Iran Foreign Minister to U.S.: "What Did You Gain from Sanctions?"

Exclusive interview: Mohammad Javad Zarif on the nuclear talks, the Islamic State, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

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.

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

Mohammad Javad 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.

Jacob 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?

Mohammad Javad 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.

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

Mohammad Javad 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.

Jacob 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?

Mohammad Javad 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.

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

Mohammad Javad Zarif: We live in a difficult neighborhood.

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