by Kaveh L. Afrasiabi
Kaveh Afrasiabi: Has there been any contact with Trump administration officials since you raised the possibility of a prisoner exchange, particularly in light of the news that President Trump approved payment of $2 million to North Korea in exchange for Otto Warmbier?
Mohammad Javad Zarif: We offered this possibility last September in response to a [U.S.] request that came through the Swiss—that they were interested in engaging in humanitarian dialogue. We have not received any response after we made a positive reply, and I raised this proposal for a global exchange of prisoners including those who are in prison elsewhere as a result of U.S. request or U.S. pressure. I did not receive an official reply. There was a statement by the State Department that Iran can make a unilateral release, which is indicative of their approach to issues. That is, they simply want to make demands and expect the other side just to accept their demand without being prepared to reciprocate. That is the nub of the problem with this administration.
Afrasiabi: Do you think that the Trump administration is deliberately pursuing a policy of provocation aimed at pushing Iran to renounce the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA), or is there another interpretation for their current escalations?
Zarif: There is certainly an element in the Trump administration that is pursuing the policy of provoking Iran with the hope of a variety of scenarios. One of them is for Iran to leave the JCPOA, but there are other, more ominous scenarios including the planting of an accident in order to be able to advance their other agendas.
Afrasiabi: You have stated that Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel are trying to lure the United States into open conflict with Iran. If they succeed, what will Iran’s response be to these countries?
Zarif: I don’t want to get involved in grandstanding or threats or speculation, but if there is hostility in the region I don’t think anybody will be immune from it.
Afrasiabi: Now that most of the Democratic candidates have said they will re-embrace the JCPOA if they are elected, what would be Iran’s response to such a move come January 2021? Would Iran place any conditions and/or demands that may require additional negotiations at that time?
Zarif: It’s a hypothetical situation about something that will or will not happen some 20 months from now, and it would depend on the developments between now and then. What is important, however, is that we do not look at the United States as a Democratic or Republican administration, but rather as a government that should be serious and show good faith. So, for anyone in Washington, before they reembrace the JCPOA, they need to demonstrate that this is for a serious process and not for some policy justification.
Afrasiabi: At this point, what governments do you feel are Iran’s closest allies and friends as Iran faces the ratcheting up of sanctions?
Zarif: Our policy has been to have the closest relations with our neighbors, and right now the closest partners that Iran has are its neighbors, particularly Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Our Central Asian neighbors are also very important and also so is China. I forgot to mention India as well. These are our priorities and will continue to be our priorities. We hope that we have the same good relations with the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries. We have very good relations with some of them, not so good with some others, but we want to have excellent relations with all of them.
Afrasiabi: With respect to India, if New Delhi caves in to U.S. bullying on oil sanctions, shouldn’t Iran respond by terminating India’s privileges in Chabahar, which is of geostrategic importance to them?
Zarif: We have been informed by India and others that they will do their best to continue their relationship with Iran. We will make our decision based on the actual policies, not the public proclamations.
Afrasiabi: Iraq has raised some eyebrows by following the U.S. announcement on oil sanctions by boosting production—ostensibly to help stabilize the market. Shouldn’t Iran expect more solidarity from Baghdad, e.g., with respect to Iran’s OPEC share of the market?
Zarif: The Iraqis know our position. They know our expectations. They are a sovereign country. But we hope that they take into account the fact that our destinies are intertwined.
Afrasiabi: Regarding Europe, which has remained in the JCPOA while barely meeting 10 percent of its obligations, shouldn’t Iran mirror their behavior and thus level the playing field?
Zarif: Europe is, as you rightly said, doing less than 10 percent: in fact over 100 percent in public statements and less than 1 percent in actual meeting of its obligations. I believe if Europe wants to be in a position to make demands it has to put its money where its mouth is. Unless it does that we run the risk of unraveling the entire achievement.
Afrasiabi: So how much longer will this one-sided status quo with the JCPOA last?
Zarif: To put it simply, I told the president of the General Assembly who was convening a conference on multilateralism, “you cannot be unilaterally multilateral!”
Afrasiabi: Finally, regarding Trump. You have suggested that Trump is not looking for a war with Iran. But isn’t Trump himself a chief instigator of this full-scale economic warfare that is tantamount to a casus belli and pushing U.S.-Iran relations toward crisis and conflict?
Zarif: President Trump himself has said that he doesn’t want to start a war. I am not interpreting anything. He has made statements during and after the campaign that previous U.S. wars in the region have been disastrous. That is why I believe that his advisers and those who have influence on him from the outside are pushing him in the direction that is conducive to greater tension and escalation and that is the reality of the situation. Netanyahu has said that he suggested to Trump to put the IRGC on the FTO (Foreign Terrorist Organization) list. President Trump, when he made the determination to not issue waivers, he announced that he had received assurances from Saudi Arabia and UAE that they would replace Iranian oil. This amounts to getting involved in acts of economic terrorism. The State Department and National Security Advisor John Bolton have said publicly that they want to apply as much pressure on the Iranian people as possible to convince them to accept their policies. That also amounts to an open admission to attempt genocide because they want to deprive Iran. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in his statement, Iran’s oil revenues have dropped to $10 billion in their estimate, not enough to get the food and medicine Iran needs to import from outside. He is trying, not succeeding, but trying. So, in legal terminology, the State Department, the national security advisor, the president of the United States, and their accomplices are guilty of conspiracy to commit genocide.
This interview with Iran’s foreign minister was conducted in New York on April, 27, 2019.
Kaveh Afrasiabi has taught at Tehran University and Boston University and is a former consultant to the UN Program on Dialogue Among Civilizations. He is the author of several books on Iran, Islam, and the Middle East, including After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy (Westview Books, 1995) and most recently Iran Nuclear Accord and the Remaking of the Middle East (2018). He is the co-author of the forthcoming Trump and Iran: Containment to Confrontation.