Only a couple of weeks ago, it seemed quite possible that President Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani might meet on the sidelines of the General Assembly to stop the escalation of tensions that has twice in a few months brought the two countries to the brink of armed conflict. Last month, Zarif flew to Paris and then Biarritz, France, on the invitation of French President Emmanuel Macron, in the hopes of negotiating a Trump-Rouhani meeting in New York.
But following the alleged Iranian attack on Saudi Arabian oil infrastructure and new, even tougher U.S. sanctions against Iran’s central bank, there’s no possibility for a diplomatic exchange, much less a breakthrough, between Washington and Tehran, Zarif told a group of journalists Sunday afternoon at the Iranian U.N. mission.
“I think President Trump knowingly or unknowingly on Friday closed the door to negotiations,” Zarif said.
On Friday, the Trump administration increased sanctions on Iran’s central bank in response to the attack on Saudi Arabia, designating the central bank as a supporter of terrorism, which eliminates any exceptions, even for humanitarian aid. Zarif blamed the sanctions on a Washington think tank, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), which the Iranian government has sanctioned as a supporter of terrorism.
“FDD, [its executive director] Mark Dubowitz, wanted to make sure neither this president nor his successor will be able to normalize relations with Iran,” Zarif said.
Zarif denied Iran had anything to do with the attack. He said the Houthis developed and launched the advanced cruise missiles and drone swarms on their own. On Sunday, Pompeo on “Face the Nation” called it “crazy” for anyone to claim the Houthis perpetrated the attack and he called Zarif a liar with no real influence over Iranian foreign policy.
“We hope the Iranian people, who we think are demanding that their country stop this kind of behavior, act in a way that causes the Iranian regime's behavior to change. That's our mission sense,” Pompeo said.
Zarif responded Sunday that Pompeo was admitting to starving the Iranian people for political objectives.
“At least Secretary Pompeo is brave enough to admit that they are conducting economic terrorism,” said Zarif. “I think he should be prepared to answer the consequences in [the] International Criminal Court. … Get a good lawyer.”
Zarif will meet leaders of the other countries that are a party to the Iran nuclear deal on Wednesday morning and try to convince them to ease economic restrictions on Iran. Macron is proposing extending Iran a $15 billion line of credit in exchange for Iran coming back to the table and adhering to its commitments under the Iran nuclear deal.
Trump reportedly considered endorsing the French proposal, but Zarif said the Europeans should just defy the United States and make a deal without a “green light” from Trump. Money would have to begin flowing before Iran would sit down for negotiations over the nuclear issue, even with the Europeans, he said.
“The credit that they are talking about is not charity. … The credit is in lieu of the oil they were supposed to buy,” Zarif said.
Rouhani will come to New York on Wednesday and announce his proposal for a new “Coalition for Hope,” which Zarif said was open to membership to anyone who wanted to join. Details regarding the coalition were scarce.
In a question-and-answer session with the assembled U.S. journalists that lasted more than an hour, Zarif made several dubious assertions, including that Iran does not run proxy operations in other countries and that no Iranian forces (or their proxies) are involved in current military operations in the Idlib region of Syria.
He admitted an Iranian oil tanker had unloaded its cargo near Syria, but claimed it unloaded in international waters so Iran was not responsible for its final destination. Zarif declined to say whether Iran was currently exporting oil to China, because he said he didn’t want to expose China to U.S. punishment.
“We have an energy relationship with China, but we are not going to be transparent, period,” he said.
Zarif did say his government was discussing with China a 25-year economic partnership that could result in more than $400 billion of Chinese investment in Iran. But Zarif repeatedly refused to acknowledge, much less criticize, the Chinese government’s internment of more than 1 million Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province.
“We condemn the Western interference in other countries’ internal affairs,” he said. “I think countries need to be able to respect the rights of their populations based on the values of those countries.”