Iran's Foreign Minister Zarif: We Can't "Discount" Possibility of War

Iran's Foreign Minister Zarif: We Can't "Discount" Possibility of War

Zarif warns about mounting tensions, but also says that "nobody wants war."

Heilbrunn: So Iran is hurting economically. The calculations of the hawks in the Trump administration is that they could engineer a new 1989 within Iran: regime change from within by applying enough pressure from without to create a popular rebellion. Why are they wrong?

Zarif: It’s because they are wrong. They expected us to collapse a long time ago. Ambassador Bolton made that clear in his paid speech to the MEK. Prior to his appointment, he predicted that we would be out by the following year—he is nine months behind schedule and he will be many years behind schedule.

Heilbrunn: The other thing I was going to ask you about is the Iranian missile program being the subject of negotiation.

Zarif: The Iranian missile program is not the subject of negotiations. The United States is not in a position to either question our defense or in a position to pay the price for it.

Heilbrunn: What about the situations in Syria and Yemen? Do you think those will not be resolved until there is an agreement between the United States and Iran over reducing the current tensions?

Zarif: Well, I think we are moving forward in Syria through the Astana Process—between Iran, Russia, and Turkey—and I think with or without the United States we will move forward. In Yemen, there is a need for some of our neighbors to stop the ambitions—or illusions—that they have that they can have a military victory. I think they have reached the conclusion that military victory will be impossible and that they need to find a way to avoid a military defeat. But I believe that there is no military solution—either in Syria or in Yemen—and that we need to move to a political solution sooner or later.

Heilbrunn: It’s clear right now that the situation does not appear to have escalated radically between the two sides—the temperature just keeps getting turned up a little bit. Do you think that we are inevitably on the road to war or do you think that there is still a diplomatic way out—that both sides have more to gain by reducing rather than amplifying tensions?

Zarif: I don’t believe that either side wants an apocalyptical war. I think once we do not have an ideological commitment to war—or at least more prudent ones don’t have an ideological commitment to war—we don’t need to be moving toward that.

Heilbrunn: Do you think that we will just remain in this state through the American election? A kind of phony war where each side stares at each other—?

Zarif: I don’t think the current situation is sustainable. We need to end it because we are in a war. There is an economic war going on against Iran and that war has consequences—casualties and consequences.

Heilbrunn: So how high would you rate the chances of an accidental measure creating a war?

Zarif: We cannot discount it.

Heilbrunn: You don’t see it as 20%, 50%?

Zarif: Well, I am not a gambling man, so I don’t give you percentages. I just say, “it’s there.”

Heilbrunn: So is this the most worried you have been as foreign minister?

Zarif: Well, yeah. I think conditions are tense, so we need to do much more work to avoid a situation that is lose-lose. Nobody wins in a war.

Heilbrunn: Would you like to cut a deal with Trump?

Zarif: Well, I already have a deal with the United States. For me, who sits in the White House is the business of the American people, not mine.

Heilbrunn: What would you interpret as a sign from the Trump administration that it really was serious about negotiating?

Zarif: Stop the sanctions.

Heilbrunn: Nothing else?

Zarif: That’s their commitment. As I said, we won’t sell a horse twice. Nor will we buy it twice.

Heilbrunn: Okay. So do you think you have the stronger bargaining position? Has Trump, in fact, boxed himself into a corner?

Zarif: He doesn’t need to. I think there are prudent ways out. And if he decides to find a way out, he has one—many.

Heilbrunn: So the possibility is there.

Zarif: The possibility is certainly there. I think once prudence reigns, once the voices of extremism and violence subside, then there is a possibility to think clearly, and to think in a far-sighted way.

Heilbrunn: So, as a final question. Your analysis of Trump is—

Zarif: He certainly doesn’t want war. He’s not ideologically committed to a war—others are. That is why I think he needs to follow his own agenda, not other peoples’ agendas.

Heilbrunn: So even if you had the deal with the United States, but Trump is obviously president, you would say—as Thatcher said of Gorbachev—"he’s a man we can do business with.” You’re saying we could do business with?

Zarif: We have done business with the United States. It is there, the agreement is there. President Trump has been in the White House. He may continue to be in the White House for a few more years—probably six, at least two. So, we’ll see. We don’t have any preferences for who sits in the White House. That is why our calculations are not based on who’s in the White House. Our calculations are based on our own interest and our own future—Americans will decide their future.

Heilbrunn: Thank you.

Mohammed Javad Zarif has served as Iran’s foreign minister since 2013.

Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest.

Image: Reuters.