While the Rouhani administration approaches its final months, the days of Muhammad Javad Zarif as foreign minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran coming to an end. Next summer, after 8 years of ups and downs in Tehran’s foreign policy, Iran’s most senior diplomat is going to hand over his legacy to his successor. His first achievement as foreign minister, the JCPOA, was a quick success although a very difficult one, which soon became a liability for the Rouhani administration as soon as Donald J. Trump took office on 20th January 2017. Critics inside Iran were harsh on Zarif and his team because of their inability to predict the withdrawal of the US’s administration from the deal and that they could not prevent its consequences. We had the opportunity to interview Zarif in the second week of January. Although these days he is often asked about the issue of the new administration in the White House and the future of JCPOA and Iran-U.S. relations, we tried to ask him about his views on his legacy in the past 8 years and more profound questions about the virtue of Iran’s foreign policy. He was diplomatic and conservative in his answers, as he always is, but on some occasions, in this conversation, he spoke more openly than before while sticking to the topic of national interests.
Many analysts believe Iran suffers from a sort of “strategic loneliness”. This isn’t limited to the past 40 years and the post-revolution era. Iran didn’t have any ally in any bloc, region, and framework even before the 1979 Revolution. The country has no strategic ally, either in the eastern bloc or the western front. Arab countries consider Iran as a rival, and in the Muslim world the country is more known for its Shia majority than its Muslim population. What measures do you think should be taken to reduce the costs of this strategic loneliness?
Some analysts believe Iran has a number of characteristics: First, it is the first and oldest country in the world that has always existed in a fixed geographical area. Second, Iran has never sought territorial expansionism, except for three periods of its history, and has usually been invaded by others; however, it has always stood upright despite all those attacks. Those who invaded Iran are all gone, but Iran has survived. An Iranian graduate in the US recently conducted studies which have been published as a book which states that Iran has been attacked 444 times during the past 2,300 years. Such alienation is not limited to the post-Revolution era or the previous regime [of Shah]. Iran is in an environment where the country is different from its neighbours in terms of religion, language, and ethnicity. Besides, Iran is not an ethnicity, but a culture. Iran is composed of various ethnic groups who have lived together within a single and fixed geographical environment, and this is another noteworthy characteristic of Iran. These conditions cannot be changed, but they can be controlled. Under the current circumstances, we should clearly see the realities: Iran is the most powerful country in the neighbourhood. Iran is a real country, rather than an ethnic group, in terms of population, resources, and history compared with its neighbours, except for Russia. The ethnic groups inside Iran look at their “Iranian nationality” as an identity, not [as one of] the sub-identities each of them may have. These realities turn Iran into a country whose neighbours are worried about. This concern is not because of the historical background, but because of the realities of Iran including its human and natural capabilities, population and geographic location. It’s obvious that the littoral states south of the Persian Gulf – some of which are not even as populated as one of Tehran’s residential complex– are concerned about Iran’s power. Some neighbouring countries have resorted to coalition-building against Iran in order to allay such concerns. As an example, at the beginning of the imposed war between Iran and Iraq, the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council was formed as a coalition to counter Iran. Some also tried, based on an incorrect assumption, to buy security from abroad. These countries’ relations with the United States of America and the heavy arms purchases of the states south of the Persian Gulf, and the type of contact they are establishing with Israel these days, all indicate this reality, and are based on the assumption that they can buy security from abroad.
The obvious question here is: What can be done with this reality?
We should develop a neighbourhood policy which is based on building mutual trust and dependence. It is imperative that Iran, as the bigger country, be a pioneer in this regard. We shouldn’t expect our neighbours to look at this issue with the same level of attention as we do. Iran is more powerful than its neighbours, and is not worried about its own security. In fact, we have no territorial claim or interest in accessing the natural resources of other regional countries; therefore, it is Iran that can initiate this effort from a position of wealth. We shouldn’t wait for others.
We have failed to criticize this power. The question that arises from your answers is that, in the past two decades, the nuclear case has practically consumed a lion’s share of the energy of Iran’s foreign policy, and it seems that the very issue has made our foreign policy more reactive and passive. We talk of initiatives to settle the crisis in the region, but simply put, no one buys our initiatives. If the same initiative, with slight differences, is heard from the Russians or any other country, it would even be welcomed! In the past four decades, we have failed to prevent rivalries that could be somehow profitable for us from turning into costly rivalries for Iran.
Mistakes were made by all sides, and this situation harmed everyone. It’s not a new feeling that security can be achieved through proxies. The Iraq war was the first example of such a point of view after the 1979 Revolution of Iran. The war Iraq imposed on Iran was both a direct and a proxy war. Saddam sought to heal his own geostrategic suffocation, and both in his war against us and against Kuwait, he thought he’d found an opportunity that could help him achieve his goal. Saddam initiated the war against us at a time when he thought Iran was in its worst conditions in terms of capabilities and domestic integrity, and that was his destiny. But the regional countries organized the proxy war against us by supporting Saddam in his war on Iran. Saudi Arabia says it contributed $75 billion to Saddam in this war. King Abdullah, who was Emir Abdullah at the time, had told Americans ‘‘the head of the snake must be cut off’’, referring to Iran. They are still hopeful that others will come and settle their problems for them. They started the process of proxy confrontation with Iran from the Iraq war, and proceeded with it. I’m not saying Iran has not made any mistake; Iran has definitely made many mistakes, but the fact that the proxy war against Iran was started from the Iraq war during a time when Iran was not able to create any security problem for other nations, which indicates that this situation was imposed on us from the beginning, and has unfortunately continued.
Mr Foreign Minister, this is what we are criticized for, as well: not just in other countries. However, some of our compatriots living inside the country ask: didn’t we seek to create proxy forces [for ourselves]? Don’t we have any proxy forces in Syria, Iraq or within the Resistance front? A Palestinian official has recently talked about suitcases full of dollars sent by Iran to the Resistance front. Isn’t this considered a type of outsourcing security?
Our relation with regional friends is not of a proxy type. In the proxy type, you hire a group to secure your interests, and pay their expenses for that. The Saudi Arabian government is now spending billions of dollars for its proxy moves.
How much do we spend?
I really have no idea, but John Kerry once told me “if we unblock your money, you will be able to use them in the region”. Then I replied, “It’s not about spending. Your friends in the region spend hundreds of times more on equipment we can have at any point in time, so why aren’t they successful? Because they view these costs as a proxy type.” They hired Saddam and paid him $75 billion to act against Iran. They provided Al Qaeda, Daesh, and Nusra Front with funds and weapons to act against Iran’s interests. Such actions paramount to hiring mercenaries, which doesn’t work.
What Iran does is different. Iran supports the attitude of resistance and standing up against excessive demands. This attitude has created power. We didn’t try to expand our borders. One of our neighbours which is present in Syria has hoisted its flag on top of government buildings all over the place, even in regions where it is active as a “peacekeeper”. Iran doesn’t hoist its flag. Iran is in Syria to support, not to give orders. We don’t, and can’t, give orders to Hezbollah. If we wanted to choose that path, we would have definitely failed, and would have even turned into a force that uses mercenaries. The costs are much more for a force using mercenaries, and that’s something that Iran cannot afford. Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars on individuals who have finally turned into the enemies of the country. Al Qaeda, Daesh, Nusra Front and the strong wave of radical and extremist Wahhabis across the world have all been created by Saudi Arabia. When you buy a mercenary with money, and make them believe in an ideology in order to justify what they do, the mercenaries will one day believe this ideology and turn it against you.
Do you confirm that the Islamic Republic of Iran provides cash support to its allies?
Let me put it this way: you always pay for your foreign policy. We are one of the numerous countries that provide development aid. For instance, we built parliaments of Comoros and Djibouti. We have built clinics or hospitals or have development projects in many countries. Iran doesn’t spend [much] money in this regard. The US, China, and even Turkey spend huge amounts of money in other countries. Contributions to political groups and parties are part of this spending, which is paid by many countries overtly or covertly.
Are these contributions kept secret from us?
I need to repeat myself, what we do is not buying mercenaries, and this is the distinction between us and others. When Iran’s financial resources were much more [than today], our friends might have made certain requests that would have been accepted [by Iran]. During the 11th and 12th administrations [President Rouhani’s terms in office], all the resources available were spent on our own people because of a shortage of resources and the fact that the Iranian people must be prioritized; as the famous saying goes, “never turn off the lamps at home to light up the mosque”. But believe me, building certain international alliances allows you to cut many of your expenses. Fighting is much more costly than diplomacy. However, we are spending very little on diplomacy right now. The Supreme Leader has said that the cost of diplomacy is much smaller than the cost of conflict, therefore the path of diplomacy must be chosen. The Leader’s remark comes as he had earlier stated that he’s “a revolutionary not a diplomat”. In order to use the path of diplomacy, you should definitely spend money, and those contributions are part of these expenses.
Mr. Zarif, probably one year from now you won’t be Iran’s Foreign Minister anymore...
Your term in office had two important, but relatively conflicting legacies: success in clinching the nuclear deal, which turned into a subject for criticizing you after Donald Trump took office and reinstated the anti-Iran sanctions, and the failure in advancing a successful foreign policy in West Asia, especially along the Persian Gulf, and specifically Saudi Arabia. You have earlier confessed to this failure, and have repeatedly regretted that you couldn’t advance your desired diplomacy in the region. Apart from the usual words about Saudi Arabia’s opposition and resistance to any de-escalation with Iran, a good diplomat is one who can make the impossible possible. Weren’t chances for a détente with Saudi Arabia wasted?
I should first tell you something. Even before Donald Trump’s presidency I used to be criticized for the JCPOA, and that will probably continue. But the future must judge the conditions of JCPOA and the conditions it created for the country.
Part of the future is written when you talk about it. You don’t respond to many of these criticisms. You always keep saying there’s nothing to hide from people, yet you are not forthright.
There are things to hide.
Not from people, but in today’s world you cannot choose your audience. In the past, you would deliver a speech at a mosque or a university, and a small group of people would hear you. Today it makes no difference whether you’re talking at the United Nations or your local mosque: your words circulate. Therefore, when you’re in the middle of negotiations – which is a place not for winning or losing but a place for reaching an understanding and maximizing their own gains from this understanding – there are many words to hide. My duty is to defend Iran, not the Foreign Ministry, myself, or the JCPOA.
Part of your silence results in the failure of a foreign policy “attitude” which comprises a balance of relations in foreign policy and de-escalation, among others. Your silence may secure short- or medium-term national interests, but doesn’t it sacrifice long-term interests?
My duty is to keep national interests from harm at the moment. In the long-run, there are ways which will definitely be considered in the future, and people like me whose hearts beat for Iran who will think of these points.
In response to your question about ties with Saudi Arabia; if I myself look at the issue, I may say one or two chances have been missed. For example, when I was invited to visit Saudi Arabia, for various reasons Riyadh didn’t want to treat me with the respect an Iranian foreign minister deserves. Of course, the decision to not go there was not mine; I was even ready to visit there regardless of their lack of respect, but the county believed it wouldn’t be appropriate. The reason I didn’t insist was that I, too, was of the opinion that if the Saudis were interested in reaching an understanding, they wouldn’t have created so many obstacles and made the trip’s formalities so insulting. Maybe, maybe, though I’m not sure, had I taken that risk and convinced my country’s officials to go on that trip, it could have turned into an opportunity. My perception is what you said; Saudis weren’t interested in a rapprochement between Tehran and Riyadh.
I always used the opportunities that presented themselves on the side-lines of international conferences when holding talks with Saudi foreign ministers. I even visited the late Saud al-Faisal’s hotel room in New York, and was criticized at home for doing that. They even criticized me because I had sat on a sofa and he had sat on a chair because of his backache. Some said the Saudi foreign minister was sitting at a higher position than me. But I tolerated all of them. I held talks with the next Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, on the side-lines of several meetings. I sent numerous messages to Saudi Arabia, and even in my first weeks at the Foreign Ministry we reached a joint solution with beloved Martyr Soleimani for working with Saudi Arabia. We sent a message to Saud al-Faisal through Track II diplomacy, but he gave us a very frustrating response.
“In the first weeks of your ministerial term,” does this mean even before the official beginning of nuclear talks?
Many claim that you spent all your power and energy on the JCPOA, and ignored Saudi Arabia and its threats at that period of time.
It’s definitely not true. The first article I wrote after being appointed as Iran’s Foreign Minister was written in Arabic and published by Asharq Al-Awsat, which is a Saudi newspaper. My first serious political move was holding talks with General Soleimani on the regional issues, so that we and Saudi Arabia would be able to reach a point where we can work together to end the conflict in the sensitive parts of this region, and see if we can achieve a consensus. General Soleimani was prepared in this regard. I earlier said that General Soleimani was a man of peace. It’s true that he was a very brave warrior in the battlefront, but he would also help end conflicts and achieve peace, either in Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen and in other cases, whenever he could make a difference. I recall many instances of General Soleimani’s collaborations, and this one [talks on Saudi Arabia] was the first instance of my term as a foreign minister. General Soleimani and I had earlier made joint efforts regarding Afghanistan and other issues, and had achieved results, but this time, I consulted with him in my first weeks at the Foreign Ministry, and this consultation led to the conclusion that we send a message to Saudis. I sent a message to Mr Saud al-Faisal through our brothers who were present at the Track II diplomacy meetings or one of the think tanks, and through an acquaintance who was close to Saudi Arabia and its then rulers – not those ruling the country now. The general content of the message was that ‘let’s sit down and talk about our differences in order to help the people of these countries’. One of the points I mentioned was the case of Yemen. At that time, the crisis had not yet started in the country. With his deep insight, General Soleimani told me about the issue of Yemen. At that time, I had just returned to the Foreign Ministry after a six-year hiatus, and I must admit I didn’t know Yemen was on the boil, and things may happen. What came to my own mind [at that time] were the cases of Bahrain, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon on which we had a row with Saudi Arabia. But General Soleimani also suggested Yemen [to be included in the message]. Finally, he [the Saudi foreign minister] gave a one-line response to my message: “The Arab world is none of your business.”
I later wrote an article for the well-known American magazine, The Atlantic, one of the major points I made was, “Arab affairs are Iran’s business. We live in this world, and all the troubles and difficulties we face stem from here. We are the Arab world’s brothers, and have family relationship with them. Iran is in fact much bigger than a group of Persians. In Iran we also have Arab-speaking and Azeri-speaking compatriots. What does it mean that the Arab world is none of our business?”
This was the first message I sent to the Saudis at the beginning of my term, in September-October 2013, and received that response. I’d never accept the claim that we distanced ourselves from the region because of the JCPOA. Indeed, I paid a lot of attention to the region, and made many efforts to settle the problem in the region. During the regional visit I made in my first year in office, I travelled to [all] regional countries except Saudi Arabia. My maiden foreign trip was also to Iraq. Of course that was the first trip for bilateral relations, because immediately after taking office, we attended the UN General Assembly, which is not considered a trip to the West, but just a world trip.
We made numerous regional trips at the time of nuclear talks, we made extensive regional efforts, and wrote numerous articles. The proposal for the formation of a regional dialogue forum was raised at that time. Earlier, I had raised the “Security and Cooperation in Persian Gulf” proposal in 1992 following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, when I was at the United Nations. It’s a totally unacceptable criticism, and you can consider this objective reason for that: My regional visits in 2013 and 2014 were made despite the fact that the [nuclear] negotiations wouldn’t leave me any free time; however, I travelled to regional countries whenever I found the chances.
You always stress that foreign policy must help the people’s livelihood, not that it places further burden on their lives. Some officials in our country turn into critics of the government and even the establishment after leaving power, and speak from the position of a third party, as if they never had any power to make a change. You were Iran’s Foreign Minister for eight years. How much did you manage to decrease the negative impact of foreign policy on people’s livelihood?
It definitely wasn’t as much as I wanted it to be, but I can say with certainly that I sacrificed myself and my domestic position. I avoided making certain popular remarks, and made remarks that were unpopular, so that foreign policy would not place burdens on people’s livelihoods. It was very easy for me, in all these years to make remarks that they like, so as to reduce the huge pressure on myself inside the country, but I didn’t. I’m sure I didn’t make any move to place more burdens on people’s livelihoods, but I admit we failed to mitigate the impact of foreign policy on people’s livelihood as much as I wanted.
From zero to 100, how much control did Mohammad Javad Zarif have on Iran’s foreign policy?
Yes, that’s the case in all countries.
So, the Foreign Minister only implements the establishment’s policies?
Let me revise myself. What I meant was that all foreign ministers have zero control [over their respective countries’ foreign policy], unless it’s a foreign minister like Mike Pompeo who is hawkish and could seek to wage a war. But, a foreign minister is the one who executes [orders], and has two duties: first, as an analyst he presents the facts to the country’s top authorities as they are. One day, when the country’s foreign policy documents are released, it will be revealed that I haven’t censored myself even once. Not when I was Iran’s ambassador or deputy foreign minister [or now that I’m the foreign minister]. The Supreme Leader was always very kind to me. He said that “He (Zarif) expresses his opinions, even if they are against mine.” When I was about to leave for New York, the Supreme Leader told me, “You are duty-bound to tell me your opinion straightforwardly, even if you are sure your opinion is diametrically opposed to mine.” This was my duty, and I fulfilled my duty. A foreign minister also has another duty, and that’s defending the policies adopted by their country or any part of their country.
You implement a “policy” in which you may have a limited role. I played a more significant role in developing the JCPOA policies, but my role in developing the regional policies was a more limited one. I had a considerable role in developing Iran’s policies toward Russia and China. I played a very important role in developing Iran’s policies toward the Latin America, but I had only a minor influence on Iran’s regional policies. I’m not saying I didn’t have any role, but it was less significant. However, I implemented all these policies, and I defend all that the Islamic Republic has done. It is possible that I do not believe in some of these policies - not the regional policies. Some policies might have been pursued to create troubles for my own job, but when dealing with the world, I’m the representative of the entire ruling system of Iran, so I have to defend things I myself don’t believe in. I may even be critical of some of them, but I know those who are critical of such policies do not have the interests of the Iranian people in mind.
Let me explain this with a clear example in the field of human rights. Everyone knows my views in this regard. They know that I believe that human rights must be observed as a necessity for Iran’s national security. Therefore, I’m definitely critical of many human rights policies. But I’m confident that the countries who supported the murder of Khashoggi, the countries who refused to downgrade even a little bit their ties with Saudi Arabia for its part in this murder, the countries that support the Zionist regime and its suppression of Palestinian people, such people will never feel pity for the Iranian people. Even take a look at a country like Canada, and see how it votes when it comes to the UN Human Rights Council resolutions about the Zionist regime.
Mr Minister, our mistakes cannot be justified by those of others.
That’s definitely true. What I’m saying is, that when you see Saudi Arabia is the biggest advocate of a human rights resolution against Iran and it joins Canada in backing the resolution, you have to admit that the resolution is politically-motivated, and its purpose is not human rights. If you want Iran’s human rights situation to be reformed, you have to work from the inside. Foreign pressure has never helped to improve human rights in any country, and it was never meant to do so.
If we accept your definition of a foreign minister’s role, what’s the difference between you and your predecessors in previous administrations? You have repeatedly criticized them. For example, you stated that opportunities were wasted in the previous administration during the nuclear talks.
Indeed, those wasted opportunities were not the fault of the foreign minister or administration. Other elements were to blame. The foreign minister has a duty, and that is presenting the facts.
What differentiates a foreign minister from other people if his criticism of this reality cannot be in favour of the people?
You should look and see how much he has succeeded and how much he has failed [in doing so]. After all, Mr Salehi made a very courageous move when he presented the facts, an effort which finally won him the permission to attend the Muscat talks. However, even after he received permission, a group tried to obstruct his efforts. They blocked Iran’s attendance and wasted one whole year. Mr Salehi will be remembered positively, because he fought to show the fact. One day, it will be revealed that I, also told the facts; that I went abroad and advanced these realities as much as I was allowed to.
I should also add that a foreign minister cannot necessarily consider all the country’s reservations and interests [at the same time]. A country is not one-dimensional; it has multiple dimensions, and that’s why decisions should not be made by someone like me in the diplomatic or by a commander in the battlefield. The decision has to be made somewhere else. I’m duty-bound to present all I see in the diplomatic arena honestly as if I were a watchdog. And that military commander is also duty-bound to present what he sees in the military field. An economic commander is also obliged to present all the facts he sees in full honesty. I, as the foreign minister, must admit that I have failed here. An economic official must say he has failed to achieve the economic goals because of external problems. All the data is gathered in the decision-making center (the Supreme National Security Council), which consists of several members including the foreign minister, the defence minister, the chief of staff of the armed forces, and the head of the Plan and Budget Organization. That is where the decisions are made. For example, why is the head of the Plan and Budget Organization a member of the Supreme National Security Council? Because when we want to make a decision, everything must be honestly considered, and then the decision is made. So, the foreign minister’s role here is that of a policy-maker.
Mr Zarif, in the past eight years was there anything that you felt would seriously harm national interests, but you still implemented it as an executive official?
No, I didn’t feel that way about what I did myself. I defended certain moves in the international arena that I believed weren’t useful for our national interests, but those moves had been made not by me, but by others, and as foreign minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran, I was obliged to defend any move made by Iranians and by any Iranian official, no matter if I agreed or disagreed with it. But with God’s grace and the Supreme Leader’s flexibility, when I had a specific point of view, I could get an instruction that implementation was not unjustifiable for me [for the conscience of an expert in international relations].
In one of your interviews, you stress that the Islamic Republic of Iran must maintain its fundamental difference with the United States. There is a well-known saying in the world of politics that there is no such thing as a permanent friend or foe. God knows we have repeatedly had this saying proved to us for the past 40 years. From Saddam’s Iraq, or enemy in the 8-year war to today’s Iraq which we consider Iran’s most important friend in the region; and from the Afghanistan of the Taliban, to today’s Afghanistan. Do you insist that Iran’s enemies remain eternal enemies?
I didn’t say “enemy”, I never use the word “enemy”.
But those fundamental differences have turned into enmity...
I’m responsible for my own words.
What’s the point of keeping this fundamental difference?
The US has a nature and identity, and so do we. These two identities have natural differences. We represent a civilization. The US wants us to turn into another entity and abandon our civilization. The US does not represent any particular civilization, but it claims that is has values that are worth fighting for. The US claims it is a different country, and believes in what it calls “American exceptionalism”. The supposition of being exceptional shapes the US policies in a way that makes its perspective different from those of a civilized country like Iran. Such perspectives consolidate our identity. I believe we shouldn’t lose these perspectives. I never believe in tension, but I believe we should keep our identity. It is our cultural, civilizational and national identity. National identity doesn’t allow an American to say, ‘If I stop protecting Iran for a week, they would be speaking in Arabic or Russian or Chinese’.
But we aren’t the only country in the world that has a national identity, are we? Why should we have the highest level of tension with the US?
I make theoretical comments, but I don’t say we should have tension with the US every day in order to maintain our identity and our different perspectives. However, we need to admit that we are different. Just as the US feels exceptional, we too have the sense of being special. No Iranian can accept that America can give them orders. No matter which group, idea, and ideology that Iranian supports. This isn’t said just by me, but also by Henry Kissinger who said, “Iran inherited the world’s oldest national identity.” The Iranian identity is the oldest cultural identity, and we cannot accept that someone else forcefully rules us.
For example, in the case of JCPOA, both the IRI and the USA had problems with the deal. In Europe, no one really had a problem with the JCPOA. Why? Because Americans are used to dictating [their demands] when they are interacting with others. But there was no dictation in the JCPOA. Iranians, on the other hand, have become accustomed to resistance, especially after the 1979 Revolution. There was resistance in the JCPOA, but finally it was all about interaction. That was why JCPOA was resisted against both in Iran and in the US.
Why does Trump say the JCPOA was the biggest-ever con perpetrated on the US? Of course, I don’t believe so, but his claim is based on his belief that the US must dictate to others whenever it sits at a table, but that didn’t happen in the JCPOA. What’s the reason that the US is now saying the timetables in the JCPOA must change or that the regional and missiles issues be included in the talks? This is where our perspectives diverge. Because they have an expression which says ‘what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable’. This ideology may work in many parts of the world, but not when it comes to Iran.
Mr Foreign Minister, how much are you in touch with ordinary people? The people on the streets and alleys.
In the past seven years and several months – which Inshallah will become eight years as soon as possible – I had a position which necessitated certain security considerations as recommended by colleagues who were in charge of that, and I believe in specialization, and I cannot make decisions about my own security. This has created a gap between me and the people. But even over this period of time, I tried my best not to be separated from people wherever I visited or whenever I went to a restaurant, even once in a year. I’m also in touch, through email and social media, with anyone who wants to contact me, and I try to always be available.
Have you heard the people’s voice about the costs of foreign policy?
Does a person whose livelihood is directly impacted by the country’s foreign policy have the right to comment about foreign policy?
You say we should maintain our fundamental difference with the US, and I know you have made efforts to de-escalate Iran-US tensions during your term in office. I can tell you for sure that the majority of ordinary people say they are tired of this costly tension after 40 years.
Let me raise another fundamental issue here. I believe that shifting the responsibility for all our problems onto foreigners or blaming the outside world will only result in the belief among our people that all solutions are to be found outside the country.
This is what Mr Rouhani does.
As I said, I’m only responsible for my own words.
But you are the foreign minister of this administration.
Yes, and I respect his view…
President Rouhani says that America is the one Iranians must yell at.
True, and to find the reason for this, look at the differences between the years 2016, 2017 and 2018, 2019. These years were when our inflation rate was less than 10%, and Iran had a two-digit economic growth rate. But now we have a negative growth rate, which thank God has slightly moved toward the positive area this year. What the president said can be justified, but I’m making a different point.
We are now in the middle of an economic war with the US. We were at war with Iraq for eight years, and that was an external reality. We could never ignore the war with Iraq. Now that the US is waging an economic war against Iran, this war cannot be ignored either. But my point should not be mixed with political arguments. When you shift all the blame on foreigners, the people will seek all the solutions in the outside world. For this reason, with all due respect for my friends who are kind to me, I should say the president of a country must focus on domestic politics. You have a foreign minister who pursues the country’s foreign policy, and one of the reasons why I believe I shouldn’t become a president is that the president must concentrate on domestic politics. His focus must be on national capacities, and a foreign policy that facilitates domestic [affairs].
Our foreign policy has costs that overshadow our domestic policy.
Yes, that’s right. And these foreign policy costs must be reduced.
To what extent are these costs caused by tension with the US?
To a very hight degree.
When are we going to resolve it?
Everyone must admit that in our time, I was the one who paid the price of dialogue with the US for the first time. I sat down with the US Secretary of State. We reached a deal with the US Secretary of State. We started implementing a deal together. Many in Iran were opposed to what we did. Many in Iran obstructed our efforts. Now is not a good time to talk about these issues, but one day all these issues will finally be made clear. As a matter of fact, an election was held in the US. Some think Donald Trump won the US elections [in 2016] because of the JCPOA and lost the  race because of our resistance. That’s not true. Trump won and lost their elections for domestic reasons. Besides, Trump is still a serious force inside the US. He came to power and destroyed our de-escalation policy. Of course, Israel is very much into creating tensions in our region. The only regime that fully benefits from Iran-US tension is the Zionist regime.
You point to Trump, but we know that even if the US was governed by Obama or an administration more moderate than Trump’s, the nuclear issue would not be our only issue. You have repeatedly mentioned the nuclear program was just a pretext. Since the early days of the revolution up to now, we have held negotiations with the US on a case-by-case basis in every period of time, but the next case has always overshadowed and destroyed the previous case on which the two sides had agreed. Don’t you think it’s time for us to negotiate with the US on a package?
My view about the necessity of holding negotiations with the entire world, except for the Zionist regime, is clear.
Do you agree that case-by-case negotiations do not work? The results of these negotiations are short lived...
Any negotiation is held on a case-by-case basis, and even in “comprehensive negotiations” you need to delineate a picture of the future of relations. The reason JCPOA succeeded unlike the previous talks was that we drew the final picture at the beginning of JCPOA negotiations in the Geneva agreement, and we had a clear final picture of our relations.
In my personal view (which is not that of the country), we should delineate the final picture of relations with the US. We should tell the US that we won’t cooperate with you on the issue of Israel, and will continue to disagree with you. We won’t accompany you in the case of hegemony, we won’t let you inter fere in Iran’s internal affairs, but we don’t have any problem about working with you on the oil issue. We don’t have any problems on ensuring the security of the Persian Gulf, while we believe foreign presence creates insecurity in the Persian Gulf, and you shouldn’t be here. We believe democracy should be established in Afghanistan. Just as we both reached an understanding in 2001 in Bonn; but we believe your presence in Afghanistan in dangerous. We need to clear a serious picture of the general outline of [our] future with the US, and then we would negotiate on the issues we decide, not on every single issue.
Do you think the Establishment, not the Rouhani administration, has the resolve to draw such a picture of ultimate relations with the US?
The JCPOA was an opportunity for the US to create such a resolve in Iran. The Supreme Leader said, “This is a test. If it is successful, it may be applied to other areas as well.” A few days ago, 110 countries of the world voted against the US at the UN General Assembly, because the US failed the JCPOA test. There is no doubt about it. But there is a difference between the fact that the US can impose its policies on the world and that the world doesn’t accept the US policies. 110 is not a small number. Most UN General Assembly resolutions are passed with 50 or 60 votes. In the case of anti-Iran human rights resolutions, the numbers of yea and nay votes are only 30 or 40 votes apart. The US lost with 110 nay votes, 10 yea votes, and 40 abstentions. It means 150 countries of the world told the US ‘we are against your JCPOA policy’. So, it is the US that failed in the JCPOA test. This country cannot say ‘I’ve failed this test, now I want to add two more issues to the JCPOA’.
Once in an interview, the interviewer asked you on behalf of young Iranians, ‘Why should Iran always have problems with other countries of the world?’, and you answered, ‘We have chosen to live in a different way’. You know this sentence turned into a hashtag, and many young people living in Iran objected to you and said what’s going on today is not their choice. They say, ‘We didn’t decide to live in tension; to buy medicine at five times the price’. What’s your response to these criticisms? Don’t you see this public dissatisfaction as a threat to our foreign policy?
I’ve repeatedly said the Islamic Republic of Iran is not dependent on weapons or the outside world, but on its people. So, it is the people who protect our country. I have very clear examples I could cite in response to your question, but I’m sorry I cannot.
You cannot respond to criticisms against your ‘We chose to live this way’ comment?
Don’t you think people need to hear your justification? You’ve been widely criticized for this comment.
This is one of the cases where I’m okay if my comment doesn’t make people much pleased with me. I do not mean that they have chosen to fight against the world, but we make choices with our every single move. We have chosen not to be like Saudi. Our people are not ready to live like Saudi Arabia, even for a moment. They may say the UAE is now very much developed.
But are they ready to live like that? If they were ready to do so, such a huge crowd of people wouldn’t have shown up for [the funeral of] General Soleimani. Such a crowd wouldn’t have shown up in the ceremonies commemorating a person who was a symbol of resistance. This turnout shows their choice, and proves that these people are not ready to tolerate coercion. This turnout shows these people would not accept anyone who comes to power and makes decisions for them. This proves these people consider their hero as someone who has stood against the US. This shows the people’s choice. Who has forced these people to cry for Qassem at home? You know many of those who criticize our policies in Syria or in the region cried for Hajj Qassem at home, and have his pictures at home. These indicate [the people’s] choice. Choice of what? That people would not accept to live like Saudi Arabia.
Why do you always cite Saudi Arabia as an example? Isn’t there any country between Iran and Saudi Arabia which is not so dependent and has less problems?
It’s because we are in a region which is very much different from Malaysia’s.
Doesn’t the high rate of Iranian emigration make you worried?
Yes, very much.
Doesn’t it show that some people may mourn General Soleimani’s martyrdom, but at the same time they believe the situation inside the country is such that they’d better leave?
Unfortunately, that’s true. But we have to accept this reality, that after all we have a role to play in shaping our future. If people go to the polls and vote, the result will definitely be different. If people accept that elections are decisive, the result will definitely be different. We need to know that we are the ones who decide our own fate. We should accept that the people’s concerns are important to the country’s top authorities.
Mr Foreign Minister, when people voted for Hassan Rouhani, many predicted that you, or someone who shares your views in foreign policy, would be appointed as the foreign minister. In the Spring, when you leave office, people will ask you, ‘When you came to power, Iran was suffering from the harshest sanctions, sanctions on everything. Medicine, staples, building materials... are overpriced. And now that Rouhani is leaving, we are still under sanctions. What’s the difference? Who should they vote for?
People know that we weren’t riding on a train without any brakes. We tried, we negotiated, and we achieved some results. They saw the result of that deal for two years. I myself believe we could have done much more over those two years. We could have done much more to create impunity for the country, in two different ways, maybe two opposite ways: first, paying attention to domestic production as underlined by the Supreme Leader, and second making other countries dependent on Iran. When you have tens of billions of dollars’ worth of investment in Iran, you cannot impose sanctions on this country.
You mean American investment?
But the Europeans came here and then left...
That’s right, but that dependence wasn’t created. This lack of success was not totally caused by US pressure. It was partly caused by domestic pressures, bureaucratic restrictions, and certain concerns inside the country. You remember how long the IPC (Iranian Petroleum Contract) took, despite the tremendous efforts made by Mr Zangeneh and his colleagues, who managed to sell so much of our oil. What the Obama administration did was that he made the global market indifferent to Iran’s oil by gradually expelling the Iranian oil from the global market. However, Mr Zangeneh managed to restore our oil sales at such a great pace.
Instead of getting dependent on the world, we should have made the global market dependent on ourselves. This is what the Supreme Leader says. He says that the world must become dependent on Iran, and we shouldn’t be just a place for excessive imports, but turn into part of the global value chain and production cycle. After the JCPOA, they said Iran is the best place for investment after Mars. Why didn’t we attract all those investments? Because of domestic bureaucracy, the FATF, and other issues. In many cases we caused the country to lose the foreign investment that could make the country immune. We just stuck to foreign trade. Foreign trade doesn’t bring you immunity.
You have repeatedly stressed that the Islamic Republic of Iran has a Ph.D. in bypassing sanctions. Mr Minister, people should be able to use this ability. How did this Ph.D. help us when we wanted to purchase medicine, either for special diseases or the coronavirus vaccine, which we keep saying was blocked by the US?
I said, ‘We have a Ph.D. in bypassing sanctions’ at a certain point in time, because when you want to negotiate with another party, you can’t say ‘your sanctions have the most impact on us’ and still expect the other side not to get a lot of concessions from you for lifting the sanctions. But the reality is that any other country would have definitely collapsed if it remained under so many sanctions for two years. The Americans had predicted that we’d fall, and we owe this to our people’s resistance, not anyone else.
This is why I say we should care about our people much more than this, and know that whatever we have comes from our people. The government tried very hard, but the people were the ones who caused the maximum pressure to fail. We’ve been at war for the past two years, and if it wasn’t for people’s resistance, and if we didn’t have that Ph.D. in bypassing the sanctions, we would have definitely faced more fundamental problems. A very small sanction is imposed on one of our neighbours, and that results in a 50-percent decrease in their currency’s value. No one can imagine a sanction Trump has not imposed on Iran; if we have a Ph.D. in sanctions, he has a postdoc in that.
Iran and of course many prominent foreign policy analysts believe the US maximum pressure on Iran failed to achieve its intended goals. However, in the past year, we witnessed two unfair and of course unprecedented assassinations: Martyr General Qassem Soleimani and Martyr Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Even if we accept that General Soleimani’s assassination wasn’t caused by a security hole – which is of course not that much acceptable considering his position and Iran’s awareness of various US administrations’ efforts to assassinate him – the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh near the capital city definitely shows a security hole. Has the Islamic Republic’s security and intelligence power degraded? Or the government like that of Trump and a regime like the Zionist regime, assisted by security institutions like the CIA and Mossad, have managed to deflect Iran’s attention from real security threats in order to deal the blows they want?
This is not in my area of expertise and responsibility, and I’m not like those who accuse others of negligence. But the way the Americans assassinated General Soleimani was complete cowardice. Someone is present in the battlefront and you have failed to assassinate him using your hirelings – the Daesh elements, so you are forced to target his civilian car in the middle of the night when he is going to visit the prime minister of another country, not using your armed forces, but with an unmanned drone, which shows your maximum fear. This is no success for the US. General Soleimani’s flight was clear. When I was travelling to Biarritz, even though we were on an unannounced trip, it was announced that an Iranian plane is en route, even before my plane landed.
General Soleimani’s plane took off from Damascus, before Israel’s eyes, and landed in Baghdad where many Americans were present. Targeting the general in this war is no big accomplishment for the US and Trump. How did they assassinate Martyr Fakhrizadeh? They mounted a device on a car, and assassinated him remotely. These things are possible everywhere.
It’s true that Trump officially withdrew the US from the JCPOA in 2018, but from January 2017 when he came to office, he relentlessly made anti-Iran moves, and imposed a huge pressure on Iran. In his first year in office, whenever he extended the waivers, he imposed new sanctions as well so as to prevent the waivers from making any positive impact. We tolerated the situation for four years, and Tehran is still safe. Daesh was behind our borders, but the country is still safe. The Zionist regime sought to assassinate Martyr Fakhrizadeh for years, and unfortunately it managed to do that, which is unforgivable and we should seriously think about it inside the country. However, we shouldn’t say it was because of the success of the US’ maximum pressure. This pressure has failed; of course, we may have made mistakes, and some of our policies may have created such holes. We should talk about them separately.
Europe, for the second time in the past two decades, failed to deliver on its commitments in practice, and used the private ownership of its companies, financial institutions and banks as well as the US sanctions as an excuse to justify this failure. Will our view of Europe change from now on in international negotiations?
We didn’t trust the Europeans, and didn’t overestimate their power. In the world of diplomacy, we should make use of all the tools available. In 2003, when the Board of Directors of the International Atomic Energy Agency adopted its resolution in September, everyone thought Iran would be on the Security Council’s doorstep by the end of December that year. Mr Sadeq Saba, the BBC analyst, said at the time that Iran faced a dilemma for the first time in its history: either to give up or to be sanctioned by the Security Council; that was what the US had sought to implement against Iran since the early days of the Revolution. In the cases of Iran-Iraq war and the Resolution 598, the US sought to put Iran under the Security Council’s sanctions. At that time (in 2003), the Europeans provided us with a platform that helped us postpone the Security Council decision until 2006. We defeated the US for three years using the platform provided by the Europeans. We were never hopeful that the Europeans would be able to overtake the US. But had the Ahmadinejad administration adopted a reasonable policy, we could continue going forward with the same game. Our case was not referred to the Security Council by the end of that era, when Mr Rouhani was in charge of nuclear negotiations and I was responsible for the talks instead of Dr Araqchi. Using the European instrument, we didn’t let the issue get out of the Board of Governors.
Even then, when the US left the JCPOA, we still believed the Europeans had duties to fulfil, but we didn’t want to withdraw from the deal at that time, and we believed that JCPOA was in line with our interests; therefore, this diplomatic instrument has helped us so far. I’m not saying that we abused Europe. The Europeans indeed proved this time that they cannot do anything when it comes to sanctions. I’ve said it to Europeans that European companies look at Washington before looking at their own capitals. This is a problem for which Europe must make a decision. Our companies look at ourselves, but it is the European companies that don’t recognize Europe’s independence and sovereignty.
Despite all of that, consider the fact that we have defeated the US three times in the past three months using this method: twice at the UN Security Council, and once at the UN General Assembly with 110 votes, which is a victory of diplomacy. We achieved this victory using the same method that we utilized along with Europe and the P4+1. With diplomacy, you need to make use of all the instruments in their own capacity, and you cannot consider a capacity for an instrument when it lacks that capacity. Both in 2003 and after the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, we knew Europe was not able to resist the US, but we had to pressure Europe to implement its commitments. Of course, Europe could do much better than this. In international relations, you will harm yourself if you trust anyone. International relations are based on constant calculation, and also knowing that you cannot have both winners and losers in international relations. If you go after a win-lose game, everyone will lose. Some may lose more and some less.
Thank you very much Mr Minister.
(Laughing) It was a very good interview. I don’t like “What’s your opinion” interviews...
translated by reza khaasteh