Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is the man at the center of Tehran’s historic agreement on its nuclear program. Iran has said it will restrict its nuclear activities in exchange for a partial lifting of sanctions. Its goal, says Tehran, is a permanent solution that would allow it to pursue a peaceful nuclear program. But there are skeptics — including Israel and many Arab countries — who are worried that Iran is simply trying to buy time. In response, Zarif is on a charm offensive in the Gulf region, where he recently sat down with Al Jazeera's Hashem Ahelbarra.
Hashem Ahelbarra: Iran’s nuclear program is an issue. Many people in this part of the world (the Gulf) say this is a red line — the Iranians should not acquire nuclear weapons because it's going to make this an explosive situation in this part of the world.
Mohammad Javad Zarif: We share that view with them. Iran does not seek nuclear weapons. We do not believe that nuclear weapons will increase our security. In fact, we believe even the perception that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons is destructive of our security, detrimental to our security.
We are against nuclear weapons based on religious doctrine, based on strategic consideration, based on ethical considerations and based on political considerations and legal considerations.
So for us, nuclear weapons have no place whatsoever in our defense doctrines. I believe all of us in this region need to unite against a nuclear program that has been a threat to this region. We have all shared this view since 1974, that we need to establish a region free from all weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. Now (there is) only (one) regime in the Middle East that has both nuclear as well as chemical weapons and continues to divert international attention not only from the fact that it is a blatant violator of the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) and all other international instruments on weapons of mass destruction, but also it is a violator of all the most basic rights of the Palestinians. It tries to divert attention from its inhumane policies.
You're referring to Israel, and Israel has described your deal with the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) as an historic mistake.
Well, it shows their intentions. If this deal is to make sure that Iran never produces nuclear weapons, which is the aim of this deal, and it’s an aim that we share, why should they be worried? Other than the fact that they have been trying to use the smokescreen in order to evade and in fact divert international attention from their atrocities against the Palestinian people, their daily violations of most basic tenets of international law and the fact that they remain the single most important security threat to this region and to the world.
Let’s talk in specifics about the deal, the interim deal you signed with the P5+1 in exchange for relief from sanctions. Your ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency was quoted as saying as saying that the implementation of the deal will start by early January. What are we going to see by early January: more intrusive inspections, monitoring of the sites?
The deal is rather elaborate. It’s an action plan, in fact. I am not going to put a spin on it. I think the plan of action stands on its own. It is written in plain English, so people can read it. People do not need to interpret it. It is clear.
I think it is clear that Iran will continue its enrichment in (the plants at) both Fordow and Natanz at 5 percent, and Iran will continue construction work at Arak. Iran has agreed not to do certain activities that fall within the scope of this timetable and this plan of action.
Well, you know your interpretation of the deal itself says President Hassan Rouhani said that this deal recognizes our nuclear rights. (U.S. Secretary of State) John Kerry says, no, it doesn’t say so. We’re talking about two different interpretations at the end of the day.
No, we’re not. We’re talking about putting political spin into the deal. It’s very clear. It says the deal will enable Iran to fully enjoy its rights under the NPT. Twice, in the 1990 and 2010 review conference, which is the only reliable source for the interpretation of the NPT, it says that the international community should respect the fuel-cycle choices of members of the NPT, and fuel cycles include enrichment. So it’s a very clear situation. Now, the United States has a different interpretation of the right itself.
There were reports that the deal was not only the result of intense negotiations with the P5+1 but also secret back channels between you and the Americans in Oman. You have denied these reports.
They were not secret back channels. We had discussions with the Americans on the sidelines of P5+1, there were extensive discussions, and these discussions produced this deal, in addition to the very serious discussions we had within 5+1. So what I’m saying is, Oman has played a significant role in the past with regards to clarifying positions of the United States in Iran. His majesty the Sultan of Oman paid a visit to Iran when he also used the opportunity of his meeting with the Supreme Leader in order to clarify the American positions on this issue. And that role we have valued greatly. But what has happened is there has been a good number of negotiations within the 5+1, on the sidelines of the 5+1, in order to reach an agreement.
Mohammad Javad Zarif
Many people are wondering what it is that prompted Iran to suddenly go for this deal.
Well, you see, in Iran we have political elections, popular elections, and the people choose governments. They chose President Ahmadinejad eight years ago, they choose a different path this time around, and that election provided an historic opportunity to us and to the West in order to try to address this issue. We’re not talking about sanctions. The effect of sanctions has been twofold.
When sanctions started, Iran had less than 200 centrifuges. Today Iran has 19,000 centrifuges. So the net product of the sanctions has been about 18,800 centrifuges that have been added to Iran’s stock of centrifuges. So sanctions have utterly failed in that regard.
On the other hand, the people of Iran blame the West for restrictions that have been imposed on their livelihood, on their ability to buy medicine, on their ability to finance and purchase food items from abroad. And they have blamed it squarely on the West for its attempt to put pressure on the Iranian people, because they have tried to exercise their right and because they have resisted pressure and intimidations.
Iranians are almost allergic to pressure and intimidation — they respond negatively. Now, it seems to me that the West is trying to take advantage of this historic opportunity. We have a new government in Iran with a different approach to foreign policy. Our tenets of foreign policy have not changed. We will insist on our right. We will not negotiate. We will not compromise on the basic rights of the Iranian people. But we believe that this can be achieved best through constructive engagement. Now, the window of opportunity is a limited window.
I believe the West needs to acquire the trust of the Iranian people. There is a great deal of mistrust in Iran vis-a-vis the West. They believe that the West has applied a double standard, has tried to intimidate and put pressure on Iranians because they tried to exercise their right, and they believe this needs to be changed.
I see your rationale, but at the same time you have others saying that we would like to see Iran deliver on the promises you made. You know that you will be scrutinized by everybody on this planet.
We have always been scrutinized.
Exactly. And in a way, they would like to find the tiniest evidence that Iran is in breach of the interim deal. Isn’t this something that puts extreme pressure for the interim deal on Iran?
No, no. We have nothing to hide. They have been searching Iran up and down, in and out for the past 10 years. Probably more than they have searched any other country on the face of this earth. And they have not found any single evidence of diversion of our nuclear program into anything but peaceful purposes.
So we are not worried. We know that our program is transparent, we know that our program is exclusively for peaceful purposes, so we have no problem. We have nothing to hide. We believe that the international community will find for itself that it has been — basically, its energy, its resources and a great deal of money, because these inspections require a lot of money — all of this has been wasted on an attempt pushed by a possessor of nuclear weapons outside the framework of the NTP with most Security Council resolutions that it has not complied with. I am talking about the Zionist regime, Israel. And it is in fact diverting international attention, wasting international money, creating a smokescreen, fearmongering, in fact — trading in international fear and blackmail in order to advance its illegitimate policies and practices in this region.
We are not in for a surprise. The international community is in for a surprise.
You refer a lot of Israel. But you know at the same time that there are many Arab countries which are also of the same view, that, you know, “We don’t trust Iran, and Iran’s nuclear program for us is the real issue.”
I believe at the end of the day our neighbors in GCC (the Gulf Cooperation Council) came out with a statement in Kuwait welcoming the agreement. I welcome their sense of realism and their attempt to address the realities on the ground rather than anxieties. I believe what we have heard has been spontaneous, sort of emotional reactions, but the total outcome of our friends in the region has been positive. It continues to be Israel that continues to do everything in its power in order to derail the process and in order to prevent it from implementation. Our friends in the region have nothing to lose; our friends in the region have nothing to fear about. This agreement will only strengthen our security.
You said that you seek joint cooperation with the Saudis for regional stability. But apparently in your trip to the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia does not seem to be on your agenda for the time being. Is this a sign that relations are still strained?
I said that Saudi Arabia is an important country in our region. We believe that Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia are important. For Iran, our relations with our neighbors are the utmost priority for our foreign policy.
Mohammad Javad Zarif
The perception in this part of the world (the Gulf) is that Iran is a destabilizing factor, Iran is trying to promote Shia Islam, Iran is not really a good friend. There is a deep mistrust about Iran. Are you on a mission to try to win hearts and minds in this part of the world?
We have a foreign policy which has a strategic pivot in this region. And we believe that we need, all of us need, to cooperate with each other to, in fact, contain the spread of sectarian divide in the region. Because we believe sectarianism is dangerous for the entire region. Iran is certainly not interested in promoting that. In fact, we have talked to everybody. From the very first days of assuming office I’ve visited Iraq, and the core of my discussion with all Iraqis, both Shia and Sunni, Kurd and Arab, was the need to contain the sectarian divide. Because we believe that is a fire that can engulf the entire region and beyond. And we believe it is in the interest of every single state in the region, as well as all the peoples of the region, to build on our commonalities. And we have a great deal of commonality. We share the same history, same religion; more importantly, we share the same geography. Our neighbors, we have very similar interests. Our interests cannot be divided, our security is indivisible — we either have security for all of us or none of us will have security.
So these are very firm commitments that Iran build its foreign policy upon. I believe we want to promote that type of thinking and mentality, not the remnants of Cold War mentality of zero-sum games.
Reality on the ground is quite different. When you talk to officials in this part of the world they will tell you, “You know, we have seen the Iranians undermining Sunnis in Iraq. We’ve seen them promoting Hezbollah in Lebanon. They are totally opposed to this notion of maintaining a very stable region." How do you respond to those accusations?
Have they told you that we have also supported a very Sunni-Hamas movement? Have they told you we have stood for national unity in Iraq? Our relations with every group in Iraq, including Kurds — who happen to be majority Sunnis — and Sunnis in Iraq, are excellent. Iran supports regional stability. Iran supports resistance. These are our policies, and they go across sectarian divides. It is unhealthy and, in fact, dangerous to try to describe Iranian policies in sectarian terms.
I believe this is not in the interest of peace and security in the region. I invite all my friends in the region to join us. We can work together, we can help each other, we can contain the threats of violence and extremism that are raging in our region. Those threats do not recognize sectarian lines. Those extremists have attacked as many Sunnis as they have attacked Shias.
And it is important for all of us to work together in order to contain the wave of extremism in our region. It is a common threat. It is not a threat directed against one or another group within the Islamic world. Our differences are very little. What joins us is by far greater than what divides us.
Mr. Foreign Minister, the sectarian divide has never been more pronounced than it is now — particularly in places like Syria. Syria is a place which has been stoking this, straining relations between you and the Saudis, the Qataris, the Emiratis and the Turks. Is there any way you can bridge this divide when it comes to Syria, for example?
I think we all should work to end violence, to bring about political resolution to this tragedy that is a shame for both Sunnis and Shias. It’s a shame for the Islamic world. It’s a shame for our region. We have to work together. We have to come to the realization that these divisions will not help resolve the problem, that creating divisive tactics will not present a solution to this problem. Trying to seek a military solution, either from within or trying to invite outsiders to intervene militarily in Syria, will not resolve the problem. In fact, there is no military solution to the tragedy in Syria.
We need to bring all the parties together. The future of Syria can only be decided by the Syrians and the Syrians alone. What all of us can do, and I invite all of our friends to do the same, is to help facilitate a dialogue among Syrians with a view to finding a political solution and with a view to ending the violence in Syria. Extremism in Syria will harm all of us. Extremism in Syria cannot be contained to Syria. Our friends in the region will be the first targets and victims of extremism — as our friends in Pakistan were the first victims of Taliban extremism.
We all need to realize that past mistakes should not be repeated. We all need to work together, we all need foresight. We all need to have a forward-looking, future-orientated outlook. Let the people decide their future.
In practical terms, you have huge leverage in Syria. You said that you would be happy to go to the Geneva peace talks if invited, which take place in January. What kind of assistance can you bring as Iran? Can you force the regime of Assad into major concessions, for example?
We believe that Syrian people have to decide this between themselves. We can only facilitate. We can only bring home the fact that there cannot be a military solution in Syria. There needs to be a political solution, and the ultimate political solution is through the ballot box, for the Syrian people to decide under appropriate circumstances.
So what we can do, if invited, is to help — even if we’re not invited. We have serious interests in having stability in our region, and that is why, invited or not, we will contribute to finding a peaceful resolution of this unfortunate crisis.
To be invited you have to overcome a major obstacle, to convince the Syrian opposition that you are a genuine mediator.
We are not going to convince anybody. If they want to invite us, we will be happy to attend. If they don’t want to invite us, we will not beg for an invitation card. If they do not invite Iran, they don’t invite Iran to their own detriment. Iran is there to contribute to a peaceful resolution of this crisis. And I will leave it there.
This interview has been condensed and edited.