Exclusive: Iran's Zarif speaks about US sanctions, Saudi 'assassination plots', and an Arab NATO

Exclusive: Iran's Zarif speaks about US sanctions, Saudi 'assassination plots', and an Arab NATO
Iran is faced with tough new economic sanctions, amid a region in turmoil. The New Arab speaks to Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif about the implications of new US actions.
14 min read
12 November, 2018
Zarif played a key role in securing the nuclear deal with the US [Getty]
Since the end of the nuclear deal with the US, Iran once again faces tough new sanctions and in a region with many foes. Farah al-Zaman Shawqi, from The New Arab's sister Arabic-language publication, speaks with Iran Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif about the significance of the new economic penalties on Iran, and how they might be overcome.

The New Arab: Did the US sanctions really have no effect on your country's economy like [Iran] President Hassan Rouhani has said? If so, why are you seeking at all levels to find partners who are opposed to the sanctions?

Mohammed Javad Zarif: Naturally, sanctions have an economic impact but they will not affect our policies. The remarks made (by President Rouhani et al) mean to say that the last round contained nothing new. Indeed, we have started feeling the effects in the past six months after the US withdrew from the nuclear deal, in fact since economic actors felt Mr. Trump was going to pull out [of the nuclear deal] following his remarks about a new 'Iran strategy' last year. 

Since then, there have been ramifications for the economy, which means the Iranian people are the target (of the sanctions) because the US hopes the embargo would prompt the Iranians to put pressure on the government to change its policies, or even threaten the entire system.

The 5 November deadline has passed, yet you have not announced the nature of the European (trade) vehicles despite all the promises. To date, the European Union has not found a location to host the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) for trade with Iran and sanctions waivers. To what extent do you trust and rely on European intentions to defy the US project?

There is a need to preserve the (nuclear) agreement with the aim of securing economic gains for the Iranian people. The Europeans have delivered on pledges announced in political form, in earnest, and many did not expect them to because of their relations with the US. However, in the course of implementation the Europeans have been met with obstacles. 

We are aware that the European governments are still unprepared to deliver on their political pledges, concurrantly, and incur an economic cost as a result, believing they can safeguard the gains without having to pay any price. However, this policy does not favour Europe's long-term interests, and will [they] incur a bigger price.

Nevertheless, we are in constant contact with all our partners in Europe, China and Russia, to find ways to confront the sanctions and mitigate their impact. True, the US has huge economic firepower, but all the nations of the world are opposed to the US embargo even though some companies still fear its repercussions.

Would this be sufficient, alongside your relations with China, Turkey and India, to keep the Iranian economy healthy?

The Iranian economy has the ability to continue developing, and relations with other countries are a helping factor. However, we have homegrown human, natural, scientific and technological resources that contribute to the future of the economy. Foreign relations are important but they are not the only engine for economic development, and this puts Iran in a different position compared to regional countries that would not be able to survive without their relations with other nations. As a result, we will not only be able to confront the sanctions, but also overcome them.

Regarding oil, do you believe waivers given out by the US administration to eight nations have allowed the purchase of Iranian oil under acceptable conditions?

We have stated before that the US cannot bring Iranian oil exports down to zero and this was proven right. The US will not be able to bring down exports dramatically either, because Iran has the ability to export its oil and the global market needs it. Iran will prove to everyone that it will remain strongly present in this market in the future.

According to reports, Iranian aircraft will not be able to refuel in Lebanon and Turkey. Are there US pressures in this regard, and to what extent will you be able to overcome them?

We have many ways to ensure our flights continue operating and we intend to use them. We have tried and tested them before and we will use them again. The Americans cannot stop Iranian flights or block the movement of Iranian tankers at sea.

Does that mean you will circumvent the sanctions?

We will resort to many methods, not just circumvention.

You have adversaries even in Europe. Some of them say you are not doing enough to make it easier for Europe to confront US foreign policy, through your regional role and insistence on your ballistic missile programme. Even the French president who has defended the nuclear deal has not visited Tehran, despite expectations he would do so. What would you say to these parties? Do Iranian policies complicate your relations with Europe?
We have shared views with Europe on some issues and differences on other issues. Regarding regional issues, we are part of this region, and our policies vis-a-vis the region are more logical and realistic than Western policies. If we consult history, a lot of these questions can be answered. Who defended Saddam Hussein and who was then forced to stand up to him? Who supported al-Qaeda against the Soviets and was then forced to fight the group? Which countries recognised the Taliban rule? Which countries provided assistance to the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front? Who detained the prime minister of another country? And which countries imposed a blockade on Qatar?

By constrast, Iran has played a positive role on all these issues. It has prevented Western-backed Saudi Arabia to fulfill its objectives with the blockade of Qatar for example. In other words, it is not our policies that are stoking problems in the region, but it is the policies of the US' and the West's allies that are doing so. 

The Americans cannot stop Iranian flights or block the movement of Iranian tankers at sea

Regarding military programmes, it is worth comparing the defence budgets (in the region). According to figures published by international organisations, the UAE has purchased $22 billion worth of arms, and Saudi Arabia has purchased $67 billion worth of arms and has missiles with a range of 2,500km. 

In comparison, Iran's military budget is about $12 billion to $16 billion and the range of its missiles does not exceed 2,000km. In short, the US has turned the region into an arms warehouse, much of it is being deployed against Yemenis. Aren't those Western arms? It is the West, not Iran, that must change its policies. 

European governments have consistently accused Iran of seeking to target dissidents abroad. In what context can this be read? Do those actions not affect relations with Europe amid sensitive diplomatic and economic conditions for Iran?

The timing of these accusations is important and interesting. Accusing Iran of planning to bomb an opposition conference in Paris coincided with a visit by the Iranian president to Switzerland and Austria. Indeed, on 29 October, the same day the European SPV mechanism was to be declared, a suspect was arrested on charges of planning attacks against Ahvazi (Ahwazi) dissidents.

It is also worth underscoring some facts here: Individuals who live in Denmark have claimed responsibility for the attack that took place in Ahvaz through a London-based television station. Others living in France have claimed responsibility for attacks that killed people in Iran in the past. Therefore, it is these European countries who are abetting terrorists [and] allow [them] to reside in their territories. They must consider these facts. Iran does not want Europe to be subjected to any security threats, and we have informed both France and Denmark that we remain prepared to cooperate and provide information on these individuals.

Despite their differences, Iran and Turkey remain allies [Getty]
The US project for an 'Arab Nato', meant to contain Iran, has suffered a setback on the back of the Gulf crisis and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. It seems today that the US is in a rush to revive the project. Are you really not concerned by it, or is your stance to downplay its importance part of Iranian diplomatic-psychological warfare? 

We have not launched any psychological war against anyone. We are keen to look realistically about what is happening in the region. We believe that these policies are not in the interest of regional security, and we have made proposals in the past, such as establishing a regional dialogue forum and creating ways for regional cooperation. 

Unfortunately, some countries want to purchase their security. For our part, we believe security cannot be bought, but only built by the region's countries. We are also convinced the US wants to plunder the resources of the region, by pursuing subversive policies that the countries of the region themselves pay the price for. 

On the other hand, the US and [Israel] are advancing organised efforts to remove the Palestinian issue from the priorities of all sides and overturn the equations there. Some Arab countries are encouraging normalisation (of ties with Israel), and paving the way for hostility against Iran. Our friends in the Arab world must consider well the trajectory they are taking.

But Iran today is being reproached even in relation to the Palestinian issue. Your criticism of the Israeli prime minister [Binyamin Netanyahu]'s visit to Oman was "too soft" for some. What is your view about this? What information do you have about Muscat's possible role in the 'Deal of the Century'? And how much do you think the Iranian issue was discussed between Oman and Israel? 

We have communicated our point of view to neighbouring countries transparently, a point of view based on facts but we do not want to impose it on anyone. Iran firmly believes the "Deal of the Century" will not pass because it ignores the rights of the Palestinians. Many have tried to bargain with them. In this regard, our position is clear and we have conveyed it to the neighbouring Arab parties without any flattery but without interfering in their decisions.

Regarding how the Iranian issue may have figured in Omani-Israeli talks, most certainly the [Israel] wants to impose its policies and create animosity between Iran and the Arab nations. It will never stop trying to accomplish this. The Arab countries must take the appropriate decisions.

But isn't Muscat a strategic partner for Tehran?

Yes, Oman is a neighbouring country, and a good and strategic partner. But we do not interfere in its foreign relations. The same applies to Turkey and Russia. These countries have relations with Israel as well. We have communicated our point of view to the friends in Muscat, but we do not impose anything on them. Neighbouring countries are aware Iran does not approve of these policies, which are not in the region's interest.

Did you receive any new messages from the Omani mediators from Israel or the US?

Nothing from the US or from Israel.

Should we expect in the future to hear about new Omani mediation between you and the US, similar to the role the Sultanate played throughout the years? Will you return to negotiations as urged by Trump if he meets Iranian conditions?

We have stated before that any negotiations are contingent upon mutual respect, not mutual trust. This respect begins with the other side and its commitment to its pledges. At any time we see that the US fulfills this, then it will be possible to speak of negotiations. But at this time, what will we negotiate about? We have engaged for years with the US and reached an outcome that was embodied by the nuclear deal. However, we cannot guarantee today that Washington would not repeat the same step and abandon its commitments again.

Recent reports said the Saudi crown prince dispatched an envoy to Tehran, where the alleged envoy discussed the Yemeni issue. Can you confirm or do you deny this claim?

I do not have information that confirms this. I don't believe it is possible to begin with.

Are you prepared to receive a Saudi envoy? What would you put on the table in that case?

We have no problem whatsoever with restoring relations with Saudi Arabia to a normal course, but this depends on Riyadh and its decisions and conduct, which it must reconsider in order to reduce regional tensions. The policies against Iran, Syria, Iraq, Qatar and Yemen all originate in Saudi Arabia and not on our side.

Iran has intervened in Iraq and Syria's wars 

Developments in the battle for Hodeida indicate your Houthi allies are not in a good position, and that there is a bid to settle the battle by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, to go to the negotiations in Sweden in a stronger position. Where does Iran fit in this equation? Are you about to lose your position in Yemen?

We have borne witness to a destructive policy in this country that has brought catastrophe on its people. From the first day we have shown our willingness to resolve the crisis in Yemen. Since the (Saudi-led) coalition began bombing Yemen, Iran said the military solution will not produce any results there. 

Riyadh thought it could settle the issue of Yemen in a matter of weeks, but years have passed without any result. They have tried extensively to settle the battle for Hodeida militarily, but the problem some neighbouring countries have is that they do not believe in a political solution. Rather, they want to resolve matters militarily with political cover.

This cannot be achieved. There should be a wide ceasefire on the ground, and ultimately, all sides will understand the need for an end to military operations, to deliver aid to civilians and supprot the formation of an inclusive Yemeni government and an inter-Yemeni dialogue. Iran has underscored these four points as far back as April 2014.

Riyadh officially said it would take the battle [inside Iran]

Will we see Iran negotiating in the Yemeni issue along the lines of the Syrian issue? Do you have conditions to place on the possible "Houthi-Saudi" negotiating table?

We don't have any conditions. We want an end to this crisis. The parties must play a role that facilitates a solution not to impose the ways a solution should be achieved. This is what we are doing in Syria and Yemen.

How do you comment on reports suggesting that Saudi Arabia has planned to assassinate senior Iranian officials, including Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, and that it formed an operations room to wage economic warfare against Iran?

We had information about that. Saudi Arabia has supported terrorist groups in Iran for years. In a previous occasion, Riyadh officially said it would take the battle [inside Iran]. After that, we saw an uptick in the activity of armed and terror groups in eastern Iran, and in the activity of groups like IS that attacked the parliament [in 2017].

These Saudi policies are not new and we are aware of them. The Saudi regime wants to impose its domination. These reports invalidate all claims that alleged Iran was engaging in activities against Riyadh. It is Riyadh that supports radicalism to undermine Iran. What the New York Times has mentioned was just a small part of the Saudi conduct against us, and we hope this will be an eye opener for other sides regarding the actions of Riyadh, which has blockaded Qatar, bombed Yemen, detained the Lebanese prime minister [Saad Hariri] and has now murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an issue Turkey is pursuing in all seriousness right now.

Since you mentioned Turkey, it should be noted that your relationship is strong and persistent. You have had many differences in Syria, but you have agreed in Iraq, especially with regard to opposing the independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan. Today Turkey stands with you against the (US) sanctions. So where do you have differences, implicit or otherwise? What are the benchmarks of this relationship and what undermines it in your candid view?

Relations with Turkey are very good, and strategic. However, this does not mean our views are identical on all issues. We have indeed differed on major issues in Syria, but we have reduced our differences and reached a shared conclusion that terrorism was a threat to everyone, and that the separatist groups are a threat that could drag the region into a new conflict.

Both of us are aware that US support for some parties that may threaten Syria's unity and foment civil conflict is a problem. We must not allow any room for ethnic conflicts in Syria and Iraq, it is an extremely dangerous prospect.

And yes we have converged with Turkey over opposing the secession referendum in Iraq and we oppose similar scenarios in Syria. We may have differences on specific dimensions related to political solution in Syria, but this is natural. We are both influential countries and we must facilitate the task for Syrians to sit at the dialogue table and determine the fate of their nation.

In Syria, there are reports indicating parties affiliated to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Iranian or Lebanese, have withdrawn from the south from the area adjacent to the occupied Golan Heights pursuant to a Russian-Israeli deal. Other reports contradict this. What is the reality of the situation?

There were no Iranian forces in southern Syria to begin with.

What about Hizballah?

This applies to Lebanese Hizballah as well. According to information we obtained from Hizballah itself, their presence was temporary and meant to fight terrorism. Our assistance to Syria is essentially about counter-terrorism. Hizballah's presence in that country was requested by the Syrian government. There are no other objectives.

Do you mean to say there is no disagreement with Moscow regarding the presence of Iranian and Iranian-allied forces in the Syrian south?

As far as I know, there may be differences in points of view on some points regarding issues on the ground, but I have not heard of any differences regarding the type and nature of Iranian presence in Syria in general.

Interviewed by Farah al-Zaman Shawqi, translation by Karim Traboulsi