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Iran ‘ready to provide answers’ on nuclear probes, FM says 

In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian discusses the nuclear talks, the prospects for a prisoner exchange and the protests following the death of Mahsa Amini.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian listens during a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart at the foreign ministry headquarters in Iran's capital Tehran on June 23, 2022.

NEW YORK — Iran’s foreign minister said that his country is ready to work with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to resolve questions about uranium found at three undeclared sites, as long as the agency addresses these questions “technically,” rather than politically.

“The agency has questions about three alleged sites that they say they have found uranium, and we are ready to provide answers to those questions,” said Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor on Sunday evening. 

The IAEA has accused Iran of stonewalling. The United Nations' atomic watchdog said in May that the Iranians hadn’t provided “technically credible” explanations for the uranium, and in June, the agency censured Iran over its failure to cooperate. The Islamic Republic responded by disconnecting some of the IAEA cameras monitoring its nuclear sites. 

Once there is agreement on a return to the nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran will be ready to grant access to the IAEA “beyond safeguards,” Amir-Abdollahian said.

As a condition of its reentry into the nuclear pact, Iran has insisted the IAEA shut down its inquiry. The Biden administration says it won’t pressure the IAEA to do so, and has called on Iran to answer the agency's questions.

“These apparent baseless allegations against Iran, that have been put on the agenda of the agency [IAEA] need to be removed first,” he said. “But we believe and accept that to do so, there has to be some technical work to be done.”

“At the same time, the agency needs to behave and act technically,” rather than politically, Amir-Abdollahian added.

He referred to a similar process in 2015, when the IAEA ended its probe into the past military dimensions (PMD) of Iran's nuclear program with a resolution that allowed the JCPOA to proceed. As in 2015, he said, “there needs to be the political will to close the case of these allegations.”

Asked why Iran is not addressing the outstanding issues in the JCPOA via direct talks with the United States, Amir-Abdollahian said the Americans did relay a message in New York last week: “Let's talk directly.”

“We are not afraid of having face-to-face talks with the United States, but we should feel that it is going to be a game changer, that there is going to be some kind of gain for us.” 

“If the Americans are serious, and they are willing to show their willingness and desire to get back to the JCPOA, these [indirect] messages will suffice."

Asked whether in the absence of direct talks, Iran would support a new round of EU-facilitated indirect negotiations, Amir-Abdollahian did not necessarily see a need to do so, saying that Iran’s position in the recent rounds has been to make the agreement more transparent and less ambiguous.

“But if the American side feels that there needs to be another round of talks done by the coordinators, I mean, [EU foreign policy chief] Josep Borrell and the EU, then we are not going to reject that.”

On economic guarantees, Amir-Abdollahian said there had been “some progress” made in recent weeks as a result of messages exchanged with the Americans.

“We really want this to happen,” the foreign minister said, referring to a return to the JCPOA and the economic benefits that would flow from the lifting of sanctions.

In response to a question about whether a shift in Iran’s regional policy might also be a form of guarantee for Iran, Amir-Abdollahian said that while the current negotiations over guarantees are about assurances of economic gains for Iranians from the lifting of sanctions, and not regional issues, “we welcome new initiatives in line with ensuring or contributing to peace and security in the region, especially those by the United Nations,” noting his regular conversations with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

“We have always been supportive of the security and stability of the region,” he said. “And we have been supportive of the process of government building in Iraq. It was us who encouraged all the parties and groups in Yemen, to agree to the ceasefire that we follow.”

Asked about the status of a possible exchange of prisoners, Amir-Abdollahian said Iran is “absolutely ready.” 

“I'm optimistic,” he said. “I think it can happen, to take positive steps with regards to the exchange of detainees or the prisoners. But it's up to the Americans.”

Regarding the prospects for improvements in Iran-Saudi ties following five rounds of talks hosted in Iraq, Amir-Abdollahian said “We do welcome the idea of diplomatic ties getting back to normal,” noting that some agreements have yet to be implemented.

Amir-Abdollahian said he had good discussions this week with his Iraqi counterpart, Fuad Hussein, on “next steps so that [Iran-Saudi] diplomatic relations are restored. We welcome the idea of the reopening of our embassies.” 

Asked about whether Iran would undertake reforms, such as loosening hijab restrictions or disbanding the morality police in response to the anti-government protests following the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, Amir-Abdollahian said, “I'm telling you there is full democracy in Iran, you will have to see it for yourself.”

Amir-Abdollahian said  “we are all saddened” by Amini’s death and “all the branches of power in Iran are at work to see what happened.” 

Over the past week, videos have reportedly shown Iranian police opening fire on anti-government protesters. He said that some of the images of violence against demonstrators have been “fabricated” and that “those people were not all killed by the security forces.” 

He added, “you have to respond to riots in a powerful, mighty way.”

A transcript of the interview, lightly edited for clarity, follows:

Al-Monitor: The IAEA safeguards investigation seems to be a key sticking point to unsticking the JCPOA. Is not the answer an agreement to engage the IAEA on a separate track? This happened in 2015 when an inquiry into past military dimensions (PMD) of Iran's nuclear program resulted in a separate IAEA resolution and path to allow the implementation of the JCPOA to proceed.  

Amir-Abdollahian: We have no problem with cooperating or interacting with the agency. And you know that our cooperation is still going on, especially when it comes to the safeguards. The agency’s cameras are there, and they are monitoring us. You know what we have done? We have taken those cameras that were installed voluntarily off. We have turned them off, actually. And those are the ones that we installed voluntarily. And it has nothing to do with other safeguards surveillance that is being conducted on us. And that was retaliation for the resolution that was issued against us about four months ago at the agency. I think it was something wrong that was done by the Americans and the three European countries. We were in the midst of negotiating and all of a sudden they tabled a resolution against Iran. We will definitely continue our cooperation with the agency. The agency has questions about three alleged sites that they say have found uranium, and we are ready to provide answers to those questions.  

But we strongly believe at the same time that the agency needs to behave and act technically. The problem we have with the agency is the fact that they act politically. So if the agency chooses to, instead, concentrate on only the technical issues, then we will definitely try to strengthen and add to our cooperation.  

In the year 2015, something happened. There was a political will, and there was a political decision that was made at the time. It was between Iran and the three European countries and the United States, and it helped the JCPOA to be finalized. On the one hand, we were going to, and we are willing and eager, to cooperate with the agency to provide answers to those allegations and the claims. And on the other hand, we want a similar political will, that I've told you was there in the year 2015, to be there also this time.  

You might know that all our activities, nuclear activities, constitute about 2% of global nuclear activities, which are all within the peaceful framework. But what about the surveillance that is conducted on us? Thirty-seven percent of all IAEA surveillance and monitoring. This means that after all parties return to the JCPOA, it means that once again, we have to grant all access to the agency. And by that I mean, access that goes beyond safeguards.  

This is quite natural that these current, baseless allegations against Iran that have been put on the agenda of the agency need to be removed first. But believe and accept that in order to do so, there has to be some technical work. But parallel to that, just like in the year 2015, there needs to be a political will to close the case of these allegations. 

Al-Monitor: So just to be clear, you are saying you are ready now to engage technically with the IAEA to resolve this issue? 

Amir-Abdollahian: Sure. 

Al-Monitor: I want to ask about guarantees, but I'm going to ask it a different way. Your country has expressed concerns about guarantees that the election of a Republican president in 2024, or even the sunset of the JCPOA in 2025, could lead to the US reimposing sanctions, even if Iran complies with the deal, as you have said with your concerns of what happened in 2018. So time is very short.  

Perhaps another way of looking at guarantees is if Iran engages with the United States and regional partners on a number of issues — Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria — where there seems to be common interests and assuring stability and progress. Wouldn’t this change be noted in the region by US partners, and serve as a sign of goodwill, and also as a kind of guarantee? 

Amir-Abdollahian: When we talk about guarantees, we are actually referring to the experience that we gained in the past. You know, Trump's decision to withdraw from the deal was something in violation of international rules and regulations. What we're facing is that the Americans are telling us they cannot guarantee for the next administration in office in the United States. 

But you know, again, this is contrary to the international norms and conventions. When something is signed amongst the various parties, it means that it is not just between governments or administrations. It is done, it is conducted amongst the ruling systems in those countries. My colleagues have been involved in negotiations for months in Vienna. I am also in touch and in constant contact with a lot of people on how to get back to the JCPOA. And whenever we talk about guarantees, the Americans are telling us that at most, or the maximum guarantee, that we can give you is going to be by the end of Biden's administration. 

So what kind of message does it send to those companies, people who are going to make investments in Iran once the JCPOA is back in action? It gives this message to them and this impression to them that you don’t have much time to make investments in Iran. 

During the Munich security conference that I attended some time ago, I had a meeting with some of the managers and CEOs of major European companies. Also in Munich, my deputy for economic affairs was there. And he had this very big event, and it was participated by a lot of major Western companies, mostly in Europe. We were told by all of them that if the terms and conditions are going to be short-lived, then we will be unable to make good investments in Iran. 

But let me tell you that in the past weeks, and as the result of the messages exchanged between us and the Americans, there has been some progress on this, on the guarantees and the duration of the agreements, but we are still far from the ideal point. 

Al-Monitor: What about the regional policies? I mean, wouldn't that also signal if Iran is engaging as a sign of goodwill? 

Amir-Abdollahian: You know, first of all, we have always been on the positive side of the developments in the region. Just pay attention to what happens in the case of the fight against terrorism. What we were doing on our side, and what was the US doing on its side?  

You know, in those electoral campaigns, presidential campaigns, one of the candidates told the other that it was us who created ISIS. But it was us who fought ISIS (Daesh) both in Iraq and Syria. If they could manage to take over those two countries, now the region would look different. And if they came to power in our region, then none of the subway stations in Europe or even in the United States would be safe. Therefore, we have always been supportive of the security and stability of the region, and [of] those countries that you named. 

And we have always encouraged the countries of the region to cooperate with each other through dialogue. And also we have been supportive of the process of government building in Iraq. It was us who encouraged all the parties and groups in Yemen to agree to the ceasefire. And in Afghanistan, the US policy was wrong. Today as we speak, there are five million Afghan refugees living in Iran, and this is the result of the erroneous policies of the United States. Incomprehensible, some of the policies of the United States in my region. One day they said that they wanted to topple the Taliban regime, and under this pretext they occupied Afghanistan. And after 20 years, they hold talks with them in Doha and they leave Afghanistan behind back into the hands of the Taliban, and now they are there as just one ruling party as Pashtuns. You know, what the Taliban people are telling us is that we expelled the Americans from Afghanistan. But I told them that it was you who sat down with the Americans in Doha and reached an agreement with them.  

In short, I'm telling you that we have always been on the positive side. Of course, we always welcome new initiatives in line with ensuring or contributing to peace and security in the region, especially those by the United Nations. I hold regular consultations and telephone calls with His Excellency Antonio Guterres of the United Nations, once a month or once [every] 40 days.  

But now, what we mean by the guarantees has nothing to do with the regional issues. We had negotiations in the year 2015, we had the JCPOA. And we had one specific objective. We wanted the sanctions to be gone, to be lifted. So that the people of Iran would benefit from the economic gains of the deal. So when we say guarantee, it means that we want guarantees that when we get back to the JCPOA, our economic gains would be felt by the people, would be concrete.  

And of course, a lot of messages have been exchanged between us and the Americans and are still being exchanged. I think the American side now understands very well our positions and our rationale. But I have the feeling that for different reasons, the United States has not come to the point where it is ready to be brave enough to make that decision. 

Al-Monitor: On this point, why not deal directly with the United States to settle these final points? Is not the issue of indirect talks getting a little exhausting? Why is Iran afraid of face-to-face talks with the Americans? 

Amir-Abdollahian: We are not afraid of having face to face talks with the United States. But we should feel that it is going to be a game changer. That there is going to be some kind of gain for us, some kind of benefit for us in those talks. Suppose that something big is going to happen as a result of such talks. There is a clear path and horizon. We have made sure that if we have such a such kind of direct talk, there is going to be a big benefit for us and for our people at the end of the talks. As a result of these talks, the best case scenario is that only the secondary sanctions will be lifted. The primary ones are going to be there. I mean, if everything is rosy and the JCPOA works fine, you know… I think if the Americans are serious, and they are willing to show their willingness and desire to get back to the JCPOA, these messages will suffice. Their oral messages, some of them are in written format… so that's enough.  

Even here on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, we received a message from the Americans: “Let's talk directly.” You know, all the sensitivities and all the things that we have seen from the United States in the last 40 years… considering all those, you have to give us [the] right to expect something big coming from such talks that we are not seeing.. This is right now what is happening, we are receiving messages from the United States.  

But because of something which happened in Iran recently. A girl died and we are all saddened by it. My president talked to the father of the girl. All the branches of power in Iran are at work to see what happened to the girl, to unveil the truth: the judiciary, the government, the parliament. But the pure sentiments of the people of Iran are being used. And let's not forget that the United States imposed fresh sanctions against Iran in the past month. But now they say that they're going to lift sanctions on the things that have to do with communications and internet. Why? Because they want to interfere in our internal affairs. Several years ago, the same mistake was made by Mr. Obama. Mr. Obama wrote a letter addressed to the highest ranking official in my country. He talked about friendship. He talked about dialogue and talks. But something happened in the streets of Tehran, and he immediately had a speech and interfered in our affairs. He spoke of regime change in Iran. Right now, we have the feeling that some of the US officials and the media are provoking the people of Iran into unrest. And you know that much worse cases and incidents have happened in the United States, tens of them. Also in other Western countries. And many of them are not even investigated. Therefore, in order to have any kind of talk with the United States, we have to see a kind of benefit in it. 

Al-Monitor: Let me stay on the incident you're talking about. As we came in today, more than 50 people have been killed by security forces [and] police forces taking part in anti-government protests, responding to Mahsa Amini’s death in custody. There are now reports that your government is restricting access to the internet. Less important I think than how the US reacts to what's happening in Iran is how Iranians are reacting. Isn't it perhaps a choice for your government to realize that people are saying enough is enough, and to loosen hijab restrictions and morality enforcement, and maybe even shut down the morality police?  

Amir-Abdollahian: My suggestion to you is to visit Iran to see what's going on in the streets of Tehran: freedom of expression, people's freedom for doing what they want to do, and also the hijab. The hijab is, you know, they are observing it the way they like it. But of course there is this overall framework. I'm sure you're going to get the answers to your questions automatically. Any kind of explanation I'm trying to give you here is not going to be enough for you because you're so much under the influence and affected by some fabrications in social media. You're not going to buy it fully. But I'm telling you there is full democracy in Iran. You have to see it for yourself.  

What happened in the United States when they tried to seize the Congress? You tried to get control of the social media. Your president’s access to Twitter. What happened to it? Why did you do that? For the for the security of the country. It is the natural right of all the people in the world to have peaceful protests. But killing and setting places on fire, violence, this is something that no government would support. So whatever question you ask me, I'm going to ask it like this: Why did they in the United States [do] it like this, and it was worse than what we did?  

Let me correct you. Those people were not all killed by the security forces. A lot of them were killed by the rioters. Organized. Like MKO [Mujahedin-e-Khalq Organization] terrorist group. Members of whom are freely living in the United States and Europe.  

Al-Monitor: You will agree though, I think for those of us outside who are watching these pictures, that the beating of women is troubling? 

Amir-Abdollahian: Some of these pictures are fabricated. You have to know that they are reacting to the rioters. Are you going to be sitting here in a very relaxed mood if somebody comes in and tries to set it on fire? You have to confront it. You have to respond to riots in a powerful, mighty way. But now I can tell you that the situation is completely under control. What happened on the first day of the protests, that was the people's emotions and sentiments. No car, vehicle was torched. There was no plundering. No bank was damaged. But now the all those satellite channels and those ones, those networks and Internet channels, they are encouraging people to come to the streets, to do riots and to change the regime. So they're all responsive by the United States, some of them by European countries, and some of them by a certain country in our region. Because of their interference, the various dimensions of this incident have become larger and become wider spread in the public opinion. 

Al-Monitor: Let me come back to the Iran deal. In the absence of direct talks, are you going to support another indirect route? 

Amir-Abdollahian: We have already conveyed our final proposals to the other side. And in those proposals, we have not tried to modify or change in any way the contents of the negotiations, and we have not disturbed the equilibrium in the text. We just tried to make it look stronger only on the three remaining issues. The differences that we have with the Americans’ version are these.  

First of all, the basis for both versions are the texts proposed by Mr. Josep Borrell. So it was handed to both sides by Mr. Borrell. The American side for about 10 days examined the text, and tried to make the text rather ambiguous. You know, it was prone to a lot of interpretations. You could interpret it in different ways. On the other side, we have been trying to make it transparent and to make it change in a way that no other interpretations can be drawn from it. So on those three or four outstanding issues, we have given a version of the text that is crystal clear, very transparent. I think if the American side reads it carefully, and if it has real intention to get back to the deal, then it will be okay with it. Because the path is laid out very clearly. But if the American side feels that there needs to be another round of talks done by the coordinators, I mean, Josep Borrell and the EU, then we are not going to reject that. Or we can continue doing what we have been doing, messages and then coming to an understanding. You see, we really want this to happen. We are very serious about this. That's why we have been talking to get the deal. And the American side is of course talking about it, and says that it has goodwill. And whenever there were statements during the negotiations, we tried to come up with our own initiatives to save the deal, to keep the negotiations going.  

You know the American and European negotiators use two phrases during the talks. When there is a thorny issue or a problem that can be solved in a very simple way, and we say okay, let's let's go solve it because we can do it. It is very simple. You can do it easily. They say no, it's like a package. Everything should be looked at as a package. I mean they make things complicated, tie them all together, like your question. We want to get back to JCPOA because we want to get economic gains. You ask me, don't you think that a guarantee can be found in Lebanon, Syria, [and] Iraq? These two are separate from each other.  

And the second thing is, they said they keep saying this: this is all we could give. They prolonged talks for another three months. This is what they could do, the same thing three months ago, when they said that is all we can do, we can give. When we are faced with this kind of behavior, we keep asking ourselves, are they really after a deal? Do they really want the deal? And in the midst of talks, we keep hearing from them that the US is facing domestic issues, there's going to be some kind of election. We have our own domestic problems. I am summoned to my parliament almost every week, and there are these angry parliamentarians. I have to appear before them and speak to them and try to make them happy about the talks. The columnists are writing against us. I think we are facing an equally difficult situation, if not more difficult. But logically and bravely, we have been appearing at the negotiating table and never left it. But I can tell you also that we are receiving a lot of messages from the United States telling us that they have goodwill to reach the deal. We hope that they will... We will also see this in practice. We are serious, I guarantee you, to reach a strong and lasting deal.  

Al-Monitor: On the possibility of a prisoner exchange involving dual citizens Emad Shargi, Morad Tahbaz and Baquer and Siamak Namazi, where do those talks stand? And do you see an agreement without a JCPOA? Is that possible? 

Amir-Abdollahian: We see no linkage, no connection between this humanitarian issue that is a prisoners issue and JCPOA. So we are absolutely ready for this prisoner exchange because we believe it's a humanitarian thing. We have said this also to the Americans. 

Al-Monitor: What are you waiting for then? What’s the hold up? 

Amir-Abdollahian: You have to blame your side, you know. They are very slow in responding to that. I don't know what kind of problems they are having. Whenever they say they are ready … once they say it and we are ready, we can do it. But I'm optimistic. I think it can happen to take positive steps with regards to the exchange of detainees or the prisoners. But it's up to the Americans. We have to see if they are really going to be cooperative or not. Without having any kind of relationship with JCPOA, we are ready. This is totally a humanitarian issue.  

Al-Monitor: Why not, if it's a humanitarian issue, let Baquer Namazi out of the country to seek [medical] treatment?   

Amir-Abdollahian: He is receiving all the facilities with VIP services. He has VIP medical services given to him. There has been consular access. Family members are there constantly and regularly meeting with him. I think he can easily be exchanged. Of course, this is in the hands of our judiciary people. But I'm optimistic. 

Al-Monitor: Mr. Minister, I know time is short. There have been five rounds of meetings between Iranian and Saudi representatives in Iraq. Prime Minister Kadhimi who Al-Monitor interviewed this week told us that he is hopeful of another round soon. When can we expect the next round of talks? And when do you see the possibility of the timing of your meeting with the Saudi foreign minister or a renewal of relations between the two countries? Some people thought there may have been a meeting during the UN General Assembly, back a few weeks ago. 

Amir-Abdollahian: As you rightly mentioned, there have been five rounds of talks between us and the Saudis in Baghdad. Some agreements have been achieved. Some have been implemented. Some remain unimplemented. We do welcome the idea of diplomatic ties and getting back to normal. In the very same room, I had a meeting with the Iraqi foreign minister yesterday. We had good discussions with each other on what are the next steps so that diplomatic relations are restored. And we all do also welcome the idea of the reopening of our embassies. We have always kept the window of diplomacy between us and the return of both sides to diplomatic relations open.  

Al-Monitor: Is Iran selling drones to Russia for use in Ukraine?  

Amir-Abdollahian: We have an agreement to have defense cooperation with Russia. But we are not supporting either side in the Ukrainian war that will result in the continuation of the war. We are strongly opposed to any kind of war, whether it is in Ukraine or in Yemen, or in Palestine. And we have also been involved in endeavors to bring about peace and ceasefire in Ukraine. We believe it is wrong for any party to send arms to either Ukraine or Russia. And we’re going to keep helping the political dialogue and the resolution of this crisis through political talks. Thank you so much.  

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