“I think it’s posturing. I think it’s all going the wrong direction in addressing this issue,” Zarif told Margaret Brennan in an interview published on September 22, 2019.
What follows is the full text of the interview conducted in New York:
Brennan: Foreign Minister, thank you for making time.
Zarif: Good to be with you, again.
Brennan: You are now personally sanctioned under US law but you’re sitting here in midtown Manhattan with a US visa. Do you read that as a sign that the US still wants to talk?
Zarif: Well not necessarily, because the United States is under obligation, being the host of the UN headquarters to issue visas to member states. So they made it very clear in a letter that they attached to my visa that I’m not eligible to get a visa, but they’re doing it on a waiver basis. So they want me to know that I’m not supposed to be here.
Brennan: But you are here. You’re here without all the staff and pomp and circumstance that normally foreign ministers are afforded. And you’re here at an incredible- an incredibly intense period of time. The US is sending what’s described as a moderate number of forces and some defensive equipment to Saudi Arabia in the wake of this attack. How does Iran interpret that?
Zarif: Well I don’t think this type of posturing helps. I think what helps would be to end the war in Yemen.
Brennan: You think it’s posturing?
Zarif: I think it’s posturing. I think it’s all going the wrong direction in addressing this issue. When the war in Yemen erupted over four years ago, we called for a ceasefire, immediate negotiations, humanitarian assistance and a formation of a broad-based government. Unfortunately, US allies- Saudi Arabia, believed that they could win this war militarily within four weeks. That’s why they didn’t accept our offer to mediate between them and the others and to bring about a negotiated solution. Now four and a half years after that, we see that all that military equipment that the United States provided to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, all the military logistical support that the United States and some other Western countries provided, did not help defeat a group of people, the Yemenis, who are basically cut off from the rest of the world.
Brennan: The United States says there’s no way this attack was launched from Yemen and that the Houthis, the Yemenis you’re talking about, don’t even have the ability to do what happened.
Zarif: Well it is difficult for the United States to explain why its state of the art equipment was not able to intercept these weapons. But the fact of the matter is that the Houthis have accepted responsibility- responsibility for that. If it were a false flag operation, if somebody else did it, then they should look for that culprit. It wasn’t Iran. And if the United States believes it wasn’t the Yemenis then they should look for who- who did it, but for–
Brennan: Who do you think did it?
Zarif: I don’t know. I think the Yemenis have announced a- declared responsibility for it. They have even shown evidence that they launched this attack. So I should take it as that. But if the United States believes that the Yemenis were not behind it, first of all why did the- why did the Saudis retaliate yesterday against the Yemenis? Why did the- they break the UN brokered ceasefire in Hudaydah and retaliate against the Yemenis? They did that because they all know where it came from, and how it should end is through an end to the killing of innocent children, women, elderly that has been going on. 100,000 people have been killed. Over two million cases of cholera in Yemen. Now everybody is concerned about an attack on an oil refinery which, based on the latest information that I have, didn’t even have a single casualty. Hundred thousand innocent human beings not enough but a refinery is an imminent threat–
Brennan: Do you accept–
Zarif: This- this is- I mean I think I think the moral compass is totally lost.
Brennan: Do you accept that these were Iranian-made weapons? The United States, Saudi Arabia, they all say that the weapons the evidence that they have and have gathered was made by Iran.
Zarif: Well they made all those claims in the past. The fact of the matter is Yemenis inherited all the weaponry that Ali Abdullah Saleh bought with Saudi money during his- his long career as president–
Zarif: –former president.
Brennan: –you know that those missiles can be reverse engineered to figure out where they were launched from.
Zarif: Well, they can do it.
Brennan: The US says it’s just a matter of time–
Brennan: — before other investigators–
Brennan: –determine that these came from Iran.
Zarif: Well let- let them do it. Let them do that because it would take a miracle for them to claim that because it didn’t come from Iran. Period.
Brennan: Are the weapons from Iran?
Zarif: The weapons the Yemenis have said these are Yemeni made. I’ve heard news stories that they are different from the weapons that we produce. I believe the Yemenis. Based on what I know, the Yemenis have the technology and the knowhow–
Brennan: But what–
Zarif: –to- to increase the range of the missiles that they already had from Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Brennan: But when you talk about the range, Saudi Arabia allowed in reporters to the oil facilities to look at the damage and there is evidence the attacks came from the north, not from Yemen, from territories that would indicate Iran, possibly Iraq, but the United States says Iran.
Zarif: Well there is no evidence to that effect. The Saudis made a show but they could not prove it. Now at the end of the day they claim that the weapons were Iranian but they couldn’t show even that. They’ve been showing that- a lot of lies. You heard the other day from Secretary Tillerson that some people believe that they can lie President Trump into a war.
And they did. Now I think in the United States we need responsible national security officials who can differentiate lies and deception from reality so that others could not play with the United States, could not take American soldiers to fight their wars for them.
Brennan: You’re accusing someone of manipulating President Trump?
Zarif: I’m not accusing someone of manipulating President Trump. Secretary Tillerson did.
Brennan: Are you confident that the UN inspectors, that the French inspectors, that the other countries who are sending people on the ground to look at this equipment, that none of them will determine that Iran played a direct role here or that these were fired from Iran?
Zarif: I’m confident that Iran did not play a role. I’m confident that anybody who does- who conducts an impartial investigation will reach that conclusion. But I cannot say a priori that the people who are being sent will conduct an impartial investigation because we’ve had cases in the past where they didn’t.
Brennan: The UN?
Zarif: Or the UN too.
Brennan: So will you accept the results of the UN investigators?
Zarif: No, we will accept the results of an impartial investigation–
Brennan: Who’s impartial?
Zarif: –and we- we can create an impartial investigation team. We were not informed by the UN We were not consulted by the UN We do not know on what basis this has taken place. So we will take it up with the United Nations. We are confident that if the United Nations carries out an impartial investigation the- the outcome will be that it was not launched from Iran.
Brennan: Saudi Arabia said today that citizens from the region are being recruited by Iran to carry out attacks.
Zarif: This- this means that they are–
Brennan: What does that mean?
Zarif: –it- it means that they are backtracking from the initial allegation that it’s coming from Iran. They are saying that it may come- have come from somewhere else but it was based on citizens being recruited by Iran to do this. So a lie falls apart sooner or later.
Brennan: Can you say that these weren’t Iranian backed attacks in any way shape or form?
Zarif: They were not Iranian-backed attacks.
Zarif: We support the Yemenis and you see Iran- Iran —
Brennan: But you also support militias in Iraq and elsewhere.
Zarif: No, we support the government of Iraq. These militias that you talk about are part of the Iraqi government. The Israelis are attacking parts of Iraqi military, official military. What these–
Brennan: Can you say these weren’t launched from Iraq by an Iranian backed group?
Zarif: No, they were not launched from Iraq by an Iranian-backed group or by any group.
Brennan: President Trump has said he’d be willing to meet with Iran without preconditions and there has been talk among the Western powers about trying to give some financial lifeline to Iran to stay in the nuclear deal. All of that was happening and then this attack seemed to blow it all up.
Zarif: No, all of that was not happening because–
Brennan: You didn’t take the offer of talks as real?
Zarif: We have been talking to the French. I spoke to the French president twice in three days at length and we discussed it with him. The president- our president has been talking to the French president. The United States has been reluctant to engage in what is required. Let me give you an example that President Trump would easily understand in transactional terms- in real estate terms. I buy a building from you and somebody inherits your company from you next year and he comes and tells me, “I didn’t sell that building to you. I need a higher price and a worse building.” Would you buy it? Would anybody in, to use President Trump’s word, in any history buy this building? Do you have any example in any history, again to use his word, of anybody doing this? He is asking us- we didn’t have a revolution in the United States. President Trump inherited a government from another administration that was legally elected as a United States government. And this agreement has been endorsed by the Security Council. This agreement is in a Security Council resolution. Now last I heard, the United States sits in the Security Council as a permanent member. It has not withdrawn. It withdrew from Human Rights Council. It withdrew from UNESCO but hasn’t withdrawn from the Security Council–
Brennan: But you–
Zarif: At least not as of yet.
Brennan: You- you said yourself that you were invited into the Oval Office to meet with President Trump.
Zarif: Yeah but to meet him for what? For a photo opportunity? Or to meet him for some substance?
Brennan: So when the president says he’s willing–
Zarif: We did not–
Brennan: to meet and talk–
Zarif: Yeah yeah–
Brennan: You’re not taking it seriously at all?
Zarif: We’re ready to talk. We’re ready to talk but talk in terms of something that is not going to be valid only for the next one and a half year or five and a half years. We need to talk about something that is permanent. That would last. We already have a- an agreement. We talked. I have talked to what was a United States secretary of state and the United States secretary of energy for hours upon hours of painful negotiations. You were there in Vienna. You remember. These were difficult negotiations. It wasn’t just a two-page document that we signed so that we could do another two-page document.
Brennan: So you’re saying you will not meet or talk or consider diplomatic negotiations with the United States unless the acceptance of that old deal, the JCPOA–
Zarif: It’s not an old deal.
Brennan: -is agreed to?
Zarif: It’s- it’s a deal that exists now. There is a negotiating room. There is a negotiating table. Wednesday at 8:30 in the morning. There will be six- four plus one plus one- six foreign ministers and one high representative of the European Union.
Brennan: You will not meet with Secretary Pompeo outside of that?
Zarif: Because there’s no reason to.
Brennan: There’s no reason to talk to the United States–
Zarif: And basically Secretary Pompeo is prevented by law from meeting me because he designates me.
Brennan: US officials told CBS News though that the supreme leader himself approved these attacks on Saudi Arabia but that they needed to be deniable. Well this is just a hypocritical, hypothetical, allegation. I mean no, no reality whatsoever.
Brennan: The supreme leader didn’t approve these attacks?
Zarif: These attacks did not take place from Iran for the supreme leader to approve them. Had they taken place from Iran then he would have had to approve them. But it didn’t take place from Iran.
Brennan: Do you think US officials are lying when they say that? That Saudi Arabia is lying?
Zarif: I’m certainly- I’m certain that they’re being lied to, whether they want to accept that lie. I think the work of us diplomats- I think myself and my counterpart, the US secretary of state, we need to try to push diplomacy, as Senator Sanders has recently said, not to push war.
Brennan: Senator Sanders. Do you think President Trump’s going to win re-election?
Zarif: I don’t know. I have my guess, but it’s up to the American people.
Brennan: The last time we spoke, you discussed letters that Robert O’Brien sent to you. He was the hostage negotiator and now he’s the national security adviser of the president of the United States. Do you regret not opening up that channel of communication?
Zarif: We did open that channel of communication. We provided an offer of exchanging of prisoners. That offer was made last September when I was here for the last General Assembly.
Brennan: But at least five Americans, including Baquer Namazi, Xiyue Wang- they are still in Iranian custody.
Zarif: Yeah. At least they are accused of something. There are Iranians in the United States who have been held in captivity for nine months without even charges–
Brennan: But you’re–
Zarif: –being filed against them. We have a professor–
Brennan: But you’re at this moment of intense pressure right now in the wake of these attacks. The entire global community is about to meet this week and they’re going to be talking about Iran. Wouldn’t it be a goodwill gesture to release a few Americans?
Zarif: Wouldn’t be- wouldn’t it be a good gesture for the United States to release a professor, whose mother just died and he has been there without charge and without any ability to leave the country, just because- he was issued a visa. Then his visa was revoked as he was flying into the United States. This is a professor. He is not a professor of military studies. He’s a professor of biology. He was working on recreative genes if I’m- if I’m correct, and he is a world-renowned scientist. He’s been in jail since last November or December, if I know correctly- if I remember correctly. Why don’t they release him as a sign of good gesture? So at least he can go to the grave of his mother and visit the grave of his mother.
Brennan: I’m being told we’re out of time but I just want to button this up and make clear here. Do you believe- are you confident that you can avoid a war?
Zarif: No. No, I’m not confident that we can avoid a war. We- I’m confident that we will not start one but I’m confident that whoever starts one will not be the one who finishes it.
Brennan: What does that mean?
Zarif: That means that there won’t be a limited war.