NEW YORK — While Iran has so far not accepted President Donald Trump’s offer of direct talks, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Saturday had a message for Trump that speaks to the US president’s frequent complaints about the cost in blood and treasure of US interventions in the Middle East.
“Trump says, ‘We spent $7 trillion in the Middle East and got nowhere,’” Zarif, speaking to a small group of journalists in New York on Saturday, said. “So, why is he repeating the same mistakes? Is he doing anything different?”
“Now, he may not be spending that money,” Zarif said. “He may be asking Saudi Arabia to spend the money for it. But it is the same policy. … What got you into the misery that you’re in right now in the Middle East: … It is the policy that is the problem. And I believe the United States would be well off if it started re-examining the policy that got you here.”
While noting that it was largely the United States that found itself isolated at the United Nations last week over its decision to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Zarif expressed frustration at American, Israeli and Gulf allegations about Iran’s destabilizing presence in the region, support for proxy groups and proliferation of ballistic missile technology to Yemen’s Houthi rebels and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
From Iran’s perspective, Zarif said, it was the United States and its Gulf allies that were supporting rebels in Syria during a seven-year civil war that destabilized the region with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and which is supporting a Saudi-led bombing campaign that has killed thousands of Yemeni civilians.
“I believe the problem is the United States failing to recognize the realities in our region,” Zarif said. “They are looking to contain Iran, to exclude Iran from this region. But what they are doing is creating more chaos, more extremism, more uncertainty, more instability. I mean, they should sit down and simply ask themselves, ‘What got us here?’”
Though Trump has publicly stated his interest in meeting with the Iranians and reaching a new deal, Zarif said Iran has not reciprocated because it considers this US administration’s policy unreliable and based on illusions. Trump administration policy toward the region is so "focused on their obsession with Iran," it has backfired, Zarif earlier told Al-Monitor in an exclusive interview Friday.
“Why not send a message? Because we don’t see them as reliable,” Zarif said. “We don’t believe that negotiations are about trust, but they are about reliability. And we do not find the current US policy reliable. That is, once they agree to something, we don’t know whether they stick to it.”
“I see a number of policies based on illusions,” he continued. “Illusion of regime change, which has existed for 40 years, but this administration seems to be attracted to that illusion more than its predecessors. Illusion of being able to exclude Iran from the region. Illusion of being able to bring Iran to the negotiating table through threats and pressure. These are all illusions that have dominated to various degrees US foreign policy for the past 40 years. It’s been less during certain administrations, and more, probably most, during this administration.”
Zarif also mocked Trump administration complaints that the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Trump withdrew from in May did not address regional concerns. He said Iran had not categorically rejected the possibility of talks on regional issues, but said that such a negotiation, were it to take place, would favor Iran, with a relatively modest defense budget, over the US Gulf allies that have bought billions of dollars in US weapons.
“Believe me, had we negotiated regional issues we would not be on the giving side,” Zarif said. “Those who have made mistakes in our region would be on the giving side. No one did us a favor by removing the regional issues from the table. We did them a favor because we wanted to resolve a big issue.”
“Had we talked about military equipment in the region, then they would have to stop pouring arms into our region,” Zarif said. “Because we spent, with everything, including manpower — a million-people-strong manpower — between $12 billion and $16 billion. Saudi Arabia only buys $60 billion-$70 billion of weapons that they don’t know how to use. The United Arab Emirates only buys $22 billion worth of weapons. They don’t have enough people to use. … The entire population is a million people.”
“So if we wanted to get into discussion about these issues, we would be on the demanding side, not on the answering side,” he said.
Asked about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s map of Iran’s alleged expanding presence in the region, Zarif started his response with a kind of joke.
“Have you seen that map with all the US bases around us?” Zarif said. And he quipped: “Why are these Iranians putting their country in the middle of all of our bases?”
“We are in our region,” Zarif, speaking more seriously, continued. “We have not invaded any country. We have not sent troops anywhere they were not asked. We have not bombed any country. We have not taken territory from any country.”
“We do not have our eye on anybody else’s territory, resources or people,” Zarif said. “Can Netanyahu make this same statement? … We will never use our missiles except in self-defense. Can he [Netanyahu] make this very simple statement?”
Zarif seemed to grow particularly upset at a question about allegations that Iran has provided missiles to Yemen’s Houthi rebels. He did not acknowledge that Iran had done so, but said that the Houthis had a right to defend themselves from the US-backed Saudi and Emirati military campaign that has killed thousands of Yemeni civilians.
“They [the Houthis] are attacking Saudi targets, but Saudis are bombing school buses,” Zarif said. “They are committing crimes against humanity with American bombs, and the United States is providing air support for that, the United States is providing target support for that. … Now who is committing aggression and who is committing defense?”
“Let’s be real,” Zarif said. “You have repeated these lies to each other that you got used to it as if these are realities.”
“The United States and its allies are involved in aggression in our region,” he said. “They continue to kill civilians. What is the source of this nightmare in Syria other than the United States and Saudi Arabia deciding seven years ago that they could topple the Assad regime in three weeks? Other than the Qataris believing that Assad would be out of government before the end of Ramadan, and we have had seven Ramadans since then and the people of Syria have gotten killed and maimed and displaced and you blame Assad?”
“I am not saying there are missiles from Iran, but if there were, they are there for the defense of people,” he said. “Yemenis have resisted aggression since before there was an Iranian revolution and they will continue to resist aggression. This is a fact of history, my friend.”
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