BBC News– Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi spoke exclusively to the BBC’s Chief International Correspondent Lyse Doucet in London about a wide-range of diplomatic issues. Here is the full transcript.
LYSE DOUCET: Yes, yes, but I think he knows the situation in Ghouta in the suburb of Damascus, and the UN Secretary General has called on Iran and Russia and Turkey, who enforced the de-escalation zones to do something to stop the fighting in Ghouta. So what is your response as the Deputy Foreign Minister of Iran in charge of political affairs?
IRANIAN DEPUTY FOREIGN MINISTER ABBAS ARAQCHI: Well de-escalation of tension is, is very important for us and this is actually our policy and we have worked hard to achieve that. As you know, we started a stony process together with Russia and Turkey, and the process was successful to the extent that it established some de-escalation zones. So it actually worked to de-escalate tension in many areas of, of Syria. So this is our policy and together with Russia and Turkey we follow that policy. On this particular case we would be in touch with the Syria government trying to see how we can actually evaluate the situation and work together for the de-escalation of tensions and death rate.
DOUCET: Are you are aware of that the Syrian security forces seem to have started an all over assault on Ghouta, and United Nations is calling for an end to the bombardment because civilians are suffering?
ARAQCHI: Well the fact is in Syria everybody’s attacking everybody, and now unfortunately –
DOUCET: But in this case its Ghouta.
ARAQCHI: Yes in, the problem is there are too much players and the situation has become very complicated in different areas of Syria. In this particular case we are in close contact with the Syrian government trying to see how we can, how we can actually de-escalate this tension and start sending humanitarian assistance to the people who are suffering in that city.
DOUCET: And what has been their response, because they seem to want to, this is going to be the final, the final push to push the rebels out of, out of Ghouta, whatever the cost to the civilians?
ARAQCHI: Well actually we are still waiting for their response. We keep contacting them and I have no recent information on that because it’s quite a new incident or new event. I’ve been here in London since yesterday so I don’t have any detailed answer for you right now.
DOUCET: How worried are you about the situation in Syria in general? We were both at Munich last weekend, we saw Prime Minister Netanyahu warning Iran not to test Israel’s resolve, and the Foreign Minister of Iran, Drabin Sadiv, also warning that Iran’s resolve was also resolved. Some people say a war is just a matter of time.
ARAQCHI: Well as diplomats we shouldn’t talk about war.
DOUCET: But do you fear war?
ARAQCHI: Fear of war is everywhere in our region unfortunately because of the, you know, interference by, by foreign powers and wrong policies and miscalculations of some players inside the region, and of course the hegemonic policies of the Israeli regime. For the time being the situation in Syria has become very complicated and we are in close contacts with, with other countries with whom we are working.
DOUCET: Which countries?
ARAQCHI: Russia and then Turkey, which we have actually established a stony process. We are in close contact with them; we are in close contact with the Syrian government. The fact is that the Israeli jet fighter is shot down by Syrian forces and this is actually a very big blow to the, to the Israeli army, this is why they are so angry.
Doucet: But they’re angry about the drone which they say you sent into Israeli airspace. What was its purpose?
ARAQCHI: The drone also belongs to the Syrian army.
DOUCET: But it was Iran that sent it over into Israeli.
ARAQCHI: Well I cannot confirm that. The Syrian army has lots of capabilities. But the fact is that the Israeli army is also sending drones up on a daily, or hourly basis in all around Syria and in other neighboured countries. So they shouldn’t be angry when they are faced with something that they are doing against others on a daily basis.
DOUCET: Was the drone to test Israeli resolve, was that why it was sent in? What was its purpose?
ARAQCHI: Well I think you should ask the Syrian army men why they, you know, why they did that. But the fact is they were able to shut down a jet, Israeli jet fighter who actually entered into their airspace. So this is, this is a very important development and I think the Israelis should reconsider their, you know, their military policies.
DOUCET: Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed what others have noticed, that Iran seems to want to establish a land bridge, a corridor, from Iraq to Syria into Lebanon, connecting all of its allies. Is that your strategic ambition?
ARAQCHI: Well we are in Syria fighting a terrorist elements, and we have there by the invitation of the Syrian government to help them establish peace and, you know, stability and territorial integrity of the Syrian, of Syria. We continue to be there as long as we are asked by the Syrian government to help them fighting the terrorist and terrorist elements, and to establish peace and order and stability in that country.
DOUCET: But it’s also, you saw the New York Times did a study of all the Iranian positions of Iran, you know the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) advisors, also your allies like Hezbollah, the other militias, giving the impression that Iran is establishing its own bridgehead in –
ARAQCHI: Just imagine if we were not there. Now you had to die seen in Damascus, and maybe in Beirut and other places. So I think we have to actually don’t care about these kind of propaganda which have some other objectives perhaps.
DOUCET: Cos some say this latest call is to make Syria a new front, between Iran, Hezbollah and Israel, and acts as a resistance, as they call it.
ARAQCHI: Well it acts as a resistance is there for a number of years now.
DOUCET: But you’ve been, is that your ambition to strengthen it for Iran?
ARAQCHI: This is actually to combat the hegemonic policies of Israeli regime in the region, and to, you know, stand firm against Israeli aggression. We all remember –
DOUCET: So it is an axis of resistance?
ARAQCHI: Well the axis of resistance is always there, you know, when Hezbollah and the Syrian government actually combat it, Israeli forces when they attacked Lebanon in the past, we all remember Israeli attacks to the Lebanon territory, we all remember when they occupied Beirut, you know, as an Arabic, Arab captor. And we all remember 2006 when they invaded southern Lebanon. I think Lebanon, Syria and other countries in the region have every right to establish a kind of resistance against these aggressions by Israelis.
DOUCET: Now Prime Minster Netanyahu made it clear in Munich, and I quote, and he says Israel will continue to prevent Iran from establishing a permanent military presence in Syria. Do you take that threat seriously?
ARAQCHI: Well I think, I think Israel should find the root causes of its problems somewhere else. They always try to accuse Iran for the problems they are facing in the region and I think this is actually wrong perception they are creating and against Iran, and I don’t think they can achieve anything by this
DOUCET: But so many people in Munich told me, even very senior people, that a war was just a matter of time. Is that what they told you?
ARAQCHI: Well we are not afraid of anything. I personally don’t think that’s worries that was close, but of course we are prepared for every scenario, and we think that we are quite able to defend ourselves against any aggression by Israelis or any other country inside or outside the region who dare to attack Iran. And I don’t think Syria is place for another proxy war in the region, I think that the Syrian situation is already actually exhausted of these kind of aggressive policies and I don’t see any place for a new conflict in the region, and I think, I certainly believe that if a new conflict is started by Israelis in the region, they are the one who suffer most.
DOUCET: When you were in Munich I understand that you had meetings with European officials about the Iran nuclear deal, because you know President Trump has basically told congress and European allies that they have to, in his words, fix the Iran deal by May or else the sanctions will be imposed again.
ARAQCHI: Well we are in close contact with E3 and EU, external service, we consult with them very closely. In the recent weeks I have visited Paris, Berlin and now London. I have been in different places meeting European officials, E3 officials, and of course EU officials, especially Helga Ishmael and her colleagues to consult about the latest developments. JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) is in a very critical moment, in the next three months I am sure we would have a big challenge. Of course this is a challenge President Trump has started more than a year ago, he tried to somehow destroy JCPOA because there is no role to fix or to change or to alter JCPOA, it’s a package, it’s not linked to any other issue, it’s a package of gives and takes, you cannot just change one piece of that. The whole package would collapse. So he has failed to do that in the past one year and now it is up to Europeans to see how they want to face the ultimatum from wider US. JCPOA is not an economic deal as one may think. It’s a very important deal in the field of non-proliferation regime and its importance is most related to non-proliferation And if we lose that, we have only that a very complicated problem to the region which is already suffering from different kind of problems, being civil wars or tensions and conflicts and, you know, terrorism, extremism. A collection of everything is in our region. I don’t think to add a new crisis over the non, over the proliferation of nuclear weapons would be beneficial for anybody, in the region and outside the region.
DOUCET: But do you see as a compromise though, there was a state department cable was leaked and it said that the Americans wrote to the European partners and said we’re asking for your commitment to work together for a supplemental or follow-on agreement that addresses Iran’s development or testing of long range missiles, ensure a strong IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspections and fixes the flaws of the sunset clause. Now I know you say you don’t want to touch the deal itself, could there be another deal or a Security Council resolution, a supplemental deal to deal with these other issues?
ARAQCHI: Well, JCPOA has no connection linked to any other issue as we said. When we negotiated we decided to separate Iran’s nuclear programme from any other issue, and that was for a reason.
DOUCET: The ballistic missiles?
ARAQCHI: Ballistic missiles, regional issues, you know, any issue. We decided to focus only on Iran’s nuclear, peaceful nuclear programme and find a solution for that.
DOUCET: But even now they’re asking to fix it to make it IAEA inspections tougher.
ARAQCHI: Let me to tell that, we decided to do that intentionally for a reason, and the reason was actually to, to become to a successful solution. Otherwise I’m sure we would have a still the negotiating if we wanted to link Iran’s nuclear programme with any other issue. Now, it’s quite clear JCPOA is not linked to any other issue, it cannot be re-opened, it cannot be re-negotiated, there is no supplement, there is no add-on, there is no follow-on, nothing.
DOUCET: Oh you can’t even add another deal on the side?
ARAQCHI: Well another deal on any other issue depends on how successful is the deal that we have already made, and we have remained fully comply to that, and the other side has not fully complied.
DOUCET: So what is the message they gave you in Munich, because you had some high-level meetings. What did they tell you?
ARAQCHI: Well, as I said we have close consultations to see how we can keep the deal in place, but there are different ideas as you said. We don’t care about any consultation between US and E3, or US and EU. What we care is that the deal should be implemented in full. We are not quite satisfied with the implementation of the deal by the other side, let alone going to discuss about any other subject. You know, any other member of JCPOA, being Europeans of the US, can only come to us and ask for a follow-on or an argument on any other issue only when they have fulfilled their commitments in the JCPOA. If the JCPOA becomes a successful experience for Iran, then they are allowed to ask us for any other issues to negotiate this.
DOUCET: So when will that be, how many years will that take?
ARAQCHI: It can happen right now if they fully comply with their obligations. It’s a fact that the US is not complying, it’s the fact that the US is violating, violating the JCPOA on almost daily basis.
DOUCET: You mean on the economic sanctions?
ARAQCHI: On economic sanctions, on this negative upholstery of uncertainty that is created by President Trump. You know, every time President Trump make a public statement against JCPOA saying it’s a bad deal, it’s the worst deal ever, I am going to fix it, I am going to change it, all these statements, public statements are a violation of the deal. Violation of the letter of the deal, not a sprit, the letter. If you just see paragraph 28 it clearly says that all JCPOA participants should avoid any, should refrain from anything which undermines successful implementation of JCPOA, including in their public statements of silly officials.
DOUCET: What about President Macron has made, although President Macron France has made it clear he wants to keep the deal, but he wants to have a separate agreement on your ballistic missiles. Would you agree to discuss ballistic missiles?
ARAQCHI: Well anybody, anybody can ask for a separate argument, but any argument has two sides.
DOUCET: But would you discuss ballistic missiles?
ARAQCHI: Well we, I, we would not negotiate on our missiles, ballistic missiles. These are a matter of our national security; nobody would compromise on their national security.
DOUCET: You’re under pressure though to negotiate.
ARAQCHI: No, no, no.
DOUCET: In France they must have said that to you, in Paris?
ARAQCHI: No they, they are allowed to ask for negotiation but the fact is we cannot negotiate on our, you know, defence systems. Especially since that we have already negotiated on our nuclear programme and the deal has not become a successful story for Iran. Why Iran should negotiate on any other issue? Especially on a issue which is directly linked to our national security. So we are not prepared to negotiate on our national security but of course we, you know, are ready to explain why our missile programme has, has a, you know, defence nature and is only for, for Viterra’s.
DOUCET: Do you always find that in your discussions with American officials, because I think you have met Secretary of State Tillerson
ARAQCHI: We met him only –
DOUCET: Met thought Secretary Mattis?
ARAQCHI: No, no, no. We met Mr Tillerson only once, but in the framework of a ministerial meeting of Iran and JCPOA in September, that was the only time we sat with him around a table. It was all JCPOA participants at the ministerial level and we heard what he had to say and he heard what our Minister had to say.
DOUCET: Because some have said that this State Department cable that was leaked was a bit softer than what President Trump says in public, is that your impression that in the negotiations they’ll be softer then
ARAQCHI: No, we don’t care. First of all we don’t have any negotiation with the Americans, its only on the, in the joint commission which has been at my level, every three months, and only once at the minister’s level. But we don’t care who is telling what, who is softer than who. What we care is for the United States to remain committed to its obligations in the JCPOA as Iran has been fully committed to its obligations.
DOUCET: Your, you’re seeing British officials here; they have raised the, the detention of Nazaneen Zagari Radcliffe. There had been hope at the end of last year that she would be release. Did you come with any good news?
ARAQCHI: Well I don’t have any good news for the time being. We, in the Foreign Ministry are trying to approach this, her case, on a humanitarian basis, but of course our judiciary is fully independent and they decide on each and every case based on the, you know, regulations they have. We actually tried, as I said, to make some humanitarian approach to our judiciary, we are still working on that and I hope that we come to the conclusion to a day that we can see, you know, a better situation for Nazaneen Zagari, but it is absolutely in the hands of our judiciary.
DOUCET: So this has been going, I think since Boris Johnson visited last year, the outreach from the Foreign Ministry to the judiciary has been continuing. Do you see any progress? Do you see any light?
ARAQCHI: Well we continue approaching the judiciary only on humanitarian basis because we don’t have any authority over the, over the judiciary. We just try to, you know, explain, you know, the concern which exists from the humanitarian point of view. Of course the case is very, is a very complicated case and it has been in the courts, the court has already made its decision but we are trying to see how we can ease the situation for Nazaneen Zagari, but it’s not an easy job.
DOUCET: Have you brought any positive news that, any signs that this could be resolved in the days to come?
ARAQCHI: No. No particular news. Just what we are doing to see how we can help this, this file, but as I said it is completely in the hands of the, of our judiciary
DOUCET: And what about the case of the suicide, the so-called suicide in prison of Cavaz Sayed Thermamy of Canadian Iranian environmental, it’s the third suicide in prison since the beginning of this year. This must be causing concern
ARAQCHI: Well of course it causes concern. It’s under investigation. The President has already established a committee to work on it and we are waiting for the result of investigation.
DOUCET: And its two years since 81-year-old Baka Namazi was detained, 81-year-old man, who’s also been ill
ARAQCHI: Well I think when, you know, regardless of this case, when you make, when you commit a crime it doesn’t make difference how old are you, but the fact is there are serious, you know, points about Mr Baka Namazi, but again from a humanitarian point of view, we are approaching our judiciary to make sure that he would receive, you know, health treatment.
DOUCET: He came out recently but then was brought back to prison.
ARAQCHI: Yes, he came, he came out recently to go to hospital, and we extended his stay out of the prison once, so I think he stayed for six, seven days all together. He went back. We are still working, contacting our judiciary to see how we can help him come out of the prison for a longer period of time, but again it’s in the hands of the judge and he has to make decision based on the evidences and the regulations that he has to follow.
DOUCET: But it does put the Islamic republic in a harsh light to see these people, environmentalists, dying in prison
ARAQCHI: No, only one.
DOUCET: Well three committed suicide, I mean, people are beginning to wonder what’s wrong.
ARAQCHI: No, the others who have nothing to do with the environment. They were two different cases. I think one of them was somehow, you know, connected to, to drug and drug crimes. But as I said, all three are under investigation and we actually wrote the government, judiciary, everybody care about these problems in our prisons before anybody announced these problems our own newspaper and media have reported these and that the society’s quite transparent about these things. People are expressing their views about these problem which has happened in our prisons and the judiciaries working on that, the President has ordered investigation and the, we should wait for the result of investigation.
DOUCET: When Iran faced the biggest protest in a decade in January, there were calls for economic reform, an end to corruption. How much of that was, do you think, about the lack of progress on the JCPOA?
ARAQCHI: Well, it’s a fact that people’s expectations from the JCPOA are not met, it’s a fact. Most of it is because of this atmosphere of uncertainty which President Trump has created out, around JCPOA, which prevents all big companies and banks to work with Iran, it’s a fact, and it’s a violation of the lead by, by the United States. There are economy shortcomings, it’s a fact, and people have every right to express themselves when they’re, and to express their discomfort of the, of their economic situation, and I think, I think they exercise that right. We had incidents when peaceful demonstrations turned into violation, which is quite a not a normal thing in every, you know, democratic society. I think you have had London riots in the past, Paris riots, you know, riots, and in all other European cities.
DOUCET: There were calls to bring down the regime, you know, unprecedented attacks on photos of the supreme leader and the revolutionary leader
ARAQCHI: Not to that extent that you mention, but even if so, you know, I think people have every right to express themselves, even if they think that the whole system is has to be changed, they have the right to express it. But that was not the demand of the people.
DOUCET: Some people it was.
ARAQCHI: Well some people in a country of 80 million people, you know, you may have a few thousands who have another opinion. You know, the whole number of people who engaged in those demonstrations all around Iran in different cities were not more than 30, 35,000 people. So we have small, small, you know, gatherings of people in, in different cities, and we, our police forces showed maximum strength. They had no guns carrying with themselves, they approached people in a civilised way, and we had only few individuals who were unfortunately killed in remote cities in different accidents or incidents, all of them are still under investigations whose fault was that. But the policy is quite clear, when we face unrest first of all it’s the people’s right to express themselves. If it turns to violation then police has some regulations to deal with that without using any gun, and that was also the case just two days ago when we had some protests who one of them run a bus over police forces, killed three of them. But still police didn’t use gun, and this is, this the doctrine of our police forces and I think they are doing a very good job. People are satisfied from the level of security which exist in our cities, in the country, and we admire our police forces but, you know, these kind of incidents are quite normal in every open society.
DOUCET: I’m going to ask you one last question about the Iran nuclear deal. You said it’s at a critical moment. You had warned earlier that it would collapse if the United States was not part of it. Do you worry it may collapse?
ARAQCHI: Well we are concerned, yes, that the US may finally decide to walk away of the deal. We have prepared ourselves for each and every scenario that might happen.
DOUCET: And if they walk away it collapses?
ARAQCHI: Well we are not convinced that the deal can survive without the US. It is up to the other participants of the JCPOA to show and to convince Iranians that they can deliver JCPOA even, even without the US. This is not our understanding for the time being. If the US is out we would also actually go out because there is no deal anymore. This is what we understand, and as we see Europeans are trying to prevent that.
DOUCET: That’s what you sense from talking to them?
ARAQCHI: Yes, this is our understanding from what they are doing. I think they are seriously trying to prevent the collapse of the deal to prevent US going out of the deal. And what is important for us is we are prepared for every scenario which may happen.
DOUCET: Including starting your nuclear programme again?
ARAQCHI: Of course we are not the one who first, who violate the deal first. Well if there is no deal anymore obviously there is no restrictions in our nuclear programme anymore. We decide it, don’t forget that, we agreed in the JCPOA to impose some restrictions on our nuclear programme only for the sake of confidence building for a period of time between eight years to 15 years, and when this years are finished, it doesn’t mean that Iran is allowed to go for nuclear weapon. No, Iran would become a normal member of NTT by that time, after eight to 15 years of confidence building measures. These are confidence building measures, it doesn’t mean that after these periods there is, you know, Iran would have the right to go for nuclear weapon. No, Iran would still be a member of NTT, still committed to its obligations and still, you know, obliged not to go for nuclear weapons, this is our policy. And in that sense there is no sense of clause in the JCPOA, it’s like actually perception that Americans are spreading on others but this is absolutely wrong. Iran’s commitment not to ever seek or acquire or produce nuclear weapons is permanent.