NPR– Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif talks to Morning Edition’s Steve Inskeep about U.S.-Iran relations, the Iran nuclear deal and the war in Syria. Here’s the full transcript of their conversation.
Steve Inskeep: I want to follow up on a couple of things you’ve said on this visit. You said on Twitter at the beginning of this week that the Iran nuclear deal, the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal, the nuclear deal with the many powers, is all or nothing. What did you mean when you said the deal is all or nothing?
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif: Well you see, this nuclear agreement is the result of almost 12 years of posturing and negotiations, and basically two years of very intensive negotiations.
What’s in the deal? Every word, almost, has been the subject of a lot of discussion. Every issue in the deal has been thoroughly negotiated. It doesn’t reflect our position. It doesn’t reflect the U.S. position. It reflects a compromise. In places we compromise in order to get something else. In places, the U.S. compromise in order to get something else as well.
But when you look at the entire package, it is a package. You cannot pick and choose between the package and say, “I want this, that and the other element improved.” Had it been possible to improve that, either from your perspective or from our perspective or from the perspective of any other participants in the deal, it would have been done so.
Do you mean to say that you will not negotiate any changes or additions to this agreement, no matter what the United States and Europe may suggest?
I believe Europe has said that they are not prepared to renegotiate this agreement and I think it’s very prudent, because anybody who participated in the negotiation of this deal would tell you that opening this package would be tantamount to opening a Pandora’s box, and we’ll never be able to close it.
So the answer is no.
You’re not going to talk this over again.
And I think you do not want to — I mean, I think the United States doesn’t want to send a message to the world that if you negotiate with the United States, the U.S. is going to come back, after you had reached an agreement, and tell you, “I don’t like these parts of the agreement and I want them renegotiated.”
Then nobody will be prepared to compromise with the United States. Nobody will be prepared to accept or to make concessions to the United States in order to achieve some of their intended results — because they know that at the end of the day the United States is going to come back and say, “Whatever I gave you, I want back.”
Foreign Minister, as you know, as you’re here in New York, the president of France, Emmanuel Macron, is in Washington, D.C. He’s perceived as attempting to persuade President Trump to back off in some way his demands for changes to the deal. Do you view President Macron as being on your side in this dispute?
Well, we have good relations with France and we believe that the Europeans want to preserve the nuclear agreement. We hope that President Macron uses his visit to the U.S. — and after him, [German] Chancellor Merkel — in order to impress upon President Trump that this deal as it stands is in the interest of both the United States and the rest of the international community, and they will be much better served if they were to respect the terms of the deal.
Because the United States — particularly President Trump since he assumed office — have not been in the deal. They have not officially left the deal, but they haven’t actually implemented the deal. So I think that’s a message that they should — that the president should receive from his guests.
Are you gaining benefit from the way the Europeans have implemented the deal, benefits that you would want to keep no matter what the United States does?
Well, not to the extent that the deal promised. Because the United States not only — not implementing its side of the bargain, but it’s preventing others from performing their duties under the deal by restricting bank access, by openly — openly now under President Trump — dissuading European companies from engaging in Iran, by threatening them with consequences for their cooperation with Iran. So I do not believe that Iran and Europe are making full advantage of the possibilities provided in the deal.
As you know, Foreign Minister, some possibilities discussed here include keeping the deal, but seeking in some way to add to it, to add additional safeguards that would reassure the United States. You do sound skeptical of that, but as you have noted in your public statements here, the agreement itself says that Iran will not ever seek a nuclear weapon.
You’ve already committed, as you’ve said, to never seek a nuclear weapon. If you’ve already committed to that, what would the harm be in negotiating additional safeguards or more years to your agreement —
No, because —
— or anything else?
No, because those years to the agreement are not years to the agreement. Those are years to limitations that we voluntarily accepted, but they were the subject of two years of negotiations. We accepted some limitations. There were other possibilities.
It was the U.S. insistence that Iran should accept limitations for a certain duration. We negotiated that. We reached an agreement. And now for the United States to come back and say “we need more”? That would be violating the foundations of the agreement.
But why do you care if you’re not planning on having a nuclear weapon ever?
Because our nuclear program was never intended to produce nuclear weapons. Now, I’m not asking you to rely on me. Director Pompeo, who’s the head of the CIA and who should know everything, said, “According to the best of my knowledge as head of CIA, Iran was not ‘racing towards a bomb’ before the agreement and will not be ‘racing towards a bomb’ if you break the agreement.”
You’re referring to a statement he made in his confirmation testimony the other day.
I guess under oath.
I’m sorry, on the record, you mean to say, or on the —
Usually when when they make testimony before Congress, don’t they —
Under oath. Under oath. Yes.
Don’t they do it under oath?
Yes, they were — well I don’t know in that case whether it was under oath, but he is often under oath.
Well, at least on the record.
He is absolutely on the record. So you’re not willing to go for further adjustments of any kind, or an addition, a supplement?
No. No, it’s not issue of anybody being willing to do it. It’s the issue of the principle. You reach an agreement, you keep that agreement, you implement that agreement. You don’t ask for more. You need to respect — I mean, it is the most important principle that holds agreements together, and that is the need to respect your signature and the signature of the United States. Doesn’t matter which president signed it. It is the signature of the government of the United States acting on behalf of the nation.
Nobody in the international community cares about the domestic procedures. If anybody wanted to question domestic procedures of other countries, we would never have international agreements. That is why this government, the government of the United States, committed itself to a set of agreements. Now for that government, regardless of the fact that there is a new president, for that government to go out and say that “for me to stick to my part of the bargain, you need to give me more,” that flouts the foundations of civilized relations in the international community.
Many people will know that Iran is supporting Syria’s government in Syria’s civil war —
No, no. We are fighting extremists. You see, the problem with the narrative that is being pushed in the United States is that they’re saying Iran supports Syrian government. But they don’t say that we went to the help of the Iraqi Kurds when they were fighting the same menace.
We have a consistent —
I understand your argument that you’re fighting ISIS but you’re doing it by supporting Bashar al-Assad.
And we supported Mr. Barzani of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Kurdish leader.
That’s the policy. So what defines our policy is what we’re fighting against.
I understand that. Given that you are fighting against people you view as extremists by supporting the government in Syria, to what extent, if at all, is Iran responsible for the way that Syria conducts the war?
Well, we have our own principles and we stick to our principles, and we ask everybody to respect — reject the use of chemical weapons, respect international humanitarian law.
Our own track record in the fight, the war that was imposed on us [by Iraq in the 1980s]— eight years of war, use of chemical weapons against us, we never retaliated with the use of chemical weapons. So that’s our track record, and that is what we preach. I mean it’s not just something that we set red lines and then violate those red lines because those who are saying that chemical weapons are the red line watch the use of chemical weapons against us and supported the ones who were using it. So I mean, that type of hypocritical approach has nothing in serious politics, has no place in serious politics.
What we need to do is to put an end to this conflict. What we need to do is put an end to the Yemen conflict. And Iran has been prepared to look and to help achieve a political solution both in Syria and in Yemen.
Question about each of them. You had a session with reporters during one of your meetings here and there was a reporter who said: “Fine that you feel that you’re fighting ISIS by supporting the Syrian government but can’t you do both? Can’t you fight ISIS and warn the Syrians against the use of chemical weapons?”
And you responded —
I just want to — this is how you responded. “Why can’t you warn them?” and you responded, “Because we live in the real world. We’re not there to defend anybody. We are there to defeat something.” What do you mean by that?
As I said, we do not support the use of chemical weapons. We reject the use of chemical weapons.
We need to fight a serious enemy that is a threat to the international community. In the fight against that serious enemy, you cannot violate the rules of international law. And that is a principle that we stand on, and that is a principle that we ask all our friends to observe.
Although are you acknowledging you feel that you really can’t do anything about whatever Bashar al-Assad may do with chemical weapons?
You see, what we have said time and again, you’re pushing a narrative that you use chemical weapons, we believe that we need international investigation of the sites. We don’t know why the United States prevented an investigation into Khan Shaykhun.
An earlier attack.
An earlier attack and said we have enough evidence, but you don’t have enough evidence. Evidence has to be collected by impartial observers from the scene. And I mean, your evidence may be good for you but I mean the United States doesn’t have a good track record. I remember when the United States was trying — the CIA was trying to make it believe that Iran used chemical weapons. But every international investigation shows otherwise. But what we insist — and I believe nobody with that history of supporting the use of chemical weapons against Iran has the capability of taking the high moral ground.
Do you —
What we need to do is to have an onsite investigation.
Do you have any information that would indicate why it is that when international chemical weapons inspectors arrived in Syria after the most recent attack it took them something more than a week to get any access to the site?
What we have been told is first of all, they were supposed to come the day before the attack. It seems that they were informed by the United States that an attack was impending and imminent and they postponed their visit by two days. They were supposed to arrive on Saturday before the attack —
You’re alleging the United States had advance knowledge of this chemical attack?
No, no, no — of the U.S. attack against Syria.
Oh I see , you’re —
They were told, they were told to —
They were told stay out because —
Stay out because we’re going to bomb. And then when they arrived they were supposed, I talked to the Syrian foreign minister, and they were supposed to be taken to the site the following day. It seems that security could not have been arranged. It seems that there were snipers who were shooting at them. It seems that even after they went, snipers shot at them. What we insisted — I’m not familiar with the exact details of what happened underground — but what we insisted from the very beginning was the need to carry out an onsite investigation to make sure who has used chemical weapons and whether chemical weapons were used.
I’m glad you mentioned Yemen earlier. We recently did a series of stories on Yemen and visited Yemen, and one of the things that we examined was Saudi Arabia’s responsibility for its part in what the U.N. has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. What responsibility does Iran have given that Iran is seen as supporting one side in that civil war?
Well, we we have said from the very beginning let’s not allow this war to continue.
Immediately after the beginning of the bombardment, Iran called for a ceasefire and we’ve been ready for a ceasefire. It’s been Saudi Arabia that has hoped to be able to achieve a quick military victory. That quick military victory has taken them three years, and we haven’t received, reached anywhere. So what is important is we see the airplanes that are bombing the people of Yemen. That bomb today, 20 people killed, 20 people in a wedding ceremony in Yemen. We need to bring that to an end. Iran is ready to use whatever influence. We’re not, I mean, it’s not our planes. Saudi Arabia is bombing them. So Saudi Arabia can decide today and stop this bloodshed. Iran cannot decide today and stop the bloodshed, but we can use our influence, and I’m committing ourselves. I’m committing Iran to use whatever influence that we have in order to stop this, provided that the other side is ready to stop.
Just to follow up on that, we spoke with a refugee who had very recently left Yemen who talked about Saudi bombings but also talked about governmental chaos and gunmen on the streets which he blamed on the Houthis who ruled the part of Yemen that he had just fled. Have you specifically pressured the Houthis to come to the peace table?
Yes, and we are prepared. I mean, I don’t think they need to be pressured. I’ve talked to them and they’re ready for peace negotiations. But what we need to do in Yemen is to have an inclusive government in Yemen. That includes everybody, including the Houthis. And we are prepared to use whatever influence. We — nobody controls anybody in Yemen, but we have some influence and we are prepared to use that influence.
It is chaos. It is an unfortunate, it is a humanitarian nightmare. And we believe that it has — everybody has to come together in order to put that to an end.
How would you describe the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran?
I think Saudi Arabia has been obsessed with Iran for the past 40 years. They have tried to exclude us from this region. You know, immediately after the revolution, they financed, supported, armed Saddam Hussein to wage a war of aggression against Iran —
In the 1980s is what you’re saying.
— for eight years, and then Saddam Hussein turned his guns against them. And when he turned his guns against them, we did not support Saddam Hussein. We supported them. Regardless of the fact that they had supported an aggression against Iraq. But I don’t know, for whatever reason they have an obsession. The way to resolve that is through dialogue. And Saudi Arabia has rejected dialogue for the past few years.
You say they have an obsession. You’re focusing on the Saudi side of that. What is the word to describe Iran’s attitude towards Saudi Arabia?
Well, we do not want to exclude Saudi Arabia from the region. We believe that Saudi Arabia is an important player in the region, needs to be more responsible in its in its approach. But it is an important player in the region that cannot be excluded. I believe if Saudi Arabia came to the same recognition, we would be much better off.
Are you pushing each other in terms of cultural competition, economic competition, military competition? What’s happening?
We’re not. It seems they are. We — I mean, they want to exclude Iran from the region.
They say publicly, Arab world is none of Iran’s business. We live in that region. It is our business. It is important for them to realize this. Nobody can be excluded from this region. Certainly Iran cannot be excluded from the region, and certainly Saudi Arabia cannot be excluded from the region.
One other thing I want to ask about, Foreign Minister: people who follow the news, Americans who follow the news from Iran will know that in recent months there have been a number of protests on different issues relating to the economy, relating to women’s rights and other matters. What in your view is going on in Iranian society right now?
Well, you see, I don’t know for somebody — for people who come from a democracy, a country with a political process where you have demonstrations, you have protests, you have citizens, you have the Wall Street movement, whatever. I mean, and sometimes they get ugly, they get violent. To be questioning, or jumping to conclusions about the fact that Iran is also a society where people have the possibility to express themselves both at the ballot box and through demonstrations. That’s the right of our people. Sometimes those demonstrations get violent, and the way they are treated when they get violent in the United States, the same way is in Iran. There are excesses. There have been excesses. People have been frustrated with certain aspects and the government has to listen to them.
But that’s what I mean. If you look at protests that you mention in the United States, they mean something. There’s an excessive amount of protest now because people are upset about race relations. People are upset about President Trump. People are upset about gun violence. The protests send a message about where the public is. What did the protests say about the public in Iran right now and what they want from your government?
Primarily that their expectations for economic development — although our indicators are very good — but the expectations of the people were not met. Let me give you one example. We create between 700,000 to 900,000 jobs a day in the new administration in Iraq.
A year, I’m sorry.
A year, that’s OK.
A year. But I mean that’s a very good figure. That’s a very good figure. Look at your own statistics. But 1.2 million people enter the job market every year.
You’re not keeping up.
We’re not keeping up. And there is disenfranchisement, there is dissatisfaction, and that — I mean a family that had one son or daughter unemployed now has two sons or daughter. Although we create so many jobs, it’s not enough. And that presents itself in the demonstration. There are some political elements in the demands of the demonstrators — economic elements, social elements — and the government has to listen, and the government has to address those concerns and try to adopt policies in order to advance them.
Your president promised in his last re-election campaign to address that shortfall of jobs by ending more sanctions and improving relations with the world. How disappointing is it to you that he’s not able to do that?
Well, he has been very much able to do that. The entire international community is moving forward with that.
It’s the United States which is preventing it and calls itself supportive of the Iranian people, which is a very hypocritical.
Foreign Minister, thanks very much.