Here is a full transcript of the session at the Munich Security Conference on Sunday in which David Ignatius of The Washington Post interviewed Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister:
David Ignatius: It’s my pleasure to moderate this discussion today with Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is Iran’s foreign minister, chief negotiator in the nuclear talks with the group variously known as the EU3+3 or the P5+1. But, by whatever name, one of the most important diplomatic negotiations of my lifetime.
So, let’s get down to business. Dr. Zarif, it’s been written in the newspapers that you met yesterday with Secretary [John F.] Kerry here. There’s talk that you may actually be meeting again today for another meeting. And so I want to ask you in the way that Americans like to say, how’s it going?
Mohammad Javad Zarif: First of all, let me say hello to everybody and it’s a great pleasure to be here. And, David, it’s good to have — to share this podium with you today.
Actually we already met. We’re both early birds, so we met from 7 to 9 this morning. It indicates how much importance we attach to this process. We already met once as I arrived on Friday. And we met once today, and in the course of yesterday I had meetings with other members of E3+3 — Germany, U.K. and Russia. And I’ll meet [French Foreign Minister] Laurent Fabius after this meeting. We are engaged in a very serious discussion.
The objective as [EU foreign affairs chief] Federica Mogherini just pointed out is rather clear. We set it out in the plan of action that we adopted — historic in my view — in Geneva in November of 2013 and that is the two objectives, which, in my view, is a singular objective, to make sure that Iran’s nuclear program remains exclusively peaceful. That means that Iran should, in fact, be able to exercise its right to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, because without it exercising that right, it’s impossible to make sure that it’s peaceful.
And secondly, to make sure that it’s peaceful. And by that it means that all the restrictions that have been imposed on Iran through sanctions, which we consider unacceptable, to be lifted. And it is important to recognize the fact that we need to move in this direction simultaneously. That is, as Iran takes steps to reassure the international community that it’s program remains peaceful — and the reason I use the word “reassure” is that over the last 10 years or more, Iran has been the subject of more IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspections than probably any other country on the face of the Earth, and the IAEA has yet to find a single evidence that Iran’s program is anything but peaceful. So, we are prepared to reassure the international community — it seems that quite a bit of reassurance is needed for some of our negotiating partners, at least. But, at the same time, it is important that restrictions that have been imposed on the Iranian people be lifted. These restrictions did not achieve their intended result.
You know that once, when the sanctions were imposed on Iran, Iran had less than 200 centrifuges. If the objective of the sanctions was to prevent Iran from developing its nuclear technology, they utterly failed because now we have 20,000 centrifuges. So we need to find another way, and I believe the E3+3 have come to realize that the only way to resolve this issue is through negotiations. And we have made quite a bit of success, and we make progress over the past many months.
DI: So, so let me ask you. Knowing now that you got up early and had breakfast with Secretary Kerry for yet another round of discussions. Come back to that. How it’s going, and let me rephrase that. What would you say, as of this morning, after the latest, meeting are the principal remaining obstacles to completing the comprehensive agreement that was outlined in the JPOA [joint plan of action]?
MJZ: Well, I guess Secretary Kerry will get his chance in the next panel to state his views. I believe that the most important obstacle to reaching an agreement is the need for realization that the only way to reach an agreement is through negotiations and through disagreement. This is, again as Mrs. Mogherini rightly pointed out, this is the opportunity to do it, and we need to seize this opportunity. It may not be repeated. And it is important for everybody to realize that the only way to deal with Iran is through respect and negotiations and meeting on a non-zero-sum game.
If you look at the developments in the international scene over the past many years, we haven’t been able to resolve many problems and many crises because we have approached them from a zero-sum perspective. My gain has always been defined as somebody else’s loss, and through that, we never resolve problems. And I believe here we need to be able to define — and I believe I said this in this room last year — that unless we define mutual goals, shared objectives, common objectives, we won’t be able to resolve this. And that is how we approach this.
We believe that it is in our interest to show the world that our nuclear program is exclusively peaceful. We define that as our objective, not the objective of the other side. We define it as our own objective, and that is why it doesn’t take a lot of sacrifice for us to show to the world that our nuclear program is exclusively peaceful.
I believe the other side also needs to realize that imposing sanctions on the Iranian people has not only hurt the Iranian people, but has hurt the European economy, has hurt the American economy, has hurt the global economy — has not benefitted anybody — and it has not helped in the process either. So, we either lose together or win together, and unless we realize this, some people unfortunately believe that sanctions that have been imposed on Iran are an asset for them. I want to disabuse them of this. Sanctions are a liability. You need to get rid of them if you want a solution. And unless, particularly some politicians, unless they come to the realization that sanctions are a liability and they need to be lifted, we will not have a solution. So that’s the single most important issue, but I think we have made good headway in resolving even that.
DI: I want to come back to the details of the agreement. And I’m going to, in particular, mark a mental note around the question of phase reduction of sanctions as a way to remove sanctions, but I want to step back a little bit.
You’ve been seeing a lot of Secretary Kerry, and there was a picture that was taken of the two of you in Geneva when you were out for a stroll last January on the sidewalk, and a group of 21 Iranian parliamentarians are reported to have signed a petition. And I’m going to quote with your forgiveness from what was published in the Iranian newspapers. And the petition said your exhibitionist walk together with Kerry along Geneva sidewalks was certainly outside the norms of diplomacy [and asked] so why don’t you put a stop to such behavior?
It seems that you have critics back home, judging from that petition. And so I want to ask you: What are your critics upset about?
MJZ: Well, I think we need to realize the reality that Iran is not a monolithic society. And we like it. We have a variety of views, and they get a chance to express themselves. So that’s not bad. Secondly, there is a huge deal of mistrust in Iran vis-a-vis the West in general and the United States in particular. So every action that we take, every step, is under very serious scrutiny by our public because of that mistrust.
So if you’re talking about lack of confidence or confidence deficit, there’s a lot to go around. It’s just not the West not having confidence in the Iranian program, and I don’t know why, but there’s a lot of reason — and I believe my colleagues in the West would understand that — from supporting Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war to overthrowing a democratically elected government in Iran and to whatever happened in between and afterwards that makes Iranians be at least skeptical of U.S. intentions.
So anything I do is rightly scrutinized by our people, our parliamentarians, and I believe that’s the nature of the game and I’m ready for it. So I’ll go to the parliament, and I’ll explain what I was doing, and I will try to convince them that what I did was not outside the norms of diplomacy. That it had been done before, and it will be done — I mean people will do it in the future.
But I give them every reason to be skeptical of everything I do. Because I’m actually taking very serious steps. Iran did not talk to the United States for 35 years. And now we are talking. And I believe these talks are useful. But they haven’t produced the intended results. We have not seen an end to the hostility that has been exhibited in the United States against Iran. And I believe it is important that we see some of that. But, unless we make progress, I give my critics in Iran every right to criticize me. And even if we make progress and if we reach an agreement, I believe there will be people in Iran who will remain skeptical of this. I believe they have every right to be skeptical. But they were skeptical about the joint plan of action that we adopted in Geneva. And IAEA report after another has indicated that Iran has lived up to all — and I underline “all” — its commitments under the JPOA. We have not violated or even misbehaved in one single incident. There is a difference of opinion in Iran, but what the government promises, it will deliver.
DI: Will President [Hassan] Rouhani, as a leader of Iran who’s taken so many risks to sponsor these negotiations, will he be hurt if they fail?
MJZ: Well, I want to correct a very wrong report by Reuters, unfortunately, that made [it seem] that those who talked to me in the past three days know that that was not a subject of our negotiations or discussions.
DI: I should say there was a report that said that Dr. Zarif said this directly to Secretary Kerry yesterday.
MJZ: And others. And the report predicted — this is news reporting — predicted that I’ll be doing it in the future. So, news organizations predicting the future is something new. But I didn’t —
DI: — not so new.
MJZ: Not so new. I mean predicting news is new. Analyzing is maybe not. But what is important is we have a very dynamic political system in Iran. I believe the entire Iranian population understands that this government — that Dr. Rouhani, his administration and the government in its entirety — particularly the leader of the revolution which today again supported our efforts in the negotiations, if only a few minutes ago. Everybody has taken every necessary measure to ensure that we succeed. All Iranians know this. If we fail — and I hope we won’t — they will not keep us or consider us responsible for that failure. They will consider attempts by asking too much from Iran as the reason for failure. But I’m not going to contemplate that. I’m not going to engage in a blame game; I don’t think a blame game is necessary. I think we will be talking about our success rather than our failure, and we will be looking for people to commend for success rather than people to blame for failure.
DI: And what do you say, Dr. Zarif, to hard-liners. When I came to Tehran in December 2013 to see you, I visited Hossein Shariatmadari who is the editor of Kayhan [a newspaper in Iran], and he said to me essentially any concession to the West, any compromise, is an attempt to undermine our revolution, and I oppose it.
And I want to ask you, what do you say as somebody who’s been deeply involved in the negotiations to people like that back home? How do you answer that criticism that says any compromise undermines us?
MJZ: Well, I give them every reason as I said to be skeptical. I sympathize with them, I believe that — I’m skeptical. There is reason to be skeptical. But I believe that agreement and agreement in which there are no losers and no winners and an agreement in which the objectives of everybody is achieved is in the interest of everybody. In the interest of our region, in the interest of international peace and security and in the interest of Iranian scientific advancement. So, I don’t share that view, but I can understand and sympathize with his view about being forced into walking into these negotiations with a degree of skepticism and mistrust. And I believe the other side does the same. I mean, in Washington, people around you, in buildings close to you, are rather skeptical about our intentions, and they criticize Secretary Kerry and President Obama for what they’re doing. So we do not have a monopoly of skeptics. I mean the United States has them, too.
DI: So I want to look with you, if I might, at some of the details that are before you with your next deadline coming, March 24. Quoting from the JPOA, which is the document that you already agreed to back in November 2013; it talked about a mutually defined enrichment program with practical limits and transparency measures. And it said that this comprehensive agreement would produce a reciprocal step-by-step process that would lead to the eventual removal of sanctions. So I want to unpack those ideas and start at the end with this idea of a step-by-step process of removing sanctions.
Is that something —
MJZ: — The step-by-step process does not refer to the removal of sanctions. You’re not reading the JPOA correctly. It says that it is a reciprocal step-by-step process, but the objective is the removal of sanctions, if you read the JPOA correctly. So, I’m not going to negotiate here certainly, but I believe sanctions have miserably failed at reaching their own objective. And removal of sanctions is a condition for an agreement, and I believe that condition can be met and will be met if we have an agreement.
DI: But on this idea that it would be phased, is that something that Iran is prepared to discuss?
MJZ: Again, I’m not negotiating here, but we will stick to the terms of the JPOA, and I do not believe that JPOA called for phased removal of sanctions. And if I had the text in front of me, I would read it to you, but I don’t, unfortunately.
DI: I wrote down the text, and I could laboriously — but I will defer to the negotiator. So let me, since you don’t want to negotiate the details, let me jump to the basics —
MJZ: No, I don’t want to negotiate the details here. I negotiate the details in the negotiating room.
DI: I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to do this in this private setting.
MJZ: You make the decision, final decision, I’ll negotiate with you right here.
DI: So, let me cut to the thing that we all must think about and are concerned about, which is what if there isn’t an agreement by March 24 or June 30, the final deadline. And I’d be interested in your discussion of that and what we have in all of our minds, I think, is that, well if there isn’t an agreement, should we seek a little more time? Have we had enough progress that we can think maybe with a little more time we can get to where we want?
MJZ: Well, first of all, I don’t think if we don’t have an agreement, it’ll be the end of the world. I mean, we tried, we failed, fine. We will think of other procedures. I hope it won’t be the same of each side trying to hurt the other without benefiting anything in the process. That’s basically what was done. So, it won’t be the end of the world, but I do not believe another extension is in the interest of anybody. As I did not believe this extension was even necessary or useful. But we did. And we’re reaching to the point that it is quite possible to make an agreement. I believe the same agreement could have been made three months ago, four months ago, six months ago. And I do not believe anything will be different a year down the road. So in my view, extension is not useful, not conducive to an agreement and all my energy and focus and that of my colleagues, and I’m sure my negotiating partners on the side of E3+3 are all focused on reaching an agreement at the earliest possible time.
DI: That happy statement from Ambassador [Wolfgang] Ischinger was that we might have a little more time. So, if I hear you saying that you don’t think a formal extension is appropriate, if we’re not there, what about an informal stand-in-place situation. Often, you have that where you don’t have a formal agreement, but it’s in neither side’s interest to blow up the situation that exists. Would you think that would be a possibility, a likelihood?
MJZ: David, I want to use the next six weeks concentrating on a solution, not concentrating on failure. And I believe it would be best if everybody concentrated on a solution.
DI: So let me assume now that you’re going to get there. You’re going to get to a solution. And I want to ask you about what might follow an agreement. And, specifically, in a world that is being — in a Middle East that is being torn apart by regional conflict — a nightmare taking place around you, is there some way based on this process of negotiation, the broad conversations, that you might then move to regional issues? For example, some kind of security conference for the region would include Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United States, Russia — some way of talking about and beginning to resolve these terrible problems.
MJZ: Well, I believe the problems in our region are both regional and global and require both regional and global approaches. And these approaches need to be multifaceted and multi-dimensional and cannot be only military or political. They have to be cultural; they have to involve various actors. I believe no player in our immediate neighborhood should be excluded. We have never attempted to exclude our friends in Saudi Arabia or others from a regional solution. Unfortunately, we have been the subject of exclusion. People have tried to exclude us to the detriment of the process. But Iran believes — and is ready, and I’m prepared — to engage with Saudi Arabia and to engage with Turkey, to engage with Egypt, to engage — we are already engaged with a lot of them, with Iraq, with Syria, with Turkey, with other friends in the region — but even those that are not currently engaged with Iran and have some preoccupation about excluding Iran from any process, we are prepared to engage them with or without the success of these negotiations to reach understanding. Because these problems are pressing. These problems are pressing in our region; these problems are pressing in the world. These problems will be detrimental to the peace and security of our region, of our people and of the world. So, I don’t think we need any conditionality to engage in resolving these problems, which will be first and foremost a threat to our own livelihoods.
DI: And what would you say, Dr. Zarif, to an Arab leader who, if he was being candid, would say to you, Iran or Iran’s proxies today control Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Sanna [Yemen]. We feel encircled. How do you speak to that anxiety, which obviously is driving this moment.
MJZ: That would be over-aggrandizing Iran’s power and underestimating the will of the people. And that would be an insult to the people of all these countries. I believe our region, the problems in our region will not be resolved by trying to simplify the problems. Iran is an important player in the region, has always been an important player in the region, will remain an important player in the region and in the wider world. But we do not believe that if Iran is an important player, other players in the region are unimportant or should be excluded. We have never set conditions for participation in Geneva II [Conference on Syria], for instance. We were invited to Geneva II, but then some people set conditions and said if Iran participates, we will not come. We never said if Saudi Arabia participates, we will not come. But unfortunately some of our friends did.
So this is the problem. I think, if you’re asking me this question, you’re looking at the wrong address. We are ready. We are prepared to engage with our friends, with our neighbors in the region, and to move for the resolution of all these problems. Of course, we cannot resolve it by ourselves; they cannot resolve it by themselves. Even if we put all our efforts together, it’s a huge problem to resolve. We require a lot of work, a lot of input, a lot of participation by the people in the region, but we believe we should start at the right place. And the right place is not by attempting to exclude each other from this process.
DI: I just would note that that endorsement of a regional framework for security discussions that would include Iran and Saudi Arabia is significant. And if that could be carried through is the beginning of a different and better way of dealing with problems.
Let me ask you one more issue. As you know, as the world knows, Israel is terribly anxious because of statements that have been made by Iranian leaders that Iran threatens the security of Israel. Yesterday, Yitzhak Herzog, who’s running for prime minister in Israel, said if Iran is prepared — effectively — if Iran is prepared to live in peace with us, we’re prepared to accept Iran in the same way. What would you say to Israelis who feel that an Iranian nuclear program poses an existential threat to them?
MJZ: Well, we do not have a weapons program; we will never have a weapons program. We never had a weapons program. They cannot create a smokescreen to hide their atrocities against the Palestinian people, they’re continued violations of Palestinian human rights, they’re continued acts of aggression against Palestinian and Lebanese and Jordanian and Syrian people under the guise of a hypothetical Iranian threat, which is more hype than anything else. Iran is not threatening anybody. We’re not threatening to use force. We’re not saying all options are on the table. I hope that those who continue to make these threats would read the United Nations charter, which says threats and use of force are against international law.
DI: So, I’m going to close this, I’m going to take a brief point of personal and journalistic privilege. My colleague and personal friend Jason Rezaian, who’s our correspondent in Iran, has been imprisoned since last July with his wife. The charges have never been made clear, and it would be wrong of me not to use this public forum to say to the Iranian foreign minister that we dearly hope — and I speak for all journalists I think around the world — for his prompt release. Let me, having said that, thank you for being with us, thank you for being on stage and thank you for answering these questions.
MJZ: Sure, you have the last word, but I believe Jason Rezaian has been charged. I’ve tried my best to help him in a humanitarian way, providing for his mother’s visit. I hope that he will be cleared of the charges in a court of law, and that will be a good day for me. His wife is now out of prison — has been for five, six months. And I hope that once the court process is completed, we will either have a clear-cut case or we will have his acquittal.
MJZ: Thank you.
DI: Thank you.