Iran's Foreign Minister: "Slapping more sanctions on Iran will bring consequences nobody will like"

The foreign minister of Iran is in Russia ahead of the next round of Syria peace talks. With the nuclear negotiations finally progressing, Tehran is seeing diplomatic doors open. Can it help solve the Syria question? What is being discussed with Moscow? Will uranium enrichment continue? We caught up with Mr. Zarif to find out the answers first-hand.

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Sophie Shevarnadze: We’re here in the President Hotel in the heart of Moscow with Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Foreign minister, it’s really great to have you on our program today.

Javad Zarif: It’s good to be with you.

SS:So you just came back from Damascus, where you spoke with President Bashar al-Assad. Have you talked about anything concrete, have you come up with any concrete solutions?

JZ: I just came from the Middle East, basically, I was not only in Syria, I was in Lebanon, Jordan, I was in Iraq, and I see a common threat, among everybody I speak to, and that is spread of violence, spread of extremism, and the sectarian tension that is brewing in the region and the need to contain it. The heartbeat right now is Syria, but there is no guarantee that if we do not tackle this situation in Syria, it will not spread. Now we see the consequences of the conflict in Syria, and it’s spillover into Lebanon. We see the situation in Iraq, which is very interlinked with Syria, because it’s the same group, the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” that is creating difficulties and [carrying out] terrorist bombing inside Iraq and at the same time it is engaged in Syria, even in the in-fighting with the opposition in Syria, where various groups of the opposition are fighting with each other with the greatest degree of inhumanity. This is a major threat. We see the consequences of the same threat in Russia today, when you see terrorist bombings in various places, we see the consequences in Iran, where we see abductions and attacks, we see the consequences all over the region and this can go even beyond the region. Everybody that I talked to was committed to dealing with this issue. But, in Syria, I see the President and I see the entire Syrian government ready to engage with all Syrians in order to reach a commonly accepted solution which has to come out of the ballot box.

SS:Including the opposition?

JZ: It has to be all those who are interested in the future of Syria, everybody in Syria has to get together – this is a decision for Syrians to make. We, in the international community need to help facilitate this process; at the end of the day, the Syrian people should determine their destiny through the ballot box. And I saw that everybody there was confident that they should go to the ballot box, and ready to go to the ballot box and allow the Syrians to decide their destiny. Now we need to find the mechanisms and modalities for doing so and I think everybody can work on this basis, and I hope that if people set aside their agendas, which have nothing to do with civility in Syria, set aside those previous positions that have ruined Syria, basically, over the last three years, set aside the illusion that there can be a military solution in Syria. If they set those illusions aside, and allow the Syrian people, help the Syrian people, facilitate the Syrian people, start talking to each other, which I hope will happen in Geneva-2 – then I think there can be a way forward, and a way forward that contains this very dangerous phenomenon of extremism and sectarianism.

SS:Let me ask you this. I know you reiterated many times that it’s up to the Syrian people to decide in the ballot box what happens to the country, and who governs the country, but the solution hasn’t been found in the last three years. If President Bashar Assad stepping down before the election is the only possible compromise with the opposition, the only possible solution to the ceasefire – would Iran agree to that?

JZ: I think the premise of the question in wrong. It is for the government and the opposition to sit together and to discuss the future of Syria. I do not believe that people should decide about the outcome before they start negotiating. It seems that there is a great deal of insecurity among those people who are setting conditions for even negotiations to start, that this should happen, and that should happen, and this should be the outcome of the negotiations and other thing should be the outcome of the negotiations. If the people have confidence in their ability to attract the Syrian people, if they believe they represent the ambitions of the Syrian population, then they should be ready to go to the ballot box. Why do they need to set preconditions? And it’s not for Iran to decide. At the end of the day no country other than the Syrian people can decide what would happen in Syria, and if they try to impose their wishes on the Syrian people, sooner or later they will see the failure of that process.

SS:Talking about setting conditions, Secretary of State John Kerry said that Iran could informally help from the sidelines at the Geneva-2 talks in Syria. Will Iran agree to help from the sidelines?

JZ: Iran is an important player in this region. It would be rather ironic to have those who support extremist groups participate in the conference, invited to participate in the conference, and then for some absurd predispositions say that Iran should accept preconditions in order to participate in the conference. Iran will either participate in the conference as any other state that has been invited, without preconditions, under the same circumstances that others have been invited, and will participate in the main course of the conference and on the sidelines; or, Iran will decide to stay away if we’re not invited. We will not accept anything that is beneath our dignity – that is our only condition. We do not have any condition for participation in the talks, we are prepared to participate if we are given the same invitations as anybody else who participate in the conference. We believe we have a much more important role to play in the conference that many others that have been invited, but we’re not convening this conference, there are other conveners of the conference, they will decide to their own benefit or to their own detriment to invite or not invite Iran.

SS:So let me make sure if I understood this correctly: Iran will only help advance the peace process in Syria if it is invited as a full member of the conference.

JZ: No. Iran will always help advance the peace process in Syria, because peace in Syria is in our national security interest. That will happen and that is our policy, but whether we will participate and assist the Geneva-2 process will depend on whether Iran is officially invited as a full-fledged participant in the process. If they decide not to invite us, then they shouldn’t expect us to be there either in the conference or on the sidelines; if we’re not invited, we will not go.

SS:Damascus has told Russia that it is actually prepared to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid. I know that Iran has a great deal of leverage in Syria. Let me ask you this, it’s a concrete question. Can Iran help convince Mr. Assad to actually allow a humanitarian corridor and stop bombarding residential areas?

JZ: Well, I don’t think we need to do a lot, I think it is necessary for all of us to understand that humanitarian assistance to people in need should be allowed to go in. It should not be the pretext for intervention, it should not be a pretext to try to help extremist groups that are fighting each other and fighting the people of Syria and bombarding each other and bombarding the people of Syria, killing even their own prisoners in mass executions, right? This is not a way out of this humanitarian tragedy. We need to send humanitarian assistance to Syria; we have been providing humanitarian assistance to Syria all through these years. We don’t make a lot of fuss about it; we believe that is our humanitarian responsibility and you don’t need to make a lot of fuss when you are basically conducting yourself in a way that is appropriate as responsible states in the region. We will continue to do that and we will continue to do that in coordination with the Syrian government and in coordination with others who are interested in sending humanitarian assistance to Syria. We believe that is extremely important; it is extremely important to address the humanitarian requirements of the Syrian people, but it should not be a pretext for other extremist political agendas to be interjected into this.

SS:Will Iran continue to provide Assad’s government with arms and volunteers?

JZ: Well, we have relations with government in Syria, as a government that is recognized by the United Nations, as a full-fledged member of the UN, it’s a legitimate government in Syria. Those who are supporting others, who are using extremist measures in order to advance whatever political cause that they may have, are violating international law. The fact is that there is a legitimate government seated in Damascus, in Syria, recognized by the UN. As long as that is the case, those that have relations with that government will continue to have relations with that government. Iran is not providing volunteers to Syria, we have relations with Syria in accordance with our agreements in the past, and that will continue.

SS:It’s just that your deputy foreign minister in an interview with RT told us that Iran was actually providing military expertise and help to the Syrian government.

JZ: We have longstanding military cooperation with the Syrian government, as the government recognized by the UN, and this cooperation, within the context of international law, within the context of our international obligations and restrictions placed within international law, will continue.

SS:I know that you have spoken to your Turkish counterpart about a possible ceasefire in Syria, and the two countries have their differences, but is it really possible to come up with a peace deal on Syria on a regional level? Because, we often here wonder how come Syria’s destiny is decided between America and Russia.

JZ: Syria’s destiny will only be decided by the Syrian people. But it is important for the regional players, Turkey and Iran included, to play a positive and constructive role. In the past four months, since I took office as Foreign Minister, I’ve been trying, in discussions with my friend and colleague, the Foreign Minister of Turkey, as well as with the Prime Minister and other authorities in Turkey, to see how Iran and Turkey can help, because Iran and Turkey have similarity of views on a lot of issues in Turkey. The fact that we should not allow extremists to reign in Syria is a common position between Iran and Turkey. The fact that we need a ceasefire is a common position, the fact that we need to get humanitarian assistance to the people in need in Syria – that’s a common position between Iran and Turkey. We are working together; we have our differences, obviously, and we’re trying to minimize those differences and hopefully work together in order to advance those common objectives that we have.

SS:Do you have anything concrete in mind about what the first step toward the ceasefire would be?

JZ: We believe that there is no need for anything to lead to ceasefire, there can be just a ceasefire. The problem is that in the situation in Syria, because there are so many armed groups, terrorist groups that don’t even coordinate among each other, the way that the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is operating in one part of Syria, is different from how it’s operating in another part of Syria: in one part of Syria it is fighting Jabhat Al-Nusra, in another part of Syria it is allied with Jabhat Al-Nusra. It’s a rather very difficult and tragic hotchpotch of extremist elements coming from all over the world, trying to carry out a rather disillusioned agenda in Syria, and in the meantime losing their own lives and killing a lot of people on the side. I think it is important for all of us to work together. How that can come about is a very difficult proposition; it’s a straightforward proposition to stop fighting, but how you do it? On the government side it’s not that difficult, but how you bring all those various forces that are wreaking havoc in various parts of Syria to stop killing and come to the negotiating table? That’s a difficult proposition, but we are prepared to work, in good faith, in order to achieve that object.

SS:But today you’re in Russia, and there is a lot of talk about Iran and Russia negotiating an oil-for-goods deal worth $1.5 billion a month, and it’s something America isn’t too keen on: a spokesperson for the US said that it could trigger possible sanctions. Can you confirm that this agreement is being negotiated in Moscow today?

JZ: No, we’re not negotiating any agreement between governments. I am here to discuss various issues, primarily regional problems, our nuclear issue, and cooperation between Iran and Russia that expands in all areas. Iran and Russia are two neighbors, we’ve had historical ties, we’ve had traditional ties, and our ties will be conducted as far as the governments of two countries are consent, in accordance with our international obligations, in accordance with the international law, in accordance with the frameworks that we have agreed on, and it is only for the two neighbors to decide how they will conduct their operations; but what will happen between economic entities of the two countries is something that the government does not control – neither Iran side, nor Russia’s side.

SS:So this particular deal is not being discussed at this period of time?

JZ: At this particular day, there is no particular deal to be discussed.

SS:OK, but the implementation of Geneva agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange of easing of some sanctions starts January 20. On this day, will all Iranian nuclear facilities be open and transparent to IAEA inspectors?

JZ: All Iranian nuclear facilities were open and transparent to the IAEA even before that, they have been since this entire fiasco started 10 years ago. I believe it’s a fiasco, it’s a waste of time, money and energy of a lot of people, it is diverting attention from issues that are of the primary consent to the international community and people are trying smokescreen to hide their own agendas, and hide their own atrocities, particularly in Palestine against the Palestinian people, the continuation of settlement policies, the continuation of the violation of rights of the Palestinians – it is all continuing behind this smokescreen. It’s a smokescreen, but the fact that Iranian nuclear facilities have been open to more inspections, more scrutiny, more transparency measures than probably any other nuclear facility certainly in the region, and maybe beyond. So, Iranian nuclear facilities will be open on 20th, but they have been open before the 20th.

SS:Are you ready for surprise inspections?

JZ: We don’t have surprise inspections because there are daily inspections. When you have daily inspections there’s no surprise.

SS:I know that Iran’s frozen assets are expected to start unblocking in February. How soon do you think the Geneva agreement will actually enable Iran to sell crude oil again?

JZ: We are selling crude oil.

SS:…More crude oil.

JZ: I’m not in that business and that’s not my area of responsibility, but I believe the Geneva framework prevents the US, which in our view has been doing this illegally anyway, but prevents it from further restrictions on the sale of the Iranian oil. It doesn’t mean that we have agreed to the restrictions that they have placed until now – from our perspective and from the perspective of many other countries, what they have been doing is illegal. But we decided not to look at the past and look toward the future. They will refrain from further increasing that and they will provide some sanctions relief, but the goal is not to get stuck in this stage of the game. The goal is to use this as a, basically, a breathing space, to get a final deal. The final deal would mean that all sanctions will be removed, and at the same time, Iran will do what we believe is in our best interest – to clarify and to show to the international community that the purpose of our nuclear program is nothing but peaceful. We will do these two things as the sort of final comprehensive settlement, and we believe that, provided there is goodwill, good faith and political will in fact, we can reach that agreement, but that requires all sides to come to the negotiating table with an open mind, with the understanding that they have to address the consent of Iran, that they have to gain the trust of Iranian people, who have a lot of concerns and misgivings about the way the West has dealt with the Iranian nuclear program, and other Iranian activities in general. In fact this is basically a staging ground, this is not an end in itself, this is just a beginning, and I hope that as of January Iran is ready to engage with 5+1 collectively and individually in order to move the process forward.

SS:Despite President Obama’s calls on Congress to hold off on sanctions, there are many American lawmakers who are actually calling for more sanctions on your country, and they are saying “That’s because Iran is bluffing, it’s not going to walk away from the talks even if we put more sanctions on.” So let me ask you this: will the new US sanctions really mean an end to these talks?

JZ: I think those in the US who are pushing for more sanctions have to see what this policy has produced, and whether it’s worth risking. I don’t want to get engaged in that childish discussion whether Iran is bluffing or not. They can test us. They have tested us in the past. What sanctions have produced is basically 90,000 centrifuges and a lot of resentment among the Iranian population that the US Congress is against them buying meds. It restricts possibilities for banks to open letters of credit for Iranian corporations to import medicine. This is basically what they’ve done. Is that something that Senator Menendez can be proud of? That’s for him to respond to. But, the Iranian people will stick to their rights; we will not bow to pressure. They got to understand that the way to deal with Iran is respect. Sanctions have not produced any results up till now, they will not produce any results that are positive and constructive and can help resolve this problem in the future. If they believe that sanctions are so important, then they can test it and see the consequences. I don’t think the consequences are something that they will like.

SS:Also, the way I see it, as far as this particular agreement is concerned: Iran claims that any signed agreement gives it the right to enrich uranium at the low level for peaceful purposes. America says this agreement does no such thing. We’re not talking about which side reads what in this agreement, correctly or incorrectly – at the end of the day, you have two main negotiators, who read one agreement in a very different way. See a problem there?

JZ: Well, the agreement is in black and white. Basically, it provides that any final deal will have enrichment as its integral part. That’s basically all we’ve saying. The US can have its own interpretation of whether there is a right to enrich or not: the rest of the international community has an interpretation and that interpretation have been repeated twice in consensus documents; Consensus documents, in which the US is a party, that were produced by 1990 and 2010 NPT review conferences, and you know that the highest authority on defining what MPT means are the review conferences that are convened every five years. Twice, in 1990 and 2010, in no uncertain terms, the NPT review conference says that the choice of countries, the fuel cycle choices of member states of the NPT must be respected. What we’re asking is not for everybody to recognize our right, because we believe that our right is inalienable and recognized in the NPT and does not require recognition by anybody, we believe the right is there, we are exercising that right, they should remove the restrictions that they have placed on Iran because of the exercise of this right. We believe that the end result of Geneva process, the Geneva plan of action is to remove the restrictions that have been placed on Iran for the exercise of this right. The fact is that Iranian enrichment will continue during the six month period, the first round. So, they can look at the facts on the ground, or they can try to have legal misinterpretations of the text. The text is in black and white, in pure English, we haven’t done any translations in different languages, we haven’t produced the fact sheet, the text is there. I think instead of producing fact sheets, instead of producing statements, instead of trying to give, in my view, misinterpretations of the agreement, they should just read the agreement and live by it.

SS:Despite the differences, though, it’s the first time in 27 years that America and Iran are talking, and you are the one of the masterminds of this great deal. Do you feel like the establishment of diplomatic ties with America helped Iran in some ways, do you feel like other countries are listening to you more carefully now?

JZ: Well, we’re not talking about reestablishment of diplomatic relation. We’re talking about US and Iran, hopefully in good faith, I believe I have good faith and I hope Secretary Kerry and President Obama are going to push with their declared good faith in order to reach the diplomatic solution on this issue with Iran. It’s important that we’re talking – it doesn’t mean that we have diplomatic relations with the US, it doesn’t mean that if we resolve this we will have diplomatic relations with the US. The object of this exercise is to resolve the nuclear issue, and that’s what we’re discussing. We’re not discussing anything else, we are very transparent about the way we deal with the issue. We have said very clearly from the very highest levels of the Iranian government that we’re dealing with the US both bilaterally and within the context of 5+1, as we deal with all other members of 5+1, primarily Russia. We deal with Russia bilaterally on the nuclear issue, we are exchanging views – today I did that with Foreign Minister Lavrov, and with other colleagues, and we will continue to do that. So, we are dealing bilaterally, we are also deal multilaterally within the framework of 5+1 in order to reach the agreement on the nuclear issue. I believe the nuclear issue has been a major stumbling block on the way of greater understanding and cooperation between Iran and the West, including the US, and if we remove this block it will be easier to discuss other issues, but it doesn’t mean that we are discussing other issues, it doesn’t mean that we have reestablished diplomatic relations – we haven’t.

SS:Just briefly, getting back to your recent visit to the Gulf countries. You came back from there, but you didn’t visit Saudi Arabia. When we’re talking about rising Sunni extremism in the region, and the threat it represents for everyone around – when we talk about regional stability, what we really are talking about is Iran and Saudi Arabia and those two dealing in peace with each other. Do you think that’s possible? Would you go visit Saudi Arabia anytime soon?

JZ: Of course I would. I always said that I’m ready to go to Saudi Arabia and I’m ready to meet with my Saudi counterpart, His Royal Highness Prince Saud bin Faisal, any place and discuss our bilateral relations, because we believe that Iran and Saudi Arabia are two important countries in this region who should have cooperation. We do not agree with a number of policies Saudi Arabia is following, or certain elements in Saudi Arabia are following, particularly in Syria. We do not believe that extremism is in the interest of anybody. We believe that extremism is a threat to Saudi Arabia, and I believe many in Saudi Arabia agree with me on this issue, and on that this is a common challenge, a common threat, and we need to deal with this common threat together, jointly and Iran extends the hand of cooperation to the Saudi government, and we are prepared to work with them. I made an arrangement to visit the countries in the Persian Gulf region, and those discussions were very positive. I was prepared to go to Saudi Arabia then and I’m prepared to go Saudi Arabia any day and any time.

SS:So you’re just waiting for them to invite you?

JZ: We’re waiting for the arrangements to be made and whenever the arrangements are made, we’ll be there.

SS:So it’s a question of when, not if.

JZ: Iran and Saudi Arabia have had historic relations, we have now relations at the ambassador level, there is no impediment, basically.

SS:You don’t think Saudis are afraid of Iranian expansionism, for example.

JZ: Iran does not have a history of expansionism; Iran is a country that has not used force against any other country in 220 years. It is in our national security interest to have a stable and peaceful area, both in the Persian Gulf region, as well as beyond the Persian Gulf region. We’re interested and I don’t think there is any strategic impediment to Iran and Saudi Arabia working together.

SS:One minute before the end of the show, really quick question. The Davos conference is coming up in a few days. President Rouhani is going to be there, so will be Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu. Is there any way the two could meet face-to-face?

JZ: None.

SS:All right, thank you very much for this interview. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, great to have you with us.

JZ: Good to be with you.