Two years of transformative diplomacy between the United States and Iran—after almost four decades of hostility—are reaping tentative benefits on other Middle East flashpoints. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, whom I wrote about in the magazine, is meeting again today with Secretary of State John Kerry, in New York, as part of the new, seventeen-nation initiative to end Syria’s savage civil war.
Washington and Tehran support rival parties in the conflict. But, in an interview, Zarif said he sees a “more realistic” tone from the West and “rather promising” statements from the United States recently. The effort faces a January 1st deadline to bring the government of President Bashar al-Assad and the myriad opposition groups to the negotiating table.
Zarif’s visit to the United States, where he was educated and where his children were born, comes as Iran moves into the final days of implementing the historic nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. He said that Tehran may be able to fulfill its commitments within two weeks, an estimate confirmed by the State Department. In an interview at the elegant residence of Iran’s U.N. Ambassador, Zarif also discussed Iran’s recent missile test, the Senate move to restore sanctions, and the U.S. Presidential campaign. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
THE SYRIAN PEACE PROCESS
What do you think the prospects are that this Syrian peace process will actually produce something tangible and enduring?
Zarif: Our purpose here is to facilitate a process of national unity and reconciliation between those Syrians who are interested in finding a peaceful resolution—and not those who are bent on destroying Syria for a perverted ideology. This is a tall order.
What role does Iran see for President Assad during the six-month transition government?
Zarif: It’s not for us to decide what would be the role of anybody in the process. Nor is it the role of anybody else to decide.
The peace process talks about convening the Syrian opposition and the government by January 1st, a ceasefire, the creation of a transitional government that is “credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian” within six months, leading to a new constitution and democratic elections within eighteen months. The agreement also requires all countries involved in the negotiations to insure that their allies honor the ceasefire.
Zarif: It is important for everybody to insure that the process will go on, that the ceasefire will hold. Of course, there is no ceasefire against Daesh [the Islamic State], Jabhat al Nusra, and Al Qaeda. . . . So there are two separate tracks. One track is for the Syrian government and the opposition that is interested in a peaceful future of Syria to come together for national unity, for the political process. At the same time, it is a requirement for everybody to stop supporting the extremist groups, to stop allowing them safe passage, to stop allowing them to receive weapons, to stop allowing them to receive financial assistance, and to come together in actually fighting them.
Is Iran prepared to insure that President Assad and his forces engage in a full ceasefire, stop dropping barrel bombs, and stop the campaign against rebel groups?
Zarif: People have been fed misinformation. The fact is that the fighting that is going on on the ground in Syria is with Al Qaeda, with Jabhat al Nusra, with Daesh. The pockets, small pockets, of other groups are usually surrounded by these various extremist groups. . . . Once they stop fighting, there is nothing for the Syrian government to hit other than the terrorist organizations.
You’ve heard the language coming out of Washington recently, with Secretary Kerry saying the U.S. is not looking for “regime change.” Do you sense a change of tone or position in Washington on the role of President Assad?
Zarif: I certainly sense a more realistic tone coming out of Europe and the West in general, and sometimes from the United States. Of course, there have been fluctuations in statements that come from Washington. The latest statements are rather promising. Of course, we believe that it was never up to Iran, the United States, Russia, or anybody else to decide the role of President Assad.
Do you think President Assad is prepared to step aside to facilitate peace?
Zarif: I think we are making an assumption that that is the outcome of the negotiations. I think President Assad will be prepared to accept whatever the outcome of the intra-Syrian dialogue and the decision of the Syrian people is. But people are trying to decide and determine the outcome of the negotiation before even we agree to start the negotiations.
I ask you this question every time I see you. Is Iran wedded to President Assad?
Zarif: Tehran believes it’s none of our business or anybody else’s to decide the future of personalities in other countries.
Do Moscow and Tehran think identically on every issue on Syria?
Zarif: Nobody thinks identically on Syria. But we share the same view with Russia that the future of the personalities in Syria will be determined by the people of Syria and not by people outside Syria.
Iran has played an increasingly visible role in Syria. By my last count, eight generals have died in Syria in the past year and a half.
Zarif: That shows that we are serious about fighting Daesh. We consider ISISand extremism to be a threat to all of us in the region. . . . Our position is that we help the legitimate governments in the region that have representation in the United Nations. We help the Iraqi government on their request through advisers; we help the Syrian government on their request to help with advisers to fight extremists. . . . So it’s both lawful and legitimate.
But most of the advisers have been helping the Syrians fight the opposition. The Syrian government is notably not really engaged as much in fightingISIS.
Zarif: No, it is. Who else is engaged in fighting ISIS? The United States?
The array of rebel groups.
Zarif: That’s a joke. The United States wanted to send its trained rebel groups to Syria to fight ISIS. Out of twenty-five hundred rebels they had trained, only seventy accepted to go to Syria to fight ISIS. Everybody else wanted to go to Syria to fight the government. So you’ve got to wake up and smell the coffee. . . . The rebel groups have not fired a shot against ISIS.
How much are Tehran and Moscow coördinating, either about what’s happening on the ground in Syria or in trying to negotiate peace?
Zarif: We try to coördinate regularly with Russia, as well as with others—except for the United States—on what is happening in the region. And we’re open to discussing with everybody the situation in Syria, because we believe it’s a common threat.
IMPLEMENTING THE NUCLEAR AGREEMENT
Where does the Iran nuclear deal stand? What is your timetable to complete steps pledged in dismantling part of the program?
Zarif: We’re not dismantling anything. We are uninstalling some centrifuges and reconstructing the Arak reactor, modernizing it. . . . The remaining activities that we need undertake will not take more than several days, less than two weeks.
Is there a projected day for implementation?
Zarif: Well, we need to resolve still some political issues. . . . There are obligations on the other side that we have to make sure are implemented before we start the final stage of our implementation. . . . So once these are finalized, the practical measures that need to be implemented on our side will start. So I’m not saying two weeks from today. I’m saying two weeks from the time we settle all the difficulties.
What does Iran see as the challenges to implementation that remain?
Zarif: I think the most important challenge that remains is this mentality in Washington that sanctions have been an asset, and some people want to find even an excuse to keep them or an excuse to reintroduce them. I don’t know whether they’ve looked at the record of how sanctions actually produce exactly the opposite of what they wanted to produce. . . .
About three dozen senators have written a letter to the President and called on him not to lift sanctions.
Zarif: They didn’t want the President to accept the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to begin with. There are more than three dozen members of our parliament who do not want us to implement J.C.P.O.A. So I think that we’re even.
The Senate letter refers to the Iranian missile test on October 10th.Why is it so important for Iran to test launch a missile?
Zarif: It’s our legitimate defense. These are not missiles that are designed to be capable of carrying nuclear warheads and, therefore, it is within our right to self-defense.
So there’s no prospect there will be an agreement down the road on missiles.
Zarif: None whatsoever. Why should there be? Your allies are spending tens of billions of dollars on buying weaponry that they don’t need in this region. Iran’s military hardware is less than a fraction of that of any of the countries in this region.
Congress has just passed legislation modifying the visa-waiver program. It requires travellers to apply for visas and go through a security check—rather than have visas automatically waived—if they have been to countries on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. And Iran is on that list.
Zarif: This visa-waiver thing is absurd. Has anybody in the West been targeted by any Iranian national, anybody of Iranian origin, or anyone travelling to Iran? Whereas many people have been targeted by the nationals of your allies, people visiting your allies, and people transiting the territory of, again, your allies. So you’re looking at the wrong address. . . .
You know where the people who killed people in San Bernardino came from. You know where people who did 9/11 came from. You know where the people who did Paris came from, where they transited, where they went. None of them even set foot in Iran. So why are you punishing people who are visiting Iran for that? . . . We’re not going to radicalize them. We never have. Your allies have radicalized people who visited.
There are the cases of some Iranian-Americans who are held in Iran. That really resonates throughout this country.
Zarif: I’ve been doing my best in order to resolve this as humanitarian issue. And I will continue to do my best in this regard.
The case of Jason Rezaian, of the Washington Post, is particularly visible. The government of Iran announced that there had been a verdict but didn’t announce what it was, and then said there was a sentence, but has still not said what it is. Do you know what the sentence is?
Zarif: I’m not privy to that.
You have elections coming up. How much do you think the success of diplomacy by the Rouhani government and the lifting of sanctions might affect the political mood?
Zarif: It will certainly affect the political mood in Iran, but we’re not running for an election. The Presidential elections are a couple of years away.
Speaking of politics, Iran has come up often in the U.S. campaign debates. On Tuesday, Donald Trump said the nuclear deal was a “horrible, disgusting, absolutely horrible deal” with a “terrorist nation.”
Zarif: That’s not the first interesting statement that he has made. It won’t be the last, probably. But I said “interesting statement.” I didn’t use a derogatory remark.
Governor Chris Christie said that we need to focus our attention on Iran because, “if you miss Iran, you are not going to get ISIS. The two are inextricably connected, because one causes the other.”
Zarif: If anything caused ISIS, it was the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Ted Cruz said, “The regime we should change is in Iran, because Iran has declared war on us.”
Zarif: We’ve never declared war on anybody. We defended ourselves against wars that were imposed on us. We have no desire to engage in confrontation with anybody.
Do you have any messages for the American candidates?
Zarif: Wake up to the real world. Look at what’s happening in the region. Look at where people are going, how people react to humiliation and marginalization. I do not think a few more votes is worth making this menace—that we all face—far more complicated. People have to wake up to that and respond to that, not politicize it.