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

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: 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?

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.