David Ignatius
David Ignatius
Opinion Writer

Q&A with Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister

(YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images) - Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks during second joint high committee meeting between Kuwait and Iran at the foreign ministry in Kuwait city on December 1, 2013. AFP PHOTO/YASSER AL-ZAYYAT (Photo credit should read YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images)

A condensed transcript of Post columnist David Ignatius’s interview with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Q: David Ignatius: Let me begin by asking about the state of the negotiations. After your delegation left technical negotiations in Vienna on Friday, your colleague Abbas Aragchi said that the U.S. announcement of a move to strengthen enforcement of existing sanctions “is against the spirit” of the Geneva deal” and said that Iran was evaluating an “appropriate response.” Can you clarify that and explain what you think Iran’s position should be.

David Ignatius

Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.

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A: Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iranian foreign minister: We are committed to ensuring that the process that we started — and it required a lot of courage on our side to reach his agreement — will lead to a satisfactory conclusion that would address the requirements as stated in the [Geneva interim] agreement — that is, to have an enrichment program in Iran while at the same time both concerns as well as restrictions imposed by the international community will be removed. This is the objective. Since we believe our program is exclusively for peaceful purposes, we have no desire to leave any ambiguity about the exclusively peaceful nature of our program. So on our side, we believe it is very easy to reach an agreement. Of course it requires serious political will and good faith in order to reach that agreement.

Now, there are statements coming from Washington — we understand that Tehran and Washington, as well as many other members of 5 + 1 [the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China and Germany], are not monolithic societies, not even monolith polities. We have various views in Iran. Some of them have been very frankly and vehemently expressed by the opponents of the agreement, to the extent that some have asked for my removal. I believe that’s only natural in a democratic society where you have different forces, different political views and different branches of government operating to check and balance the exertion of political power. The same is true in the United States. I believe it is only natural for U.S. lawmakers to be concerned.

We all hope that both our opposition as well as your opposition in the United States has first and foremost the national interest in mind. I say it for both, not concentrating on one. But I believe that because of the politics of constituencies within the United States — the prevalence of politics of constituencies — sometimes national interest gets confused in the process. But that is not for me to say. It is an internal matter for the U.S. and I believe the American people and government are quite capable of handling it. But, when you hear voices from inside the administration question the very raison d’etre of the negotiations, it becomes intolerable — whether it is in the strict sense of the term a violation of the term of the Geneva plan of action or not. But if statements are made that run counter to the very aim of the negotiations, coming from within the administration, then that becomes extremely counterproductive. So we needed to bring that to the attention of our negotiating partners in very strong term terms. And we believe we did. That does not mean that negotiations are dead. That means negotiations have hit a snag: As Mark Twain rightly pointed out, the news of their demise is greatly exaggerated.

So I believe we need to have a reassessment of how we want to proceed — everybody needs to do that — go back to the negotiating table with a view to removing these obstacles and moving forward. This is our intention. We do it in good faith, we do it with the political will and determination not only to fulfill the first step but also to reach in the shortest possible time the final agreement, which we believe will be in the interests of everybody, and all efforts to undermine it should cease, because they are only counterproductive.

Have you received any clarification from the administration about the meaning and intent of Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen’s statements, to which I assume you were referring when you talked about statements from the administration?

We’ve had telephone conversations. Let me put it this way, we’ve had contacts with members of the P 5+1, and been talking about this in the last few days, and I believe these discussions will continue. This is not the first time we have found it necessary to engage in conversations both public as well as private on the sidelines of 5+1, and this is certainly one of them. I’ve been in contact with American officials as well as other 5+1 officials, as well as [European Union chief diplomat] Cathy Ashton. And everybody is trying to seek possibilities to move forward.

Have the Americans said anything that eased your concern that Cohen’s statement violated the ‘spirit of Geneva’?

Well, I’ll leave the private discussions to remain private. I do not want to engage in that type of public diplomacy. But what I can say is that we are engaged in discussions in order to make sure that everybody is committed to Geneva. What I have heard from Secretary Kerry and Lady Ashton is that they are committed to an early finalization of the Geneva process with a view to reaching a comprehensive agreement. I share that objective. I’m sure that we will hit other obstacles on our way. This is going to be an extremely difficult process — not because the objective is difficult to attain but because the modalities of reaching the objective are difficult — because of the lack of confidence that we certainly have in Iran, particularly the Iranian people and leadership toward the intentions of the other side, and some misgivings that they may have about our intentions. So it is going to be difficult; it’s going to be a bumpy road. There are very strong forces that are working to undermine, unfortunately, this process. We need to be aware of this, and we need to work with an open mind.

I just want to clarify: You mentioned speaking to Secretary Kerry, as well as Lady Ashton, and I understood you to mean that those were recent conversations. Am I right?

Well, we’ve never stopped communicating, and conversations have taken place. . . .

After the Cohen announcement, it sounds like Kerry helped to clarify it, which gives you confidence.

I am not Secretary Kerry’s spokesman. I can tell you that we have communicated with various . . . [Russian Foreign Minister] Sergei Lavrov was here; we had lengthy discussions.

When was that?

Wednesday [Dec. 11]. I have communicated with Lady Ashton, both before and after Wednesday. I have communicated with others, including Secretary Kerry — or they have communicated with me, maybe that is a better way of putting it.

President Obama said in his presentation a week ago to the Saban Forum in Washington that he would give a 50/50 chance of reaching an acceptable agreement, comprehensive solution. I’m curious what estimate you would make, and whether you thought that was a fair estimate, a disappointing estimate, what did you think?

Well, as I said I think it’ not too difficult to reach an agreement because the objective is not something that is controversial. The road will be bumpy, depending on the political will of the sides that are engaged in this, and depending in the impact of the politics of constituencies that has been very much present during this negotiation, you may be able to reach an agreement or not. I cannot put a figure on it: I am not a gambling man, so I cannot put a figure on it. But we have started this with the intention of resolving it 100 percent. But we always have our limitations. Everybody has concerns that need to be dealt with. And we are prepared to deal with reasonable concerns.

Let me ask you about some of the specifics issues that were mentioned both by President Obama and by administration officials. The interim agreement says that under the final “comprehensive” solution, Iran has the right to a civilian nuclear program under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and it goes on to note that the comprehensive solution with include enrichment capability subject to limits and transparency. So what U.S. officials say is, okay, that’s the foundation. But we think that a heavy water reactor at Arak, let alone another heavy water reactor, is not consistent with the needs of a civilian program; we think that 19,000 centrifuges are not consistent with the needs of the limited civilian program described in the Geneva agreement; we think that a fortified facility inside a mountain at Fordow is not consistent with a limited civilian program. So the question is: In reassuring the P5+1 that Iran seeks a limited civilian program, are you prepared to negotiate limits for those items that I mentioned?

A: Again, I do not believe that we need to negotiate publicly. Negotiations are best done privately. But let me make a number of observations about this. First, these discussions are premised on a number of principles, which President Obama stated in his letters both to the Supreme Leader as well as President Rouhani. Those are principles of equal footing, mutual respect and mutual interest. So we need to conduct these negotiations from these premises. That is, we need to reach understandings, no attempt to dictate. As you know, Iranians have never accepted “diktats” from outside forces. And this is not an exception. The pressures that have been placed upon it, and the willingness to live with them, is testimony to the refusal to accept pressure and intimidation. So equal footing is an important concept for us.

Tell me what “equal footing” is. What’s a simple definition?

A simple definition is that we will not seek to dictate to them what a solution should look like; and we will not accept from them what they dictate a solution should look like. We are supposed to address the concerns that Iran will not produce nuclear weapons or create the situation that creates concerns about a nuclear weapons program. There are several ways of addressing that, and we will address it.

Now, the second concept that should be kept in mind is that in any negotiations, if you want to reach an agreement, you need to look at the problem from the perspective of the other side. Not just from your perspective. And I invite everybody to look at this problem from our perspective. And then, probably we will find an easier solution. I’m prepared to look at it from your perspective, too, from the West’s perspective.

Let’s start with enrichment. Iran did not decide to enrich. Iran was forced to enrich, because we had a share in a consortium in France called “Eurodif,” which we had paid for fully, but we were not able to get a gram of enriched uranium, even for our research reactor that was built under the “Atoms for Peace” Program of President Eisenhower. We did not decide to enrich to 20 percent. We tried for 20 years to buy 20 percent-enriched uranium for fuel for that reactor. We were intimidated, insulated, pushed back and forth to the point that we said we’ll do it ourselves: We’re not going to take this from anybody!

Now this doesn’t mean that if they provide us with fuel now we will accept it, because first of all we have made this investment domestically, and secondly we do not have any trust and, third we do not see any reason now that we have put so much time and effort in it and brought them to the point of abandoning the illusion of zero enrichment in Iran, why should we accept anything less.

But you would accept limits on the amount to be enriched?

We would discuss with them the issue. There are several ways. The limits in themselves are not the object. The objective is to ensure that this is for peaceful purposes, and this is clearly stated. It’s not to remove concerns; it’s to make sure that this is for peaceful purposes. Now to ensure that this is for peaceful purposes has many ways of addressing it. We will discuss those ways and we will reach an agreement on them, because this has to be mutually agreed. We believe we can reach an agreement.

Now let’s move to the second issue, Arak. We offered the option — every single program that Iran has was sought from the West first; they refused, we then relied on our own technology. We did not want to start from scratch in building all these research reactors. We wanted to use the technology. Everybody wants to use sophisticated technology. It was denied to us, in denial of the NPT, because mind you, it requires countries to provide energy for peaceful purposes. It’s not just a right, it’s a requirement — it’s an obligation to provide. So they have been in violation of the NPT for the past at least 22 years, since 1990, almost every single Western country. Unfortunately there is no official judge of that violation because that article does not have any monitoring mechanisms. But it should, because NPT stands on three pillars, and one of them is peaceful use — along with nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament. Let’s not talk about disarmament, because the record is not that impressive.

Iran was not provided with light water reactors. We had to invest with what we knew how to build. It doesn’t mean that we wanted a heavy water reactor because you can extract plutonium from it. It was because that was the only technology that was available to us at the time we started this.

But now?

We cannot roll back the clock 20 years and ask Iran to simply get rid of a project that has been the subject of a great deal of human and material investment. However, there are various ways of making sure that this reactor will remain exclusively peaceful — because that is our aim. There are various ways of making sure that we can gain radio isotopes . . . we cannot even today get radio isotopes from outside, . . . so we need to produce our own isotopes.

So if there’s a way to have radio isotopes but address the concerns about plutonium reprocessing. . . .

About future reactors, if they provide us with ways of dealing with our requirements, fine. Current reactor, we need to discuss various scientific ways and means of dealing with it — and we are open to dealing with it. We put it on paper, and we always keep our promises. We promised to deal with Arak, and we will deal with Arak.

Let’s move to the third issue, and that is Fordow: If you sit in Iran, and you see people having concerns about Fordow, the only conclusion you can draw is that they want to attack you. Because what is the significance of Fordow? Fordow is a facility that is under daily inspection by [International Atomic Energy Agency]. Daily! So we cannot do anything in Fordow. The only difference that Fordow has from the enrichment facility at Natanz is that Fordow cannot be hit. So if you insist that I should dismantle Fordow, or do something with Fordow, that means that somebody has an intention of a military strike. And I have to say that a military strike is a violation of the most fundamental principles of international law. I mean, that is not a basis for negotiation. I should not accept negotiations which, as their foundation, have a violation international law, let alone Iranian interest. . . . So they’re asking me to consider an issue that is fundamentally unreasonable.

Again, is there a way of dealing with that concern. . . .

There are ways of dealing with it, because we do not want to even leave the impression that Iran has a weapons program; that is not in our interest. We do not follow a policy of ambiguity; this is not our intention; we follow a policy of clarity that we do not seek nuclear weapons. If you call us a religious state, then at least recognize the premise on which a religious state is founded, and the highest principle in a religious state is that when the highest jurist in the country issues a decree, that becomes untouchable. And the decree is that weapons of mass destruction are against Islamic principles and are haram (sinful and forbidden). So that leaves no ambiguity. We are prepared to translate that clarity into action — because we have no interest in leaving any ambiguity. But we’re not going to accept diktats. We are going to negotiate on all issues, within the framework of the Geneva agreement, but based on equal footing, mutual respect. We are prepared to put ourselves in your shoes but we, at the same time, ask you to respect our constraints. Don’t ask us to give you an economic analysis of why enrichment is feasible in Iran, because it doesn’t apply. For us, the issue is not economic viability but the fact of denial — when you do not have access to something, money is no problem.

I want to move to the regional file. I’m sure as foreign minister you follow developments in Syria. There’s growing interest in whether Iran is prepared to work with other nations, through the Russian-U.S.-sponsored process at Geneva, to seek a political transition in Syria. I’ll give you an example: On Nov. 21, representatives of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia and the United States met with Baroness Valerie Amos, the U.N. undersecretary for humanitarian affairs, to discuss possible relief efforts. So I’ve wondered whether Iran is prepared to join in some broader process that might allow a humanitarian aid corridor into the center of Homs or into Darayya, and what other steps might be possible.

Let me try to answer the different questions. First, on Geneva 2: We made it very clear: Iran believes there is no military solution for Syria, although that may be self-evident, I do not believe that every player in this game believes that.

Does President Assad believe that?

President Assad believes that at the end of the day you need a political solution. But I believe that those who are pushing for a U.S. military strike and were disappointed after the U.S. decided to work within the scope of international law rather than outside, I don’t think they believe there is no military solution. They were egging for a military solution. But we all hope now that everybody will come to their senses and grasp the reality that there is no military solution; there needs to be a political solution. We have said that if invited we will attend Geneva 2, and we have a desire to reach that political solution.

Accepting Geneva 1 [the 2012 agreement calling for political transition] as the start of that process?

We will not accept any preconditions, not that we have any difficulty with anything, but as a matter of principle, we believe that for Iran to accept preconditions is simply not necessary because if you want Iran to play a positive role, then you will invite Iran. If you do not want Iran to play a positive role, to be there, then nobody is asking for an invitation. So I’m not asking for an invitation. I will certainly not accept any preconditions.

We all know that there needs to be an agreement in Geneva and that agreement has to be a Syrian agreement. Others cannot decide for the Syrians. Others can only facilitate a Syrian solution based on the consent of the Syrian people. And I believe that at the end of the day the best way to make permanent that consent is through the ballot box, and we should not be afraid of the ballot box. I’m concerned that people who believe in democratic principles are worried about the outcome of elections and are trying to put preconditions [in place]. A serious precondition can be fair elections. But a precondition cannot be who should run and who shouldn’t run in an election. If the Syrian people believe that someone should not run, someone is not fit to govern, they will vote him out. . . .They are capable of determining their future, and I believe it’s an insult to the Syrian people to try to predetermine the outcome of the election. . . . I believe Iran can play a positive role in the Syrian case, but it’s for them to decide. I’m not running that show.

As far as humanitarian aid is concerned, we believe that we need to take into account the anxieties, the concerns, of all parties involved, if we want to reach human beings. If you want to make political statements, that’s one thing. But if you want to help human beings on the ground in various parts of Syria, either under siege by one side or the other, we need to find mechanisms that are workable. We have discussed this with various friends; we’ve discussed this with Turkey, we’ve discussed this with [U.N. Special Representative] Lakhdar Brahimi, we’ve discussed this with the Syrian government.

Have you talked with the United States about this?

We have not had any discussions with the U.S. about anything other than the nuclear issue. We do participate with the U.S.in various international formats, including the one that is run by U.N. Undersecretary Amos. But that is a U.N. process; we can work there together. We have not talked with the U.S. about Syria. We have concentrated on the nuclear issues because that is the issue at hand that needs to be resolved. But we are prepared to help get humanitarian assistance to the people in need inside Syria. We have discussed the logistics with various people. We are prepared to get to action. Unfortunately, some may want a political rather than a humanitarian outcome. That’s not a game I want to engage in.

Let me ask a blunt question: Some people say that it’s clear that President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif have authority to negotiate the nuclear file, but that the regional file remains in the hands of others, particularly the [Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps]. How would you respond to that?

I disagree. In Iran decision making about foreign affairs is a consensus building process. On all issues, the leader is involved, the National Security Council is involved, the president is the main player, but he does it with the consent of the leader. So I cannot agree with that. The government has authority on all issues of foreign policy, but that authority, by our constitution, is framed in a manner that needs to go through certain levels of consultation. And we go through those based on our respect for the rule of law in this country, which creates specific areas of authority.

I ask the question in part because of [Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali] Jafari’s comment last week criticizing you personally and that reinforced the sense the sense that there are two views, two groups, two files.

I usually do not try to respond to comments that are made outside the context of my speech and my comments, and I do not want to commit the same mistake of commenting about somebody else’s comment without understanding the entire text. I respect Gen. Jafari’s remarks, his views, and I expect him to have differences of views with me. Neither the views that I express nor the views that he expresses are official views of the government of Iran or the organizations that we represent. We make speeches and we make our views and comments known, and then there is a consensus-building process where we engage in debate, discourse — sometimes heated debates — and then we reach a consensus on which we all find ourselves committed and responsible and accountable.

I want to ask you about the turn in the road in modern history that you may be living through. One way that former Secretary of State Kissinger has described this is to say that for this “turn” to happen, Iran has to be “a nation and not a cause.” It has to behave like a nation that has interests, seeks respect, wants equal footing but is not a revolutionary movement that destabilizes others. So let me put it to you bluntly: Is Iran a nation or a cause today?

Well I believe the dichotomy is erroneous, particularly coming from an American. I ask you: Is America a nation or a cause? How do you describe U.S. behavior? Is the United States simply a nation, or does it have objective, have objectives, have goals. . . .

Ideals.

Ideals. Yes. So that has to be in the right framework. I believe all nations have ideals and have interests. I do not believe there is a dichotomy between interests and ideals. I believe the US has ideals and interests. . . . In my view ideals and interests converge, not diverge. But Iran is committed to principles of international law. We do not seek to undermine any government. We do not seek to interfere in the internal affairs of any other states. The security of our neighbors is tantamount to our own security and stability. We believe that we need a stable, secure environment in order to prosper. We do not believe that tension is in our interest. So if you consider these as definitions of a nation state, then we’re all for it. But if you want to create a dichotomy between ideals and national interests, I believe you will find that a difficult proposition to sell that to the United States, before you sell it to Iran.

Well, we still think of ourselves as the extraordinary nation.

We do too!

To put it in the simplest terms, I heard last week in Abu Dhabi and Dubai the degree of anxiety about what are seen as the destabilizing actions of Iran, what is seen as a systematic program of covert action by Iran through its instruments against other governments. This makes people worried. So just as on the nuclear file you would want to reassure others about the intentions of Iran, would you accept similar reassurances, similar checks, on these regional matters?

I do not accept checks. But I wrote an oped piece in the Arabic newspaper Al-Sharq al Awsat in which I proposed the establishment of a regional security and cooperation scheme. And I believe that we should have done this a long time ago. When the U.N. Security Council resolution that ended the Iraq-Iran war was being drafted, on the request of Iran, 26 years ago, we suggested that regional security should be paramount. We believe that, had that been put in place, we would not have faced the two disasters in Iraq — the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the Iraq war that began with the U.S. invasion in 2003. One disaster, the Iraq-Iran war, was enough. So we believe that confidence-building measures, dialogue and cooperation between nations of this region are not only necessary, but unavoidable. All of us need it. All of us have to come to our senses. We cannot choose our neighbors. Security can only be attained through cooperation among us. Security cannot be purchased. Security is indivisible. We cannot have security at the expense of insecurity of others.

I’ve had very good meetings [earlier in December] with leaders in the states of the Persian Gulf. I believe we all agree that what has been taking place in Geneva is good for our future and is not against anybody. We don’t see any reason for those who have shown some anxiety. All of them who talked to me [in the Gulf] told me that they welcomed this.

At the same time, out of another mouth, they express great anxiety.

I speak with one mouth, to friend and foe. And that is that we need security and cooperation in the Persian Gulf, among countries in the region, addressing concerns and anxieties, and we are prepared as the strongest country in this region.

Last question: In the last week you must have had the sense, on occasion, hearing Secretary Cohen’s remarks, hearing the intense U.S. congressional campaign for additional sanctions, that this process might be slipping away. You said to Robin Wright [in a Time magazine interview a week ago] that if any new sanctions are imposed, ‘the entire deal is dead.’

That was in response to her question.

But I want to ask what you would say to people in Iran and the U.S. who would be just as happy if this process was dead.

I tell them that they have tried all the wrong ways, now give the right way a chance. They have tried sanctions. They have tried pressure. The only outcome was 19,000 centrifuges and an Iranian public that distrusts the United States because of its application of double standards and its pressure on the Iranian people. They have tried all the wrong ways. They say diplomats usually try the right way after having tested all the wrong ways. Politicians have tested all the wrong ways. It’s time for them to allow the right way to proceed; at least give it a chance to survive.

This is a big piece of history that you’re living through.

I think we’re living at a crossroad. I hope that everybody appreciates the historical significance of the process. This can change the course of our relations with the West.

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