Zarif was speaking to the New Yorker in an interview published on Monday, and the following is the full text of the published interview.
Q: President Obama just finished meetings in the (Persian) Gulf with the King of Saudi Arabia and the five other sheikhdoms. He talked about opening space for peaceful coexistence between Iran and the Gulf states, but he also talked about a strong defense against Iran.
A: Well, I guess old habits die hard.
Q: He spoke of reaching out to “the more reasonable forces in Iran, so we don’t see an escalation in proxy fights across the region.”
A: That’s what I do not believe—that dividing Iran into “reasonable” and “unreasonable” forces is either correct, conducive, or anybody’s business. When the United States exercised that practice in the past, it didn’t produce results.
Q: You told me right after you took office, in 2013, that after the nuclear deal your top priority was better relations with the (Persian) Gulf states. What is it going to take to end those proxy fights?
A: The region is our No. 1 priority. We wanted to take every opportunity to work with our Persian Gulf neighbors. We have presented, both publicly and privately, proposals for engagement and dialogue. Unfortunately, they have fallen on deaf ears. Primarily by Saudi Arabia.
It’s not that there needs to be tension. We started exercising restraint a long time ago, when they supported Saddam Hussein for eight years, and then he turned and attacked them. Over the past two and a half years, when we were engaged in the nuclear negotiations, the Saudis did everything to undermine those negotiations, glutting the oil markets, and we exercised restraint. There’s a limit.
Q: The nuclear deal seems to be in some trouble. Can you explain the problems?
A: The most important problem is that the United States is taking a back seat after eight years of scaring everybody off, imposing heavy penalties on people who wanted to do business with Iran. Billions of dollars of penalties were imposed on various European financial institutions. The United States was supposed to go to various banks and tell them bygones are bygones.
Q: What do you expect to come out of your meetings with Secretary Kerry?
A: I want to see European banks doing business with Iran without fear of US retaliation. A lot depends on it. As we implemented our obligations fully, we are entitled to benefit fully. The United States needs to do way more. They have to send a message that doing business with Iran will not cost them. Period. No ifs and buts.
International regimes, international treaties, international norms are observed not because of the goodness of anybody but because they bring benefits. If they don’t, then the longevity of those agreements come into jeopardy.
Q: Is the deal in danger of collapsing?
A: No, the deal is in place. But if one side does not comply with the agreement then the agreement will start to falter.
Q: This is the final year for President Obama and Secretary Kerry. What do you think a new President, whether a Democrat or a Republican, is likely to mean for the future of a process that was started during the Obama Administration?
A: I’m more interested in seeing this process come to fruition during the Obama Administration. I believe that, once it does, the future Presidents of both Iran and the United States will see it is in their interest to safeguard it and to make sure that it continues, because we believe it’s a good deal. We believe it’s a deal that is in the interest of both sides and in the interest of the international community. We believe that, once it is fully implemented, everybody will see the beneficial side effects or spillovers in other areas. So my focus—and we have quite a bit of time—is to entrench this agreement during the months that are left of Secretary Kerry’s tenure, and of my own, and make sure that everybody recognizes the benefit of being compliant with the deal.
Q: Do you think that the next President, whichever party wins, is likely to be as friendly or as interested in dialogue as the current President is?
A: Many people in Iran won’t consider this government to be that friendly anyway.
Q: How often do you communicate with Secretary Kerry on average?
A: Quite often.
Q: Two or three times a week?
A: Depending on the circumstances, but it may be two or three times a day. We’re dealing with a complicated agreement, and we both want to see it implemented.
Q: Will you miss Secretary Kerry?
A: The jury’s still out. I’m still trying to work with him, in order to make sure that the very serious achievement that he and I and the other participants in the negotiations were able to achieve is preserved, strengthened, and guaranteed a long life.
Q: I attended a breakfast with the governor of Iran’s Central Bank last Friday, in Washington, the day after he saw Secretary Lew. How has the discussion between Tehran and Washington changed in the last two and a half years during the negotiations?
A: We had hoped that greater interaction on this issue would dent the mistrust. And I don’t think it’s too late. As the Leader (Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei) said last year, if the experience of the nuclear negotiations proves that the United States is changing its approach toward Iran—is basing its approach to Iran on mutual respect and interests—then there is a chance of change. But if the United States wants to continue with its hostile policies, then we will have to stick with the nuclear deal and try to basically keep it alive and functioning. The nuclear deal could still be the base and not the ceiling. But it requires positive political will on the side of the United States to stop this whole practice of simply repeating the old, outdated lines when it comes to Iran.
Q: A senior US official said that the Administration had hoped that the nuclear deal would open the way to settle other past problems, to clear the decks, in a way—particularly before President Obama leaves office. There is concern that Iran has been unwilling or unable to solve some of those other issues.
A: We have a saying in Farsi: “First, prove your brotherhood, and then ask for inheritance.” The United States needs to first show that it is implementing the JCPOA No one is asking whether Iran is implementing the JCPOA And almost every Iranian official believes that the United States hasn’t implemented it. So you’ve got to prove your brotherhood first, or sisterhood, and then we talk about the inheritance. The dividends of a successful implementation of the nuclear agreement will come, but once it is successfully implemented.
Q: The Supreme Court ruled that Iran’s Central Bank has to pay two billion dollars to victims of acts linked to Iran, particularly the 1983 bombing of Marine barracks in Beirut. I lived there and I heard it go off, and I hear it go off in my head quite often. And I saw American bodies being dug out of the wreckage for weeks and weeks. It was traumatic for the United States. Iran often describes itself as the victim of US action, but this was one action in which Iran’s allies and Iran were held responsible.
A: By US courts, who are also holding Iran responsible for 9/11! I have lost every respect for US justice. The judgment by the Supreme Court and the other, even more absurd judgment by a New York circuit court deciding that Iran should pay damages for 9/11 are the height of absurdity. How would you explain Iran being held accountable for the damages to the victims of 9/11—and others being absolved of any responsibility, those who were actually responsible for it?
These cases cannot stand in any serious civilized court of law. When a US court condemns Iran for 9/11, it finishes the credibility of the US justice system when it comes to Iran.
People can legislate in other countries to confiscate American assets. Would you be happy with that? The United States has committed a lot of crimes against Iranians, against the people of Vietnam, the people of Afghanistan, the people of Iraq. Can they legislate in their own countries that for every collateral damage suffered because of American bombing, for every person who was tortured by the Savak, which was created by the United States, those people can claim money from the United States and go confiscate it? Would you be willing to accept it? So why should we accept the Supreme Court ruling? The Supreme Court is the Supreme Court of the United States, not the Supreme Court of the world. We’re not under its jurisdiction, nor is our money.
It is a theft. Huge theft. It is highway robbery. And believe you me, we will get it back.
Q: In Congress, there is an array of proposed measures to impose new sanctions because of Iran’s missile tests.
A: That’s the problem with the United States. It believes it can control everybody’s behavior. The missile tests are our right. We have made it very clear that these will not be used other than in self-defense. They’re not designed to be capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
What do you expect, Iran to lie dead? You’ve covered the Iran–Iraq war, you remember missiles pouring on Iranian cities with chemical weapons. You remember that we didn’t have any to defend ourselves. Let’s not reopen that chapter. Everybody who is accusing Iran of provocation because of our missile tests should make the simple statement that I have made, that our Revolution Guards commanders have made—that Iran will never attack any other country. Pure and simple. By the way, that’s the legal obligation of every country, to say that.
Here I think you owe us. US planes were giving Saddam Hussein intelligence to hit our civilians with chemical weapons. We don’t owe anybody anything on defense.
Q: Is there any potential for another round of negotiations over the missile program?
A: We had two and a half years of negotiations, and we made it very clear, time and again, that our defense is not subject to bargaining. We spend a fraction of what all your allies in the region spend on defense. We have a much bigger country and a much larger population to defend. What is the population of the United Arab Emirates? How much do they spend on defense? I mean, get real. Our entire defense budget is between ten and fifteen billion dollars.
Q: In Syria, the ceasefire, the cessation of hostilities, and the peace talks are on the verge of collapse.
A: We had every hope for the peace talks. We need to not put the cart before the horse, and we need to go ahead with the negotiations and then, in the course of the negotiations, decide the future of Syria.
Q: Including the fate of President Assad?
A: This is what we’re hearing from Geneva: “O.K., if Assad doesn’t go tomorrow, we’ll start a war.” Everybody knew that Assad won’t go. Everybody knew that this was a process that would take eighteen months—and at the end of eighteen months the Syrians would decide how to conduct the elections.
The Syrians haven’t yet decided what type of constitution they will have, whether it will be a Presidential system, whether it will be a parliamentary system. If you have a parliamentary system, you’re just debating an irrelevant issue, because in a parliamentary system the role of the President becomes minuscule. So why are we trying to find an excuse to continue fighting if what we’re fighting over right now may become immaterial in a year’s time?
Q: Have you ever talked to President Assad about his future?
A: I have presented to him our ideas about going forward with a political process, and he was for it two and a half years ago. He is for it now. We believe that his future is in the hands of the Syrian people, not in our hands. I think he’s happy putting his future in the hands of the Syrian people.
Q: It concerns me that there may be no Syria left at the end of this war.
A: Yeah, if they insist on trying to resolve everything either through military conflict or to get what they want before they start negotiating.
Q: There is a report that Iran has as many as thirty-five hundred military advisers and personnel in Syria, and that there are now fourteen thousand Shiite volunteers from other countries—Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon—who are also fighting in Syria, many of them supported by Iran.
A: I know that there are Shiite volunteers in Syria. I know that there are Hezbollah fighters in Syria. We have said that we have advisers in Syria. I heard that regular Army people are also sending advisers, so it’s not just the Revolution Guards. The numbers I’m not privy to.
Q: Iran held parliamentary elections in February, and the second round takes place on April 29th. The new parliament includes more supporters of President Hassan Rouhani than the last parliament. How will that affect his ability to enact or win support in parliament for the reforms he campaigned on in 2013?
A: Because we do not have a rigid party system, parliamentarians have the ability to make up their own minds based on issues and how they feel the population wants them to address particular issues. That’s how the previous parliament, which was not a reformist parliament, supported our nuclear negotiations. If we cannot perform, these supporters can become our opponents. So, while this parliament has more people that have views similar to the President, it doesn’t mean that the President has a guaranteed majority on any issue. Politics is politics anywhere you go.
Q: And what will be the first initiative or two that President Rouhani tries to put before the new parliament?
A: The Citizens’ Bill of Rights does not require parliamentary approval. The President may want to put in place certain procedures and guarantees and mechanisms, so that may require parliamentary approval. The rest is more what parliament can do to prevent policies from being implemented. Parliament has a rather serious ability to question ministers, question policy, even impose impeachment of ministers. We’ll see less of that.
Q: In June, Iran is scheduled to hold its international cartoon biennial, and the theme is the Holocaust.
A: It’s not Iran. It’s an NGO that is not controlled by the Iranian government. Nor is it endorsed by the Iranian government.
Q: But clearly it has to get a permit to hold the function.
A: Not really. It doesn’t need a permit to hold the function. We need to issue visas for people who come, and we take into consideration that people who have preached racial hatred and violence will not be invited.
Q: Why does Iran allow a cartoon festival on the Holocaust?
A: Why does the United States have the Ku Klux Klan? Is the government of the United States responsible for the fact that there are racially hateful organizations in the United States? Don’t consider Iran a monolith. The Iranian government does not support, nor does it organize, any cartoon festival of the nature that you’re talking about. When you stop your own organizations from doing things, then you can ask others to do likewise.
Q: You and the President have both wished Jews around the world Happy New Year.
A: So we will not be going to that festival’s opening.