A Conversation with Mohammad Javad Zarif

A Conversation with Mohammad Javad Zarif

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Middle East and North Africa

Politics and Government

Foreign Minister Zarif discusses current developments in the Middle East.

HAASS: Well, good evening. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. As you can see, sitting next to me is the foreign minister of Iran, Mohammad Javad Zarif. I’m Richard Haass. And I also want to welcome not just those of you in the room but those of you who are joining us through all means electronic and digital from around the country and around the world. Just to say, this meeting is on—O-N—the record, and the minister and I will talk for about half an hour, and then we’ll open it up to you, our members. At the end of the meeting, we’ve asked that the members stay in their seats until the minister is able to leave Peterson Hall.

Foreign Minister Zarif has been to the United States in his current capacity for four—over the four or five last years, you’ve been minister—

ZARIF: Four years.

HAASS: —four years, many times. He was educated here, got his doctorate at the University of Denver, and he and I have worked together, one way or another, sometimes in parallel purposes, sometimes in cross-purposes, in government, and I would just say he is a consummate professional. And it is—we are very pleased to have him here. Timing could not be better given all that is going on in his part of the world and beyond.

As I said, I’ll start with a few questions, and then we’ll open up.

Mr. Minister, welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations.

ZARIF: Good to be here.

HAASS: Let me just ask you a general question about the part of the world where your country resides. When you compare it to other regions—Asia, Latin America, Europe, even Africa—the Middle East has been, is, and promises to be the least stable geography in the world. Why is that? What is it about the Greater Middle East that makes it so instability-prone?

ZARIF: Well, I think it is befitting that you want to talk about such a difficult subject to start, as we always do, in the name of God—(laughter)—who is—who is the compassionate and the merciful, because it’s important when we talk about our part of the world to remind ourselves that the God that people are killing in his name, is considered in our religious doctrine as a being that is compassionate to all, and merciful, and his compassion doesn’t recognize any boundaries of religion, race, sex, or whatever. And it is, in fact, the irony of history that people kill in his name and commit all these acts of atrocity.

I believe there are many reasons for this situation. You can look inside, inward in the region. And it’s always easy to blame the outsiders. We’ve had foreign intervention and occupation, which obviously amount to much in terms of creating disenchantment, anger, and leading to extremism. I don’t want to boast, but in February of 2003, a month before the United States invaded Iraq, I had a statement as ambassador of Iran to the Security Council, at the Security Council, and I said a lot of what may happen after a U.S. invasion—and at that time, an invasion was imminent—is in question. We don’t know what will happen. We don’t have a crystal ball. But one outcome is very clear, and that is extremism is going to be on the rise as a consequence of that invasion. So that’s one way of looking at our region. Our region has been the scene of many foreign interventions, and that has an internal dynamic. Occupation, invasion, has a dynamic.

But looking internally, I believe—and here I do not want to be rude to any of our neighbors—but there has been a failure of the state system in the Middle East. Expectations have not been met. People believe that the state—and now I don’t mean just to say the Arab state, but primarily the Arab state—has been incapable of addressing the most important basic needs of the population. And that has given rise to anger, to resentment, to disenfranchisement. You do not have any other opportunity to vent out frustration.

People stood in line for 10 hours in Iran two months ago to vote—10 hours in line simply to vote. That gives them an opportunity to express themselves. Iranians stood four hours in line in Los Angeles to vote. That gives them an avenue of expressing their satisfaction, dissatisfaction, with the government. That is totally absent in the rest of our region. So frustration with the lack of the possibility for the state providing for the most basic needs, including dignity, that’s one thing.

Then this anger is directed at governments in the region, governments of their own countries. But unfortunately they try to misdirect or divert this anger to some sort of an enemy that they depict. And now we happen to be the enemy that they want to choose—enemy of choice, because it not only works for them. It works with you. (Laughter.) It is very appealing for somebody to come and tell the United States that, oh, Iran is the enemy; Iran is the source of all of our problems. And because of that, you see a concerted effort to create this external enemy in order to divert that very fundamental existential threat.

But I believe helping these extremist forces, even by diverting their anger towards a superficial enemy, would not resolve the problem, because the problem, at the end of the day, for these extremist forces, for these terrorist forces, the focus of their anger is their own governments. And even if they can divert that anger to another enemy for some time, at the end of the day the chicken will come back home to roost.

HAASS: Following up on that, the new crown prince of Saudi Arabia, when he was the deputy crown prince, gave an interview several months back and he said—and I think I’ve got the quote roughly right—that we won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead we will work so the battle is in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.

What did you understand him to mean by that?

ZARIF: Well, it meant a threat, and a threat that they had been trying to make real for some time by helping terrorist organizations. You saw them participating in person in the rallies in Paris of terrorist organizations, who are chanting outside this hall too. They’re there. They support various terrorist organizations who are operating from Pakistan.

And finally they were able to bring some of them to our parliament, the place they hate the most, because that reflects something that we have and they don’t, and that is a type of democracy. It may not be similar to yours, although there are many similarities. Just—if you had just watched our debate, if you knew Persian and simply had watched our debate, and then compared it to yours—(laughter)—no, no, it’s very similar. I’m not trying to be sarcastic—similar debate. But that doesn’t happen there.

So they brought it there. They brought terrorism to Iran. But I believe, again, they’re looking at the wrong address. Iran is a serious partner for all these countries in fighting our common enemy because we believe, at the end of the day, these takfiri forces, these extremist forces are as much a threat against us, but even more a threat against them.

HAASS: But just following up on what the crown and the deputy crown prince said, are you worried that—the fact that you and Saudis and others are on opposite sides of the conflict in Yemen, could one way or another lead to direct confrontation?

ZARIF: Well, we certainly hope not, and we certainly hope that we can be—if we don’t agree with each other about the situation in Yemen or about the situation in Syria, we can still work with each other in order to bring those situations to an end. We believe nobody is gaining from the continuation of the conflict in Yemen. We believe—I mean, I put a proposal four years ago for a resolution in Syria—four points: cease-fire, national unity government, constitutional reform, elections.

On Yemen, immediately after the war, in a meeting with President Erdogan of Turkey, President Rouhani presented another four-point plan: cease-fire, immediate humanitarian assistance—because Yemen is probably the worst humanitarian nightmare that you can think of—300,000 cases of cholera; that’s really serious—so cease-fire, humanitarian assistance, inter-Yemeni dialogue, national unity government. I believe this can be the basis for cooperative arrangements between Iran and Saudi Arabia. We don’t have to fight. We don’t need to fight. We don’t need to try to exclude each other from the scene in the Middle East because, at the end of the day, neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia will be able to exclude the other, and the minute our neighbors on the other side of the Persian Gulf come to the realization that they cannot exclude Iran, I believe the most important giant step would have been taken by them in order to resolve these problems.

HAASS: You mentioned Syria, so let me turn to that.

You yourselves have been the victims of the use of chemical weapons. Now you find yourself supporting and embedding a government that’s using chemical weapons. How is it you square that?

ZARIF: First of all, we do not believe that any country has a red line on the use of chemical weapons except for Iran. Because when we were the victims of chemical weapons, nobody cared. Everybody actually supported the other side.

I used to be a very young—I’m still young—but a very young—(laughter)—diplomat in 1985, going to the president of the Security Council, telling him that chemical weapons were being used in the Iran-Iraq war, and the president of the Security Council told me flatly, I’m not going to listen to you. Now, I would not accept anybody telling me that chemical weapons is a red line for them because I remember that personally, but it is a red line for us, and that is why we have said from the very beginning, that Iran opposes the use of chemical weapons by anybody against anybody. That’s period; I mean, no ifs and butts. However, we believe that allegations of the use of chemical weapons need to be investigated, and there are mechanisms for investigating.

HAASS: Do you have serious doubts whether the Syrian government used chemicals weapons?

ZARIF: We have serious doubts that the recent allegations by the United States about the use of chemical weapons against Khan Sheikhun can be verified, and we suggested that they should send an investigative team to the region. We said that if chemical weapons had been used, there are traces. You can find where they were used, how they were used, from which locality they were used, and it would have been easy. It would have been easy for a team to go to Khan Sheikhun, and it would have been easy for a team to go to Shayrat Airbase. Because if they said they loaded the planes with chemical weapons at the Shayrat Airbase, traces would remain; nobody would be able to remove those traces. You know, we went through six or seven U.S. investigative teams. When we were alleging that Iraq had used chemical weapons, they came to the region, they even went to the warfront, and they were able to determine time and again that Iraq had used chemical weapons against Iran. It’s not that difficult.

But the OPCW, the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, refused to go to Shayrat. And I asked the executive director of the organization a few weeks ago when he was in Iran, and he said we were not supposed to attribute responsibility; we were supposed to only check whether chemical weapons have been used. So, from our perspective, it is unacceptable for anybody to use chemical weapons, but we do not accept people to be the judge, the prosecutor, the executioner, the investigator, the jury, everything in one person who may need, for a lot of other reasons, to use this as a way to escape a lot of other circumstances that he had found himself in at that time.

HAASS: OK. I’m not going to do some follow ups, so I want to say some other issues out there and then I want to open it up. Just this past week, we marked the second anniversary of the U.S., not just U.S., but the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the JCPOA, the multilateral agreement on the Iranian nuclear program.

I guess I have two questions. One is, what is your assessment of compliance up to date? I don’t expect you to assess your own, some people here might have some views on that. I’m curious, your assessment of the compliance of others, particularly the United States.

ZARIF: Well, I think our compliance is rather straightforward because it’s not forgetting whether we have complied or not. We have given the mandate to the IAEA, actually the agreement has given the mandate to the IAEA to verify our compliance, and it has verified every time that Iran has complied. So that’s very clear in black and white in the reports of the IAEA, which is hardly a sympathizer of Iran. So you don’t need to ask me whether we have complied.

As far as the United States is concerned, we believe that for the United States, it has been, even during the Obama administration, more important to maintain the sanctions that remained rather than remove the sanctions that were lifted. So the Office of Foreign Assets Control, OFAC, has been reluctant to provide straightforward answers to those who wanted to do business with Iran because it was worried that a straightforward answer would undermine the sanctions that we had not debated and discussed or agreed to be lifted, sanctions dealing with other issues. We believe that they are not justified. But for OFAC, those were sacrosanct and those were more important than the sanctions that were being lifted.

HAASS: You’re talking about sanctions, for example, dealing with terrorism or human rights or other such issues.

ZARIF: Yeah. And since you mentioned it, it’s important and interesting that Iran is under human rights sanctions and countries who have never heard of elections and behead innocent individuals are your allies and never receive any sanctions, human rights or otherwise.

But be that as it may, yeah, I’m referring to those sanctions. (Laughter.)

HAASS: Secretary Tillerson, I think, again, I’ve got the quote roughly right, recently called for, quote, “supporting elements inside Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of the Iranian government.” And several American senators have been less diplomatic and have called for regime change. So my question is, how do you hear that? And what impact does it have on how you see the United States?

ZARIF: Well, the impact is that the United States doesn’t learn from history. The U.S. conducted regime change in Iran in 1953 and look what it has produced for the United States. The U.S. has been following a regime change policy since the revolution. Officially, it was officially stopped during the Obama administration. We don’t believe that it was actually stopped, but it was officially stopped.

You see, the difference between Iran and American allies in the region is that we derive our legitimacy and our authority and our power from our people. The fact is that we’ve been under pressure, Richard, for 38 years. You look around us in the region, everybody has some sort of a foreign umbrella, either NATO or direct U.S. support; Iran doesn’t. How have we survived? How have we survived without any support from outside? It’s because we rely on our own people. It’s because we rely on our own people that we’ve been able to survive regime change, we’ve been able to survive a war.

Everybody supported Saddam Hussein. People want to forget that. For eight years we were subjected to a war where everybody supported the other side, from the Soviet Union to the United States to every other permanent member of the Security Council. People spent billions upon billions of dollars. You remember a few weeks ago Saudi Arabia spent $110 billion buying arms for themselves. They purchased $70 billion worth of arms for Iraq during its war against Iran.

But we survived. We survived the war. We survived sanctions. We survived Hillary Clinton’s crippling sanctions, the worst types of sanctions ever had been imposed on Iran for many years. We survived that.

Why do we survive that? It’s because we can rely on our people, the same people who stand in line for 10 hours to vote for their president, because—General Mattis the other day said that Iranians don’t have a choice, that the ayatollah chooses the president, and he made a reference that it is as if President Trump would choose the next president of the United States. Come on! People stand in line for 10 hours to vote for a president that had been prechosen?

Now maybe people in Iran have been brainwashed. People in Los Angeles would stand in line for four hours to choose a president that was predetermined? Come on. Don’t kid yourselves.

Look at the realities. Regime change doesn’t work in Iran, because it’s not a country that is dependent on the United States for its legitimacy, for its survival. We have lived—I mean, not necessarily out of choice, but we have lived in spite of the United States.

HAASS: Let me raise a few other questions. One, there was a New York Times story over the weekend I’m sure you saw, essentially arguing that Iran now dominates in Iraq, thanks to a U.S. policy. And we’ve seen in Iraq several times where you had a government nominally in charge and then alienated Sunnis, who formed al-Qaida, ISIS, what have you.

Whether Iran dominates Iraq or not will make a debating point. Iran clearly has significant influence in Iraq.

What confidence do you have that this—that history won’t repeat itself, that Shi’a militia and then basically a Shi’a-dominated government won’t overreach and whatever they call it—you know, that some version of Sunni terrorism 3.0 won’t emerge just like ISIS and al-Qaida did? What confidence do you have there?

ZARIF: No, we believe that we need to have inclusive governments throughout the region. That is why we have come to the aid of the Iraqi Sunnis, Iraqi Kurds, as well as Iraqi Shi’as when they confronted ISIS.

Our policy has been consistent, Richard. We fought extremism in Afghanistan. We fought extremism in Iraq. We fought extremism in Syria.

U.S. allies supported extremism in Afghanistan. You remember, the only three countries that recognized the Taliban as government were Pakistan, a neighbor; Saudi Arabia; and the UAE. These are the same countries that support terrorism and extremism in Syria, same countries that support terrorism and extremism in Iraq. They have been consistent in supporting terrorism and extremism. We have been consistent in objecting to that. They made the wrong choices, and now they’re complaining. Why are they reaping the fruits of their own wrong choices? It’s not our fault that we made the right choice.

But that article in The New York Times, I believe—I have a lot of respect for The New York Times, but they didn’t do a fact check, because if you read that article, it is so one-sided that it even tries to attribute the use of chemical weapons on Iran—I mean, not in such a direct way, but it—just read the sentence, please. Read the sentence against a background that seven United Nations reports, one after another, proved that Iraq had used chemical weapons and rejected Iraqi allegations that Iran had used chemical weapons, rejected Iraqi allegations, supported by the United States. Remember the Halabja incident, where a CIA document now shows that the United States sent cables to all its embassies asking them to go and lobby that Iran had used chemical weapons here? I mean, these are facts. I’m not—I’m not—these are not even WikiLeaks. They came—they came before Assange.

So, I mean, these are realities. I mean, these are realities. Our—we have influence in Iraq. We have influence in the region. But we do not believe that influence in this region should be at the expense of excluding others. We believe that everybody should be engaged in the region.

HAASS: Do you believe that there’s a place for American forces in Iraq?

ZARIF: We believe that foreign forces are inherently destabilizing, Richard. We do not object to the choice of our neighbors. We do not interfere in the choice of our neighbors.

HAASS: But you have foreign—you have Iranian forces in Syria. Why are American forces in Iraq not destabilizing—Iranian forces in Syria not—

ZARIF: That’s—no, we do not have forces. As you know, we have military advisers. And as I said, we do not object to the choices of our neighbors, but we believe that foreign forces are inherently destabilizing. We do not want to have a military presence anywhere in the region. We want to be able—we had—we went there as requested by—we went there—to Erbil. You see, you like to simply point out to the fact that we have military advisers in Syria. Why don’t you remember when ISIS was just about to take over Erbil, President Barzani called three countries: Iran—probably last—Turkey, and United States. We were there in two hours with five planeloads of weapons, and military advisers to assist the Kurds in fighting ISIS. The U.S. took 24 hours to go and do some aerial bombardments. And our friends didn’t go at all.

So this is the reality on the ground. If we are there, we are on the invitation of the governments that are recognized by the United Nations. But at the end of the day, we believe that the job of establishing security for countries in the region is their own. Each country, their citizens, their military forces must establish security. Foreigners should assist. Anything beyond that would be destabilizing.

HAASS: You mentioned the Kurds. Late in September, there’s a vote, as you know, to be taken by the Kurds in Iraq. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’m mildly confident they will vote for a state of their own, to that effect. You’ve obviously got a significant Kurdish population in your own country. There’s significant Kurdish populations elsewhere, including Turkey and Syria. What is—what is the Iranian government’s view towards Kurdish self-determination?

ZARIF: Well, we believe that the referendum is not the right choice. We believe that it would bring about centrifugal tendencies in Iraq that would be disastrous for the country, and it would not be limited to the Kurdish population. And I believe the impact on Iraqi security would be disastrous and the impact on regional security would be disastrous. So we have advised our friends in Iraqi Kurdistan—and all of them are our friends, from Mr. Barzani to others in Iraq—we have advised all of them that this is the wrong choice and they should not make this choice. I believe this is the common view of every country in the region, and in my discussions in Europe and elsewhere, I’ve heard that this is—I mean, they shared this concern that we have. And here, I do not talk to officials, but talking to think tanks, I believe the same tendency exists here in the United States. So I do not think that’s the right choice. But I believe that policies in our region—as much as we insist on national unity and territorial integrity of every country in the region, we believe that anti-Kurdish policies anywhere in the region would backfire.

HAASS: Would you qualify Turkish policies as anti-Kurdish?

ZARIF: Well, I do not—I do not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. I’m just an analyst making an analytical point. (Laughter.)

HAASS: Two last questions, in that case, analytically. The United States is considering introducing additional forces into Afghanistan. From your country’s perspective, this would be with the acceptance or at the request of the government. Would—is this something that you believe will make it more likely that Afghanistan will be able to wind down the civil war and forge a peace agreement?

ZARIF: We don’t, and we have shared that view with the Afghanistan government, that we do not believe that reliance on foreign forces will enable them to bring about a peaceful resolution. We support the peace process in Afghanistan. We are prepared to do whatever we can and by whatever we have in our capability to support that process. We have our view, but we respect the decisions of our neighbors. We always have. And the government of Afghanistan is a sovereign government. And if it makes a decision, we respect that decision. But we would disagree with them on the merits of that decision.

HAASS: And my last question before I open it up. Over the weekend there were new reports about Americans in detention in Iran, one receiving a 10-year sentence, a student at Princeton. There’s a number of other Americans or Iranian-Americans who are also being detained in Iranian prisons.

Is Iran prepared to release these people as a humanitarian gesture? What possible good is served by having these people under questionable, to say the least, charges serve long prison sentences in Iran?

ZARIF: Well, we have—and I’m sure everybody knows today—an independent judiciary. And we in the government do not have any control over the decisions of the judiciary. That is solidly written in the constitution, practiced on the ground in Iran.

As a foreign minister, I’ve always tried, on humanitarian grounds, to help people who are in custody, who may not have—I mean, we do not recognize dual citizenship, so for us Iranian-Americans are considered to be Iranians and subjected to our own laws. But we have followed their cases, and we hope that an acceptable resolution can be found.

I have to mention that while a lot of publicity has been around the Iranian-Americans or others who have been detained in Iran—and some even say that Iranian-Americans don’t feel safe to come to Iran. There are a million Iranian-Americans, at least, and hundreds and thousands of them come to Iran on a regular basis. I mean, every plane flying to Iran from—mostly bringing Iranian expatriates from the United States—is full.

So they come. Only a handful of them have been detained on charges. And I’m not in a position to comment on the charges, because, as I said, the judiciary is independent. However, there are Iranians who are being detained by the United States, either in the United States or even abroad, on charges of technical violations of sanctions that are not applicable today but were applicable 10 years ago.

An Iranian woman, two months pregnant, was arrested a couple of weeks ago in Australia. She had immigrated to Australia, left the country, arrested two months ago in Australia, on the request of the United States, for having translated in a transaction that involved a technical violation of sanctions.

Another Iranian was arrested in Spain two weeks ago, again, on the same charges. Another Iranian was arrested in Frankfurt, Germany three weeks ago on the same charges. Iranians are being arrested in the United States on bogus charges—bogus. I know a case in New York—bogus allegations, purely political allegations.

So I’m not saying that it’s tit for tat, but I’m saying that we need to address this humanitarian problem from a humanitarian perspective and not from a political perspective. And I’m certainly ready to do all it takes on my side to help reside this humanitarian problem.

HAASS: OK, let’s open it up for questions from our members. A reminder: This is on the—on the record. Wait for a microphone. State your name and affiliation. Please limit yourself to one short question.

Yes, sir.

Q: Mr. Minister, my name is Imran Riffat, and I’m with Global Kids.

In your comments just now, you referred to the events of 1953. And one can understand the very unhappy memories that Iranians have about those events. Similarly, the Americans have some very unhappy memories about the events of 1979. How can these two be reconciled, if at all?

ZARIF: Well, I think we—as you said, there are—there is bad history. Certainly, Iranians did not believe that the activities in 1979 were benign. And the 1953 incident was very much fresh in the minds of Iranians when the events of 1979-1980 took place. What needs to be done is to look forward. We have after years of disagreement been able to reach an agreement that is the result of a multilateral process in which Iran and the United States played a most significant part, but which the deal is not an Iran-U.S. deal. It’s a multilateral deal. And we said that when we signed the nuclear agreement, we said that this was the foundation and not the ceiling.

Iran, in our view and in the view of the IAEA, built trust by implementing its end of the bargain. Unfortunately, as I said in answering the previous question, the United States didn’t. So it creates the impression in Iran that the United States’ hostility towards Iran will never end. And I think that can be remedied, while history is history, and we cannot do much about history.

HAASS: Have you had any signals one way or the other from the Trump administration that’s now been in office for six months that lead you to believe that there’s anything new, either positive or negative, to be introduced?

ZARIF: Well, we received the same signals as you see in the press, the tweets, the others. (Laughter.) That—I’m talking as somebody who created tweet diplomacy. If you watched—and Kerry—we did—I did tweets on an almost daily basis during the nuclear negotiation. And I believe tweeting is a good way of doing diplomacy, as I did it myself. (Laughter.)

HAASS: In all modesty.

ZARIF: Yeah, in all modesty. (Laughter.) But the point is, we received contradictory signals. So we don’t want—we don’t know which one to interpret in what way. But it’s very clear that Iran is serious about the nuclear deal. And we believe that the nuclear deal can lay the foundations, not the ceiling.

HAASS: Barbara. Second row here, microphone. Ms. Slavin.

Q: Barbara Slavin from the Atlantic Council. Always a pleasure to see you, Mr. Minister.

Are you satisfied with the level of communication that you have with the United States, with the Trump administration at this point? I believe you’ve never spoken to Secretary of State Tillerson or had any communication with him. Is that—is that correct?

ZARIF: Accurate.

Q: And is one of the reasons that you are here now—I don’t know what the official reason is—but is the main reason so you feel that you can get your message across to—perhaps to the Trump administration and others? You seem to be doing a lot of interviews.

ZARIF: Well, in today’s globalized world, you can—you can get your message across even sitting in your home. But I had an opportunity to come for a U.N. session. And I’m taking that opportunity to also have—to see some old friends, as I’m doing right now, and meet some new friends. But it is important to have a better understanding, because I see a lot of misinformation and disinformation that is being—I mean, you know that a lot of money is being spent. Millions upon millions of dollars of money is being spent on PR. And this PR doesn’t want to promote the truth, at least—I mean, I’m not talking about fake news, but the PR is trying to promote a version that is acceptable to certain groups of people.

And I believe there is a need under these circumstances, when people are bombarded with this type of less than truth, that—or more than truth in cases—(laughter)—like our total control over Iraq—to hear the different side of the story. But there are no communications between myself and Secretary Tillerson. It doesn’t mean that it can’t—they can’t be, because the possibilities for engagement with regard to the nuclear deal has always been open. My colleagues have regular contact with U.S. colleagues on the implementation of the nuclear deal. Later this week they’ll meet in Vienna, in joint commission, whose agenda is to look at our complaints about U.S. failures to comply fully with its obligations under the nuclear deal, JCPOA.

So possibilities for interaction are there, and I think we take advantage of these possibilities. But certainly, I mean, it’s not like the situation with the previous administration where probably Secretary Kerry and I spent more time with each other than we spent with anybody else.

HAASS: You mentioned the JCPOA. Just to be clear, in eight years, just to choose one provision, all limits on centrifuge quantity and quality expire. Has your government—and in 10 years limits on stockpile quantity and quality expire. Has your government made any decisions or statements about what Iran’s intentions would be after these ceilings expire?

ZARIF: You know, Iran is committed not to produce nuclear weapons. That never expires. Iran is committed to enable the IAEA to have the most stringent control mechanism that is available. That is the additional protocol. That never expires. These are provisions that are built in the nuclear deal that have no sunset.

There are some temporary confidence-building measures that Iran agreed to adopt. Those are temporary in nature. After those temporary limitations expire, Iran will resume producing enriched uranium for fuel purposes. And the IAEA is there with the additional protocol in order to verify it. And Iran’s commitment never to produce nuclear weapons is also there.

We two weeks ago, as you know, voted for a resolution to legally ban nuclear weapons for all. Unfortunately, the United States and other nuclear-weapon states did not even participate in the deliberations in the United Nations.

So I believe that’s the route to go. I think that’s the way to rid the world of these weapons of mass nightmare. And I think six U.S.—six previous U.S. secretaries of state are on the record in The Wall Street Journal that that is the right path to go. But that was some time ago. But now the possibility is there on the ground with this total ban on nuclear weapons, and I think we should take it. We should all take it.

HAASS: Just given that, has the Iranian government articulated a position on North Korea? Because at the moment it is busy expanding both its nuclear as well as its missile inventory.

ZARIF: We believe that nuclear weapons do not augment anybody’s security. Our objection to nuclear weapons does not recognize friend or foe. We simply believe that nuclear weapons are unacceptable, and in our view illegal because of the consequences. I argued for 90 minutes in 1996 before the ICJ that any use of nuclear weapons would be illegal because it violates the most basic principles of international humanitarian law.

And that is our position. Our position is that nuclear weapons are unacceptable ideologically from our ideological point of view, that nuclear weapons are not acceptable strategically, that nuclear weapons do not augment anybody’s security, that nuclear deterrence is baloney.

HAASS: Sure, Jeffrey.

Q: Jeff Laurenti.

Minister Zarif, I’d like to pick up that issue that Richard had posed at the end of the opening segment about Xiyue Wang, the Princeton graduate student. And there’s been a great deal of consternation in Princeton, of course, about his secret trial and now sentencing, perhaps in part because they’ve accused him of spying for Harvard—(laughter)—which would be some disturbance.

And I think that this goes beyond the humanitarian framework that Richard proposed, because what kind of independent judiciary is it that has secret trials? Somebody has to pick judges and prosecutors. Somebody has to be in charge of the

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That has secret trials. Somebody has to pick judges and prosecutors. Somebody has to be in charge of the security forces, the security services. Since, seemingly, the government is not in charge of any of these, who picks them, why are they so hard to control, why are they a kind of bedrock of the hardline element, and what leeway do you have in the Foreign Ministry to admit U.N. human rights rapporteurs and such when these dark forces, we might think, seem to have such clout and control of their own?

ZARIF: Well, you made a lot of assumptions. Judges are parts of judiciary. They’re not selected by anybody. They go through a process that is in the judiciary to be admitted as judges. In our case, judges—we don’t have elected judges. In many countries, we don’t—you don’t elect the judges, but they go through a process. It’s not an arbitrary policy. It’s a—it’s a legal framework within which judges are appointed, are selected.

The process—the due process of a case going to a certain judge is also determined by law. It’s not an arbitrary process. Security cases in many countries are held in-camera, including in the United States. I can give you a case right now in New York, the lawyer of the defendant doesn’t have access to the—to the charges against him because they say charges are classified. The defendant himself doesn’t have access to the charges against him because they say charges are classified. You call these dark forces in Iran, you should call them dark forces in the United States. So, I mean, these are realities.

As I said, our judiciary is independent, and I’m not here to defend another branch of Iranian government because it’s not—none of my business. They are an independent branch of the Iranian government, they carry their own decisions, but it is based on rules of procedure that are enshrined in law, not arbitrary. You may not agree with the law. I certainly do not agree with the law.

That has—you know, a court in New York—let me just ask you this. A court in New York gave $11 billion to victims of 9/11, accusing Iran of being the culprit, while every evidence in the book says that Saudi Arabia and your allies were the real culprits. A court in New York—I mean, this is—(chuckles)—so “dark forces”—let me—let me be serious about dark forces.

So let’s look at the realities. I mean, our money is being confiscated for roles that we played in September 11th. This is long before JASTA. The judiciary has evidence, according to them, to prove that this gentleman was involved in espionage. Now you may have a different interpretation of espionage than they do, and I respect that. But we cannot simply say that this was an arbitrary decision. This is—having said this as foreign minister, it’s my job to make sure that anybody, any foreign national in Iran is—even if they are in prison—would receive the necessary amount of legal protection, receive consular visit, and if possible, their case is resolved through humanitarian means. And I’m saying I’ll do my best in order to be of assistance there.

HAASS: Michelle.

Q: Hi—hello?

ZARIF: I can hear.

Q: Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, CNBC.

Speaking of money, there were conflicting numbers. How much—(comes on mic)—Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, CNBC. Speaking of money, there were conflicting numbers as to how much cash you got from the United States in the wake of the signing of the JCPOA. How much did you get from the U.S.?

ZARIF: Well, you see, we have cases in The Hague. It’s called the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal. We had a—you know, during the Shah, we put a lot of money into funds to buy weapons. And after the revolution, the United—and we didn’t know how much it was, because, I mean, there were a lot of stuff. I mean, the beautiful military equipment that you’re now selling to Saudi Arabia, you used to sell to us. So for those beautiful military equipment, we used to pay a lot of money. And we—estimates are that when the Shah left, there were about $400 million worth of money left in that fund without military equipment that had been sold to Iran. And then we had some equipment that we had sent to the United States to be repaired or whatever, overhauled.

So we have a case in the Hauge, in the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal which has two parts. One part, with the fund that was not returned to Iran. And the other part with the—dealing with the parts and the stuff that was sent to the United States for repair or overhaul. We decided in the course of the nuclear negotiations to settle that case, to settle the case of the money not the fund—not the parts. And that amounted, with interest, to something between—I mean, close to $1.8, $1.7 billion.

Q: That’s the total?

ZARIF: That’s just about, just about. So that was our money. It had lingered in the Tribunal for 35 years, waited for resolution. And finally, the lawyers had the guts to—I mean, no, really it requires guts because everybody was accused. I mean, our people accused, why did you settle for $1.7 billion, because some believe that interest should be compounded. Some believe that it should be simple interest. So they reached an agreement based on previous decisions of the Tribunal on other cases that it would be simple interest, it will be at something between 8 and 10 percent, and they just settled it and we got our money. It was our money. Nobody gave us anything. We never asked for anybody’s money.

HAASS: Helima.

Q: Thank you so much. Helima Croft, RBC.

I wonder if you could talk about the bills that are making their way through Congress that might impose additional sanctions on Iran. What would constitute, in your mind, a violation of the JCPOA? I mean, what would be that sort of red line where you would say this is, you know, a violation of the agreement, we’re not going to stick with it?

ZARIF: Well, we will make that decision when time comes. Whether it’s a violation? Of course it’s a violation. I mean, let me tell you something. The United States should reconsider its approach to sanctions. Sanctions have never been an asset for the United States. Sanctions are a liability. You see, when you started imposing nuclear sanctions on Iran—when the U.S., I’m sorry to say you—when the U.S. government started to impose nuclear sanctions against Iran, we only had 200 centrifuges. When they started negotiating with us in order to remove those sanctions, we had 20,000 centrifuges. So if you want to see the results of sanctions, just 19,800 centrifuges is the net result of sanctions. (Laughter.)

So sanctions do not produce outcome. I think—I think people in Washington should get it in their minds: Sanctions are a liability not an asset. But unfortunately for the United States, these sanctions are an asset and they continue to creating more and more of them. And any day that the United States decides to change its policy, there is such a spider web of sanctions that the United States itself will be a prisoner of its own sanctions.

HAASS: Just to be clear, you wouldn’t support, or you don’t support the use of sanctions against Russia for its occupation of Crimea?

ZARIF: I don’t support the use of sanctions, period. I believe use of sanctions are counterproductive. They hurt the wrong segment of the population. They never produce the results that you want. So as somebody who wrote his master’s thesis on sanctions in 1982, I can tell you that sanctions don’t work.

HAASS: Evelyn.

Q: Thank you. Evelyn Leopold, resident correspondent at the U.N.

I was interested—

ZARIF: You are really resident because you’ve been there since I even first went there. (Laughter.)

Q: Forever. Good seeing you again.

Chemical weapons. I was a bit disturbed by what you said because investigating—they are going to be investigated in Syria by this joint group from the OPCW and the U.N. called the JIM. And it doesn’t matter what they come up with; Russia will find something wrong. Either they haven’t gone in enough or they’re working with the white helmets, who they say are British spies, and it goes on and on because Syria will be blamed, as it was in the last report that Syria was blamed for using them. So I wonder if you would—if you agree with that, because I can predict now that you’re going to help Russia—

ZARIF: We requested a team to be sent to Shayrat because the United States claimed that these weapons were based on these airplanes at Shayrat Airbase. That’s why they hit Shayrat with those Tomahawks. So we asked them, send an investigative team to Shayrat, and they couldn’t say that it wasn’t secure because Shayrat was controlled by the government and the government would guarantee security. They didn’t.

Now, if they go now and visit Shayrat and find no traces, what would be the conclusion, that traces have vanished or that the allegation from the beginning was bogus? We’ll see. We’ll see. I mean, I was told by the secretary-general that JIM is going—that is going to start the investigation. We believe it’s way too late, but we believe it’s necessary to do the investigation in a serious way.

Q: But it doesn’t matter what they say, it’s going to be rejected.

ZARIF: In a—in a serious way. I mean, it’s too late. It’s too late. They wasted a lot of time in order to do something that was necessary a long time ago. Don’t predict what will happen. Let’s go about it and see where it gets.

HAASS: The gentleman in the yellow tie has been very patient. I apologize.

Q: Herb London, the London Center for Policy Research.

Sir, you made a reference to the territorial integrity of your neighbors. I wonder if you’d be kind enough to talk about the territorial integrity of Israel.

ZARIF: Well, I’m talking about the immediate neighborhood—(laughter)—and that’s where our concerns are, and that’s where our policy is directed. You see, people are looking for scapegoats in dealing with crimes that are being committed on a daily basis. This smokescreen won’t resolve the Palestinian problem, and Iran is not in the neighborhood.

What is the cause of the continuation of that crisis? It is the violations of the most fundamental rights of the Palestinian people—mass punishment, human rights violations, denial of every inalienable right of the Palestinian people. And there is global consensus about that.

Instead of trying to look for a scapegoat, clever or not, try to address the real cause of the problem and then see if anybody can intervene from outside. It’s the Palestinians who have been deprived, who have been suppressed, repressed for now three generations. If that is addressed, I think you won’t need to look for scapegoats.

HAASS: We have time for one last question. The gentleman in the back. Very short question and hopefully a brief answer. Sir.

Q: Nizar Abboud of Al-Mayadeen Television in Lebanon.

My question is regarding these accusations by United States on missile testing, especially those which were fired recently against ISIS into Syria from Kermanshah or Kerman town, or the area of Kerman. How do you answer to their accusations that Iran is developing missiles that can carry nuclear warheads?

ZARIF: Well, we made it clear—in the nuclear deal, we had a very long negotiation, and at the end of the day we reached an agreement on avoiding the missiles that are designed to be capable of carrying nuclear warheads. And we don’t have nuclear warheads, so we don’t—we don’t design anything to carry something that we don’t have. So that’s the end of that story.

Missiles are our defense. Missiles are the means of our defense. We do not buy $110 billion worth of beautiful military equipment. We produce them ourselves, beautiful or otherwise. (Laughter.) And I hope a day will come that nobody will have to produce or buy these weapons. And we are prepared. I mean, as the country that spends the least in the region on military equipment, we are prepared to engage with anybody on reduction of military expenditures. Our missiles are means of our defense. We will never use them, except in self-defense—never. And that is a commitment we make. And we hope that others can make the same commitment, that they will not use those beautiful military equipment on anything other than self-defense. That’s a challenge. That’s a challenge.

Are they using those beautiful military equipment in self-defense in Yemen against defenseless, innocent people, who have been bombarded out of existence for the past two years? I think these are the questions that need to be asked, instead of focusing on Iran’s means of defense. You see, we went through a war. Eight years. Our cities were showered with missiles, some carrying chemical weapons. And nobody—believe me—nobody gave a damn. I can tell you, I was a witness to that because I was representing Iran at the United Nations. I brought people who were attacked with chemical weapons—I brought them to New York, took them to hospitals so that I could wake up some people’s conscious that this thing was being used. Nobody cared.

And now people are asking us to give up our means of defense. Why should we? Have we ever used these weapons against anybody? Just bring one case in history. We can make a statement categorical: We have never used these weapons except in self-defense. We will never use these weapons except in self-defense. We hit the same base from which terrorist operations were designed and carried out against Iran in Deir Ezzor. We hit them with precision missiles.

You know, one reason we need to test our missiles is that we want—I mean, missiles that carry nonconventional warheads do not need to be precise, because you put a nuclear warhead on top of a missile, they can hit anywhere, it’s enough. You put a chemical warhead on top of a missile, doesn’t need to be precise. But if you want to put conventional warhead on top of a missile, in order to be able to have some impact, it has to be precise. And we have been able to make precise missiles so that we won’t hit civilians as collateral damage.

And that’s what happened in Deir Ezzor. We fired missiles, and our intelligence indicate that all of them hit the targets that they had been intended for. You didn’t hear our missile attacks on Deir Ezzor. Nobody even alleged that a single civilian bystander was killed by our missiles. So this is why we need to develop our missiles. We need them for our protection. We need them for the protection of our civilians. We need them so that another Saddam Hussein around the corner—and, believe me, there are quite a few of them in our region—(laughter)—we need them make sure that another Saddam Hussein around the corner would not come and hit us again, with the international community going through a deafening silence.

HAASS: Minister Zarif, thank you for being with us for the last hour here today. I’d ask, again, people to please remain in their seats. But, Mr. Minister, thank you. (Applause.)

ZARIF: Thank you too.

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