Zarif urges US to lift anti-Iran sanctions

Zarif urges US to lift anti-Iran sanctions
Sat Sep 20, 2014 19:25:31

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has called for the removal of the US-led sanctions against Iran in an exclusive interview published in the September-October issue of bimonthly The National Interest.

In the interview with the publication's editor, Jacob Heilbrunn, in New York City, he replied to queries raised about the on-going nuclear talks, the terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Afghanistan and atrocities of the Zionist regime of Israel against Palestinians in Gaza.


The following is a transcript of the conversation as carried by The National Interest website:


Jacob Heilbrunn: What do you hope to accomplish with Baroness Ashton? I was told that there might be a road map coming out.

Mohammad Javad Zarif: Well, I certainly hope so. I believe we have a road map. We agreed in Geneva last November to have a long-term agreement with two objectives. One objective is to make sure that Iran’s nuclear program will remain exclusively peaceful, and the second objective is to remove all the sanctions, and I think we can achieve both objectives rather easily. But it seems to me that unfortunately some in the United States look at sanctions as an extremely important asset for them, and find it very difficult, because the entire argument is whether we can have a deal so that sanctions can be removed, so all that the United States needs to do is to get an agreement that can lead to the removal of sanctions. There is nothing else that we’re asking the U.S. to do. We are not asking for security guarantees, we are not asking for any money, we are not asking the United States to do anything—simply to remove the sanctions. Now, in return, Iran is willing to put limits on its nuclear program to make sure, through scientifically proven ways, to make sure that whatever we do will not lead to a nuclear weapon, will not even lead to fissile material for a nuclear weapon. All the U.S. needs to do is to reach a conclusion that a deal with these parameters is better than no deal that would only get the United States to continue these sanctions.

If the U.S. is interested in a military adventure in Iran, that’s a different story. I don’t think anybody in their right mind would be interested in doing that—particularly in a region where all of us already face very serious challenges and the only force that has been serious in dealing with these challenges has been Iran. If anybody helped save Baghdad from ISIL, if anybody helped save Erbil in Kurdistan from ISIL, it’s been Iran. Nobody else. We’ve been there before anybody else arrived. In my joint press conference with the president of the Kurdish region, Mr. Barzani, he said publicly that Iran was the first country which came to the aid of Iraqi Kurds to repel ISIL, with advisers and equipment. So Iran is the only country in the region that is capable of helping in the maintenance of stability.

All that is required is for the U.S. to come to the understanding that sanctions are not an asset. And I think that calculation is not that difficult. If I may, I’ll just give you a very, maybe simplistic, but realistic calculation. For the past eight years, there have been sanctions imposed on Iran—by the United Nations with the pressure of the United States, and by the United States. The net result of all these sanctions is that when the sanctions started to be imposed, we had less than two hundred centrifuges. Today, we have twenty thousand. So if people start calculating, they’ll see that sanctions have produced all these centrifuges. So Iran can claim that we have withstood all this pressure—we have paid the economic price, but withstood the pressure. At least we gained this. Now, I’m asking the United States, what did you gain from sanctions? What is it? If you want to show what the United States gained from sanctions, I doubt that they can have anything to show for it. If they say they brought Iran to the negotiating table, I tell them that we were prepared to negotiate. When [then nuclear negotiating team head] Dr. Rouhani and I [then Iran's ambassador to the UN] were negotiating in 2005, there were no sanctions and we were prepared to negotiate. So nothing, no sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table. The only thing that these sanctions have produced is the resentment of the Iranian people that the United States is putting pressure on them. Nothing else.

So, there is a deal at hand. Within reach. The question is whether the United States will come to the realization that sanctions were a means to an end—in the best case scenario—not an end in themselves. And if there is a deal, then sanctions are not such a big asset to be so obsessed with.

Heilbrunn: Can I turn the subject to a different but also extremely pressing problem, which is the upheaval in Iraq and Syria. How would Iran respond if the United States and the coalition it’s trying to assemble were to bomb, not only in Iraq, but also in Syria?

Zarif: The problem is that the United States and the coalition it is trying to assemble have not yet decided to pursue a serious policy. You see, this group, the so-called Islamic State, is not a new phenomenon. It didn’t come out of the blue. Actually, it’s been there since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It was the outcome of the invasion. But then, with the support of the United States and some of its allies in the region, it became the monster that we see in Syria. It was a source of a menace or a new sense [of menace] when it was in Iraq. But then it became a monster, it became a fighting force with all this international appeal to disenfranchised youth, particularly in the West, over ten thousand foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria coming from the West. So it is a huge threat...people believe that this is a threat particular to our region, but it’s a threat that should concern the West as much as it concerns us. But it became such a big, huge problem after people provided it with money, with arms, with international support in Syria.

And had it not been for people like Iran and others in the region who knew the type of force that was opposing the Syrian government, now you would have been faced with a terrorist organization which did not operate from a base in Mosul, in Iraq, but in fact from Damascus. And that should tell you the extent of miscalculation that existed. Now, if the United States and its coalition—which I call the coalition of repenters—if they are really prepared to learn a lesson from the past and deal with this problem, because ISIL is the same terrorist organization, whether in Iraq or in Syria. They cannot fight this only in Iraq....They could [not] fight it by weakening the government in Iraq, they cannot fight it in Syria by weakening the government in Syria. You need a strong central authority in order to be able to deal with this terrorist menace. If they’re thinking about a strategy to undermine the Syrian government in Damascus, which is the most important force resisting ISIL in Syria, and at the same time want to fight ISIL, this is a contradiction in terms.

So we need for the United States and its coalition partners to come to the realization that you cannot differentiate between this threat when it is in Syria and when it is in Iraq, or when it is threatening one segment of the Iraqi population or another. Unfortunately it took the United States and its allies two full months before they reacted, even in Iraq—let alone Syria. Two full months! Had it not been for Iran and our immediate support that we provided to the government of Iraq—the central government in Baghdad—and the Kurdish Regional Government in Kurdistan, then both [would have] fallen to ISIL before the United States even could react or create a coalition. So I think what is needed for everybody is a realistic assessment of the threat in the region, and an attempt to deal with that threat.

Heilbrunn: How much culpability, if any, do you think Saudi Arabia has for the rise of ISIL?

Zarif: Well, I don’t want to look at the past. I hope that our friends in Saudi Arabia have now come to the realization that this is as much a threat against them as it is to Iraq or Syria—or even more a threat against them. And if that is the case, we’re willing to look forward and to work with them in order to address this threat. But certainly policies that were followed in the past eleven years, both in Iraq and Syria, have not been conducive to stability and to fighting terrorism.

Heilbrunn: Let’s say that your scenario comes true and the United States does alter its view of sanctions and an agreement is reached on the nuclear front. Where would you see U.S.–Iranian relations headed? Is there really any obstacle to full relations, as there was in the past?

Zarif: Well, I’m a realistic person, so I want to take one step at a time. I believe we need to deal with the nuclear issue now. Obviously, if we resolve the nuclear issue, there will be one less obstacle in reducing tension, at least, between Iran and the United States. I do not believe that tensions in our relations are inherent or unavoidable. There are policies that give rise to tension, and I don’t think that these policies need to be there. So I’m hopeful that once we address this fundamental issue of the nuclear problem, then the road will be much less cumbersome to deal with other issues. But I don’t see, all of the sudden, a radically different type of relations coming out. But there will be much less tension, it will be much more conducive to understanding and coordination.

Heilbrunn: What is your analysis of Lebanon, because ISIL already made one incursion into Lebanon?

Zarif: Well, several incursions into Lebanon in one spot. And each time it was confronted by the Lebanese army, which tells you that ISIL is a threat that cannot be contained in any country. And if we do not contain it, if we continue to have these short-sighted policies of whether containing ISIL in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria will help boost the government in Damascus, unless we abandon these illusions and deal with ISIL, it will become a threat against other countries in the region as much as it is a threat against Iraq, Syria and Lebanon today. It will be more of a threat. So, I think the Lebanese example is a good example. I think that the people of Lebanon, various forces inside Lebanon, various groups, both Sunni, Shia, Christian, Druze, all of them understand ISIL is a threat against all of Lebanon, and they’re dealing with it, and I think others also need to follow suit.

Heilbrunn: At the same time, you had the recent confrontation in the Gaza Strip....Do you see any peace process at all? Where do you think the whole Palestinian-Israeli confrontation is headed?

Zarif: Well I think the reaction by the United States and the West to what can only be called genocide against the people of Gaza by Israel is a good rallying cause for extremist groups such as ISIL. So it is important to deal with this. It is important that now that there is a ceasefire, everybody ensures that Israel will not find another excuse to unleash such a huge, disproportionate military response to any threat that it perceives in Gaza, killing innocent human beings.

Heilbrunn: What about Afghanistan? There’s another country that’s in this state of considerable turbulence.

Zarif: We live in a difficult neighborhood.

Heilbrunn: You had the agreement at Bonn in 2001. What do you see as a path forward for Afghanistan?

Zarif: I see Bonn as a good example of what can be done. Bonn exemplified cooperation by all Afghan groups—all serious Afghan groups, not the Taliban—and everybody else in the international community. That’s what I think is needed right now. We need an international agreement in Afghanistan, otherwise we open the possibility for a greater role for the Taliban and other extremist forces. You already have, unfortunately, a very strong and dangerous presence in Afghanistan, so there is a need for various political forces inside Afghanistan to come to terms with each other so that they preclude the possibility that the extremists could take advantage.

Heilbrunn: Many people saw Iran in the past decades, or at least initially, as a revolutionary power, with its support for Hezbollah, etc. Do you think the perception will arise more that Iran is a stabilizing power with the rise of [other] radical movements?

Zarif: Well, Iran has been a responsible power in the region. We believe that the era, the age of coercion is over. Now you need to work with indigenous forces in various countries towards more stable, more democratic systems. These cannot be imposed from outside. This is only a possibility if it is homegrown, if it is indigenous. The reason that we have influence in the region is not because we are this omnipotent power like the United States, but because we chose people that we worked with seriously and with care and based on the interests of the people in the region, rather than some illusion about our own national advantage. So I think it is possible for everybody, not just for Iran, to play a stabilizing role in this region, and it is in the interests of everybody in the region to do that.

Heilbrunn: The opening up of streaming and access to videos in Iran, that got a lot of attention in the West. Is Iran becoming a freer country? It’s already in some ways more democratic than many of its neighbors.

Zarif: Well, you see, it’s always a debate in our societies how far government should go in order to protect the population—particularly the youth—from what people in traditional societies consider obscene: profanity, pornography, that type of thing. That’s a debate that is ongoing. That is why there are still restrictions in Iran on certain types of social media, for instance, but I believe there is a healthy debate going on within the society, and since Iran is respectful of the views of its population—and the views of our population may be different from the views of a Western liberal democracy, different settings, different traditions, different backgrounds, it’s a more traditional view. Some will find it unacceptable for the government to provide greater access to some of these media they consider to be unhealthy or problematic when it comes to social norms. So it’s a debate that is going on inside Iran, and it’s a debate that will be settled by various people participating.

Heilbrunn: If you look at it from the Iranian perspective, is there a compelling reason not to have a nuclear bomb?

Zarif: Yes, there is every reason not to have a nuclear bomb. If you look at Iran’s security environment, in the immediate neighborhood—by the immediate neighborhood I mean the Persian Gulf—we are already, because of the size, geography, resources, human resources, military ability...we are the strongest. By far. Most stable country in the region. So we need to go out of our way to convince our neighbors that we don’t have anything against them. We are engaged in confidence-building measures with them. So, not only do we not need a bomb for our immediate neighborhood, a bomb, or even a perception that we have a bomb, will further deteriorate our position, because immediately, our neighbors will seek security assurances from outside. So what we consider to be a conventional superiority that Iran certainly has in the region, if we try for strategic superiority, we will even lose our conventional superiority.

In the larger security environment of Iran—that is, against the threat by Israel or the United States—Iran cannot imagine to engage in any type of deterrence, either directly or even through proxy, with these external threats, or extra-regional threats, through a nuclear device, because we cannot compete in that area.

Again, a nuclear bomb will deteriorate our security. And at the end of the day, let me just make one point, that nuclear weapons have not created security for anybody. Just look at what happened to Israel.