this joint implementation whatever.
So what will happen during those seven days? It takes only a couple of hours to change the strategic balance in favor of Daesh or al-Nusra. And they have to think about this. And I’m sure Russians are thinking about this. I hope that theUnited Statesis thinking about this because a lot of people—a lot of people of your allies would be happy, unfortunately, if Daesh and al-Nusra were to take over territory that is now occupied by the Syrians. And that’s bad.
Q: My name is Donald Shriver. I’m the former president of Union Theological Seminary here inManhattan.
I want to congratulate you and thank you for your editorial in the New York Times. I think American Christians especially would like to know that Islam has some internal critics as well as its external critics.
ZAKARIA: You have got to ask a question.
Q: And my question is, how do we get rid of the Wahhabis? (Laughter.)
ZAKARIA: I feel as though you have answered this question.
ZARIF: No, let me—let me just say that please do not equate Wahhabism with Islam. It’s not the same. It’s a very small minority—very small. I mean, most of the Saudis are not Wahhabis. You tell a Saudi that you are a Wahhabi, they will be angry at you. They will tell you that I’m a Hanbali, not Wahhabi.
Wahhabism is a school—a school of thought, a political school in our view. But unfortunately, what the West can do is stop turning a blind eye. For the past four decades Wahhabis have been able to propagate, to sell their books, to sell their literature of hate to finance various mosques. That has to stop. And I think it’s in the long-term interest ofSaudi Arabiaand its allies that this stops.
ZAKARIA: Sir. No, no, the gentleman behind.
Q: Hi. Father Andrew from St. Paul’s Foundation. Obviously, I’m an orthodox monk, and there are many of us in Iran. And, in fact, the Christian population of Iran swelled during the Armenian genocide, and the second-oldest Christian church, Mart Maryam, is in Iran.
You talked about OFAC. It’s sometimes a problem for us, too. You’ve also mentioned that you’ve had 40 years of problems with the United States, but yet you have a Ph.D. from, you know, the University of Denver. Do you think that there are—
ZARIF: I came before those 40 years.
Q: No, I understand. Well, you don’t look that old. (Laughs.)
ZAKARIA: OK, you’ve got to ask a question.
Q: The question—yeah, the question that I have is, from the Iranian side, do you think that you could sponsor additional cultural exchanges so, for example, that Christians in the United States could understand that they don’t have quite as much to fear from Iran, with the rebuilding of traditional churches and the rebuilding of traditional Christian communities in Iran, which have had such great welcome there over the centuries?
ZARIF: Well, we still have—I mean, we have two Armenian representatives in our parliament. Armenian churches in Iran are thriving. I mean, we just finished an Armenian—a global Armenian Olympics in Iran, hosted by our own Armenian community. Not too many people know that we have the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside of Israel. And they do have their synagogues, and they do have an assigned seat in the parliament—although their numbers are not high enough to get a seat, because every 150,000 Iranian gets a seat in the parliament. But for religious minorities, it’s an assigned seat, that they will get it irrespective of their numbers. So we have two Armenian representatives, one Assyrian representative—which is another variation of our Christian community—and one Jewish representative in the parliament, and one Zoroastrian representative.
The former Jewish representative in the parliament now resides with his mother in Los Angeles, so it shouldn’t be—(laughter)—no, no, no, he comes back to Iran, don’t worry. (Laughter.) But his mother—even when he was a representative in our Majlis, his mother lived in Los Angeles, and he used to come and visit.
So, I mean, a lot of this—(laughs)—image that has been created of Iran is just an image. And you see all my pictures on the billboards and taxis saying “death to America means death to Americans,” and I never said that in my life.
So I believe there is a lot to be gained from the two communities interacting. But we need to build some confidence so that people in Iran would react positively and people in the United States would react positively. We are prisoners of our perceptions and our presumptions. And this has become a problem after we have built on these perceptions for 40 years. But I did come here before that. (Laughter, laughs.) Although I don’t look that old. I came here when I was very young. (Laughter.)
ZAKARIA: Odeh Aburdene, OAI Advisors: Mr. Minister, the Turks are a key player in the Syria conflict. Have you talked to the Turks? And how do—how do the Turks look at a solution?
ZARIF: Well, actually, we started talking to the Turks—I started talking to the Turks here on the East River. Immediately after I became foreign minister, I had a long conversation—the first time I worked wasn’t with Secretary Kerry, although it grabbed most of the attention. I worked with the foreign minister of Turkey. And we had a long conversation about Syria, but it had its ups and downs. Now, for the past two months, we have had regular contacts on Syria and we have done some good work about the future perspective of Syria. And I think while the future of Syria must be determined by the people of Syria, those around Syria can help create some level of understanding and confidence and clear expectations, so that the warring parties can actually engage and get out of these very strict positions that they have imprisoned themselves in and start talking.
(Coughs.) That’s the problem with speaking too much. (Laughter.)
ZAKARIA: I think we’re going to have to wrap it up. Let me ask you one final question. For both sides, it seemed to me after the Iran deal there was a hope that there would be something a little bit like the opening to China—that Iran would be a country that would integrate more and more with the international community, that the United States and Iran would be able to cooperate more in areas in the Greater Middle East the way, for example, Iran did cooperate with the United States, or the United States cooperated with Iran, however you want to look at it, on the political solution to Afghanistan after the Taliban fell. Was that—was that an illusion, or could that have happened?
ZARIF: Well, we said it very clearly at the level of the supreme leader that we look at this, experiment. And if this experiment turns out to be positive, then we can work out another experiment. There is a lot of mistrust. We need to build trust one step at a time. I hope that the experiment that we are now undertaking will dent some of the mistrust rather than further dent the trust.
And I think it is very important for the United States to understand that sanctions are not good policy. Sanctions have never produced the outcome that they intended to produce. You see, if you look at sanctions as a means of hurting people, of course they do. They do hurt. But as a means of achieving policy objectives, I think sanctions have imprisoned U.S. policymakers.
I mean, look at Cuba. There’s such—I was in Cuba twice in the past month. There’s such a web of sanctions around Cuba that even the decision—political decision of the president of the United States cannot rid the administration and the American people of this web of sanctions. It’s impossible to free yourselves.
So my call to the Americans is liberate yourselves from sanctions. (Laughter.) Sanctions are not an asset; they’re a liability.
ZAKARIA: On that note, Mr. Foreign Minister, a pleasure to have you. (Applause.)
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