US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets with Mohammad Javad Zarif, minister of foreign affairs of Iran, at the United Nations in New York, Sept. 26, 2015.  (photo by REUTERS/Stephanie Keith))

Zarif: Iran sees 'mostly negative signals' from US

Author: Laura Rozen

New York — Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking to Al-Monitor in New York following a UN Security Council meeting on Syria Dec. 18, said it remains to be seen if US-Iran relations would ease in the wake of the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal as early as next month. But he said Iran was disturbed by recent proposed changes to the US visa waiver program that could require European travelers who had visited Iran to apply for a visa to travel to the United States, and he had been discussing the matter with US Secretary of State John Kerry.

SummaryPrint Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in an interview with Al-Monitor, confirmed brief bilateral exchanges with Saudi counterparts and said numerous disagreements remain inside the international Syria support group on a political transition.
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“We will have to wait and see,” Zarif told Al-Monitor in an interview at Iran’s ambassadorial residence in New York on Dec. 18, regarding whether US-Iran ties would ease up a bit after the United States lifts sanctions when the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is implemented as early as January.

“Unfortunately, there are mixed signals coming from Washington, mostly negative signals, including the visa waiver program restrictions” proposed in a congressional omnibus spending bill Dec. 18, Zarif said. “Now we await for the decision by the administration on how it wants to bring itself into compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA.”

“I have had discussions with Secretary Kerry and others on this for the past several days since it’s become known that this was the intention,” Zarif said. “And I wait for them to take action.”

Predominantly Shiite Iran, which is considered a mortal enemy of the Islamic State (IS), an extremist Sunni terrorist group, and is engaged in fighting it in Iraq and Syria, has nothing to do with recent IS-linked terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, Zarif said, calling the proposed changes to the US visa waiver program targeting travelers to Iran “absurd.”

“Now it is clear that this new legislation is simply absurd because no Iranian nor anybody who visited Iran had anything to do with the tragedies that have taken place in Paris or in San Bernardino or anywhere else,” Zarif said. “But they’re being the targets. I think it discredits those who pass these legislations, those who adopt them and those who implement them more than anything else. And it sends a very bad signal to the Iranians that the US is bent on hostile policy toward Iran, no matter what.”

Zarif, speaking after the conclusion of a third round of meetings of some 20 nations and international bodies that comprise the International Syria Support Group, said he appreciated that the international Syria diplomatic process had brought Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia into direct discussions again, which Iran has sought but Riyadh had rebuffed until October. But he expressed misgivings about the intentions of some members of the international body about whether they really supported a diplomatic resolution to the Syria conflict.

He confirmed that Iran has had sideline bilateral conversations with Saudi Arabia in recent weeks, but he said the interactions were brief.

“There have been some short conversations, very welcomed though,” Zarif said. “And I’ve had a couple of exchanges with my Saudi counterpart [Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir]. Iran’s ambassador has had a couple of exchanges in the yard. We hope that is a good beginning. But that's not even near where we should be.”

“We have always been ready to engage with our neighbors, and we believe that our neighbors are our priority,” Zarif said. “And once our Saudi friends are ready to engage in serious dialogue, they will find Iran to be … ready.”

As to the considerable efforts of Kerry and the Obama administration, as well as Russia and the European Union, to persuade Saudi Arabia to include Iran in direct talks on regional matters, Zarif did not offer Washington too much credit. “The fact that people allowed certain players to exclude others from this process was the anomaly, not having a table around which all the significant players can sit and discuss,” Zarif said. “So, I mean, I have to say that what happened in the past [keeping Iran out of the Geneva meetings on Syria] was the anomaly, not what is happening now.”

On Syria, Zarif said he believed the international community was becoming more “realistic” about trying to facilitate a dialogue among the Syrian regime and opposition “without setting preconditions” — presumably referring to when in a transition process Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would be required to leave power.

“I think as soon as people realized that this was not possible, that if you wanted to find a political solution to the Syrian nightmare, you needed to be able to sit down at the table without setting preconditions. And I think that that's the realization,” Zarif said. “It’s not kicking the can down the road, but rather being realistic. That you need to start negotiating, and through the negotiation process, achieve the outcome; not achieve the outcome before the negotiation process.”

“Of course there are disagreements,” Zarif said. “We have disagreements about who [the] terrorists are. Unfortunately, reincarnations of al-Qaeda, Daesh [IS] and Jabhat al-Nusra are being used by some of our friends and neighbors as oppositions rather than as terrorists. … And we certainly do have differences about how the political process should lead to a national unity government.”

“I think another area of possible disagreement is that some of our friends continue to believe that there is a military solution,” Zarif said. “I think that’s an illusion. Of course there has to be a military element to this, but it has to be a political solution. And then we need to engage in a comprehensive approach to settle the problem of these extremist groups.”

A transcript of the interview, conducted by Al-Monitor’s managing editor, slightly edited for clarity, follows below.

Al-Monitor:  Today was a very productive day. Was the decision not to mention Assad in the resolution the outcome of simply an agreement to disagree, thereby kicking the can down the road, or is there an understanding beyond that of Syrians being free to "decide the future of Syria" in internationally supervised elections?

Zarif:  Well, I think what's important is for the international community to try to facilitate a dialogue among Syrians rather than to try to dictate the terms of that dialogue. Over the past 4½ years, or at least after the first few months where everybody thought on both sides that this would be over within a few months, after that for the past almost four years, the attempt to put an end to this has been thwarted because of an inclination to determine the outcome of the negotiations before the negotiations started, almost as a precondition for the negotiations.

And so I think as soon as people realized that this was not possible, that if you wanted to find a political solution to the Syrian nightmare, you needed to be able to sit down at the table without setting preconditions. And I think that that's the realization. It’s not kicking the can down the road, but rather being realistic. That you need to start negotiating, and through the negotiation process, achieve the outcome; not achieve the outcome before the negotiation process.

Now the outcome is what the Syrian people will decide it to be, not what those of us should think in this room, in a nice hotel room in New York or in Vienna or anywhere else, decide for the Syrians. And I think that that's important. Of course there are disagreements. We have disagreements about who [the] terrorists are. Unfortunately, reincarnations of al-Qaeda, Daesh [IS] and Jabhat al-Nusra are being used by some of our friends and neighbors as oppositions rather than as terrorists. So that is something to be sorted out.

And we certainly do have differences about how the political process should lead to a national unity government. Ah, we have presented our views in a rather transparent way, and we hope others are prepared to do the same, and at the same time, help the Syrians get together and put an end to this bloodshed.

I think another area of possible disagreement is that some of our friends continue to believe that there is a military solution. I think that’s an illusion. Of course there has to be a military element to this, but it has to be a political solution. And then we need to engage in a comprehensive approach to settle the problem of these extremist groups.

Al-Monitor:  Speaking of these terrorist groups, the UNSC [United Nations Security Council] resolution bars terrorist groups from the negotiation process. Is there a consensus on how these groups are defined? You made a reference today [Dec. 18] in your op-ed in The Guardian that there are those “pushing for self-proclaimed al-Qaeda affiliates to have a prominent place at the negotiating table.” How would you define such groups?

Zarif:  Well, I mean it’s not that difficult. There are groups that have al-Qaeda affiliations, … have issued statements that they sympathize with al-Qaeda or basically branches of al-Qaeda and Syria. They cannot, all of a sudden, be baptized as legitimate opposition groups. These are terrorist organizations usually composed of mostly non-Syrians. It’s simply not acceptable to try to just repackage them and present them as democratic opposition.

Al-Monitor:  Following on that, how would you define what constitutes a legitimate opposition group that should be encouraged to enter the dialogue?

Zarif:  Well, we have set a red line that Daesh [IS], Jabhat al-Nusra and other al-Qaeda affiliates would not be recognized as legitimate oppositions. So whoever is not among them and whoever is prepared to sit down and seek a political solution, if they meet the criteria, then that's the criteria. Unfortunately, people are trying to avoid that criteria from being set.

Al-Monitor:  Has Iran been able to help with local cease-fire efforts to get more access for humanitarian aid into Syria?

Zarif:  Well, we have in the past several years tried and, in cases, successfully to get humanitarian access, to get even temporary cease-fires for civilians to get out. Even in cases to get those combatants who did not want to engage in combat anymore out of areas under siege. So we think that's possible provided there is political will to engage in Syria’s work.

Some people have made it a business of continuing to see bloodshed in Syria because that's politically useful for those who want to wage a propaganda campaign. It’s a very sad statement, and I’m very sorry to make this statement. But it is important for people to realize that they cannot make political mileage out of the misery of the Syrian people. And once that is the case, then we will try to work for whatever we can get. If it’s a localized cease-fire, if it’s a general cease-fire, if it’s a temporary humanitarian cease-fire. Whatever we can do, we need to do it in order to relieve the Syrians of the pain and suffering that they’ve been going through.

Al-Monitor:  When you were here in New York in the fall, you said that you’d been trying to get talks with the Saudis, but the Saudis did not accept, as of yet. After intense efforts by the US, among others, the US helped to persuade the Saudis to accept Iran being a part of the international Syria support group, to help get you both to the table. What is your view on this effort, and how have you seen the cooperation go during this past day and a half?

Zarif:  Well, we have always been ready to engage with our neighbors, and we believe that our neighbors are our priority. And once our Saudi friends are ready to engage in serious dialogue, they will find Iran to be ready. The fact that people allowed certain players to exclude others from this process was the anomaly, not having a table around which all the significant players can sit and discuss.

So, I mean, I have to say that what happened in the past [keeping Iran out of the Geneva meetings on Syria] was the anomaly, not what is happening now.”

Al-Monitor:  Your deputy, [Hossein Amir-] Abdollahian, was recently cited by Iranian media saying that there has been more Saudi and Iran talks as of late. Have you been able to advance that channel?

Zarif:  There have been some short conversations, very welcomed though. And I’ve had a couple of exchanges with my Saudi counterpart [Jubeir]. Iran’s ambassador has had a couple of exchanges in the yard. We hope that is a good beginning. But that's not even near where we should be.

Al-Monitor:  Have you been able to discuss the ongoing conflict in Yemen?

Zarif:  No. We are trying to help, through the United Nations, in the negotiations, as they’re taking place in Geneva. We facilitated the negotiations, and we will continue to help with the negotiations that are undergoing right now. And it’s moving, I hope, in the right direction.

Al-Monitor:  On the nuclear deal, do you think the implementation and the US fulfilling its obligations under the JCPOA to lift sanctions will make for an easing in the chill in the US-Iran relations?

Zarif:  Well, we will have to wait and see. Unfortunately, there are mixed signals coming from Washington, mostly negative signals, including the visa waiver program restrictions that’s been adopted by the House and today by the Senate, which in our view are not in line with US obligations under JCPOA. Now we await for the decision by the administration on how it wants to bring itself into compliance with its obligations under JCPOA.

I have had discussions with Secretary Kerry and others on this for the past several days since it’s become known that this was the intention. And I wait for them to take action.

Well what's important is that the United States needs to send a signal to the Iranian people that it is prepared to modify its behavior and its policy vis-a-vis Iran. Now it is clear that this new legislation is simply absurd because no Iranian nor anybody who visited Iran had anything to do with the tragedies that have taken place in Paris or in San Bernardino or anywhere else. But they’re being the targets. I think it discredits those who pass these legislations, those who adopt them and those who implement them more than anything else. And it sends a very bad signal to the Iranians that the US is bent on hostile policy towards Iran, no matter what.

Al-Monitor:  Since it sounds like Iran views this as a violation of the US commitments, will Iran take any corresponding actions?

Zarif:  I mean we don’t care about what's happening within the US legal system. What's important is what the United States government, as the authority responsible before its national law and in interstate relations, takes as its own course of action. I believe there are remedial measures that the US government can take, and it should take, in order to mitigate the negative consequences of this legislation and bring the United States into compliance with the JCPOA. So we are waiting for action to be taken.

Al-Monitor:  Following up on one more question on the Iran deal. One of the changes in Iran’s handling of the nuclear negotiations after President [Hassan] Rouhani’s election was the transfer of the nuclear file from the Supreme National Security Council to the Foreign Ministry. And mindful of the AEOI’s [Atomic Energy Organization of Iran] extensive role in the implementation of Iran’s commitments under the JCPOA, which Iranian government body is in charge of the implementation of the nuclear agreement?

Zarif:  Well, it’s an interagency process. The Foreign Ministry was responsible to lead the negotiations, but we always benefitted both from the expertise as well as from the actual political participation of our Atomic Energy Organization, particularly toward the last episodes of the negotiations. We had with the head of the agency, Dr. [Ali Akbar] Salehi, engaging his American counterpart, [Secretary of Energy Ernest] Moniz, in the negotiations, which proved to be extremely useful.

And now it is an interagency exercise in Iran with a body under the National Security Council that basically exercises oversight on the implementation of the JCPOA. So it’s a complicated process, but it is mostly because Iran’s actions to implement its side of the bargain will be verified by the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]. It is important for us to make sure that the United States and Europe, particularly the United States, remain in compliance with their part of the obligations under the treaty. And that is why that oversight body exists in Iran to, to make sure that the United States is in compliance.

Al-Monitor:  Turning directions a little bit, talking about Russia. Russia has surfaced as a strategic partner of Iran in the region. Mindful that your country’s current trade volume with Turkey is 10 times that of your trade with Russia, Iran has an obvious interest in maintaining good relations with both Ankara and Moscow. What, if any, steps are being taken by Iran to reduce tensions between Russia and Turkey?

Zarif:  Well, we have tried to exercise restraint when it comes to statements that have been made. And we have tried to talk to our Turkish friends about statements that they are making about Iraq. We believe that the focus of attention has to be on fighting Daesh [IS] and terrorist organizations in Syria and in Iraq, rather than on attempts to divert attention from the actual problem, and that is extremism and terrorism in the region.

So we certainly hope that the development in our region, both in the relations between Turkey and Russia, as well as in the relations between Turkey and Iraq, are contained. And we do not see further exacerbation of tension. Because any tension between regional players plays directly in the hands of Daesh [IS].

Al-Monitor:  And one final question. There is a report in Al-Hayat about Jordan having submitted a list of 167 terrorist groups in Syria. According to this report, the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] and Hezbollah are on this list. Have you heard of this report?

Zarif:  Well, Jordan had the responsibility of coordinating. So it compiled a list of various organizations that had been claimed by one or several countries to be considered as terrorist organizations. One or two actually tried to use this as a political ploy to score, in my view, rather childish political scores. And while there is unanimity on a number of organizations, like Daesh [IS] and [Jabhat al-] Nusra, and a very large majority, including certain organizations like Ahrar al-Sham, which were unfortunately invited to the meeting in Saudi Arabia as terrorist organizations.

There were one or two that just put certain names in there, and that list has been officially withdrawn now. So there is no list with organizations or entities that are actually in Syria under request of the Syrian government fighting Daesh [IS] and terrorist groups that is around.

It is a very sad situation where people, instead of focusing their attention on known terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda, Daesh [IS] and Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam — organizations that everybody considers to be extremist terrorist organizations — are trying to use them as leverage or play games or try to bargain. I mean, as if they are announcing that these guys are all allies.

And we want to use every possible avenue in order to keep them alive. That sends a very bad signal, but I think it is being addressed. There are no such lists. If anybody is reporting that a list exists, I could say categorically. And if anybody kept any record of the meeting, the record of the meeting indicates that any possibilities have now been officially withdrawn.

Read More: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/12/iran-syria-zarif-.html

Laura Rozen
Back Channel 

Laura Rozen is Al-Monitor's diplomatic correspondent based in Washington, DC. She has written for Yahoo! News, Politico and Foreign Policy. On Twitter: @LRozen

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