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Zarif: US 'obsession' with Iran is backfiring everywhere

In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif discussed several topics from this week's UN General Assembly session.
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif leaves the EU council headquarters in Brussels, Belgium May 15, 2018.  REUTERS/Yves Herman - RC1AA84B0120

NEW YORK - The Donald Trump administration's “obsession” with Iran is backfiring throughout the region, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told Al-Monitor in an exclusive interview Friday evening.

Zarif's comments come on the tail end of a UN General Assembly meeting that saw the US take heat from allies and foes alike for its withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran's top diplomat took solace from the European Union's push this week to salvage the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and said that US efforts to push Iran out of Iraq would similarly run into trouble.

“I think US policy direction in the entire region, which is so focused on their obsession with Iran, has backfired in Lebanon, backfired in Syria, backfired in Iraq,” Zarif said. “It will backfire elsewhere.”

Zarif expressed confidence that a new proposed financial mechanism announced by EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini last week could help Iran weather some of fallout from US sanctions.

“It will not be fully satisfactory, but it can provide many good benefits to Iran,” Zarif said. “But we'll have to wait and see.”

He also said that the US had undermined its efforts to work with its allies to address Iran's ballistic missile program.

“The fact that the United States withdrew from the JCPOA undermines the viability of any new arrangement,” Zarif said, “because there is no guarantee that it would be implemented.”

On Iraq, Zarif said that Iran and the United States appeared to be working at cross-purposes despite the shared threat from terrorism.

“Our interests are Iraqi stability,” he said. Zarif added, “I think [US] priorities are very different. Their priorities are to fight Iran … and that policy is doomed to fail.”

Asked if he had made any efforts to resume contact with US officials since the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal in May, he answered simply, “Why should I?”

The full text of the interview, conducted by Al-Monitor’s executive editor, follows:


AL-MONITOR:  With additional sanctions scheduled to go into effect in early November, what is Iran planning to do about the impending decline in oil exports and related revenues? 

ZARIF:  Well, the most important thing is the financial arrangements, and we are working with Europe for financial arrangements, and the Europeans are working on a system that would enable us to be able to receive proceeds for our exports. We have various schemes with our customers. Of course, US pressure on them is huge, but I believe the US will fail in its declared policy of bringing our oil exports to zero. 

AL-MONITOR:  What alternatives are in place?

ZARIF:  Well, we depend only — nearly 30% of our budget on oil, so we have other means. But this would be an important impact on our economy, and the impact is already felt because the results of the sanctions have preceded the effective date of the sanctions. But while these sanctions have an economic impact, they always fail to achieve their political point. They usually do the opposite politically.

AL-MONITOR:  Russia and Turkey appear to have taken the lead on Idlib, given that little happened at the recent Tehran summit. Then there was a breakthrough between [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan in Turkey. Yesterday [Sept. 27] you met with your Russian and Turkish counterparts here in New York. What is Iran’s role, if any, in Idlib? 

ZARIF:  Well, we always wanted to avoid bloodshed in Idlib. That is why I went to Ankara and then to Damascus before the Tehran summit, and we had serious discussions about how to avoid a military confrontation in Idlib. And we reached some sort of preliminary agreements. The major difference in view was between Russia and Turkey on how to do it, and once those differences were resolved, we had the plan. We immediately supported [it], and now the three of us are working together to implement [it]. So, we are right there in exercising our policy that was to avoid a military confrontation in Idlib.

We are facing challenges, all three of us, in terms of how to achieve the agreement, how to implement it on the ground, particularly considering the fact that that particular area is heavily controlled by Al Nusra, and we need to find a way of moving them out of that region.

AL-MONITOR:  Do Iran’s interests in Syria differ from those of Turkey and Russia?

ZARIF:  Well, I think all countries have their own interests. Our interest is to fight extremism and terrorism, and I think Russia and Turkey share that interest. But no two countries have identical interests, and I don't think either Iran, Turkey, or Russia have identical interests in Syria. What is important is for players to find commonality of interests, and I think we have been able to specify those common areas of interests: maintaining Syria's territorial integrity, preventing Syria from breaking down, preventing ethnic divisions in Syria. And fighting extremism and terrorism are at least areas where we can agree in Syria, and that has provided us with the necessary common denominator in order to take an active role in Syria together.

AL-MONITOR:  It was announced earlier today that Germany, Russia, France and Turkey will meet in October to discuss Idlib. Iran has been quite involved in the discussions surrounding Syria and Idlib, why isn’t Iran participating in this next meeting?

ZARIF:  Well, this was something that came up during a meeting of NATO, if I'm not mistaken, the agreement between Germany and Turkey to have this meeting. They keep us informed about the discussions. We don't insist we —

AL-MONITOR:  But even Russia will be participating.

ZARIF:  Yeah. It involves something else, and then it created — added — Idlib was added.

AL-MONITOR:  Recently, reports emerged that over 100 Iranian soldiers have been killed in Israel’s 200+ airstrikes in Syria. Iranian national security adviser Ali Shamkhani this week warned that Israel will face a response for targeting forces in Syria “fighting terrorism.” Why hasn’t Iran responded?

ZARIF:  Well, Iran is in Syria to fight terrorism and extremism and help stabilize the situation.  That we are not there to fight others, but we've said all the time that we defend ourselves. And we believe that people should avoid provoking.

I mean, the reason for our being in Syria is not to engage with others other than terrorists.

AL-MONITOR:  Would Iran consider an arrangement in Syria where Hezbollah might leave if it was part of a broader agreement to withdraw all foreign fighters in Syria?

ZARIF:  I mean, that depends on the government of Syria. I think there are a lot of forces in Syria that have not been invited to be there. So, since we went to Syria on invitation, we will leave when the invitation expires.

AL-MONITOR:  The slow government formation in Iraq appears to be coming to fruition. There is increasing talk of Adel Abdul Mahdi becoming PM, while the Speaker is another partner of Iran’s allies. This is spurring contentions that Iran is elbowing out the US in Iraq. What is your reaction to such assessments?

ZARIF:  Well, at the end of the day, the choice is that of Iraqis to make. The United States tries to exclude Iran, and that policy is doomed to failure. Iraq is a sovereign state, as it has sovereign institutions, and we should allow those sovereign institutions to reach consensus among themselves or reach compromise among themselves without interference from outside.

I think US policy direction in the entire region, which is so focused on their obsession with Iran, has backfired in Lebanon, backfired in Syria, backfired in Iraq. It will backfire elsewhere.

AL-MONITOR:  Do you believe the US and Iran share common interests in Iraq?

ZARIF:  Well, we know what our interests are. I don't know what the US interests are. Our interests are Iraqi stability. If the US has that interest in mind, then obviously that's common, but I think the US has other interests.

AL-MONITOR:  What do you think those interests are?

ZARIF:  I think their priorities are very different. Their priorities are to fight Iran. That's what they said, and that policy is doomed to fail.

AL-MONITOR:  Recently, both the US Embassy and Iranian Foreign Ministry denied rumors that [US] special envoy Brett McGurk and [Iranian] General Qasem Soleimani met in person. Iran and Turkey have been able to compartmentalize their engagement. Is Iran doing the same with the US on Iraq, particularly given their possible shared interests?

ZARIF:  Well, I didn't get the first part. Neither Iran nor the US have accepted any meeting taking place between McGurk and —

AL-MONITOR:  Yes, it has been denied.

ZARIF:  It has been denied because it didn't take place. We coordinate with the Iraqi government, and the Iraqi government is free to coordinate with its other partners in Iraq. But our activities in Iraq during our combatting the terrorists was always coordinated with the government, and that proved to be an effective mechanism. 

Again, the problem is intention, whether the United States’ intention is to help stabilize Iraq or try to undermine Iran in Iraq. These two policies will lead to totally different outcomes.

AL-MONITOR:  Since there does not appear to be a meeting between President [Hassan] Rouhani and President Trump in the near future, I wanted to ask you about your willingness to meet with your American counterparts. You have long worked with US officials, including newly appointed special envoy for Afghanistan Ambasssador Zalmay Khalilzad. There is clearly an urgent need for dialogue between the US and Iran, particularly on issues of regional security. What have your interactions been with US officials? 

ZARIF:  We have had no interaction with US officials since the US decided to leave JCPOA. Before the US left JCPOA, we had the occasion in the Joint Commission to meet, both in the framework of the Joint Commission as well as on the sidelines of the Joint Commission. That was a useful avenue of communication, but the US tried to walk out.

AL-MONITOR:  What steps have been taken to try and reopen a direct dialogue?

ZARIF:  I guess once you break it, you have to take steps.

AL-MONITOR:  Have you done anything to reconnect with your American counterparts?

ZARIF:  Why should I?

AL-MONITOR:  Turning to Yemen, both Saudi Foreign Minister [Adel] al-Jubeir and Emirati Foreign Minister [Anwar] Gargash said this week that they are fully behind the UN process on Yemen. Does Iran support this process?  

ZARIF:  Well, we support any process that leads to an end to bloodshed and bombings in Yemen, but first, the Saudis and the Emiratis need to get their own act together to see whether they want to divide Yemen or whether they agree with the rest of the world on the need to maintain the territorial integrity of Yemen.

And, second, if they're interested in talks between the Yemenis, they should allow the Yemeni delegation to leave Sanaa and to be able to have a guarantee for return to Sanaa, because they do not want to leave Sanaa without the possibility of returning. And since the Saudis and the Houthis control Yemeni airspace, they need to provide that assurance. And they haven't.

AL-MONITOR:  Is Iran supportive of the UN process in specific, or would you look for a different approach?

ZARIF:  Well, the UN process is fine as long as all participants are allowed to actually engage in the process.

AL-MONITOR:  Speaking of participants engaging, why haven't the Houthis engaged in the process?

ZARIF:  Because they were not allowed to. They were not given the assurance to return to Yemen, so they could not leave Yemen. But I heard that [UN special envoy Martin] Griffiths has said that he will continue to conduct negotiations in Sanaa to be able to continue the process, and I think that would be fine.

AL-MONITOR:  Is the current P4+1 arrangement willing to accommodate a US reentry into the JCPOA? For example, is there a cutoff date for when they would be welcome back in your mind? I believe your deputy [for political affairs], Abbas Araghchi, hinted that Iran might set preconditions for the US to reenter.

ZARIF:  Well, obviously, we need — I mean, you're supposed to be a member in good faith, and the US has shown that it doesn't have that good faith. If it wants to come back, it has to establish that good faith, which is very much lacking.

AL-MONITOR:  So no timetable? It's just a willingness to be a good, faithful participant?

ZARIF:  Well, I mean, they have to show that — if they decide to come back. I mean, it's not a revolving door that you come in and leave as you wish whenever it's convenient. The US has harmed JCPOA in a huge way and if we want to accept the US joining the JCPOA, rejoining the JCPOA, we have to make sure that they will not harm it again.

AL-MONITOR:  Earlier this week, France, Germany, the UK, Russia and China and yourself unveiled plans for a mechanism to facilitate trade with Iran. While it may facilitate financial transactions in the longer term, it appears that it faces the same fundamental issue of the JCPOA itself — namely that no government-to-government arrangement is viable as long as the market refuses to participate. Mindful of this, do you believe this new mechanism on its own goes far enough to be able to deliver meaningful benefits to Iran?

ZARIF:  We will have to wait and see. It can. It will not be fully satisfactory, but it can provide many good benefits to Iran. But we will have to wait and see. I mean, you can't — you can't prejudge that.

AL-MONITOR:  What's being done to induce participation in this program?

ZARIF:  Well, the Europeans are very active in talking to each other. Seven countries have already participated. Others are interested. Non-European countries are interested in taking advantage of this mechanism for their own transactions with Iran. So, we will have to see. It first needs to be operationalized and then see how it works.

AL-MONITOR:  Has the US withdrawal from the JCPOA impacted the prospects of further engagement with Europe on regional issues and Iran's missile program?

ZARIF:  Well, we have always discussed with Europe these issues, and we have our differences, but that hasn't prevented us from discussing it, since the 1990s. And we'll continue to discuss it.

But the fact that the United States withdrew from the JCPOA undermines the viability of any new arrangement, because there is no guarantee that it would be implemented.  

So, I think what the US — the behavior that the US is exhibiting in international relations — is undermining basically all sorts of norm-settings at the international level because it seems that those norms mean nothing to the United States. So, we will have to see whether there is a reassessment of this policy and its implications by the United States.

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