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.

Mohammad Javad 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.

Jacob 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?

Mohammad Javad 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.

Jacob 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.

Mohammad Javad 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.

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

Mohammad Javad 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.

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