Iranian Foreign Minister Pledges Support for Iraq in Fight Against ISIS
A Conversation With Mohammad Javad Zarif
Foreign Minister, Islamic Republic of Iran
Chief Foreign Correspondent, PBS NewsHour
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sits down with Margaret Warner of PBS to discuss Iranian foreign policy and the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East. Though Zarif is strongly supportive of efforts to oppose and defeat ISIS, he is skeptical of the potential effectiveness of American air power. He emphasizes that the fight should be for the Iraqis to win and notes that it is resentment of foreign intervention in the region that has fueled movements like ISIS to begin with. On the status of the ongoing nuclear negotiations, Zarif insists that Iran is prepared to agree to certain assurances that their nuclear program be used only for peaceful purposes and suggests that the ultimate stumbling block may be the reluctance of Congress to repeal economic sanctions.
WARNER: Welcome, everyone. Welcome to today's Council on Foreign Relations meeting with Foreign Minister of Iran Javad Zarif. And I'd like to welcome not only the CFR members here, but around the world and throughout this country participating by watching it live stream, and also many of our members in Washington, D.C., who are there and will have the opportunity actually to ask questions as you will.
A couple of notes, of course, familiar ones. Please turn off your cellphones. And we will end promptly at 7:00. And we've be asked to all remain in place so that the minister can leave first.
Now, Foreign Minister Zarif needs absolutely no introduction to this audience, lifelong distinguished diplomat of Iran, longtime Iranian representative to the United Nations, and he's now in the forefront of every major issue in the region and many in the world, including, of course, the fight against the Islamic State militants, or ISIS, and the Iran nuclear talks.
So let's just get started. We're going to begin with a few introductory remarks from the minister. Then he and I will engage in conversation for 15 or 20, and all of you will have the opportunity—or many of you—to ask questions.
So, Minister Zarif, welcome. And the podium's yours.
ZARIF: Good afternoon to all of you here and those who are watching us and participating in this from other places. It's a great pleasure for me to be back in this hall with a group of familiar faces. I know many of you. And it's very good to see you again.
I've been told only to talk for five minutes, so if I just start and say hello, it will take five minutes. And I'm jetlagged, so I'll try not to put you to sleep and, more than that, not to fall asleep myself, so we'll try to move fast.
I think it's now fashionable in this day and age to talk about world disorder. Everybody is talking about global disorder. Everybody has a way of talking about it. Richard has been talking about non-polarity. Others have been talking about similar things, uni-multi-polarity, all sorts of different, sometimes strange concepts coming out, in order to explain why there is a change in international relations.
I believe we—more than having a global disorder, we have a problem of cognitive disorder, and that is a problem that we are facing. We are trying to analyze developments that are fundamentally different from those that were happening, taking place in the previous century, using the outdated analytical tools of the last century, and that is why most of us do not get clear answers for our questions.
It is important for us to look at the new realities in international relations and to develop analytical tools in order to enable us to deal with these realities and to develop answers for them. And we are all in it together, because if we talk about a globalized world, we're talking about a world in which almost everything is globalized, including emotions. You cannot but feel the pain of those who are suffering when the situation in Iraq develops or the situation in Gaza develops or other problems that we see in this day and age. You have a globality of everything, and that is why it is basically outside the realm of reason if you believe that in our global community we can have winners and losers.
It's almost impossible. It's almost impossible to have security at the expense of insecurity of others. It's almost impossible to have prosperity when there is a huge problem of poverty and backwardness all over the world. And if anything, 9/11 should have proven that, that even the United States being the greatest power on the face of the Earth cannot even provide security for its own citizens in a world that is dominated by terror and insecurity and violence and extremism.
And that is why we need to look at new possibilities for resolution of problems. We need to look at a new paradigm. And I believe that the earlier we find a consensus on that new paradigm, the better we can address these problems, and I hope in our conversations today we will look at that new paradigm.
I will have to deal, obviously, with the problems that we are facing in our region, but I leave that to our question-and-answer so that I won't be speaking for more than five minutes.
It is interesting and it is important for all of us to take that reality in perspective while we address various issues and as Iran, which has been a responsible power in the region. We have looked at the situation around us from that perspective, and that is why we've played a central role in dealing with ISIS. I wouldn't call it Islamic State, because it's neither Islamic, as President Obama rightly pointed out, nor a state. It's a terrorist organization, a sophisticated terrorist organization that has come to being because of a number of reasons. But Iran has taken a leading role in that.
And while Iran was not invited to Paris, which I would call a coalition of repenters, because...
... most—most participants in that—in that meeting in one form or another provided support to ISIS in the course of its creation and upbringing and expansion, actually at the end of the day, creating a Frankenstein that came to haunt its creators.
But Iran has been, as even attested to by President Barzani of the Iraqi Kurdish region, the first that came to the aid of the Iraqis in dealing with that problem. We don't hesitate in providing support to our friends, to deal with this menace. We believe that we need to deal with this menace. This is not a threat against a singular community, nor a threat against a singular region. It was not confined to Syria, nor will it be confined to Iraq. It's a global threat.
There are thousands of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria. And they come from all over the world. And that is why they have very little mercy for the people they occupy and they rule over. It's a very dangerous phenomenon, and we all need to be aware of how to deal with this issue. It will not be eradicated through aerial bombardment, because we need new tools to deal with these new realities.
Let me leave it there and then engage in that conversation. Thank you very much.
WARNER: Well, thank you, Mr. Minister. Now, I obviously have to pick up on the new paradigm, because you left it hanging there, though I want to get onto ISIS quickly. What—could you sum up what this new paradigm is, the new way we have to think of problems that aren't a product of the 20th century?
ZARIF: Well, I think the new paradigm starts with recognition of the reality that this—we live in a globalized world where we face common challenges which require common solutions. We cannot engage in believing that problems can be resolved through coercion, through exclusion, and through imposition. You cannot come from outside the region and try to impose—nor can we from outside the region or from outside the country or from outside the community—and try to impose your solutions on them. You cannot have a set of entrenched prescriptions, as has been the case in Syria, as has been the case in other places. You need to be able to engage with the people in order to reach mutual responses to these challenges.
And the challenge of ISIS is certainly one challenge that has arisen, because of this lack of understanding of the new realities in our region. This group is using social media probably in a more sophisticated way than many in the West know how to use it. They have a purpose. They have an agenda to advance. They use social media. They use brutality in order to attract followers.
"We believe that we need to deal with this menace. This is not a threat against a singular community, nor a threat against a singular region. It was not confined to Syria, nor will it be confined to Iraq. It's a global threat."
You have to look at the reason why, according to a poll, 16 percent of the French population do not disapprove of ISIS and the brutality that it engages in. You have to see what disenfranchisement has done to the people so that they'll be prepared to accept that type of savagery and prepared to not condone, but at least not object to that type of savagery.
We need to look at the problems that have given rise to these very difficult and disturbing developments.
WARNER: But even if you manage to do that, you're talking about transformations of society, which take decades. But there is an immediate threat. Now, you said this will not be solved by airstrikes alone. President Obama just today made clear the U.S. is certainly not getting involved in a ground operation, whatever Chairman Dempsey says, and the U.S. will contribute, leading the coalition, launching airstrikes, and training and equipping indigenous forces. How effective can that be for the short-term problem?
ZARIF: I think, first of all, anybody wishing to confront this problem needs to look at the problem in more than just one part of Iraq. You see, the United States came to start responding to this menace long after it started. And I'm not talking about long after it started in Syria, because it started not in Syria. You know that these people call themselves the Sons of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who came to being after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
So this group has been in existence for a long time. It has been supported, it has been provided for in terms of arms, money, finances by a good number of U.S. allies in the region. And now the United States, after about two months following the beginning of its new onslaughts in Iraq, just came to start to address it.
Had it not been for Iran going to the aid of the Iraqis, not with boots on the ground—I do not believe that Iraqis need boots on the ground—Iraqis need a concerted effort to stop supporting this group. I hope that the coalition that was built in Paris would simply do all it takes to stop providing support, because a good number of them were very much involved in providing financial assistance, arms and military assistance, to these people. A lot of them—or at least some of them provided safe transit to ISIS members.
So it's not necessarily a problem of military intervention, but more a problem of recognizing the threat and recognizing that this threat doesn't become a threat when it deals with the government in Kurdistan, rather than the government in Baghdad, or when it deals with the government in Iraq, rather than the government in Syria.
This is a threat, no matter where it operates, and we need to deal with this threat. People recognized this threat a bit late in the process. And probably, as you say, it's better late than never.
WARNER: Well, I was in Iraq actually the day that President Barzani announced that Iran had come forward first with the weapons. And what struck me, though, is that you didn't hear anyone talking about, what is the goal of any kind of—whether it's providing weapons, whether it's training and equipping forces—is the goal to at least at first confine ISIS within the territory it is now in Iraq, which was a sort of defensive goal, right, originally, to protect Erbil and Kurdistan and protect farther south? Or should it be to roll—if we took it in stages—ISIS out of Iraq and back to Syria?
I mean, where does the Iranian government see the goal of this sort of short- to medium-term effort? And where should the U.S. see the goal?
ZARIF: Well, as you pointed out, when we were asked by our Iraqi friends—both in Baghdad, first, and then in Iraqi Kurdistan—to come to their assistance, the goal—the ambitious goal was to prevent ISIS from taking over Baghdad and Erbil. And at least we achieved that ambitious goal. We just provided assistance. It was the Iraqis who achieved that goal.
And we need to always remember, it should be the Iraqis who do this. It should be the Iraqis. We insisted, when we were asked to intervene, in the formation of Iraqi government. We insisted that this should be the job of the Iraqi people, the Iraqi political establishment. We can help, but we cannot intervene. We cannot interfere in that process.
So the goal in the beginning was to help the Iraqis to contain this threat, and I believe this threat is now contained, but unless this threat is totally eradicated, you cannot hope to be able to contain this threat indefinitely. This is an extremely mobile organization, a mobile terrorist force, ruthless as it—as it comes from all over the world. They feel no affinity to the population that they control, because they're not from that part of the world. They don't come from that part of the world.
Actually, they win by fear, rather than—they do not necessarily win militarily. They win because people simply escape, because they have created through this social media campaign an atmosphere of basically total fear in the population, even in the paramilitary forces, like the Peshmerga, who will run away. Now they have somehow their sense of—their morale has been restored, and they are prepared and able to defend their territory. It's only for the international community, particularly for the coalition of the repenters, to stop providing assistance, to stop providing safe passage, to stop providing financial support to this group so that you could stop them and contain them and finally eradicate them.
But we also need to stop providing them with those recruiting grounds, with those fertile possibilities of resentment, of disenfranchisement that can allow them to attract the youth in so many parts of the world from the Middle East to Europe and the United States.
WARNER: But now, one of the elements that helped really drive Sunnis away from the Maliki government was the view that Maliki ran a government that flew in the face of the constitution, did not share powers, totally Shiite-dominated. You know the litany. Is Iran prepared to see a more participatory decision-making process in Baghdad as a price for getting the buy-in not only from the Kurds and the Sunnis this time?
ZARIF: Well, we have always insisted on the need to have an inclusive government in Iraq.
WARNER: May I just quibble for a minute? Inclusive, they're always figures on the chairs. But the question is, who's controlling the military? Who's controlling the ministries? Who's dispensing the money?
ZARIF: Well, the question is whether people are content with something other than the status quo during the Saddam administration. We had a minority regime in Iraq, and there are people—not in Iraq, because I have—when I was there in Iraq, I met with Kurds, I met with all Sunni leaders, and I met with Shia leaders. There are areas of dissatisfaction that is shared by everybody.
It doesn't mean that Maliki or anybody else was very much loved or appreciated in Shia areas. I've been to Najaf, and some of the grand ayatollahs felt as much basically alienated by the government than people—than Sunni leaders that I met in Baghdad.
So let's not make this a sectarian issue. This has been a very difficult process, and we hope that the process would include everybody. It doesn't mean that people could inject their satisfaction into Iraq in order to restore the status quo during Saddam's reign.
That—if anybody's interested in any semblance of democracy, that will never happen in Iraq, unless you want to have a dictator such as Saddam Hussein who's willing to have a minority rule in Iraq with the iron fist that he had, more than an iron fist.
WARNER: But it can't be a Shiite Saddam Hussein, either.
ZARIF: It can't be a Shiite Saddam Hussein, and I never believed that it ever was a Shiite Saddam Hussein. It is a government that faces a very serious problem of terrorism. It is a government that faces a very serious problem of injection of foreign capital, foreign assets, foreign military equipment, as well as passage through neighboring countries for these terrorists who—I mean, these people do not fly into Iraq. You know? They come from somewhere, and they don't come from Iran.
So if they don't come from Iran, you can look at the address. And I believe the address—every location of that address was sitting around the table in Paris.
WARNER: And let me—speaking of addresses, let's talk about the neighborhood and the disappearing boundary between Syria and Iraq, or Iraq and Syria. If the president of the United States expands U.S. airstrikes into Syria, which he has said he would, under certain circumstances, would Tehran support that?
ZARIF: We do not support foreign military involvement in the region. We believe that foreign forces should—if they are asked by the governments in the region, then we don't interfere with the decision of sovereign states in the region. But as a principle, we do not believe that injection of foreign forces, either air or ground, solves our problem.
Actually, if you look at the essence of ISIS, how it came about, it's the product of foreign invasion. Foreign invasion in Iraq led to removal of Saddam Hussein, and we're not unhappy with that, but the point is that foreign presence in any territory has created dynamics. And you cannot avoid those dynamics. And one of those dynamics is for demagogues like people who are running ISIS to use their resentment in the population of being occupied to resist that.
WARNER: So—so what are you saying should be the sort of midterm military strategy in dealing with ISIS and the territory it controls in Syria?
ZARIF: I believe it should be to enable the people to fight. You talk about Syria? Are you...
WARNER: Syria. I'm talking about Syria now.
ZARIF: If you talk about Syria, you cannot...
WARNER: Where you do not have a government that obviously is going to invite the United States in.
ZARIF: You do not have a government that the United States is—would be interested in allowing to control its population. Not its population, but number of foreign fighters who have basically invaded its territory. You cannot fight ISIS and the government in Damascus together.
Had it not been for the resistance of the government in Damascus, now you would not have the situation where Mr. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi be ruling this sort of so-called Islamic State or IS—I hate to call it Islamic or a state—this entity from Mosul, but it would be running it from Damascus. And that is because of the inherent flaw in a projection of an image that the United States created for itself and entrenched itself in a position by creating red lines and announcing red lines that made it impossible to deal with this menace directly and seriously.
You cannot have this situation. I heard Secretary Kerry talking about terrorist magnets, Bashar al-Assad being terrorist magnet. If that argument applies, this institution, this organization was created after the United States invaded Iraq. So the terrorist magnet should be sought somewhere else, rather than in Mr. Bashar al-Assad.
WARNER: But there is the perception among the so-called Syrian moderate opposition that the Assad forces very carefully left ISIS alone, left them to run Raqqah and establish an area there, so that this moderate opposition forces would have to fight a war on two fronts.
ZARIF: It's basically one of those conspiracy theories that cannot be refuted. I mean, and our region is filled with those.
If you listen to those conspiracy theories, ISIS is a product of United States, not a product of the U.S. invasion, but actually a creation of the United States. So let's stop dealing with that. No government would create a group like ISIS that would engage in such a brutal, savage campaign against its own soldiers, as they did in recent months.
WARNER: Well, let me ask it another way. Do you think that—and then I won't—I need to get a question on the nuclear before we go to the audience—but do you think that President Assad could ever defeat ISIS without being willing to engage with his own?
And there were moderate opponents to his rule early on, back in 2011, early 2012. I mean, surely, you would grant that. And he did not want to deal with them. He does not want to—even talk about power-sharing, as we saw at the Syria peace talks that you and Secretary Kerry convened or sponsored.
ZARIF: Well, actually, I was disinvited from those peace talks. Had I been invited, had I not been disinvited—let's put it that way...
ZARIF: Our suggestion then was to have a cease-fire, to have a government of national unity, to have a constitutional reform that would disperse power, not centralize power in one person or one institution of the government, and then to have an election run by the United Nations in Syria, and allow the Syrian people to decide who should rule them, not to decide for the Syrians.
I wonder—I mean, people are talking—and I had engaged in this debate with my colleagues from the region, because as I told you, I was disinvited, so I couldn't raise this suggestion in Geneva—it was interesting that a week before the election, somebody high up from the United Nations called me and said, can you now put your plan into action? I said, now is one week before the election. If you had not asked me to stay home and not come to Geneva, I could have raised the plan in Geneva.
The problem is that people have entrenched themselves in a position that this gentleman or the other gentleman should not have a role in the future of Syria. That's not for us to decide. We are not saying that Assad or anybody else should be the future president of Syria. We are saying that if this man is so brutal, allow the Syrians to kick him out of office. Put conditions on how the elections should be run, not on who should run in the election.
And I think this position that has been repeatedly stated for the past three years has caused the continuation of this conflict. Now, I'm not trying—I'm not here to defend anybody. I'm saying that the process is flawed. We need to look at the process. We need to look at the institutions. We need to look at the procedures, and then we need to provide the Syrians with the opposition to decide for themselves, rather than having a decision made by those who have an axe to grind, who see a regional disequilibrium because of the situation in Iraq, because of—whatever you want to call it, Arab Spring or Winter or—or Fall or whatever you want to call it, or as we call it, the Islamic awakening in the region.
Whatever you want to call this reason for this disequilibrium, there are people who see a disequilibrium in our region and are trying to redress that through this unfortunate situation in Syria.
WARNER: How concerned are you that if the United States does get a really effective training and equipping program for the Syrian moderate opposition forces that, in fact, even though the goal is to strengthen them against ISIS, it will also strengthen them against Assad's forces and Hezbollah?
ZARIF: Well, actually, people need to become realistic. The so-called Syrian moderates, go look at what's happening on the ground in Syria. They control no territory. They can have no influence in fighting against either ISIS or the Syrian government. Syrian theater is either controlled by the government or by ISIS and its sister organizations.
Now, they kill more of each other than they kill of government—I mean, ISIS—and this puts to rest any illusion that people have about sectarian conflict, because ISIS has killed more Sunnis in Syria, has beheaded more Sunnis in Syria than Shias.
This is a bunch of demagogues using resentful youth from all over the world with an ideology that borders on savagery. This is the problem that people have not been able to face, and simply they try—I heard the other day Senator McCain saying that if we had armed the moderate Syrian opposition, this wouldn't be like this now. He is wrong. Simply wrong.
"We are not saying that Assad or anybody else should be the future president of Syria. We are saying that if this man is so brutal, allow the Syrians to kick him out of office. Put conditions on how the elections should be run, not on who should run in the election."
Those who control Syrian territory from the very beginning, those who engage in this type of activity from the very beginning were this group of people. And it is important to look at the problem to try to find common grounds among the Syrian people, to enable—each time there was a prospect for an intra-Syrian dialogue, people put preconditions, that if you have an intra-Syrian dialogue, Iran should not be involved. If you have an intra-Syrian dialogue, Assad should not be involved. If you have an intra-dialogue, it should have as a precondition some sort of a future for Syria that would exclude this or the other people.
So that precluded the possibility of even a dialogue. I believe that all of these approaches are simply attempts to address domestic constituencies here in the United States, rather than to address a problem in Syria.
WARNER: And so speaking of domestic constituencies, because I want to get to our audience, let's switch to the nuclear talks. I'll leave it to you to say what your hopes are for the P5-plus-one talks here, how firm this November deadline is, but how powerful and how difficult, therefore, will it be to get resolution of this key question, which is, what should be the size of Iran's nuclear infrastructure going forward, when you have your own supreme leader laying out a very expansive view, when you have—many members of the U.S. Congress—Democrats, as well as Republicans—trying to put all sorts of conditions on what it would take to really lift the most substantive sanctions, which would, in fact, require more than executive authority?
ZARIF: Well, let's address a couple of issues separately. One, I believe it is very easy to find agreement on how to ensure Iran's nuclear program remaining exclusively peaceful. That's not that difficult. And there are multitude of possibilities for doing that.
Now, what are the options? The options are that we have an agreement that Iran would accept transparency measures, Iran would accept limits on its enrichment, Iran would accept changing its heavy-water reactor so that it would produce us an eighth of the plutonium that it can produce under the current conditions. Iran would allow basically modalities that would leave no enriched uranium in a form that could be re-enriched to higher grade.
This is to set aside our argument that Iran does not need nuclear weapons, that Iran's history provides proof that it doesn't. But that's one part of the problem.
The other part of the problem is—and for lack of a better word, I use this—this concept of infatuation with sanctions. The United States is obsessed with sanctions, because this deal would require the United States to lift the sanctions. And now the reason Congress is objecting to this is that it wants to keep these sanctions. So let's simply do a...
WARNER: You mean, for their own sake?
ZARIF: Yeah, sanctions have become an end in themselves. Sanctions do not serve any purpose. Let me tell you why. When sanctions on the nuclear issue started, Iran had less than 200 centrifuges. Now Iran has 20,000 centrifuges. So sanctions have produced—just in normal calculus—19,800 centrifuges. I mean, just do simple math.
What has—I mean, we can say in Iran that we suffered, our economic growth and development suffered, our people suffered, but (inaudible) we have 19,800 centrifuges. Well, let me ask you. What does the United States see as benefits of the sanctions policy for the U.S.? What has the United States gained? 19,800 centrifuges is one gain. Another gain is the resentment of the Iranian population.
Now, let me give you one example that happened last week. An Iranian patient sent a blood sample to the United States for second opinion. This must be, first, an affluent patient, to be able to send blood samples all the way to the United States. Secondly, it must be an admirer of the United States to believe that second opinion from the United States is worth something, certainly the money that they spent. And the blood sample came to the United States and the lab refused to test it because it came from Iran.
"I believe it is very easy to find agreement on how to ensure Iran's nuclear program remaining exclusively peaceful. That's not that difficult. And there are multitude of possibilities for doing that."
So now you have one family, plus a lot of acquaintances, who hate the United States now. This is the net gain for the U.S., because before these sanctions were imposed, I provided, suggested a package that everybody now says we wish we would have accepted that package, that would have limited Iran's enrichment program to a very small number of centrifuges. That package was rejected so that sanctions could be imposed.
Now, sanctions have been imposed. You got about 200 times the number of centrifuges that we had at that time. So is that—is that something that can be celebrated? Are these sanctions such an important achievement that you can be so obsessed with them to prevent a resolution? I believe people are giving the wrong address here again.
The way to resolve this problem—and that is why I used the paradigm issue—we used old paradigms. We used old analytical tools to address new problems. These new problems need to be addressed within the requirements of our day and age.
I tell you, we are committed to resolving this issue. We want to resolve this issue. I've spent more time on this issue than anything else in the past, what, 12 months that I've been in office, and we are ready to continue our negotiations in good faith. The IAEA has told you time and again that Iran has lived up to every single element of the agreement that we reached in Geneva. Iran will show that we will live up to any other agreement that we have. It is important to work with Iran in order to reach an understanding.
And I do not believe sanctions are such a precious commodity that you would risk losing an accommodation with Iran, ending an unnecessary crisis, opening new horizons for cooperation and accommodation in a region that requires cooperation, requires joint efforts in order to deal with common challenges.
WARNER: Now, we're both going to be pilloried if we don't go to audience questions. So we—I am inviting our members. Mr. Dickey, you can begin. Christopher Dickey wrote a very interesting piece called "The Hip Hop Jihadi," speaking to one of your points, in Daily Beast.
So you know the rules. Please wait for the microphone, stand, speak directly into it, your name and affiliation, and, please, a simple—a question, not a statement.
QUESTION: Is it on?
WARNER: And we'll have a couple questions from here, then a question from Washington and back to here. Christopher Dickey?
QUESTION: Minister Zarif, I'm Christopher Dickey with the Daily Beast. And while it's wonderful to see you entertaining us with—entertaining us with your charm and your explanations, very detailed explanations, on the battleground in Iraq, many—several militias that have been engaged in combat against ISIS in league with the Iraqi government, with the support of the Iranian government, like Asaib Ahl al-Haq, have come out recently and said that they will kill American soldiers if American soldiers are fighting on the ground in Iraq.
This doesn't sound to me like the kind of cooperation that you are trying to articulate here. And I wonder two things. First of all, do you support that position by those militias? And, secondly, do you or, let's say, the government of President Rouhani have any say over the people in Iran who support those militias?
ZARIF: Well, actually, Iran has a single foreign policy. If you have been led to believe that there are several foreign policies being followed, one by the government, one by others in Iran, I would invite you to re-examine that assumption. That's not the case.
Of course, we have a plurality of opinion in Iran and people have different opinions, but we have a single foreign policy, and that is why foreign policy, according to Iranian constitution, the general framework of foreign policy is set by the leader so that we will not have domestic squabbling over foreign policy.
As far as statements are concerned, one of the problems that we've had with the Iraqi situation is that after basically the disintegration of Iraqi army and its inability to deal with this, a lot of volunteer forces were basically not created, by actually emerged, and they have been organizing themselves and we—we do some—we give some help in organizing them. That's what we know best. We don't have boots on the ground in Iraq. We have advisers in Iraq. We send equipment to Iraq, but we do not have personnel fighting in Iraq.
But one of the most important problems of these militias is that they are not organized. They're not disciplined. They are there to address a challenge.
But the problem also—when it comes to the United States—is that presence of foreign forces in any setting creates domestic opposition and domestic resentment. And it is best—whether we support this or not—and we certainly do not support anybody engaging in anything that would further complicate the Iraqi situation—but the best thing is to allow the Iraqis to fight this. This is the fight for the Iraqis. They should fight this. They should be provided with the assistance necessary to fight this. The Iraqi Sunnis should be provided with the necessary assistance to fight this. The Iraqi Sunni leadership, the Iraqi Sunni political community, has been uprooted from its places of origin.
Now, all of that, they require all of our cooperation. But more than anything else, they require their supporters in the region, countries who claim to be protectors of the Iraqi Sunni minority, to stop providing assistance to those who are killing their Sunni brethren, rather to start engaging with them and with us and with the government in Baghdad and the government in Kurdistan, which is incidentally Sunni, to be able to deal with this. It requires a domestic opposition. Foreign forces will not be able to uproot this menace from the region.
WARNER: Question? David Sanger?
ZARIF: That would be a nuclear question.
WARNER: Yes, it would.
I'm counting on him to fill in my gaps.
QUESTION: I wouldn't want to disappoint you.
ZARIF: Thank you.
QUESTION: Mr. Zarif, good to see you. When you were in Vienna back in July, you described an offer in which you would essentially extend most of the details of the current operating agreement into a permanent agreement, but you said at that time you could only do so for some short number of years. You've since been back to Tehran.
Do you have any more of a sense now of whether your own government would be willing to have an agreement that would have significant restrictions on your enrichment for, say, more than 10 years or 15 years or thereabouts? And when the supreme leader...
ZARIF: While you're at it, why don't you go to 20, 25, 30?
QUESTION: Well, since you—since you don't have reactors yet to go put the fuel into—and when the supreme leader gave the—his speech earlier this year, he described a very large number of reactors he ultimately wanted to build. I'm sorry, very large number of centrifuges he ultimately wanted to build. Could you tell us over what time period you think Iran views its need to have those?
ZARIF: You know that I won't be engaged in negotiations—public negotiations that's not conducive to finding a resolution. What we have said is that our enrichment program is a peaceful program for a very specific purpose. And people should be happy that we have—that (inaudible) that our enrichment program includes all sorts of technical things that I don't know about and I don't want to bore you with—that includes an arrangement to provide fuel for our power reactor in Bushehr or the future reactors that we are going to build.
But we have a contract with Russia that will not expire until 2021. So we have time. We don't—and the leader said it very clearly, that we don't need all these centrifuges tomorrow. We don't need it in a year's time. We have time to establish the type of confidence that is required.
And I believe if we cannot establish confidence within five years of implementing a deal together, monitored by the IAEA, then the agreement is meaningless. This agreement is not an end in itself. This agreement that we are all trying to achieve is an attempt to create the necessary confidence.
And there is mutual lack of confidence on both sides. I mean, the Iranian people and the Iranian government representing them is totally distrustful of the intentions of the United States, to be absolutely honest with you, and I don't—I mean, I won't be surprised if you tell me that you don't trust our intentions. So, fine. We're even.
But, please, don't ask us to put all our faith in promises while you're not prepared to accept our promises. Let's establish a mechanism, let's establish a mechanism for a number of years, not 10, not 15, but I'm willing to live with less, so that we can limit the program in order for everybody to be engaged in a confidence-building process, so when we get there, everybody knows that this program is entirely peaceful and everybody will not have any quarrel or nobody will have any quarrel over the—the provision of fuel for our own facilities in Iran.
WARNER: Now, I think we have—do we have a question from Bob McMahon in our Washington office? I think...
QUESTION: Yes, Margaret. Yes, we do. Our first question is from Hali Asundiari (ph).
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Dr. Zarif, will a failing of talks impact Iran's foreign policy and, if so, how? I will spare you with the impact on domestic policy, because I know it's not your portfolio. Thank you.
ZARIF: Thank you. Of course it will, because Iran started a process—we started a process with the aim of changing the foreign policy environment of the government of the country. Now if, in spite of our efforts to be accommodating, we fail, then the Iranian people have an opportunity to respond to our failure in about a year's time, in about a year—about 16-month time when we have the next parliamentary election.
Last time around when we tried, we were accommodating to the international community in negotiating our nuclear deal—I'm talking about 2004 and 2005—and then when our attempts at openness were rebuffed by the European Union and—because the European Union was not doing this alone and somebody sitting in the White House and in the State Department prevented any agreement, like some people who now do not want to see any agreement, no matter what the parameters are, at that time, people basically rewarded us for our failure by electing a different type of president to office in Iran which went on for a good eight years and gave me early retirement.
So now that I'm back from the dead, I think it is—it is important for us to be careful about the type of message the international community, and particularly the West, is sending to Iran, whether accommodation by Iran, whether an attempt by Iran to be open, to be forward-looking, receives positive answer, positive response, or whether it would be rebuffed again. And I think the Iranian people will respond to this over the ballot box.
WARNER: Yes, hello. You know, I can't keep calling on journalists, so let me call on a non-journalist just for a minute. Gentleman in the third row, and then—I'm sorry, Barbara.
QUESTION: My name is Roland Paul. I'm a lawyer, not a journalist. Mr. Foreign Minister, you said that the IAEA—everything they've requested, Iran has always agreed to and made available at their request, but isn't there at least one facility that has apparently military implications, possibly warhead design, I don't know, that you have not given international transparency to?
ZARIF: Actually, what I said was that whatever was in the Geneva agreement, which we call JPOA, joint plan of action, the IAEA has made repeated verification, that Iran has implemented every detail of that. That cannot be said about the United States. The United States has found fine-prints in the agreements so that it could reimpose new sanctions on Iran to the tune of several billion dollars.
But the facility that you're referring to, IAEA has asked Iran to see that facility. That facility has been visited twice already by the IAEA. Over 42 environmental samples have been taken from that facility, once in 2005 and again in 2007-2008, and each time we told them, look everywhere you want. This is a military facility. This is off-limits to international inspections.
But they inspected it. We told them that this is the last time you can inspect this. They inspected it, found nothing. But the problem is, they believe—or, in fact, led to believe by some important intelligence agencies—that there is something. And unless they find it, they want to go back again.
But how about if there is nothing? I mean, if they took 40-some samples from that place and didn't find anything, now they show under—from satellite imagery that is provided courtesy of the United States and Israel that—they show that this is the location that we want to see.
Last time, when they wanted to enter, we told them go anywhere you want, but know that this is your last time. Don't go back, because if you are 100 percent sure that Iran has something illicit, you search 100 times, you want to ask for the 101st time.
So what we are telling them is that we are willing to provide transparency. But in any agreement, under any international monitoring mechanism, military sites are off-limits. You can have one access. You can have two access. But you need to have a limited number of accesses.
But the problem, again, is that, in the course of our cooperation with the IAEA, it will come to the point that the IAEA will ask to inspect that place again. And at that time, which has not happened yet, we will be having a very serious conversation with them about the limits of this inspection.
WARNER: Yes, the lady in the fifth row there.
ZARIF: No journalists, that's what you said.
QUESTION: Thank you, Peggy Hicks with Human Rights Watch. In February of this year, the United States—the U.N. Security Council unanimously demanded an end to indiscriminate attacks by all parties on civilians in Syria. Since that time, the Syrian government has engaged in hundreds of attacks using explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas, and extremist armed groups have engaged in mortar attacks on civilians, as well.
Will Iran use its influence to—over the Syrian government to press them to stop those indiscriminate attacks on civilians using barrel bombs and other weapons?
ZARIF: Well, we have been categorical in our rejection of any attack against civilian population by anybody, and we made that clear to everybody, both in Syria as well as elsewhere. We do not condone attacks against civilians. We do not tolerate attacks against civilians, as we did not tolerate the use of chemical weapons and we were very clear and explicit about our views on these issues.
We were victims of military attacks against our civilian population for a long eight years. And, therefore, we are very much aware of the implications of these brutalities. And we are very clear about our objection to any attack against any civilian by anybody.
WARNER: So are you saying you have no influence with the Assad government?
ZARIF: No, we—influence and control are two different commodities. We have influence, but we do not control anybody. Our views about the need to respect civilian lives is very clear, and we have made it very clear to President Assad and to others.
WARNER: Robin Wright?
QUESTION: Thank you. You complain that the United States had Iran disinvited from the peace talks on Syria. Today in Iraq, the United States and Iran are arguably the two countries most active in trying to fight in tangible ways against ISIS. Can you, first of all, describe the outreach as reported by your supreme leader by the United States to Iran to cooperate, why it was turned down, and what would be the circumstances under which the two countries might collaborate, coordinate, or at least discuss a common way out in Iraq and against ISIS?
ZARIF: Well, our problem has always been that we have serious doubts and continue to have serious doubts about the willingness and ability of the United States to engage in a serious reaction to this menace across the board, not to pick and choose, because it can't be. This is a very mobile organization. It's not stationary so that you can attack it in Iraq. It moves.
So it is necessary to deal with it throughout the region, and we have—we've never been convinced, particularly in the beginning, when the United States was using this as a—as an instrument of oppression, and I don't want to go into the details of the politics involved in the domestic politics of Iraq, because we always believe that it should be for the Iraqis to decide and we should not be rewarding terrorists. These were the two fundamental principles that I shared with Secretary Kerry, too, that we need to allow the Iraqis to determine their own policy, and that was one of the problems that we had in the initial approach by the United States and that is why we turned it down.
But we have been—whether the United States engaged or not—we were on the side—I mean, we were on the side of the Iraqi people, the Iraqi government, and the Kurdish government to actually help them fight ISIS. If the United States does the same, then it is up to the Iraqi government to coordinate how it wants to coordinate. We will help the Iraqi government and the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, and they are free to decide how they want to engage with the United States.
WARNER: But no direct engagement?
ZARIF: I think I have my plate full with the nuclear issue, and I do not want to further complicate it.
I mean, you know—you know the importance of the step that I took and the Iranian government took in engaging in direct negotiations at a very high level with the United States in order to resolve this issue. I think it's a very complicated issue. There are a lot of details that need to be worked out, and we want to concentrate on the nuclear issue, get it out of the way, and then look to a different future, I hope.
WARNER: Gentleman there?
QUESTION: Gary Rosen from the Wall Street Journal. Hezbollah has accumulated in southern Lebanon an enormous rocket arsenal, far in excess in terms of its sophistication and reach of what Hamas has and has had. Hezbollah has declared in no uncertain terms that it would like to see Israel destroyed, and its great supplier and supporter is Iran. Why should Israel not think that Iran shares Hezbollah's interest in destroying Israel?
ZARIF: Well, I believe it's important for you to look at the situation in Lebanon and see who got who out of expelled from whose territory. I don't think Lebanese were ever inside Israeli territory. It was Israel occupying Lebanon and Hezbollah got them—kicked them out of their territory, and that's why they are heroes in their own country. They're a part of the Lebanese government. Territorial integrity of Lebanon, independence of Lebanon is an extremely important issue. It's important for regional stability. And I believe anybody who looks at this situation knows that Hezbollah has acted responsibly.
We have our views about Israel. Those are our views. And we will remain with our views, and we regret the fact that historical developments have proven our views to be correct. But that is not the area that we engage in. We engage in our own territory. We engage within our own neighborhood. And it is for the people of the region to determine how to deal with their problems.
But we support people defending their territory. We condemn when innocent civilians, over 2,000 of them, are killed in Gaza. We do not accept people saying that this was self-defense. It was disproportionate to any development in the region.
So our position is very clear. We do not hide our position. We're not shy about our position. We make it very clear. But that does not mean we engage in any military activity against any other power.
WARNER: It is now 7 p.m. I'm sorry to say that under the ground rules we're going to end it there. I will ask everyone to stay seated until the minister has had a chance to leave, but I want to thank Minister Zarif for a very engaging conversation, left a lot on the table.
ZARIF: Thanks a lot. Good to see you all.
Tzipi Livni, former Israeli minister of foreign affairs and current head of opposition, discusses the challenges and prospects for the new Israeli coalition government.