Editor’s Note: The National Interest’s Editor, Jacob Heilbrunn, sat down with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in New York City this morning. The following is a transcript of their conversation.
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.
Jacob 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?
Mohammad Javad 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.
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?