Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on U.S.-Iran Relations

Monday, April 23, 2018
Don Pollard
Mohammad Javad Zarif

Minister of Foreign Affairs, Islamic Republic of Iran

Stephen J. Hadley

Principal, RiceHadleyGates LLC; Member, Board of Directors, Council on Foreign Relations

Minister Zarif discusses U.S.-Iran relations, regional politics in the Middle East, and the future of the Iran nuclear deal. 

HADLEY: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to tonight’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting. I’m Steve Hadley and I will be presiding for this evening’s discussions.

Our guest this evening is Mohammad Javad Zarif, minister of foreign affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He is a man very familiar to this place and very familiar to most of us in this room. He truly needs no introduction.

The way we are going to proceed tonight is that Minister Zarif is going to give some opening remarks for about 10 minutes or so, he and I are then going to proceed to the stage and I will have some questions for him for probably about 25 minutes, and then we will turn to the members for questions. And we will conclude promptly at 7:00.

Mr. Zarif.

ZARIF: Bismillah, ar-Rahman, ar-Rahim, a very good afternoon, already evening, to all of you. It’s great to be back in this hall. I’m going to break with tradition. Usually I don’t make opening remarks, but I wanted to start with something looking forward rather than discussing things that you’ve heard me talk about on various news shows.

Our region is in dire need of a change. We have seen many conflicts in this region. After the revolution, we were faced with an aggression, use of chemical weapons, followed by the situation in Afghanistan, the situation between Iraq and Kuwait, the situation in Syria, again the situation in Iraq, and now the heartbreaking situation in Yemen where a million people are dying from cholera. And much of it is because of anxieties, concerns—most anxieties and concerns of one of our neighbors—about us, which have become almost an obsession.

During the Iran-Iraq War, most of you remember, when Saddam Hussein started attacking Iranian ships. Now, I don’t want to talk about using chemical weapons against Iran; all of you know about that. And since his closest ally, Kuwait, was selling oil for him and he didn’t have many ships in the Persian Gulf, and we wanted to retaliate, so Iranian armed forces started attacking Kuwaiti ships. You remember the Kuwaiti reflagging operation and all of that.

As a young diplomat—a very young diplomat and junior—I drafted a letter to the secretary-general of the United Nations, which was then signed by our then foreign minister, my boss, Dr. Velayati, asking the secretary-general of the United Nations to see if he could make regional arrangements in order to avoid the widening of the conflict in the Persian Gulf.

That letter later became—this is 1985-86—that letter later became the basis for paragraph eight in Security Council Resolution 598 which ended the Iran-Iraq War. That paragraph called for—asked the secretary-general to envisage regional arrangements between the littoral states of the Persian Gulf to prevent the widening of the conflict and to prevent further escalation. There was another paragraph, paragraph five, asking all countries, that meant including the United States, to avoid actions that would further escalate the conflict.

Well, we started implementing Resolution 598 paragraphs about ceasefire, withdrawal, even the paragraph that called on the secretary-general to look into the causes for the initiation of the conflict. And the secretary-general later came up with a report saying what everybody already knew, that Iraq had started the war for eight years, which caused a lot of destruction, but, unfortunately, which was a situation where the international community helped the aggressor almost entirely.

But the secretary-general never got to paragraph eight because countries in the region were not that comfortable. In two years’ time, we ended the Iran-Iraq War in 1988. In two years’ time, Saddam Hussein turned his guns—actually, turned their guns because they had bought all of it for him—against the countries who had provided him with those arms. Kuwait was the primary target.

That was not the end of his ambitions. In a message that he sent us, he told us that we are going to have 1,200 kilometers of borders in the Persian Gulf, meaning that he was planning to take over the entire region. And we said at that time, had the secretary-general started implementing paragraph eight of Resolution 598, we might not be here.

We have seen many other catastrophes in our region, starting with that second war. You all call it first Persian Gulf war, for us it’s the second Persian Gulf war because we had gone through the first Persian Gulf war for eight years. Your first, second occupation of Kuwait, liberation of Iraq, then pushing Saddam out of office, all of these happened, a lot of extremism. We had predicted that the third or fourth Persian Gulf war would only lead to further extremism; people did not listen. And now we are facing the situation that we’re facing.

We believe we need to break this cycle and start anew. How do we do that? We believe in our region we suffer from dialogue deficit. We don’t talk to each other. We talk a lot about each other, particularly when we come here. Our neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, wants to create an impression that we are an existential threat against them. You just saw a very expensive two-week tour of the United States, and that was one of the most important messages that wanted to be presented.

We need to address first and foremost the dialogue deficit. That is why we have suggested in a number of op-eds that I’ve written, as well as in other presentations, a regional dialogue forum, something that we should have done in 1988, if not before that.

We have the institutional basis for that regional dialogue forum already. A Security Council resolution under chapter seven provides for even a United Nations role as an umbrella, because there are disparities in size and power and those disparities in size and power would always lead to countries’ anxieties. And not all of it is about Iran, just ask Qatar, so these disparities need to be addressed one way or the other. And we believe that this umbrella that the United Nations, under paragraph eight of Resolution 598, provides, chapter seven resolution, can assure the smaller states that you don’t need to be swallowed by your bigger neighbors, that there is an umbrella of what our Arab friends call “international legitimacy,” meaning the United Nations.

In order to enter this regional dialogue forum, because we are used to this enemy paradigm, the paradigm of exclusion, we need to break away from that paradigm, and we need to provide an environment where we can include everybody. Now, there are eight states in the Persian Gulf area, the GCC countries plus Iran and Iraq, and probably even Yemen, unfortunate situation as it may be, it will not last forever. How they get in? Simple. They need to accept a certain number of principles.

As I will talk you—those of you who have followed Europe will tell me that you’re talking about the Helsinki process, but I’m talking about a process that will be genuinely a Persian Gulf process, a number of principles that we need to accept. Principles should include respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity, inviolability of international borders. You know, countries in the region, if you look at the southern states of the Persian Gulf, they all have territorial claims against one another, and Saudi Arabia probably against all of them. So inviolability of international borders may sound rather primitive, but it is an extremely important principle. Nonintervention in the internal affairs of each other—we are being accused of intervening—accused. There are cases of their intervening in our internal affairs. We did not claim that we will take the war into Saudi Arabian territory, but the crowned prince of Saudi Arabia did make that official claim.

So if people think we are afraid of talking about the region, no, there is a lot to talk about the region. We simply decided not to deal with it on the—when we were discussing the nuclear issue, but there is a lot to ask on the Iranian side about what’s happening in our region.

So inviolability of borders, respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity, nonintervention in the internal affairs of each other, these would constitute the set of principles that in the Helsinki process used to be called “ticket principles.” Accepting these principles would constitute the necessary ticket to get into the regional dialogue forum.

Then we need to deal with, in addition to just talking to each other at the formal and informal level, we need to deal with the confidence deficit. We have a dialogue deficit and we have a confidence deficit. So we can start talking working on confidence-building measures. Confidence-building measures can include joint task forces on issues ranging from nuclear safety—because as you know, Persian Gulf, the littoral states of the Persian Gulf, the coasts of the Persian Gulf are going to be hosts to a growing number of nuclear reactors, so concerns about nuclear safety in the Persian Gulf may not be serious, but it may be very soon—to tourism, cultural exchange, all sorts of stuff, women empowerment, democratic processes, however alien that might be to some.

We can discuss—we can have common working groups, task forces dealing with these issues to enable us to talk to one another, and to enable us to share experience with each other, and to enable us to move away from the current situation of simply coming here and talking to you rather than talking to one another. In order to make this transformation—we hear in the United States a lot about transformational figures. Now let’s really do transformation.

In order to make a serious transformation, we need to recognize a number of principles in addition to those (ticket ?) principles for us—I mean, these are very simple realities. First, era of zero-sum games, long over. In this world, there can be no winners and no losers. We experienced that during the nuclear discussions. Nobody won when we were trying to up the ante against one another—and maybe soon again—in the nuclear fight. When the United States wanted zero centrifuge option, we went from 200 centrifuges to 20,000 centrifuges, so the United States got a net total of 19,800 centrifuges, and we also went from a plus-7 growth to a minus-7 growth, so everybody loses.

In a war, there are no winners. Only in the wars of the Middle Ages you could have winners and losers. In the wars of 20th and 21st century, there are no winners; only the degree and amount of loss will be different. Somebody may lose 100,000 people; somebody else may lose 10,000 people. Somebody may suffer billions upon billions of devastation; somebody like the United States may spend $7 trillion, according to President Trump, and get nowhere. Everybody loses in a war.

In the globalized era, where even emotions are globalized, you cannot have security at the expense of insecurity of others. That’s an important understanding.

Second understanding: you cannot buy security, and billions upon billions of beautiful military equipment doesn’t bring anybody security. Just look at the region. Now some of our neighbors are coming here trying to compete with one another in buying more weapons in order to attract support and help against the other neighbor who is also borrowing billions of dollars from you. Security cannot be purchased. Security requires understanding in the region.

And something which is most important to realize: the era of hegemonic influence is long gone. I’m not talking about the United States. The United States did try, after the Cold War, all the way—I mean, first Iraq War, you remember, new world order, then new American century, all of that—didn’t work.

I’m talking about our region. Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia can be the hegemons of the region. That’s a fact. We need to realize and appreciate this fact, however heartbreaking it may be. None of us can become this new hegemon.

So to put it, I mean, in a nice way—not to be offended by each other—let’s put it this way: we need to have a strong region, not to be the strongest in the region. In an attempt to be the strongest in the region, to exclude one another from the region, we have managed to destroy the region. Time to break with that. And I’m telling you that Iran is ready for it because we are big enough, old enough, mature enough to appreciate this reality. And I hope that our neighbors can also appreciate it, and I hope other governments would help them in this process of transformation. That’s is the real transformational change in our region. And I believe unless we make this transformational change, no matter how much weapons the United States will sell to these countries, at the end of the day, the cost for the United States will be much higher than the profits made by the weapons sold.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)

HADLEY: Thank you. Thank you.

Mr. Minister, thank you very much for that. You have had an opportunity to do a fair amount of media over the last several days. We’ve all followed it fairly carefully—a lot on the nuclear deal and other issues.

I want to try to focus in the time I have just on a few areas that are less explored in your media appearances, and are concerns that Americans have about Iran, and to give you a chance to respond and explain.

First, several American citizens are currently held in prison in Iran. They include Xiyue Wang, a Princeton University graduate student who was arrested in August 2016 while researching his doctoral dissertation in Iran. He was convicted of espionage and was sentenced to ten years in Evin prison.

In your interview yesterday on Face the Nation, you suggested that there would be no progress toward release of these prisoners until the Trump administration began to show Iran the respect due to a sovereign nation. And I want to ask you is it right to hold innocent civilians hostage to the ups and downs of political relations between sovereign states.

ZARIF: Well, actually, the response that I gave yesterday—or on Friday; it was aired yesterday—to the question was—the question was whether we are prepared to talk to the United States about that, and I said, talk is only possible when there is mutual respect. I said, without mutual respect, a dialogue will get nowhere. I wasn’t talking about whether the prisoners could be released. That’s not my responsibility. In Iran, the judiciary is independent from the executive. The lady asked me whether we could intervene, and I said, we could intervene on two grounds. One would be on humanitarian grounds—which we have, trying to improve the conditions, provide access—and the other would be—because we cannot question the decisions of the judiciary, as you cannot question the decisions of your courts.

The other day in New York the prosecutors were trying to frame an Iranian into cooperating and spying against our mission in New York, took the case to a Brooklyn court, accusing this Iranian gentleman of all sorts of stuff, including espionage—something very close to espionage, nuclear recruitment, and the judge threw it out, saying that it’s a bogus case. But the poor guy has been in detention almost, and couldn’t move for the past three years, and he will have to spend another three months in jail, and many—I mean, almost bankrupt. So while court systems may be different, and while we can have complaints, but the executive is basically—it’s impossible for the executive to interfere in the judiciary.

But we can intervene on humanitarian grounds, the president can also intervene on constitutional grounds—which he has, including some developments in our prisons, and suspicious cases—and the president has said he will conduct an investigation because prison system is also under the judiciary and not the executive branch.

There is another area where we can intervene, and that is when we engage in negotiations with a foreign government to exchange prisoners. That’s how the executive can intervene in the affairs of the judiciary—through the national security establishment asking for a prisoner exchange, which then they have to go through their own procedures and allow it to happen, as you will have to go—I mean, presidential pardon is what you will do here. We don’t have anything such as presidential pardon in Iran. We will have to go through a different channel. And we did once. January of 2016 the two sides were able to reach an agreement to get some American-Iranians in Iran released and some American-Iranians in the U.S. released.

Now it’s a serious case. I gave you one example of the person in a Brooklyn jail right now, but there are others. I mean, you hear much about the unfortunate situation of some Iranian-Americans or Americans who have been accused by our judiciary of various offenses, and I’m not here to say what the cases are because it is out of the purview of my mandate. But there are also Iranians—Iranians who are in jail here in the United States, elderly people who have—who are accused of violating technical aspects of some sanctions that no longer apply—

HADLEY: Right.

ZARIF: —but they are in jail. We even had—I mean, there are a lot of extradition requests, so there are Iranians—not Iranian-Americans—Iranians lingering in jail in Germany, in Spain, and I give you the example of a lady—a pregnant lady in Australia who is—I mean, there is an extradition case against her—has been for some time—because she was the secretary of a company seven, eight years ago accused of—the company accused of doing some technical violation of sanctions—not buying missile parts—maybe buying a computer piece or a piece for a civilian aircraft, but it was legally—well, I mean, under your law—

HADLEY: Right.

ZARIF: —and this lady was not even allowed to get bail to deliver her baby outside prison.

So, I mean, unfortunately, there is a lot of publicity, unfortunate cases, human beings are suffering—

HADLEY: Right.

ZARIF: —not because of tit for tat, but because each one went through a legal process which—you may find ours dubious; we may find yours dubious. But the only thing we can do as the executive branch is to intervene if there is a conversation between Iran and the United States in order to exchange them.

I said to—in response to Ms. Brennan that in order to get to that conversation, we need mutual respect. We cannot go to the conversation while one side is calling for a lot of strange stuff about our country.

HADLEY: And Mr. Minister, I want to press you on that because that is—that is how I understood your comment. There could be no conversation about a prisoner swap until the administration treats Iran with the respect that you believe they—deserves a sovereign state, which means—I think I’m right—whether they are Iranians in American jails or Americans in Iranian jails, they are held hostage until an improvement in the relations between the two states.

And my question is would you be willing, for humanitarian grounds—as you said to Richard Haass when you were here a year ago, you would use your influence on humanitarian grounds—on humanitarian grounds, would Iran be willing now to enter into a dialogue about a hostage swap—prisoner swap.

ZARIF: Well, I’m not—I’m not—prisoner swap—


ZARIF: I’m not discounting that possibility. I’m not rejecting that possibility, but I like to be able to engage in a discussion with some prospect of success because when you engage in a discussion that is doomed to failure, the only thing that you can achieve is further exacerbation of tension.

I know that under the current circumstances, if somebody wants to follow the instructions of President Trump, and that lady or gentleman sits in front of an Iranian, there’s no way that they can reach—I mean, it’s not a pre-condition. It is creating the necessary situation—

HADLEY: For success.

ZARIF: —for success.

HADLEY: Right, got it.

ZARIF: Otherwise—otherwise we would be pushing this possibility even further away.

HADLEY: Right.

ZARIF: My aim—and I think I have a track record—my aim is to start a process that I can have some hope—I mean, you cannot start a process just—I mean, stop a process or not engage just because of a fear of failure, but at least you need to have some hope of success—

HADLEY: Right.

ZARIF: —some prospect for success in order for a—for this process to start, and I do not believe that, under the present circumstances, with the present tone, and language, and approach of the current administration in Washington, you would have much prospect.

HADLEY: I want to go to another sensitive subject. The followers of the Baha’i religion in Iran continue to be discriminated against. It has been reported that Iran imposes the death penalty for homosexuality, and according to the Manchester Guardian, Iran recently jailed dozens of women for appearing in public without head coverings.

Americans don’t understand the use of imprisonment—much less the death penalty—as a means of enforcing cultural norms. Do you support the death penalty and imprisonment in such cases, and what would say to one of the women jailed for not wearing hijab if she were sitting in the front row here?

ZARIF: Well, you see, you asked three questions. Let me make it very clear. According to Iranian law, being—following a set of beliefs is not an offense, according to Iranian law. But in Iran, we have a legal system which is based on Shia jurisprudence—Islamic jurisprudence basically because Shia and Sunni jurisprudence are not that different.

And we have minorities. We have Christians, we have Jews, we have Zoroastrians, and the constitution recognizes these three religious minorities: Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, and enables them to apply their own canon law in their interpersonal affairs; that is, not only they can go to their churches, synagogues, or temples, but in their marriage, in their inheritance, they don’t have to follow the Islamic code, which is the national code. You see, many codes in Judeo-Christian civilizations are based, at the end of the day, on some religious concept, but they are not transparent in your societies because they are—they have become secularized.

In our society, which is non-secular society, the—it’s very transparent. Our judicial system is based on Islamic Sharia. It’s written in the law—we could say it’s now civil law—but it is based on Islamic Sharia. So we don’t impose it on a Christian, or a Jew, or a Zoroastrian. And they have—I mean, allocated seats in the parliament. For every 150 Muslim—150,000 Muslim, you get one representative in the parliament.

Jews in Iran—and we have the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside Israel—are probably less than 20,000, but they also get one representative.

HADLEY: But not the Baha’i.

ZARIF: Hold on.

If you want to afford—if you want to afford such exceptional treatment to religious minorities, you cannot provide it to anybody who claims it on a religion. That’s the issue. We do not—we only recognize three religions as official religions because when we recognize them as official religions, we need to afford them these privileges under our constitutions to be exempt from what the Muslims have to do.

Being a Baha’i is not a crime. We do not recognize somebody as a Baha’i, as a religion, but that’s a belief. Somebody can be agnostic, somebody can be an atheist. We don’t go—take them to prison because they are an atheist. So this is the difference that you need to make. But being—also, being a Baha’i does not immunize somebody from being prosecuted for offenses that people may commit. So that’s answer to your first question.

HADLEY: Right.

ZARIF: Second question, there—I mean, Iran is a very—people have specific, traditional, cultural values. We do not, again, punish or criminalize anybody for their activity at home. What is important is what they do in the street, what they do in the society, and we have a different set of norms than Western societies when it comes to sexual preferences—exhibited in the streets; not in their personal lives.

Last, every country has a dress code. If the lady was sitting here, I would tell her that every society has a dress code. We may like that dress code or we may dislike that dress code, but the laws of that society require people to respect the dress code that they establish.

In some societies, you—I mean, if somebody goes out naked in the streets of Canada, they’ll be charged with—there’s a name for it—huh?

HADLEY: Indecent exposure.

ZARIF: Indecent exposure.

HADLEY: It’s not quite a dress code—

ZARIF: You see—hold on—

HADLEY: —but I take the point. (Laughter.)


HADLEY: It’s not quite a dress code. We’d call that an undress code. (Laughter.)

ZARIF: No, no, no. You see, that’s culture. In a society that believes in nudity, that’s a restrictive dress code.

So you set the limits somewhere, and that somewhere is determined by the moral norms of that society. In Iran, for a man to go to the street without a T-shirt on, that’s indecent exposure. They have to put something on.

I know that you cannot even enter McDonald’s without a T-shirt on. That’s a—that’s dress code. I do not want to minimize that, but you should not over-sensationalize it. Fact is there is a dress code. Women in Iran participate in the social life, participate in the political life, participate in the educational life. We have more women students in Iran than men students, and we have better women students. Each time I teach, the best grades in my classes women get. So, I mean, that’s the reality.

But my problem is, in your closest allies, women don’t have the right to vote. Even men don’t have the right to vote, and I don’t hear people making such big cases about that. This guy is just allowing women to go to cinema, and he is praised as a transformational figure. (Laughter.)

Let’s be serious.

HADLEY: Let me ask you one more question, and then we’ll go to the members in the audience.

You know our press was full of the—reports on the demonstrations against the Iranian government in December and January of this last year. Press says it involved tens of thousands of people in over 70 cities and towns. Press reports suggest that strikes and protests continue in the Fars Province, for example, last week.

The question I have is this, and it goes to the issues of the prospects of political reform in Iran. And there were a lot of expectations among Iranians that, under President Khatami and then under President Rouhani there might be reforms.

Iran’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights lawyer, Shirin Ebadi, is reported to have said recently that the Iranian people have given up on reforming the current Iranian system, and she has called for a U.N.-monitored referendum on the Iranian constitution that would propose elimination of the office of supreme leader and establishment of a secular constitution based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A lot of people have been waiting for Iranian reformers for a long time. They don’t seem to be around. Is she right, and is the current system in Iran really impervious to political reform?

ZARIF: With all due respect to Mrs. Ebadi, I don’t think anybody voted for her to speak on behalf of the Iranians. Iranians—73 percent of the Iranians went to the polls and voted for their president. I think that’s what determines the views of the Iranian people. They were not forced to go to the polls, nothing happened to the 27 percent who didn’t go to the polls, so 73 percent chose to go to the polls and elect a president. They’ve done it with President Rouhani. They also did it with President Ahmadinejad. I hated it, but they did it. That was a response to the performance that we had under the previous administration, so people went and elected somebody else. And they when they didn’t like President Ahmadinejad, they did not elect somebody like him; they elected President Rouhani.

Whether what happens is sufficient for Mrs. Ebadi—well, may not be. May not be sufficient for me, but the point is people can, in fact, turn out at the ballot box and vote, and through that show their frustration, their anger, their disapproval of a certain political view and vote for another. Well—and usually—I mean, every midterm election in the United States shows that people are not happy with the world that they had, so they elect the other party into office. People can be unhappy with their choice, and they can vote for somebody else. Happens in Iran, too.

You do not run the only democracy in the world. When you have demonstrations here, it’s called freedom. When we have demonstrations in Iran, it’s called regime change. What is it? When a lot of people turned out in the streets of New York—they called themselves 99 Percent, whatever, the Wall Street—and there was some violence, and there was some police brutality.

People turned out in the streets of France. There was police brutality. Nobody called it beginning of the end of the French regime, tweeting that the French regime is over.

Hold on—so, I mean, I know President Trump went to Saudi Arabia and said, wow, nobody demonstrated against me; they can’t! (Laughter.) And is it bad that we can demonstrate? Is it that bad—


ZARIF: —that you—all of a sudden all of—everybody in the United States just gets too excited and starts tweeting that now we see the end of the regime.

HADLEY: That’s—that’s not really the issue.

ZARIF: It is the issue. People went out in the streets because they were not happy with certain aspects—

HADLEY: Right.

ZARIF: Of course, people in the United States are not happy with certain aspects.

HADLEY: And the question is, did anything change in the Iranian political system as a response to the demonstrations?

ZARIF: Well, you see, what happens—

HADLEY: Because our system does.

ZARIF: What happens—did anything change in your system in response to—

HADLEY: We elected Donald Trump.

ZARIF: —in response to the Wall Street—I mean, you got President Trump.

HADLEY: Yeah, correct. (Laughter.) Change.

ZARIF: Yeah, it is strange—I mean—

HADLEY: No, change.

ZARIF: Political—(laughter)—you cannot—you cannot—you cannot determine when you have a political process. The political process itself determines the outcome.

Exactly the same happens in Iran. People express their views. People—sometimes there are excesses, but what happens is that the government understands, through these expressions, that there are areas that government’s behavior, government’s conduct, government’s performance falls short of the expectations of the people. And we understood that. We understood that the people of Iran expected more.

You see, our economic indicators are very good: 8 percent growth. Eight percent growth in today’s world is one of the best. Between 700(,000) and 900,000 new jobs every year—even here that would be a good figure.

From 45 percent inflation to single-digit inflation last year—these are good numbers, but every year 1.2 million people enter the job market in Iran. We can only produce 900 (sic) new jobs. Three hundred thousand people—

HADLEY: Nine hundred thousand.

ZARIF: Nine hundred thousand new jobs. Three hundred thousand people are added to the pool of unemployed every year. That creates discontent, disappointment. People expected—in spite of all these good numbers, people expected more, because—and here we get to the failure of the international community—people expected the international community to perform in the same manner we performed under the nuclear deal.

We had 11 reports of the IAEA saying that Iran performed. But since President Trump came to office, not a single license has been issued, not a single OFAC license, in 16 months. So the United States is already in violation. And people say, what happened? What happened to all the promises that engagement with the international community would produce economic dividends? And that leads to resentment.

HADLEY: Right. I think we will probably have more comments and questions about that from the audience. We will at this time invite members to join in the conversation.

ZARIF: Wow. (Laughter.)

HADLEY: We have about 15 minutes until 7:00. I want to remind you that this meeting is on the record. Please wait for the microphone, speak directly into it—I’m reading my instructions here—speak directly into it. Please stand, state your name and affiliation, and please limit yourself to one concise question. We want to get as many people in as we can.

Yes, ma’am, right here. Third row, please.

Q: Oh, yes. Hi. Evelyn Leopold, resident correspondent at the U.N. Nice to see you again, Mr. Minister.

Can you explain why Iran is in Syria? Isn’t that money spent that could be spent at home to better use?

ZARIF: Well, we are in Syria for the same reason that we went to the aid of the Iraqis and we went to the aid of the Kurds. You see, there is an official narrative here in the United States, and that narrative is being repeated by everybody. And in order for that narrative to be comfortable, they forget some parts.

Iran has a consistent record of fighting extremism. We are in Syria to fight extremism. We are in Iraq to fight extremism. But what—I mean, this fits in the narrative, and that is where you hear it. But you don’t hear that we were the first country to go to the aid of Mr. Barzani in Iraqi Kurdish region because they were facing the same threat. It’s not because he was Shia. It’s not because we were exporting revolution to Iraqi Kurdistan. But it was because he was facing the same threat.

We respond to a threat, a threat that has been created by U.S. allies, by their money, by their ideology, by their arms. They have financed these groups. They have armed these groups. And, most importantly, they have provided the ideology of hate for these groups. I hope they stop. I hope the promises of the transformational guy to stop this will be implemented so that the region and the world will be spared of people who are willing to behead innocent individuals, to kill themselves in order to kill a number of more individuals.

I hope it works. But till it works, I think you need to thank us for preventing Damascus, Baghdad, and Irbil, mind you, from falling in the hands of ISIS, because then, instead of terrorist organization, you would have had two terrorist states.

HADLEY: Peter.

Q: Yeah. Aryeh—

HADLEY: We’ll take you first and then Peter afterwards. How’s that?

Q: Aryeh Neier, Open Society Foundations.

HADLEY: You have a microphone right in front of you.

Q: Aryeh Neier, Open Society Foundations.

Mr. Foreign Minister, in connection with Syria, over the past seven years the assaults on civilians by the Assad regime have been extremely well documented. Many millions of Syrians have fled the country. Are you offended by Iran’s support for a regime that uses barrel bombs, chemical weapons, and the like to attack civilians?

ZARIF: Well, let’s not use such high moral grounds. Today they bombed a wedding ceremony in Yemen. Twenty people, including the bride, was killed. Are you offended by—

Q: Yes.

ZARIF: Yeah. This is the problem. And they are in Yemen simply to suppress the people. We have said we’re not in Syria to support anybody. We have been categorical in condemning the use of chemical weapons, in condemning attacks against civilians.

Q: (Off mic.)

ZARIF: Hold on. Let me—in condemning attacks against civilians, period, using barrel bombs or anything else. We have a track record in the Iran-Iraq War. There are seven reports by the United Nations of the use of chemical weapons by Iraq; not a single indication that Iran even retaliated when they were using chemical weapons, with U.S. support, with German support. They—I mean, somebody provided those weapons. Somebody provided the airplanes. Somebody provided the missiles with which they attacked us. And—but I don’t see much shame.

We are in Syria to prevent a takeover of Syria by the extremists. We do not support any excesses. We have been very clear in our condemnation of the use of chemical weapons in any attack against civilian areas. We continue to insist that there must be respect for international humanitarian law.

But let me put it this way. Five years ago, just about five years ago, when I became foreign minister, I presented a four-point plan to end this bloodshed in Syria—cease-fire. I mean, is that—tell me if any part of it is outlandish. Cease-fire; an inclusive government of national unity in Syria; constitutional reform so that, at the end of the day—of course, this has to be done by Syrian, but—Syrians—but as just a perspective, at the end of the day, no single person or no single office would hold all the power in Syria; and lastly, elections.

That was five years ago; hundreds of thousands of casualties less. Today, same argument applies. We stick to the same proposal. Unfortunately, unfortunately, some believed that if they could drag the United States into the conflict, they could score a military victory. I tried, in the meetings of the international Syria support group—and if you don’t believe me, ask Secretary Kerry, who presided over those meetings—to get a single sentence in the reports of that meeting.

There is no military solution to the problem in Syria. And your allies said that with the help of God, we will either get Assad out of government politically or militarily. And I joked with Secretary Kerry afterward that by God, they mean the United States. (Laughter.)

And with that, I mean, they believed, when they started this conflict in Syria, it was the Ramadan of seven years ago. And they are on the record saying that by the end of Ramadan, Assad will not be in office. Check me out. Seven Ramadans have passed. Many millions of Syrians have become homeless. Those who need to be blamed are those who brought this to the Syrian people, not those who prevented ISIS from taking over Damascus.

Three years ago, when the war erupted in Yemen, we reached an understanding to put an end to the conflict immediately. Then again, ask Secretary Kerry. On none of this rely on my word. Ask Secretary Kerry. We reached our agreement. We convinced the Houthis—because we don’t control everybody, but we can have—we can use our—whatever authority, influence, whatever we have. We convinced them to stop fighting.

Your allies insisted that they will have military victory in three weeks. The transformational guy needed three weeks to score a military victory in order to make sure that his office was secure and his ambitions, domestic ambitions, were secure.

Three years have gone. A million people suffer from cholera. They’re no closer to a military victory than they were three years ago. And we are being blamed by the United States, and they bring a piece of a missile that they claim that they shot in the air. And that piece of missile, interestingly enough, is so clean to show the emblem of the standard institute of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

You know what? You used the emblem of the standard institute for quality on cheese puffs. (Laughter.) I mean, you don’t want to show to your missile customer that this missile has quality approved by the standard institute. I’m not kidding you. Look at the picture behind Nikki Haley. I mean, these people, who wanted a military victory in Syria in order for their careers to take root, have continued for three years. They’ve been supported. They’ve been encouraged. According to Secretary Mattis, the United States is engaged in that war, killing 20 people today, 20 civilians, even the bride in a wedding today. And we are being blamed.

I’m saying categorically, let us stop the war in Syria and Iraq and Yemen tomorrow. And if you see Iran not doing its best to stop that war, then you can accuse us of any moral degradation that you want.

HADLEY: I think we have probably about time for two more questions.

Peter, you were next. And then, ma’am—this woman right here.

Q: Thank you.

First, thank you for coming and speaking to us tonight. I’m currently teaching at Columbia University. And my question is about your relationship with Hezbollah. You just said that you use your influence not necessarily to make people do things. I was struck when Mr. Nasrallah decided to intervene, because that was a very large decision of Hezbollah to intervene. And I’m curious if you could explain how that happened.

ZARIF: They believed—and I think Mr. Nasrallah has said—I’m not his spokesperson; he is quite eloquent in speaking himself—but they believed that they were facing an existential threat. Extremism is a threat to all. Extremists were on their border. Some of them came and took over parts of Lebanese territory. And recently Hezbollah, with the help of the Lebanese army, has been able to kick them out of Lebanon.

They faced an existential threat. And they have said publicly that they’re there to address an existential threat against them. And once that threat is over, they’ll be happy to go back home and build their own country.

Q: They’re fighting inside Syria.

ZARIF: Yeah, they are fighting—

Q: Inside of—

ZARIF: They are fighting inside Syria on the invitation of the government of Syria to fight a common enemy. I responded from their point of view that they believe that they are fighting an enemy in Syria and in Lebanon that is an existential threat to them and to the rest of the Lebanese people. I don’t know why people are not supporting the fact that people who kill Christians, who just put individuals in a cage and burn them alive, were prevented from entering Lebanon. I don’t know why these actions were not applauded.

HADLEY: Ma’am, right here. Yes, ma’am.

Q: Hi. Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch.

Minister, I want to go back to the question on the use of chemical weapons in Syria and specifically on something that I think there’s no dispute about, which is the persistent use of chlorine canisters dropped from helicopters that we, Human Rights Watch, have documented over 30 instances of. Have you and will you specifically condemn the Syrian government’s use of helicopters to drop chemical munitions on residential areas, regardless of the target?

And also, I wanted to ask whether there’s an update on the investigation that the Iranian government promised into the death and custody of Saeed Emami and also the message that sends to Iranians in the diaspora who are having serious second thoughts about ever returning.

ZARIF: Well, on the second part of your question, I alluded to this in my response to the previous question that Mr. Hadley asked me, that the president has ordered an investigation as the head of the executive with some constitutional authority to make sure that the rights of detainees are respected. So there is an investigation going on, ordered by the president, and we are continuing that investigation.

On the first issue, we’ve said very clearly we categorically reject the use of chemical weapons, regardless of victims or culprits. What is important for us—with all due respect to Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch does not have the mandate to investigate the use of chemical weapons. There is an organization with a mandate to investigate the use of chemical weapons, and that organization needs to conduct an on-site investigation by its own inspectors. We called for an on-site investigation of Khan Sheikhoun. They said it’s not safe. We called for an on-site investigation of Shayrat. They said it’s not necessary.

Now we’re happy that they are conducting an on-site investigation of Douma. We hope that once the report is out, we will see what are the facts from a technical point of view. As victims of chemical weapons, you know, Iran, we are victims of chemical weapons. People like to forget. And we were victims of chemical weapons for several years.

Let me give you—I mean, some people say this is a part of my playbook to use this. But let me use that part of my playbook, because hypocrisy needs to be addressed. I went to the president of Security Council when I was 25, and I told him—young charge—I told him that chemical weapons are being used. He represented a permanent member. I don’t want to name them. And he said I’m not prepared to listen to you.

Seven reports by the secretary general of the United Nations of on-site investigation, not of hearsay, not Human Rights saying—Human Rights Watch saying, Amnesty International saying, white helmets saying, but U.N. inspectors going to the war front, seven reports, categorical affirmation of the use of chemical weapons by Iraq; not a single resolution by the Security Council condemning Iraq until the war ended. The first Security Council resolution that was issued on the use of chemical weapons was after Saddam Hussein ended the war with Iraq.

So let’s not talk about red lines. If chemical weapons are anybody’s red line, they’re ours, because I still have colleagues who cannot breathe because they were subjected to the same chlorine, sarin, nerve gas, and other chemical agents. And their case has been documented by the United Nations special investigations.

Now, we called for an on-site investigation by the United Nations, by an international impartial investigation. We still call for it. And we believe that should set the record straight. But having been a victim, usually the culprits use chemical weapons in desperation, when they are desperate. Saddam Hussein did not use chemical weapons when he was advancing. Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons when he was being defeated.

Now, the two times that Syria has been alleged to have used chemical weapons were both when they were advancing and winning, or even after they won, both in Aleppo and now in eastern Ghouta. So we wait for the report of the United Nations. But let me be categorical. We condemn the use of chemical weapons, regardless of who uses them and regardless of who they are used against.

HADLEY: We’ve come to the end of our time, regrettably. I want to thank the audience for coming. I would like all of you to remain seated while the minister departs. And please join me in thanking Minister Zarif for being with us. (Applause.)

ZARIF: Thank you. Thanks a lot.


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