A Conversation With Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran

Monday, September 21, 2020
Evgenia Novozhenina/REUTERS

Minister of Foreign Affairs, Iran


Host, Fareed Zakaria GPS, CNN; Member, Board of Directors, Council on Foreign Relations

Foreign Minister Zarif discusses Iranian relations with the United States, the future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and prospects for peace in the Middle East.

ZAKARIA: Thank you so much, Kayla. Welcome to everyone. It’s a pleasure to have you all.

Before I begin I just want to make a few housekeeping announcements, the most important of which is this meeting is on the record, not off the record as so many Council meetings are. And if you—there will be a period for audience Q&A, which will be after my conversation with the foreign minister. And so just keep—bear that in mind, and it will be handled using the technology. I think he will be able to hear you but not see you as you ask your questions.

Let me begin by introducing a man who needs no introduction. Javad Zarif is, of course, the foreign minister of Iran, a very important figure in that government and well known around the world. He’s the man who signed the nuclear deal, the so-called Iran arms—the Iran nuclear deal, which was, of course, technically called the JCPOA. Before that, he was Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations for many years and has been a central figure in Iran’s relations and dealings with the world for decades.

Foreign Minister, welcome.

ZARIF: Good morning to you and to our friends joining us. Good to be with you, Fareed.

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

I want you to respond to the international outcry against this execution.

ZARIF: Well, thank you for asking that question and moving forward. I think it is—it is important to set the record straight. First of all, as you know, we have an independent judiciary and the government is not involved in the decision-making of the judiciary. In fact, judges in the judiciary have their own independence from the center of authority of the judiciary.

Second point is the issue about capital punishment is a live issue. It’s a lively debate in the United States, in Iran, elsewhere, whether capital punishment is good or bad, whether it serves the purpose of deterring crime or whether it does not. And I don’t think, in the span of one hour, even if we had more, we could settle that debate. All of us have our personal views.

But the point is, capital punishment is in the Iranian criminal court, as it is in many of the United States’ states. And recently people have been executed in the United States. A gentleman was executed in Texas who was 18-year-old when he committed a crime. I don’t think anybody would ask Secretary Pompeo to explain that. But, be that as it may, I think it is an important issue.

Third, I am not in a position to judge the decision of a court. A court is a court. It makes its own decision. Obviously, there are people who like the decision of the court, who like the ruling of the court, and there are people who do not like the ruling of the court.

The fourth point that I have to make is that this gentleman—and I feel sorry for his family, as I feel sorry for the family of his victim—was executed not because of participating in demonstration but because of a murder. He was accused of a murder. He went through a court proceeding on a murder charge. There were private claims against him by the family of the deceased who was killed.

He was not executed for participating in a demonstration. Many people participate in demonstrations, and none of them are executed. Those who commit crimes, including arson, including others, are punished, but not for participating in demonstrations.

Again, I have to underline I have no weight, I have no standing in an Iranian court, because a court is between the prosecution, the private claimants, and the defendant. I cannot judge the decision of a judge. As I said, people may like it. People may not like it. The government cannot intervene and did not intervene and did not know about the carrying out of the sentence. But we’re not in a position even to be in the process, to even known about these developments. This is the law. This is the independence of the judiciary, and we have to accept it.

ZAKARIA: Foreign Minister, you know that human-rights groups claim that these charges were trumped up, that he was arrested and executed as a political prisoner. Amnesty International has released recordings of his saying I want you to know that an innocent person was executed. His mother claims that he was forced—tortured into confessing. And Amnesty concludes that this was a horrifying travesty of justice.

And so I think the argument is that this is an indication—people use this as an argument to say this is an indication that Iran is being ruled by a government that engages in these kind of brutalities and that therefore cannot be trusted as a responsible international actor.

ZARIF: Well, again, as I said, in almost every case the families of the defendant, the defendant himself, do not believe that justice has been served. And that is not for me to decide. If there are discussions—and there are discussions in Iran—about whether this was a right decision or not, the discussions have their own legal process of being held either in the judiciary itself or in the parliament.

There is a special committee of the parliament which can hear this type of discussion. The judiciary itself has a process for these arguments to be held. But I cannot accept that people would simply label an action by Iranian judiciary automatically as an act of brutality. They have to be privy to the information. The information should be made public. The judiciary believes that it has enough evidence, that it made the decision based on the evidence not for a political crime but for murder. This case was a case of murder and I have no way of judging the decision of a judge. I’m not the judge and I am not privy to all the information that the judge was privy to.

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

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

What a court decide is in a proceeding of the court. The fact that in the United States the majority of capital punishment cases are involving Black defendants does not create any concern about the U.S. government from your point of view. It’s the judicial system. And since you refer to your own judicial system as an independent justice system and you wouldn’t ask—you wouldn’t be asking if you had a foreign reporter from Secretary Pompeo why Texas executed seven individuals, I think the same applies to Iran.

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

ZAKARIA: You mentioned the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal. Let me ask you about that. If candidate Biden, Vice President Biden, were to win and become President Biden, he has indicated that he would return the United States to adhering to the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal, as long as Iran abided by it as well.

But he has said he would use it as a starting point to begin negotiations to strengthen the deal, to extend its duration, and to deal with some other issues. Are you willing to commit that were this to happen Iran would engage in those negotiations?

ZARIF: Well, I think Iran, as a participant in the JCPOA, which has observed the rules of JCPOA, which has taken—exercised a lot of restraint and patience, is in the position to say how we want to proceed, not the United States. The United States has an extremely bad record. I think it is the United States that has to show that it’s committed to this deal—that it will not violate it again, that it will not make demands outside the scope of the deal, that it will compensate Iran for the damages.

The United States withdrew from JCPOA without any reason. It incurred a lot of damages on the Iranian people. You know, today, Iran is not able to even buy vaccines for influenza because the United States does not allow us to transfer the money. Right now, as we speak, our order to buy vaccines for influenza—not for COVID, vaccines for influenza—is waiting for an authorization by the United States to pay our own money. Not to pay their money. We are not asking anybody for a donation.

So I think the United States, whoever is the president, it’s not—it’s immaterial for us who sits in the White House. For us, what is important is how they behave. And the United States have behaved extremely irresponsibly, dangerously, in the international community. So it is up to the United States.

The United States has to be taken to account. It is up to the United States to prove to the rest of the JCPOA participants, particularly to Iran, that it’s going to act responsibly, that it’s not going to make demands outside the scope of the JCPOA, and it’s going to basically stop causing damage to Iran, and compensate us for all the damages. Billions upon billions of dollars of damage they have inflicted upon Iran just because somebody didn’t like the previous president of the United States. It’s not my business that this president or the next president like their predecessor or don’t like their predecessor. It is the United States that has to act responsibly in the international community, which unfortunately it hasn’t.

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

ZARIF: More than 50 percent.

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

ZARIF: And as I said, first of all, the damages that were inflicted upon Iran were wrong. They have to be corrected. That’s without condition. Nobody is in a position to put conditions for making good on their own promises. So let’s put that out of the way. Now, Iran has never been hesitant to negotiate. But we do not renegotiate what we already negotiated. The United States should come to realize that because it’s a major power it cannot dictate. The United States did try its best to get a good deal. And the previous administration, where candidate Biden was vice president, knew it was a good deal.

Now, we’re not going to negotiate a deal. A deal is give and take. A deal is that I don’t get all I want, the United States didn’t get all it wanted, the Europeans didn’t get all they wanted. There are seven, eight parties to this deal—that is seven countries plus the European Union. Eight parties to this deal. None of those parties got all they wanted. Now, they cannot come back now and say: I want to get everything that I wanted because I didn’t get it the first time around.

This is not good faith. Good faith is the base for any international agreement. So the United States first must come clean, must get its act together, must come back to be a lawful member of the international community, start implementing its obligations and then talk about the rest of the deal. We have a saying in Persian: First prove your brotherhood, then ask for inheritance.

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

ZARIF: Absolutely not. Absolutely not.

ZAKARIA: —as long as the U.S. abides by the JCPOA?

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

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

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

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

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

ZAKARIA: But do you think it will cause trouble in Bahrain, that the government has formalized relations with Israel?

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

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

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

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

In 2015 we suggested a peace proposal for Yemen. But Saudis believed that in three weeks they could win militarily. You know that in 2011 some of our neighbors in the south believed that they would win Syria within weeks. Now, eleven years since then, ten years since then, five years since the atrocities in Yemen started, we have been calling openly for peace, for political dialogue.

We have shown it in Syria. We pushed all Syrian parties to the negotiating table. We have been conducting—I mean, they have been conducting, with our support, with our help, with our encouragement, discussions in Geneva, and we hope those discussions will continue.

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

ZAKARIA: Just a few days ago Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, announced that the United States government had found evidence that Iran was engaging in escalating cyberattacks against the United States. This is a claim that is also corroborated in part by Microsoft, which has identified certain Iranian actors, apparently sponsored by the government.

Why is Iran escalating cyber warfare against the United States?

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

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

ZAKARIA: You really don’t care whether Trump or Biden wins?

ZARIF: Not at all. It’s none of our business. For us, the behavior of the U.S. government is important. For us, it’s not important who sits in the White House. As a foreign government, we cannot bank on something we do not control.

ZAKARIA: Foreign Minister, as always, great—it’s always interesting to hear you on your country and the region. I’m now going to turn it over to members’ questions. And we will get them—I gather we will hear them but not see them. I’m going to turn this over to Kayla, right?

STAFF: Thank you.

(Gives queueing instructions.)

We’ll take our first question from Michael Gordon.

Q: Yes, Michael Gordon from the Wall Street Journal. Thank you, Mr. Foreign Minister.

I have two points I’d like to clarify with you. The Trump administration has asserted that Iran has the capability to increase its stockpile of enriched uranium to the point where it could have sufficient fissile material for a nuclear weapon by the end of the year. And a question I have for you is, is it Iran’s intention to enrich its low-enriched uranium to the point where it would have enough fissile material for a weapon by the end of the year? Do you have the capability and do you intend to do it?

And then, secondly, in your discussion you said that a deal is a deal and you don’t want to rewrite the JCPOA. Are you excluding a more-for-more arrangement in which Iran would extend the sunset clauses, or maybe do away with them entirely, in return for more benefits in terms of sanction relief in the economic sphere? Thank you.

ZARIF: Well, on your first question, I don’t buy these arguments. But if you—if you believe that a thousand kilograms of low-enriched uranium is enough for a bomb, we had enough low-enriched uranium for a bomb, for eight bombs, between, ah, maybe 2010 to 2015, when we accepted JCPOA, and we didn’t make a bomb.

Now we have about three thousand kilograms, which, according to these analysis and calculations, is enough for three bombs already. So we don’t need to wait until the end of the year. But we don’t intend to build a bomb. We’ve said it. We don’t believe that nuclear weapons increase our security or increase our stability. In fact, they haven’t increased the stability of those who have them, even against domestic threats.

Look at the only possessor of nuclear weapons in our region. Is it secure? Is it stable? It’s not. So nuclear weapons in our strategic thinking don’t provide security. In our religious belief they are forbidden. So it’s immaterial how much enriched uranium we have. But according to JCPOA, our limit was 300 kilograms of 3.6 enriched uranium.

And we’ve always said that if other members of the JCPOA go back to their commitments, Iran is prepared to go back to its commitments. We were not the ones who broke our commitment. We went through the procedure that the JCPOA provides. We exhausted that procedure. It took us over a year and a half after the U.S. withdrew from JCPOA to exhaust those procedures.

We informed other members of JCPOA six months in advance, in November of 2018, that we had exhausted the procedure, the so-called DRM procedure that the United States decided not to use. And then in May of 2019 we started moving away from certain of our commitments, which is recognized in the JCPOA.

So this is a situation as it stands. The United States decided to violate JCPOA. It decided to break JCPOA. It decided to leave JCPOA. It decided to prevent others from implementing JCPOA. And it’s reaping the rewards now, as simple as that.

On more for more, I want to see first the United States going back to its commitments, compensating Iran for its losses, giving us guarantees that it won’t do it again, before it—I mean, the United States needs to find a seat at the table before it starts raising questions. It does not have a seat because it left the room. And while it left the room—it doesn’t matter which president did it—while it was out of the room, he tried everything to torpedo that room. He tried everything to destroy that room.

Now, if it wants to come back to that room, it has to rebuild the room and then enter the room, sit at the table, and then, as I said, prove your brotherhood before you ask for inheritance.

ZAKARIA: Can I just ask a supplementary to Michael’s question, Foreign Minister? Because if you were asking the United States to provide compensation for having withdrawn from the JCPOA before you will engage in negotiations about more for more—more sanctions relief for more strengthened commitments on the nuclear deal—you’re effectively saying that you will not engage in new negotiations with the United States, because you know it is not a practical reality that any president could provide compensation to Iran because the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal.

So is that—I mean, is that just a poison pill? You are saying you do not want negotiations with the United States?

ZARIF: No, that’s not what I’m saying. Just put yourselves in our shoes. Just switch places. Had we broken the deal, had we—let’s assume we had the bomb. Had we destroyed a city in the United States with our bomb and then said, OK, now we want to come back to the negotiating table, would you accept?

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

ZARIF: No, the deal is very much alive. The Security Council showed the deal was alive. The Security Council showed the United States was isolated in the world, and now the United States, what—I mean, the Trump administration used power politics, used bullying, in order to destroy the deal. Now the next administration wants to use the bullying to come back to the deal. So the bullying is there. And, you know, I mean, I know U.S. pretty well, but you know Iran pretty well, too. We don’t succumb to pressure.

Today, we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War. You know that war. You know that everybody supported Saddam Hussein. You know that everybody gave them all of the weapons. Even the Western countries gave him chemical weapons. Where is Saddam Hussein now and where Iran is now?

So if we wanted to accept bullying, Saddam Hussein was still around and Saddam Hussein would be creating a lot of terror in this region. We didn’t accept his bullying when he was giving us chemical—bombing us with chemical weapons. We won’t accept anybody else’s bullying.

ZAKARIA: All right. Now we’ll move on to the question—next question, Kayla.

STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Barbara Slavin.

Q: Hello, Mr. Minister. Can you hear me?

ZARIF: Yes, I can, Barbara. How are you?

Q: I’m OK. It’s nice to see you virtually.

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

Is there any possibility for a humanitarian release? Thank you.

ZARIF: Well, thank you for bringing that question. I think it’s very important. I think it was the year before last when I addressed the same question at the Council under better circumstances. It was live and I was there, and I responded to a question either by you or somebody else from the audience, that we are ready for a universal action. And I have to make the case clear. I do not have a standing in the Iranian courts because these are domestic issues. These are Iranian citizens and I have no standing.

The only way I can get a standing is through an exchange, and I have suggested a universal exchange. You saw the article in the New Yorker. I am not referring to our news. You had an article in the New Yorker about an Iranian who refused to spy for the United States and he was kept in jail in the United States. But, finally, we were able to release him through an exchange, and I’m willing to do more.

There are Iranians in U.S. prison who are there only because they refuse to betray their country, and we are prepared to exchange all of them and all those who have been kept in jail. There were Iranians who were on their way to the airport in another country, and because of U.S. pressure they went back to jail after the court had acquitted them.

So let’s not—let’s not put one person in front of another. Let’s do a universal deal. I repeat, we can exchange all prisoners, period.

ZAKARIA: Next question.

STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Kimberly Dozier.

Q: Thank you.

Mr. Minister, are you concerned over the U.S. announcement of sanctions snapping back? As while you’ve been speaking, the Trump administration has announced new sanctions against Iran’s Defense Ministry? And is Iran still seeking retribution for the U.S. targeting of General Qassem Soleimani? Thank you.

ZARIF: Well, the sanctions that the United States has been imposing on Iran, it’s nothing new. Secretary Pompeo, I think as we speak, is trying to gain some attention by having a press conference, it seems, at this very moment, announcing new sanctions. I don’t think that’s anything new. And I don’t think it will have any more significant impact on Iran. The United States has exerted all the pressure it could on Iran. It has—it had hoped that these sanctions would bring our population to their knees. It didn’t.

That’s why they withdrew from JCPOA. That’s why they started maximum pressure. That’s why they took a resolution to the Security Council. That’s why after they failed, they started the so-called process of snapback. And, I have to say, that the word “snapback” doesn’t appear in either JCPOA or Security Council Resolution 2231. And they failed. Now, they are taking retribution not against us, but against the entire world by saying that anybody who does not accept—I mean, it’s as if somebody said: There is a U.N. Security Council resolution. And if you don’t accept it, I’m going to kick you. This is the type of global democracy the United States believes in.

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

ZAKARIA: Can I just follow up, Javad? Are you, though, saying the Iranian government is still considering the possibility of some kind of retaliation, or are the books closed on that?

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

ZAKARIA: Next question.

STAFF: We’ll take our next question from David Sanger. David, please accept the unmute now.

Q: OK. Sorry about that. Thanks very much. And Foreign Minister, good to hear from you again.

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

ZARIF: You make assumptions, and then you create a story. And I’ve seen your story, David. Iran has not been disruptive in this region. We have defended our interests and we have fought against terrorism. If the United States has tried to hurt our interests, then we defend ourselves. If the United States crosses our airspace, crosses our territory, we defend ourselves. And remember, this is called Persian Gulf, not Gulf of Mexico. It’s close to our border, our waters, and about seven thousand miles away from your boarders. So let’s be very clear. We’re not disruptive in our own region.

The country that is disrupting our region is the United States. Spent $7 trillion in our region, destroyed our region, brought extremism to our region, and then it claims that we have reduced being disruptive? This is nonsense. So as far as the United States wants to be the judge, jury, and executioner for every case, well, it can’t say Iran was disruptive in the past. It’s not disruptive now. If we’ll do this, do that, these are just speculations—not speculations. These are just propaganda by the U.S. machinery. And I wouldn’t buy it. And I hope you wouldn’t either.

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

ZAKARIA: Next question.

STAFF: We’ll take our next question from Mary Beth Long.

Q: Thank you, Mr. Foreign Minister. It’s wonderful to see you again.

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

ZARIF: Well, thank you for that question. Let me—let me just give you a bit of historical background. In 1985, at the height of the Tanker War in the Persian Gulf, where the United States came to the aid of Saddam Hussein, along with several other countries, we suggested a peace initiative in the Persian Gulf, which became paragraph eight of Security Council Resolution 598, which ended the Iran-Iraq War. Then we continuously suggested that countries in the region should come together and work for peace. When I became foreign minister, I resuscitated those ideas by suggesting a regional dialogue forum in 2014, suggesting a non-aggression pact in 2018, and then the president suggested the Hormuz Peace Endeavor, or HOPE, during the General Assembly last year.

What we did in order to follow it up—and these are very simple ways of starting dialogue, of starting confidence building, exactly what happened in Europe some—I mean, a few decades ago. The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, then Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe, based on a basket of principles, basket of confidence-building measures. And we suggested all of that. And then after President Rouhani came back from the General Assembly last year, he wrote letters to every head of state of the Persian Gulf—that is Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, UAE, Oman, Qatar, and Iraq. All of them responded to us, with the exception of the three famous ones—UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia decided to respond to use via Kuwait, in a very harsh way. We provided a positive response, even to their harshness. In their response, they didn’t even address the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. They addressed the emir of Kuwait. We had addressed them directly. We had addressed the king of Saudi Arabia in a totally proper way. He responded with an extremely negative letter addressed to the emir of Kuwait, not to us. So I think they want to resolve the differences with Iran until the last American soldier. Whether you want to do it or not, it’s up to you. But I believe the problems in our region needs to be settled through dialogue between regional countries. I do not believe this serves anybody by giving basically a carte blanche to countries to reject all sorts of endeavors from peace.

From 1985 we put on the table suggestions for peace, and unfortunately none of them have been taken seriously by those countries in the region who hope that they can pay for their security. And the United States is very much willing to sell them all the arms. But is the U.S. capable of providing them protection? I don’t think so. I think protection cannot be bought from outside. I think protection should be gained through interaction in the region. And we are prepared to do that.

ZAKARIA: Next question.

STAFF: We’ll take our next question from Jared Genser.

ZAKARIA: I should point out people should identify themselves and their affiliation.

STAFF: It appears there is a technical issue. We will go to the next person, David Merkel.

Q: Hi. This is David Merkel with the International Institute for Strategic Studies. I’d like to thank the Council for this opportunity.

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

ZARIF: Well, actually, I was fortunate to conclude, after 22 years of negotiations, the comprehensive legal convention of the Caspian. This was done in 2018 and I think was signed by President Rouhani in 2019. The next stage is the stage that you referred to, has not been concluded, and that is the demarcation of the baselines, which is, for our parliament, the condition to present the comprehensive Caspian legal convention to the parliament for ratification.

We are engaged with—in good faith with our neighbors in order to determine to agree on a baseline for all five countries of the Caspian. These are difficult negotiations, very technical negotiations. And as you pointed out, in the comprehensive convention there are provisions for how a gas pipeline could be built in the Caspian.

In our view, there are more economical ways of getting Turkmenistan gas to Europe, and we are prepared to help. We do not believe that a gas pipeline is feasible economically. But from an environmental perspective, there are ways of doing that in the convention. And we are prepared to go through the mechanism of the convention in order to make that a possibility. But again, a land pipeline is more environmentally sound and a more secure way of getting Turkmenistan gas to Europe. And we are prepared to provide all the help that we can, pending a sea pipeline.

ZAKARIA: Next question.

STAFF: We’ll take our next question from Elise Labott.

Q: Mr. Minister, thank you so much for doing this. Nice to see you. Elise Labott with American University.

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

ZARIF: Well, I really don’t believe anything is impossible, but I believe it’s going to take a lot of work. And we showed our readiness to engage in difficult endeavors. We did that with Secretary Kerry. It wasn’t easy to start the negotiations which resulted in JCPOA. Those were extremely difficult negotiations, based on not mutual trust but mutual mistrust, and we succeeded. Now, I think a sign that good faith is there is not to try to renegotiate what already has been negotiated. And this is extremely important. And I think after these very difficult years of President Trump, it is important for the United States to send the right signals to Iran, that it is willing to end this, basically, policy of pressure and, for the lack of a better word, bullying.

ZAKARIA: All right. We have time for one last question.

STAFF: We’ll take our last question from Naz Durakoglu. Naz, please accept the unmute now button. OK, we’ll move to our next question, Farooq Kathwari.

ZAKARIA: All right. I think we’re having some technical problems. Let me ask the last question, Foreign Minister.

Q: I’m able to get nothing. I think—got it. Yeah, this is Farooq Kathwari. And for this discussion I’m chairman of the Kashmir Study Group.

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

ZARIF: Well, Iran has always been a participant in any peace effort, from the Bonn Conference in 2001 where Iran played a leading role in getting the parent government in place in Afghanistan to all regional attempts. We believe that there were major flaws in the attempt by the United States in the—in the recent process. I believe the United States engaged in an all-out effort to simply get out of Afghanistan—which is good, but it should not be at the expense of the people of Afghanistan and at the expense of the democratic process in Afghanistan, at expense of the achievements of the—of the international community and the Afghan people over the past twenty years. And I think for the United States the ultimate objective was to simply find a way to leave Afghanistan. It did not have to impose all of that on the—on Afghanistan and on the region. So we are very pessimistic about the process that the United States led, and that is why we did not participate in that process.

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

I think the United States has not played a positive role. We indicated that since Dr. Khalilzad started his endeavors. We said that it was on the wrong footing, that it was not based on assumptions and principles that would serve long-term peace and stability in Afghanistan. We have observed very closely the discussions in Doha. They are, unfortunately, at a stalemate.

We will do whatever we can in order to help that process. But the damage that has been done by the United States, by this process, is very difficult to undo.

ZAKARIA: Can I ask you as a quick supplementary, do you have any reaction to the reports that Russian—the Russian government was paying Taliban soldiers to kill American soldiers?

ZARIF: Well, I have no information of that nature. I know that everybody in our region is concerned about the rise of Daesh in Afghanistan and there has been cooperation in order to fight Daesh. But I have no information on the allegation that you just provided. I don’t think it should be correct, but I have no way of knowing.

ZAKARIA: Mr. Foreign Minister, good of you to spend this time with us. It’s always important to hear from you. Thank you so much.

ZARIF: Thank you very much, Fareed. And thanks for everybody who participated in this conversation. And thanks to the Council for standing up.


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