NEW YORK — Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking with Al-Monitor in New York, said that if President Donald Trump withholds the next round of Iran sanctions waivers due May 12, effectively exiting the nuclear deal, Tehran could resume its nuclear program “in a much more advanced way.”
While he did not confirm whether Iran would leave the deal in response, he stressed that an exit by Washington wouldn’t represent a major break from the past. Zarif said the policies Trump has pursued over the past 15 months have stunted the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action's (JCPOA) economic impact on Iran, and thus any decision Tehran makes would be “fully justified by the JCPOA.”
“The mere presence of the United States in the deal is not sufficient. The United States must be an active participant in the deal in good faith,” he said.
Zarif said efforts by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron to ramp up pressure on Tehran over its regional policies and missile program in exchange for Washington staying in the deal were “misguided.” Merkel and Macron are meeting with Trump at the White House this week, following rounds of US-EU negotiations aimed at preserving the accord.
As Trump prepares to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Zarif said that any similar high-level meeting between Tehran and Washington would “require respect, and once President Trump is prepared to exhibit some of that” such a meeting could occur.
The full text of the interview, conducted by Al-Monitor’s executive editor, is below:
Al-Monitor: We are less than three weeks away from May 12, when the Trump administration may walk away from the JCPOA and reimpose certain sanctions on Iran. If the US steps back from the JCPOA, will Iran do the same?
Zarif: The Trump administration was never in the JCPOA. They made sure over the last 15 months that Iran would not benefit from the economic dividends of the JCPOA, and so whatever they do in three weeks would not be a major break from the past. And the economic impact on Iran has been eased, basically, by the policies that they have pursued over the past 15 months. So that would give us the necessary justification to make a decision based on our own national interest whether to stay or not. If we decide to leave, it would be fully justified by the JCPOA itself in the view of the international community. It will further isolate the United States as a party that is not reliable — not just not predictable, but not reliable — the international community would recognize that Iran could not unilaterally and without the other side implement the deal. So I believe that would even reduce the negative economic implications for Iran.
At the same time, because of what we have been able to do within the JCPOA on research and development, we can resume the nuclear program in a much more advanced way, still for peaceful purposes, but in a much more advanced way. So that's one of the options that is open to Iran and probably the most serious one.
Al-Monitor: Chancellor Merkel and President Macron will be in Washington this coming week to meet with President Trump to discuss ramping up pressure on Iran over its regional policies and missile program in exchange for staying in the nuclear deal. How do you view this effort?
Zarif: I think that's a misguided policy. They should use the opportunity of meeting with President Trump to encourage him to live up to the United States’ commitments under the JCPOA rather than trying to appease him because by trying to appease him, he will take further steps in the wrong direction. I think if they have their own interests in mind and the European interest in mind, they should use the possibility to encourage him, not just to stay in the deal, but to implement his part of the bargain in good faith.
Al-Monitor: And how will Iran respond if this does proceed, if their efforts to persuade Trump on this are successful?
Zarif: We will decide based on our interests whether Iran can receive the economic benefits and whether the United States is prepared to stop what it's been doing for the past 15 [months] to perpetuate the atmosphere of uncertainty and to prevent economic partners from engaging in Iran. That's a policy that needs to stop, and we believe that President Macron and Chancellor Merkel need to convince President Trump that that is a policy that has made the deal not sustainable, and it has to stop.
The mere presence of the United States in the deal is not sufficient. The US must be an active participant in the deal in good faith, and it has not been, at least since President Trump entered the Oval Office.
Al-Monitor: There have been more protests in Iran. Many demonstrators have complained about economic hardship and unmet expectations from the nuclear deal. The Rouhani administration has also argued that a desire for more political freedom was also a factor. Is your government taking these demonstrations seriously? Do you consider the demands of these demonstrators as legitimate?
Zarif: Certainly people have legitimate concerns, and they have legitimate demands. And they have the right to air those demands without violence and without breaking the law, and that has been the persistent policy of the government to insist on the rights of people to make their views known. And that's what differentiates Iran from the rest of the region. We have an active polity. We have an active public opinion and an active public, which expresses their views through the ballot box mostly, but when they feel necessary through public expression such as demonstrations, as long as they're peaceful.
On the other hand, economic indicators in Iran have been very good — 8% growth from something in the neighborhood of minus 7%, 7 or 8% inflation from 45%. So, these are important achievements.
Job creation has been rather significant. I mean, the government has been able to produce in the last three or four years between 700 [thousand] to a million jobs a year. However, as you correctly pointed out, expectations of the people were different. People expected the international community to live up to its commitments under the JCPOA, and that would have meant more foreign investment, which would have meant even more jobs.
We're doing a good job creating a lot of new job opportunities, but people expected more, and it is important for us to have a more predictable future for the population. And a predictable future does not necessarily involve greater international investment. Iran has a lot of domestic capital. It is important to make sure that the capital that we have is invested inside the country, and that can only be achieved by removing the elements of uncertainty in a positive or a negative.
Al-Monitor: There's been discussion of creating an Arab military force in Syria that could replace US troops, and the Saudis have signaled that they are open to joining. What are your thoughts on this?
Zarif: I think what is necessary in Syria is we get out of these military strategies and military thinkings and get into the need for a political solution. I think people have never abandoned the illusion that they could replace the current government in Syria through military means, and I think this is the continuation of that illusion. The more they persist on this line of thinking, the more they achieve defeats and losses in Syria.
They could have accepted our offer five years ago when the Syrian government only controlled 35% of the territory and could have accepted to stop the illusion of a military victory and come to the negotiating table and seek a political solution based on the four-point plan that we offered almost five years ago this September. But they decided to wish for a military victory, and now the government controls 70% of the territory.
We still believe that the same political outcome is the most desired outcome. So people have to stop thinking about military strategy and to start thinking what is the political strategy to end this bloodshed and to end this nightmare in Syria, and to accept the realities and to work for a national unity government.
Al-Monitor: How long will Iranian forces stay in Syria? Under what conditions will they leave?
Zarif: We sent our advisers to Syria in order to be able to prevent the fall of Damascus into the hands of terrorists. We did exactly the same in Baghdad, and we did exactly the same in Erbil, where the similarities that they're making about the illusions of a Shiite whatever wouldn't apply in Erbil. But since Erbil is inconvenient for them, they just tend to neglect that reality and they cite alternative realities, alternative facts that support their mentality and analysis.
So we’re there in order to do something that is important for the international community, and that is to prevent extremists from winning, and whenever that's not necessary, we don't have any territorial ambitions on any country. The fact that Iran has not raised its flag in any place where we have our military advisers indicates to you that we don't have any territorial ambitions.
Al-Monitor: Would Iran support Hezbollah forces leaving Syria if other foreign fighters were also required to leave?
Zarif: We don't need to do that. If Hezbollah is not needed in Syria, they don't have any reason to stay. They have their own home to defend, and they have their own home to be at, and they have their own home to build. As they have said very publicly, they are — they have been forced to because of the national security, the security of Lebanon. Lebanon has been threatened by these extremists more than any other country, and they have been able to defeat those extremists, both in their border area as well as inside Lebanon. And I think anybody in their right mind, if they don't need to do that, they'll be at home.
Al-Monitor: There have been reports that Israel has targeted Iranian forces on the ground in Syria on multiple occasions. How would you characterize the potential for Iranian confrontation with Israel in Syria?
Zarif: I believe Israelis have been routinely violating Syrian territory, violating Syrian airspace, and they suffered losses recently because of that, because the Syrians resisted. And we believe the policy that's pursued by Israel will continue to attract resistance from Syria.
Al-Monitor: But regarding the Israeli attacks on Iranian forces, does Iran see a potential for a confrontation with Israel over this?
Zarif: I believe Israeli aggression has been resisted and will be resisted, and I think it will be best for everybody to advise for them to stop aggression against others.
Al-Monitor: How does Iran see the future of the Astana trio in light of Turkey's support for the US-led strikes on Syria and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's refusal to hand over Afrin to the Syrian government?
Zarif: The Astana process did not start with the illusion that we agreed on everything and will not end with the reality that we don't. So we have differences, but we have a shared objective, and that is we are concerned about the situation in Syria. We believe that we should de-escalate the conflict in Syria. That's why we continue to work, and we will be meeting again at different levels in order to make sure that this process would continue to bring greater — I mean less bloodshed and greater calm to the situation in Syria.
But we will have — we will maintain our differences. Some, you just mentioned, but there are other differences, obviously. If we did not have differences, we would not meet, to meet so many times in order to work out mechanisms that we could all agree upon.
Al-Monitor: Even before Friday’s announcement that North Korea would cease all nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles, President Trump had announced his plans to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Under what conditions, if any, would Iran consider a meeting with President Trump?
Zarif: I think any interaction, certainly with Iran, would require respect, and once President Trump is prepared to exhibit some of that.
Al-Monitor: Regarding Yemen, you have recently held a series of meetings with the Europeans regarding the conflict there. What can you tell us about these talks and any progress you've made?
Zarif: A few days after the beginning of the hostilities, I mean, the aerial campaign against the Yemeni people, we made a proposal publicly to have an immediate cease-fire, urgent humanitarian assistance, intra-Yemeni dialogue and an inclusive government in Yemen. That line of thinking is still what we're following with the Europeans, with the Russians, with anybody who is interested — with the special representative of the [UN] secretary-general. We will continue to call for all sides to stop fighting and to have an immediate cease-fire and to move to a dialogue. So that's the gist of our discussion with the Europeans.
Al-Monitor: Are the Saudis involved in the talks, directly or indirectly?
Zarif: Unfortunately, it seems to me that the Saudis — the same illusion that they had in Syria, that they could achieve a military victory — they have been entertaining the same illusion in Yemen, and that is why the conflict in Yemen has been prolonged. We were prepared to — I mean, we're not bombing anybody in Yemen. We're not engaged in Yemen, but we have some very limited influence that we can use in order to bring about a political dialogue in Yemen, and we have been always ready from day one, even before the hostilities erupted. Even from September 2013, we offered to Saudi Arabia our readiness to engage with them in order to help facilitate a dialogue between the Yemenis to avoid the type of disaster that we've been seeing in Yemen. Unfortunately, the Saudis at that time decided to decline our offer, and since then on every occasion that we have made this offer, they have opted for military confrontation. And unfortunately they haven't been successful in ending the war.
And all they have been able to do, in spite of the very serious imbalance in military capability — with all the beautiful military equipment that they buy from the United States — they haven't been able to bring the people of Yemen to their knees. And I don't think they will ever be able to do that. That's why the sooner they realize that there needs to be a political solution in Yemen, the sooner we will get out of this nightmare in Yemen with a million people dying from cholera and a lot of people dying from malnutrition — almost 20 million people [suffering] from malnutrition.
Al-Monitor: Has there been any progress on your four-point plan for Yemen?
Zarif: Again, if Saudi Arabia believes that they can … achieve military victory, we go to the famous Iranian saying that if you are asleep, somebody can wake you up, but if you pretend to be asleep, nobody can wake you up. If they're hoping that they can achieve military victory [they can't be woken up].
Al-Monitor: Certainly, Iran's relationship with Saudi Arabia is quite strained. In your view, what would it take to repair this relationship?
Zarif: Dialogue. But more importantly, abandoning the illusion that Saudi Arabia needs a conflict with Iran in order to be able to push its agenda forward. I don't think they need a conflict with Iran nor that they can afford one.
Al-Monitor: Iraq is about to hold elections. What does Iran want and expect to come out of these elections?
Zarif: We want a free and fair, serious election, and we believe it's going to be a serious election. And we want the will of the Iraqi people to emerge and whoever is chosen by the Iraqi people to emerge. We believe that, like the previous elections, it will be a complicated process — hopefully not too lengthy process of political bargaining and negotiations, but we wish the Iraqi people the best. We wish the Iraqi government a successful holding and organizing of the elections.
Al-Monitor: Is Iran willing to support the integration of the Popular Mobilization Units into the Iraqi military?
Zarif: That's a decision that the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government can make. The Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq have been able to provide the necessary resistance to [the Islamic State] and have been able to defeat them. So that's a valuable asset for the Iraqi people, but it's up to the Iraqis to decide.
Al-Monitor: What about Iran’s relations with Erbil? Following last year’s referendum and Baghdad’s swift response, the Kurdistan Regional Government [KRG] — especially under the leadership of Prime Minister [Nechirvan] Barzani — appears to want better relations with Tehran. What are the prospects of a reconciliation?
Zarif: We have very good relations with the KRG, and we encourage both sides — both Baghdad and Erbil — to engage more closely. We have offered our good offices for them to engage more closely, and we are happy to see some progress there. I don't think we can see any tangible results of these negotiations before the elections. So we hope that after the elections, they will resume those discussions and will resolve the differences, and wherever we can be of any assistance, we will be at their disposal.