Tehran, Iran – A group of twenty-eight US citizens traveled to Iran as a peace delegation organized by CODE PINK from February 23 to March 3 to speak with Iranians and learn about the impacts of US sanctions and withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Agreement.
On Monday, February 25, the group met with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif who spoke about the nuclear agreement, the sanctions, Iranian foreign policy and more. Below is audio of Zarif’s speech and the question and answers afterward.
Mohammad Javad Zarif: Very good to see you all.
Happy to have you here – I know that you‘ve just arrived, so welcome to Iran – I hope that this visit will be a pleasant visit – I’m sure you’ll see new stuff, but I hope at the end you will find the visit will be fruitful. Let me stop here and ask you to say whatever you want, and then, if you want I can make some remarks at the end. Do you want to start?
Medea Benjamin: My name is Medea Benjamin. I’m the co-director of Codepink which helped organized this. We are twenty-eight people coming from states all over United States. We have a variety of people who are academics, elected officials, former diplomats (or, a retired diplomat), we have people who are professors and everybody coming here with a tremendous desire to learn about Iran. We are very grateful that we had the opportunity to come, it was very difficult to get the visas, but we were told that it’s even more difficult for Iranians to get into the United States, so, we are very grateful that we were allowed to come. We have been, all of us studying the effects of the sanctions: we are very ashamed of the pull-out of, the unilateral withdrawal by President Trump from an agreement you worked so hard for so many years to get ratified; and, um, we are feeling as Americans a great sense of, ah, not only shame for our government’s interference in Iranian affairs for so many years, but particularly now with this president, putting the blame for all the problems in the Middle East on Iran. And so we come with a great sense of responsibility as Americans to learn, we want to learn the effects of the sanctions on ordinary people so we can take those stories back, and most importantly, we are all involved in some way in pressuring the Congress and (the new elections) the people running for President now – and hoping that we will get a new President, that will start again to go back into the nuclear agreement and improve relations with Iran. And in the meantime, we are working with our members of Congress trying to get them to put on record that they want to rejoin the nuclear deal, and we will go home with lot more information to be able to do our work as US citizens; And I want to introduce my colleague here, Ann Wright.
Ann Wright: Thank you, sir. We are very, very, pleased to be in your country, and, as Medea said, we come with a great, sense of heavy responsibility for what our nation has done over many many decades and the ruthlessness of US foreign policies toward your country. I think all of us are so pleased to be here and looking forward to talking to many people here in Iran and learning much more about your beautiful country and great culture. Thank you. Yes, and um, we, we um, – I don’t think I can do it because I get, I get very very choked up on this – I think we all are very, very – we feel a heavy responsibility for many things but one of them in particular is the aircraft that the US military shot down. I was in the US military and I feel great responsibility. One of our delegates, Barbara Briggs-Letson, has made a book that we would like to present that has the names of all of the people that were killed in that crash, that shoot down, and we wanted to bring this as a sign of our, ah, sympathy for, for the people of Iran and the families there.
Benjamin: We wanted to show you, this [[risen to present book, inaudible exchange]]
[NOTE: The book was presented to the Tehran Peace Museum as a gift.]
Zarif: That would be great. Thank you, thank you.
Benjamin: Thank you, Barbara. So we would love to hear from you…
Zarif: Let me hear from few of you and then I’ll talk. I’ll start late but I’ll bore you with a lot of stuff that …
David Hartsough: My name is David Hartsough from San Francisco. And we understand that you were one of the key people who helped to negotiate the nuclear peace agreement. We sort of want to thank you for your good work on that. We see ourselves as American peace ambassadors representing all the people in the United States that want to have peace with Iran. We’ve had enough of sanctions, of threatening war. We found how horrible war can be in Iraq and Afghanistan and so many other places – and so we really feel it’s absolutely critical that we find ways that we can live with mutual respect and understanding, and peace with each other – So we’re here to listen and we’d love to hear your thoughts about how we can move from where we are to, really, peace and understanding between our countries so we can take that back to our own communities.
Zarif: Thank you – Yes, sir.
Cleveland Rea: Is this on?
Zarif: Push the green button.
Rea: How about that? Thank you so much, sir, for meeting with us. We are honored and am excited. I am excited to be here in Iran your country of – we were learning this morning … 2500 years…United States is only one tenth of that, so we have much to learn much to experience. We were also told that Iran is the country of friendship and peace. I come in peace and I come as a friend … thank you.
Stephen Zunes: It’s an honor to see you in person, Your Excellency, and great appreciations for your hard work regarding the agreement regarding the, Iran’s Nuclear program. And I should mention, I should say that the, you know, we, we come from a variety of different political perspectives, some of us indeed have differences with some policies of the Iranian government … but we are united in the belief that the belligerent attitude of United States, the refusal to negotiate in good faith, the impo – the reimposition of the sanctions regime, threats of war – these are all completely unacceptable and as someone who has, as a professor, who has studied the long history of US/Iranian relations and have been quite troubled by the role the United States has had over the decades, I am very looking forward to hearing your perspectives because one thing Americans tend not to do very well is listen. And I think it’s very important that we take advantage of this unique opportunity to listen to your perspectives.
Zarif: All right… [laughter]
Benjamin: Excuse me, we had a question… is it ok to record? …
Zarif: It’s okay to do anything you want.
Benjamin: And taking pictures is ok? …
Zarif: Yes, Yes. Maybe we can take a picture at the end, a family photo on the stairs perhaps in the ministry garden – it’s a nice place.
Well, again, I am very happy to have you all here. I admire your courage, I admire your commitment to your principles and the fact that you have taken the trouble of traveling … I know that some of your friends, relatives may have told you “where you going? You gonna be safe?” [laughter]
Hartsough: Can you be a little closer to the mic?
Zarif: Yeah, I will, yeah. … “Are you going to be safe? As you go to Iran?” I know that you’ve heard that, from, maybe more than one of your associates. So: very good to have you here.
And, I can tell you that I look at you as representatives of a broad spectrum of American people, who are very much similar to Iranian people, want to have peace, want to live with their families, with their loved ones, want to be able to go to the park, enjoy a nice environment, a clean air, beautiful water… I think that’s the commonality of all of us and that’s the challenge that is facing all of us because those are rare commodities now. Clean air and clean water are rare commodities, regardless of where you live. You can be in the most developed country in the world and face the same environmental challenges as people living in the least developed country in the world, because of the very fundamental truth, that is: our world has become global. Everything has become indivisible. We cannot have a nice environment… you come from San Francisco. I lived in San Francisco for six years. Beautiful city. You cannot have a nice environment in San Francisco if Fiji is drowning because of global warming. Because the impact of global warming is going to affect all of us. We may be happy that we live in a secluded area that is freer than Tehran from smog, or from Denver that I also lived in, for smog here is very similar to Denver, because we’re located in, sort of surrounded by, mountains. But at the end of the day all of us will suffer. Nobody can erect a wall, not talking about _the_ wall [laughter], I’m talking about _any_ wall, and protect themselves from environmental degradation: If you talk to anybody about that, they’ll laugh at you.
But unfortunately, we, particularly we in the governments, continue to think, that we can have security and prosperity where others are insecure and in poverty. I think this is a major dilemma of understanding, major challenge, the entire – and this is – I mean, I’m a teacher at the same time as being a diplomat and one of the problems is that I have to teach about “deterrence”, and what is deterrence? Deterrence is to gain security from making sure that others feel insecure. That’s a contradiction in terms. You cannot be secure while others are insecure.
As you know I lived in the US for a long time and served in New York basically from 1982 onwards, on and off, and, and in 1982 I moved from San Francisco to New York, so … And I visited New York after 9/11 … I was stationed in Tehran, I was then Deputy Foreign Minister … visited New York after 9/11 to attend the General Assembly. And I saw, in the faces of the New Yorkers, of every New Yorker, was a sense of lack of security. I mean, you, you could see in their faces. And then you can come to the conclusion that the greatest military power on the face of the Earth –
(and the United States is, by any definition, the greatest military power on the face of the Earth: the US military budget is equal to almost the rest of the world combined. The U.S. spends over 670 billion dollars on defense, the next country which is China spends only 220 billion dollars and you know the third country: Saudi Arabia, spends more than Russia on defense, 67 Billion dollars. We spend only 16… I hope the time will come when we spend even less. Basically 16 billion dollars for Iran, with a million people in arms, means that we only feed them with 16 billion dollars, very, very little for procuring arms. And if you wanted to, nobody would sell it to us. Which is another huge issue, considering the fact that we went through eight years of war when everybody provided weapons to the other side.)
But the fact of the matter is, the United States, with all its might, would not provide the most elemental duty of a government, that is to secure its people … to secure its citizens. And that is not in the way of criticism for the government of the United States. That’s just a statement of reality. That in our today’s world, you cannot live, you cannot have, an island of security in a turbulent sea. Just impossible. And it’s very difficult for people in office to understand. That is why we so selfishly try to augment our security no matter how much it cost for the others. And that has been a problem that we fail to recognize that these challenges that we face – I mean, we all have differences. I don’t think you could find any two human beings who will think alike on everything and if we want to impose our view on an unwilling population, it will one way or another show up in a maybe even an “environment” form.
So the fact there are differences, is just natural. But we need to realize that that our destiny is shared. We have a common destiny. All of us. Be it people who live in Iran, in US, in Saudi Arabia, anywhere. Common destiny of humanity is a fact that has been attested to by realities on the ground, even by our scriptures, be it the gospel the Torah, holy Koran, all of it – I mean, for us, gospel and Torah are holy, too. Look at it – the common destiny of humanity is written all over the place. And it’s written today more than any time in the past. In our environment, in our surroundings – that we cannot live without each other. The problem is that we allow differences to make us forget about these realities.
You are coming to Iran, almost 40 years after the Revolution, 40 years and a few days after the Revolution… I went through this… I came to the US, in 19, end of ‘76 early ‘77 as a young boy – escaping from the tyranny of the old regime. I wasn’t involved in armed struggle or anything, I was too young … 16 years old. Now people want us to believe that it was all nice and prosperous – it wasn’t. We could not even speak during the composition class at high school. I come from an affluent family. I went to a good high school. But even in our composition class, if we talked anything political, the teacher would say, stop, please, if you want to put yourself in trouble, do it, don’t put the rest of us in trouble.
So I witnessed the Revolution from the US – I wasn’t in it, in Iran. And I witnessed… how our people wanted to free themselves from both internal oppression and foreign domination – and that is why, if you listened to the people chanting in the streets before the Revolution, they had three slogans. “Freedom,” “Independence,” “Islamic government.” Or “Islamic Republic.” This was the need for our people. If you want to look at the history of Iran and understand the roots of Iran-US problems, you have to look at this concept of Independence. For, I mean, we had 7000 years of civilization in Iran. I hope you can visit cities that have been built 7,000 years ago. 7000 years of _urban_ life, here in Iran. And, over twenty five hundred years ago, we had an empire. An empire which controlled more than half of the Earth. And it lasted almost a 1000 years. So, millennia is the unit of our “age accounting.”
But then in the past two, three hundred years, Iran became the scene of super world power domination and rivalries. We were never colonized, but the fate of Iranians were decided in the embassies, not in the palaces. At a certain time it was British and Russian embassies, which basically ran Iran, had people who basically owed them allegiance and they would move them back and forth between this office or the other office in the government depending on whether Russia had the upper hand or England had the upper hand. And then, we had the, eh, constitutional revolution – the first constitutional revolution in this region was in Iran, over a hundred years ago – The first oil nationalization movement in this region was again in Iran, and then the coup d’etat – which led to the overthrow of a democratically-elected government in 1953.
And since that, U.S .domination. Doesn’t mean that the previous government in Iran was totally a U.S. puppet, No, they had their own policies. But when it counted and where it counted it sided with the U.S. So it became a pillar of U.S. presence in our region, in West Asia, in the Middle East. From the Nixon Doctrine point of view it became a pillar of security in this region. From Iranian point of view and from the neighborhood’s point of view it became a pillar of domination. That is why independence became such an important issue in this revolution. This revolution was not about shouting for bread, shouting for, means of livelihood, it was about freedom and independence. Because these were the commodities that were lacking and people were asking for them. Independence (and this is what I said yesterday in the meeting when I came down and see Medea), to Iranians, so this is not something that I am just saying to non-Iranians – independence meant that we would be able to stand on our own feet. Not that we would be alienated from the rest of the world, that was not our intention nor is it our intention today. We simply wanted to decide for ourselves. That’s all we wanted, and that was all [of] our fault. We believed that we should not rely on outsiders for our security.
Over the past few months since President Trump came to office we’ve been hearing stuff from Washington that are rather outrageous: not about Iran, but about our region. President Trump said that countries in this region like Saudi Arabia would not last for two weeks without U.S. support. Senator Lindsey Graham said it once and repeated it yesterday or day before yesterday that Saudi Arabia would be speaking Farsi if we did not protect them for one week. That’s a misinterpretation of our intentions, but that’s a huge insult to the people of Saudi Arabia and to the people of our region. We were not prepared to take that insult. That’s the only mistake from the U.S. point of view that we made.
The reason I’m saying the only mistake – I’m not saying we’re perfect. I’m not saying that we do not have excesses. But I’m saying the reason for U.S. to turn against us was our decision to be independent. _Not_ that we had violations of human rights, _not_ that we had other problems. These may be right, but, I told our friends that if human rights is a defining factor, why is everybody having such a cozy relationship with Saudi Arabia? Particularly after the Khashoggi inicident, I mean, this is just an example of how, I mean, how they have been conducting themselves for decades.
Some people do not want to remember history. For some people history is not that important. I’ve studied in the U.S. – I went to high school in the U.S.: all degrees that I have are American made from my high school diploma to my PhD. The U.S. academic system is more analytical than historical. And I like that. Our academic system is much more historical. And that is the mindset of our people. It’s difficult for some Westerners to understand. For us, a hundred years ago is recent history. Certainly what happened in the 1980s is basically, immediate history, not even “history”! In 1980s, just after the Revolution, we were put on the U.S. list of countries sponsoring terrorism. In 1984. You know what happened that same year? Saddam Hussein of Iraq was removed from the “countries sponsoring terrorism.” Right in the middle of a war where Saddam Hussein by 1984 had started using chemical weapons.
Let me tell you another story. I went to the President of the Security Council, I was just 26, 27 year old, and because we lacked diplomats with any experience, I became, as a student, the chargée of our mission to the United Nations, the most important of … I went to the president of the Security Council and I told him – he was the French ambassador – I told him, chemical weapons are being used against Iran. And he told me, that “I’m not authorized to talk to you about this.” Seven United Nations reports about using chemical weapons against Iran did not result in a single condemnation of the government of Iraq by the U.N. Security Council.
The first condemnation of the government of Iraq for the use of chemical weapons came after the end of Iran-Iraq war. Not before. Four years into the reports of the U.N saying Iraq was using chemical weapons. So when people talk about, “Line in the sand,” I will [[ ]]. Because I’ve seen it. I’ve seen that Saddam Hussein, that Iraq, was “championing human rights in Iran.” Did you know that this year – we don’t need to talk about history – this year – in 2018, last year, in the General Assembly terms it’s _this_ General Assembly. The most active proponent of the human rights resolution against Iran was Saudi Arabia. Spending money to buy votes against it. This year: I’m not talking about – it’s _after_ Khashoggi, not before. So don’t expect me to believe that the reason for U.S. concern about Iran is terrorism or human rights.
Nuclear? You now see that the United States wants to sell to Saudi Arabia the same technology that they fought Iran for so many years to prevent us from having. So nuclear is not the issue.
Weapons? Missiles? As I said, Iran is only spending sixteen billion dollars a year on our _whole_ military budget. And most of that money goes to feed, and pay salaries of, our military personnel. I mean, It’s a country of 80 million people with no alliances. You talk about Turkey, it has a NATO umbrella. You talk about any of our northern neighbors, They have a CIS umbrella. You talk about any of our Southern neighbors, they have the U.S. umbrella. Iran is the only country in the region that has to depend on itself for its defense. And we’re spending 16 billion dollars last year on the entire military budget that is salaries, procurement, insurance, whatever – retirement funds, because the retirement fund of our military is paid from the budget. So, retirement funds – and Saudi Arabia spends sixty-seven billion dollars just buying weapons from the U.S. Last year, the West sold 100 billion dollars of weaponry to GCC countries – these small emirates in the Persian Gulf. The entire population of these countries, I don’t think would reach forty million. A hundred billion dollars in weapons. I don’t, I don’t believe with all due respect they know how to use them. Because they have not been able to defeat basically defenseless people in Yemen. For four years. The war in Yemen, this April, will be four year old.
When the war started, I was involved in the most difficult stage of the negotiations on the nuclear case. Because if you remember in 2015 Congress set a deadline that unless we had a framework agreement on the nuclear issue by April first, Congress would impose sanctions that the U.S. administration would not be able to waive. So we were running against a deadline in Lausanne when we had that stage of negotiations. And John Kerry and I spent two days from that precious time talking about how to end the war in Yemen although that was not my mandate, but I thought the war in Yemen was so disastrous that we should bring it to an end.
John Kerry and I reached an understanding that we need to end this war. At that time the current minister of state of Saudi Arabia, Adel al-Jubeir, was U.S. ambassador, er, Saudi ambassador to the U.S. So after we reached an agreement on April second or thir, John Kerry went back to Washington talked to Adel al-Jubeir, he went back to Saudi Arabia and got an OK for a ceasefire in Yemen. And he informed me that we can have a ceasefire. I immediately contacted the Houthis and got them to agree to a ceasefire. This is April 2015. In a few days it will be four years.
Then I was boarding a plane to Indonesia, I can’t remember, I can’t forget that. I told my deputy – wait for a call from Secretary Kerry, he’ll tell you that the final agreement has arrived. Arrived in Indonesia eight hours later, called my deputy, had not received a call from John Kerry so I called Secretary Kerry and said what happened? He said, Saudis reneged, because they believed they could have a military victory “in three weeks.” I told him they won’t be able to have a military victory, not in three weeks, not in three months, not in three years. But he said, “what can I do? I’m fed up with them, they won’t budge.” _After_ they had had agreement. So I said, “fine, we tried.” The next day, the very next day, President Obama of all people, made a public statement accusing Iran for “interfering in Yemen.” The _very_ next day. So I told them, okay – you couldn’t get it from your allies, why are you blaming us? You don’t want to blame your allies, fine – why are you blaming us?
So I want to say the U.S. difficulty with Iran is not because of the region, not because of human rights, not because of weapons, not because of the nuclear issue – it’s just because we decided to be independent – that’s it – that’s our biggest crime.
We’ve made, as I said and I repeat – we’ve made other mistakes. All those mistakes should be looked at in the perspective. U.S. embassy – people had seen that the Shah had left the country once – the U.S. had a coup d’état and brought him back to the country. Now all of a sudden the Shah finds his way to a hospital in New York. How people in Iran thought? They thought that this was another coup d’état cooking up. They made a decision – right or wrong – so look at it in the context. History did not start on November fourth, 1980. History started long long time before that. If you want to look at the grievances, we need to look at the grievances in perspective. If you want to look at the difficulties, we need to look at the difficulties in perspective. Not simply take one out of a box and say, “okay, these people are too bad” – just like what President Trump is doing these days.
Now what’s the way out? We thought the way out was to test one issue and to build on that success. And we chose the nuclear issue because at the same time it was the most difficult and, from my perspective, the easiest. Why was it the most difficult? Because it was moving towards war – everybody was talking about war. What was it, why was it so easy? Because we were not seeking to build nuclear weapons. And if it was the intention of the United States to prevent us from seeking a nuclear weapon, then that was not too difficult to achieve. So we started those negotiations. Some people believe and this is something that I want you to really remember, when you go back home – there is this misperception in the united states that crippling sanctions that Hillary Clinton imposed on Iran brought Iran to the negotiating table. I will prove to you that this is not the case. Let me tell you why.
From 2002 when the news about Iranian enrichment came out in a CNN report – I know it was August 2, 2002. I had just arrived in New York for my tenure as Iran’s permanent representative and that was the first gift I got. From 2002 to 2005, the current President was the National Security Adviser and he played my role – my today’s role – as the chief Iranian negotiator, the head of the negotiating team. At that time, they asked me from New York to be the chief negotiator – he headed the team, I did the negotiations. And we started those negotiations at that time. Made suggestions at that time we were not negotiating with the Americans. We were only negotiating with the three Europeans. That is why you hear very much from the Europeans “E3 plus 3.” Because it started with the three Europeans.
I presented to them a proposal on March 23, 2005, which is exactly the same proposal that I made to them in 2013. And exactly the same concepts that are now the JCPOA. It’s not the sanctions which made the difference. It’s the decision of the Iranian people to bring to office a different government that had, even before the sanctions started, the same idea. If you want that proposal that I made, It’s in an issue of New York Times – I think it was Kristoff who wrote a piece about that – and you know who blocked that although I had made that proposal in Paris to the E3? John Bolton.
John Bolton at that time was the undersecretary of state for arms control. And he blocked it. Because he was saying that Iran should have zero enrichment: exactly what he’s saying today. Hasn’t changed. Exactly what he’s saying today: zero enrichment. At that time, we had 200 centrifuges running. So we would have been happy –
(Because we wanted to maintain our pride –what is important in Iran is not nuclear technology, is not nuclear power, it’s our pride. We wanted to maintain our pride: we wanted to maintain our dignity. We did not want to be told that “you can do this or you can do that.” As I told you, our only crime is we want to be independent. This was exactly the operating)
– at that time we would have been happy with a thousand centrifuges. Our proposal in 2005 would have survived with a limit of a thousand centrifuges for Iran. U.S. didn’t agree. Said “zero enrichment” – John Bolton said “zero enrichment” – and the Europeans, who never had this autonomy to make their own decisions unfortunately, and today, they’re exhibiting the same, although not politically but practically. Politically they’re making different statements but practically, basically the same – the impact of sanctions, as you mentioned, even on medicine. The U.S. hypocritically says food and medicine is exempted but even China is not authorized to transfer money, because China does not have food – China cannot export food – it’s an importer of food. So we have a lot of money in China – China cannot send money to Europe or to Latin America for us to buy food – that is why so many ships are waiting in our southern ports, waiting for the excise to be paid, waiting for the letters of credit to be paid so they can offload.
So this lack of ability was present then, it’s present now. Europe could not agree to it because the U.S. prevented them from agreeing to it. And we started a process eight years of rivalry, basically – the Iranian people, I believe, fair and square, chose a different arm in the election.
It wasn’t because of voter tampering, it was simply because of voter dissatisfaction with the policy of engagement. As somebody who suffered, who went into retirement for, after the presidency of former president Ahmadinejad, I can tell you – he won, fair and square, because the voters were disgusted with us because we had not been able to deliver. So we ran towards nuclear buildup – not for bomb, and not for energy, really – just to prove a point: you cannot tell us what we can do.
Just to prove that point. The centrifuges that we built during that time had a 50% crash rate. A centrifuge that has over 3% crash rate is not economical but we were building them en masse because we just wanted to make a political point. We were not rushing for a bomb, we just wanted to make a political point that you cannot tell us what we do. I think it’s difficult for the American, for the Western mind to understand and that is why they are saying if Iran is putting so much energy, is accepting so much pressure just to prove a point that should be irrational. Therefore, Iran is doing this for a bomb.
Same with our missiles. They say Iran is building missiles that can only carry a 500 kilogram payload. 500 kilograms of the best explosives will only destroy one building. Why should you invest so much money in a missile that can only carry 500 kilograms of payload? Therefore, based on Western calculation, therefore, Iran should be designing these for nuclear weapons. But they cannot put themselves in our shoes. During a war where our cities were bombarded with the same missiles and we had no means of defending ourselves. Because nobody was giving them to us.
Today, a hundred billion dollars weapons to the region – not a single airplane to Iran – not even civilian airplanes. You know we’re a rich country –you look at our airplanes, mostly forty years old. Because in spite of the order of the international court of justice the U.S. prevents Iran from buying planes – not from Boeing, but even from Airbus. And we’re prepared to buy from Boeing. And we had an order of over eighty planes from Boeing but they even prevent us from buying from Airbus. In spite of an order from the ICJ. So these are the realities. The reality is we stood on our principles because first of all we had to on the defense side.
And on the nuclear side, we just wanted to tell you that you cannot push us. So we went from 200 centrifuges to twenty thousand centrifuges during the course of the previous administration. Mr. Bolton’s “zero enrichment” option created: the net result of “zero enrichment” option was: 19,800 centrifuges. And it would happen again, if the United States succeeds because the U.S. does not want Iran to be in the JCPOA. The U.S. does not like isolation. The U.S. wants a way to be able to put the blame on Iran. And that is why we have resisted in spite of a lot of domestic pressure. Because the Iranian population is fed up with this policy. And if one day we leave the JCPOA, it’s not because of any strategic calculation. It’s because we need to satisfy our population. Because we need to tell our population that “your dignity is preserved”. That “nobody can encroach upon your dignity.” So we built all those centrifuges with 50% crash rate just to show to the United States that you cannot tell us what to do. And we all suffered.
When we sat down again in 2013 after I became Foreign Minister, I went back with the same plan – same plan – but different numbers because the reality on the ground had changed. The mentality had not changed, the approach had not changed, same approach – we wanted to resolve the issue. But the realities on the ground had changed. On one side, we had sanctions that we had to deal with. On the other side we had 20 thousand centrifuges that the U.S. needed to deal with. We had the heavy water reactor that the U.S. needed to deal with. We had the Fordow concealed facility that the U.S. needed to deal with. We had research and development that the U.S. needed to deal with.
So the complexity of the issue was not because of the framework – the framework was the same. The complexity of the issue was that we had built by our own stupidity a huge pile of problems on both sides. And we needed – we have an expression in Farsi that “a crazy person sends a stone down a well and it takes a thousand wise men to take it out.” So, the “zero enrichment” policy of the crazy person who unfortunately is still around led a thousand wise men to work day and night and I’m saying a thousand because although the negotiating teams were not that big, but there were people studying every proposal in the Lawrence Livermore laboratory in the, in other nuclear laboratories that you have across the U.S. so it was day and night people working. When we slept in Vienna, people working in Lawrence Livermore in California. Or in Arizona. Day and night a thousand wise men tried to take that one stone that the crazy guy had thrown into the well.
So don’t let people to misrepresent the realities that sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table. Iranian people brought Iran to the negotiating table and the same Iranian people can move Iran out of the negotiating table.
Today only 51% of the Iranians believe that we should remain in the nuclear deal. When we signed that agreement, over 80% believed that it would make a difference. Today over 80% believe that it won’t make a difference but still 51% believe that we should stay in the nuclear agreement.
You know the debate that we have about FATF [Financial Action Task Force] here in Iran – you’ve heard about the debate about FATF – It’s not because of anything in the FATF it’s because of the fact that Iranians are fed up with trusting the outside world. They believe that working engagement does not pay. No rewards. No incentives. No dividends. In my view, not because I negotiated the deal but because I have seen a lot of negotiations – I’m a teacher of international relations and international law – I know the background. I know that we cannot reach a better nuclear deal than the nuclear deal we have. Impossible. I’m saying “Impossible.” I tell that to my critics here in Iran, I tell that to Mr. Trump who believes that he can make a better deal. Why is it impossible? Because I have tested all the options.
It’s not just a piece of paper that we agreed upon over two days of negotiations – or no negotiations, with Chairman Kim and a photo op.
Every word of it is painstakingly negotiated. Let me give you one example. The resolution that was presented to the Security Council is not a resolution in which we are a part. It’s a resolution that was presented by P5+1. Not Iran. So this was the least negotiated part of the deal because it wasn’t us. The rest of the paper, 150 pages long, is negotiated by us. Resolution belongs to the U.S. There is one paragraph in that resolution that deals with the missiles That paragraph was the subject of over three month of negotiations. Over one word. The previous, resolution 1929, which was during the time that we did not negotiate, demands that Iran “should stop working on missiles that are capable of carrying nuclear weapons.” Missiles “capable of carrying nuclear weapons.” Then we said we don’t accept this, said it’s our resolution, okay, take your resolution to the Security Council without an agreement. Then we started working. The demand was pushed out firstly, was from demanding wording of the Security council is: Iran “shall not develop” that was removed – [[ ]] maybe not different for somebody who is looking at the resolution from, as a layman but from U.N. terminology it’s the difference between an order and a request.
And then, the most important part which was the subject of a lot of debate in U.S. senate during the previous administration is that we wanted the text to say, “missiles designed to carry nuclear weapons.” The U.S. wanted to say “missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons.” After long negotiations, we come to the word “designed to be capable.” What does it mean? It means that if we do not have nuclear weapons, we cannot design a missile to be capable of carrying nuclear weapons that we do not have. So even the wording for this paragraph in a resolution that is not signed by Iran, took us three months to come to. Now, how can we have a hundred and fifty pages of renegotiated document?
That is why as an observer, not as a negotiator (because we should differentiate between the role of a scholar and a practitioner) – as a scholar, I’m telling you that the nuclear deal is impossible to replicate, and I’m willing to put my own scholarly credibility on this, not my diplomatic credibility. Impossible.
And now we have a buildup of mistrust. We, I had hoped that this would crack the mistrust. We have a buildup of mistrust. So it would be even more difficult for us to negotiate a new agreement. So, from a rational perspective we should not withdraw from this deal.
But this is _not_ North Korea. We have to be responsive to the populace. We are not, we don’t have any – first of all we don’t have any means of reliance, we don’t rely on the military to keep us in place, we don’t rely on a foreign power to keep us in place, we don’t rely on an economic structure to keep us in place. We rely on the same people. We’re sometimes lousy at it – I don’t dispute the fact that we’re not very good at it – keeping people satisfied. I mean, that’s that’s a given. All countries are lousy at it but some more than others. All of us can take improvements in human rights. For us, human rights is not a matter of morality, it’s a matter of national security.
And that makes a difference – because morality, we can take you back, to the early days of Islam – Where our first imam (and the fourth Caliph of the Sunnis) called, when he gave instructions to his ruler who was going to Egypt to rule, he said “be nice to your subjects because they’re either your brothers in religion or your similars in humanity.” The worst, the toughest chapter in the Koran – toughest chapter in the Koran – which deals with those who reject belief – because we, in the Koran considers people of the Book as believers – Nonbelievers are those who rejected the belief – Idol worshipers, whatever. It calls upon them that, Oh you do not, who you do not believe. I have my religion, you have your religion. I’m not gonna change, you’re not gonna change. You keep your way, I’ll keep my way “Lekum Deenukum Wa Liya Deeni.” You have your religion I’ll have my religion. You call it today, tolerance, coexistence. This is 1400 years ago.
So from a perspective of morality, whether we practice it well or not, human rights is inscribed in our tradition. But it’s beyond morality, it’s an issue of national security because we depend on these people. And you saw, that in spite of all their grievances, they came en masse to the streets for the fortieth anniversary of the Revolution. They’re not experiencing good times, part of it because of sanctions, part of it because of mismanagement and some corruption. So they’re not very happy with us but nevertheless they recognize the difference between problems at home and those from outside who want to impose.
This situation today is whatever is rational, may not end up to be the ultimate desire of the people. We rely on these people as I said for our existence but we also rely on their votes. Next year, we have a parliamentary election. They can send the parliamentarians home because these parliamentarians are recognized by the fact that they supported us, most of them. And then they can send – I mean, the president cannot run for reelection, they can elect a different side. They determine their foreign policy. This is, I mean, every state has a deep state but at the end of the day with or without the deep state, Trump and Obama are different. Different policies. Rouhani and Ahmedinajad have different policies. The votes of the people count. And if people are frustrated with engagement and this is what I’m worried about: What I’m worried about is that people are basically frustrated and then from frustration they go to disgust. For the time being they’re frustrated with engagement. They believe engagement does not pay. They believe it’s much better if we just lose hope in the outside world and look inward. And that may be a very good option, rationally speaking.
So this is where we are. And this is a very fundamental moment for our regional peace and for global peace. Because there can be two different courses of action and Iran is an important player. Our influence in the region is significant, not because we tried to control others, but because others tried – and failed. Not because we tried to exclude others, but because others tried to exclude us and failed. Why do we have a war in Syria? Because they wanted to replace a government whose crime was being friendly to Iran. Why do we have – mistakes were made – okay, we know mistakes, huge mistakes were made in Syria on all sides. But the reason that Syria started was trying to unseat a government whose crime was being friendly to Iran. Same in Iraq, same in Yemen. All of these failures are because of the wrong choices of the other side, not because _we_ tried to do anything.
They tell you about “Shia Crescent.” They talk a lot about Shia Crescent. Just ask them who in the government of Qatar is a Shia? Why did we go to the rescue of the government of Qatar when they were being squeezed by Saudi Arabia? They’re the only Wahhabi country outside Saudi Arabia. Not only they are not Shia, but they’re Wahhabis – not regular Sunnis, Wahhabis – because if you believe that domination in our region is destabilizing. We went to the support of the Turkish government when there was a military coup in turkey because we believed elected government should not be replaced by the military coup. Believe me, no other country in this region went to the support of Turkey. I stayed up all night as if the coup was taking place in Iran. No other country provided any support for Qatar to prevent it from strangulation. We opened our airspace in spite of the fact that we were fighting Qatar in Syria. I mean, these are known facts.
So it’s an important moment – Iran with this immense presence in the region. Choosing that engagement is not worthy of the cost – I think that would be tremendously difficult to handle and Iranian people with their sense of history, with their sense of pride, are very difficult people when they make a decision. They’re prepared to stand up for their rights.
I told you that I’m boring! So – that’s why I wanted you to talk before I did. But now I’m open to any questions although our prayer time is starting right now but we can have a few minutes before we go to start praying in the other room – They, they come from a different door. so don’t worry, we won’t be flocked with people.
Benjamin: So, you didn’t mention Israel in your whole talk – and there are some people who say that it is Israel more than anything that is determining the U.S. policy towards Iran?
Zarif: Well, let me be very frank about Israel. The problem in the Middle East – the problem in Palestine, is not Iran – it’s the rights of the Palestinians that have been violated. If the United States is prepared to guarantee the rights of the Palestinians through whatever means it has, then I don’t think any country including Iran would be able to subvert. But the problem is they’re looking for a smokescreen. I mean, what can we do if the Palestinians cannot accept that they, in their own homes, are not allowed to go back, to their own homes if they leave. This creates a sense of frustration that leads to whatever it leads to.
We are in Syria on the invitation of the government of Syria – for the sole purpose – I know that you may have differences with the government of Syria, fine, I said we don’t need to agree on anything. But according to international law, we are there on the invitation of the government we went there to fight Daesh. We didn’t go there to fight Israel and we have said it publicly this is not the reason for our presence in Syria. And we have been instrumental in fighting Daesh. Now President Trump wants to take credit for it but during the campaign he was saying Iran is the country that is fighting Daesh more than any other country. Even when he decided to withdraw, before they talked him out of it, he said, “Iran is more an enemy of Daesh than we are.” We, we went there because we knew that if we don’t go there and fight Daesh in Syria we would have to fight them here.
For the same reason we went to Iraqi Kurdistan to fight Daesh. No difference: the minute, – I mean, Mr. Barzani, the head of the Kurdish regional government, called the U.S.: No response. Called the Turks: No response. We were his last choice. He called us – Daesh were moving from Mosul to Erbil. When our people got there– everybody, including the Kurdish Peshmerga had all their belongings in a pickup truck fleeing toward Turkey and or towards the mountains from Daesh. So for the same reason we went to help the Iraqi Kurds, we went to help the Syrians.
Now, Israel is bombing Syria and is boasting about it! And people are saying, “Iran’s presence in Syria Is the cause of the trouble.” Let’s get away with smokescreens. Israel has been occupying the Syrian Golan based on every U.N. Security Council resolution since 1967. And now Congress has a bill before it to recognize the annexation of Golan as they recognize the annexation of Jerusalem.
These are the problems that are giving rise to the misery in the Middle East. Resolve those problems, stop aggression, and then if you saw Iran being the source of any trouble then accuse it. I mean, people can look for a smokescreen. Smokescreens may be a good way to hide – no good way to resolve the problem. It will even prolong the problem because you have a smokescreen to hide behind. I think it is important for the peace movement to shatter the smokescreen.
If we have the recognition of the rights of the Palestinian people to statehood, to return, to have a home of their own to have respect, minimal respect for their basic rights, then you pull the rug from under most of the extremist movements. Because what provides the grounds – The extremist movements have not done anything against Israel. Find a single attack by Daesh, including by al Nusra,against Israel. In fact, Israel is on the record supporting, providing them with military aid, with so-called humanitarian aid, with all of it. But the ground on which they build in order to recruit? Two things- Israeli occupation, U.S. occupation. You deprive them of these two recruiting tools? You pull the rug from underneath them. That’s the best way of combating Daesh and extremism.
Rewan Al-Haddad: Thank you very much for everything you have said: it’s been so enlightening – I have a million questions … but I guess I’ll just start or maybe end with: what do you see as the vision or the key priorities for the next, you know, at least before the next round of elections, you know, restoring hope with the people so that you guys don’t become isolationists? Like, how are you going to combat that, in general, like, what do you see as something that you would be really proud of to achieve in the next, you know, couple of years?
Zarif: Well, I think the most important thing as you said it is to keep the hope of the people. That is important for our domestic, economic growth. I think we have immense potential: immense human potential, immense natural potential. It’s just the hope. Just the hope, we need the hope in the people; and I think, unfortunately, people from outside as well as certain elements from inside are pushing against that hope. And if we, if we can, somehow resurrect that hope, revive that hope, I think that’s the most important thing. And that would make all the difference. You are going to see people, you are going to see that frustration. You are even going to see some outbursts. Our people are hospitable. There won’t, there won’t be any outbursts against you. But they may use you as a, as a vehicle to show their outburst either against us or against the U.S. government. So, be prepared for both. You will see outbursts against us, You will see outbursts against the U.S. government. And I think that will be equally divided at this stage.
Zunes: As someone who has studied U.S. middle eastern policy for more than forty years, and in that same period been very active in support of Palestinian rights – my assessment is that the U.S. hostility towards Iran is not as much the fault of the Zionist lobby but U.S imperialism – you know, that it is, as you say, Iran’s insistence on not being pushed around, on being an independent voice, that is the main reason the United States is hostile. However, Israel has been used as an excuse to perhaps get some Americans who, are, are, are, supportive of Israel, um, to, to, and might otherwise question U.S. policy toward Iran to support the more hard-line kind of positions. To help , in order to clarify for people who have those concerns – in your vision of a free Palestine where Palestinians have the right to return and have full rights, do you also support the full rights of Jews who now live in Historic Palestine?
Zarif: In one word, yes – but, but let me explain. We have a solution for the question of Palestine but that’s our analysis. People in the region can make a different analysis. We believe that the way to resolve the Palestinian issue is to have a democratic decision-making process. That is – allow Palestinians – Muslims, Christians, as well as Jews – Israelis, the Jews in Israel – to determine their future. They decide for a two state solution? So be it. They decide for a single state solution? So be it. We believe that this should be a decision made by the Palestinians. Inclusive of Jews. Nobody is asking for Jewish people in Palestine to be thrown into the sea: that suggestion never came from Iran – it came from some Arab countries that now have political, diplomatic relations with Israel – we never, we never advocated it. We always said that Palestinians have to decide about their future – regardless of faith – Jew, Christian, Arab, Muslim, non-Arab, whoever is there. Palestinians have a right to go back to their homes. Now the “deal of the century” is trying to avoid all of this – avoid statehood, avoid everything this [[ ]]“deal of the century” that Jared Kushner is talking about, basically capitulation for a nation not a government – for the entire nation of Palestine – now, if they believe, if the Saudi believe they can achieve that, I think they’re mistaken – but that’s our analysis – talk to the Palestinians to make that final decision. And let me tell you something about our relations with Jews.
Now, Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to rewrite history – he forgets about Babylon, he forgets about Cyrus the Great being called the Messiah in the Torah. He then picks up the book of Esther and says Iranians wanted to slaughter the Jews. He forgets the fact that it was an Iranian king who saved the Jews and then the Jews slaughtered Iranians. But we never make a case of it, that’s history – There was a fight in a, in an Iranian city between people of Jewish faith and other people – it was before Islam. And, and in the book of Esther it’s all there – but Netanyahu isn’t revising, even revising, he’s revising facts today but he’s even revising thousand year old scripture – saying that Iranians wanted to slaughter the Jews. The king married a Jewish queen who with his uncle managed to kill almost a thousand Persians but the tomb of the queen and his uncle is a shrine in the Iranian city of Hamadan. Jews from all over the world come and worship there. We have the grave of prophet Daniel in the old Iranian city of Susa, and our own Jewish people along with other Jews and Muslims go and visit that shrine – I have a picture of a couple of days ago where for, for whatever historical reason our Jewish community went to that city and visited that shrine.
You know that, in Iran, according to our electoral system every 150,000 persons has one representative in the parliament. We have 290 members of parliament, eighty million Iranians. But we have assigned seats – one for Jews, two for Armenians, one for Assyrians – and one for Zoroastrians. The number of Jews in Iran at times were about 20,000, now there are about ten, fifteen thousand – they have one representative. In the parliament. That _has_ to be there. Now, is that an anti-Semitic country? Forget about our history: Our present day – our today. Go very close to the foreign ministry, there is a synagogue. We have many churches in this neighborhood, but there is a synagogue. In, in the streets just right out there. So, is this, is this an anti-Semitic country? We’re not Semites – Arabs are Semites. We’re, whatever, of Persian ancestry. But we’re not an anti-Semitic country. We have never been, never will be.
Benjamin: so we wanted to just thank you for this incredible time that you have given us. I know that some people in this room got, basically no sleep and they’re just transfixed; I didn’t see a person, just, losing attention – I mean, It’s just been fascinating listening to you, you’re not only a fantastic diplomat but a historian and a speaker and we can’t – I feel like we can go home now [laughter] – we’ve learned so much. We are also going now to the very university where we saw you yesterday, and we look forward to spending time with the students there and uh, wonder if we have a moment we could have a picture with you
Zarif: Yeah, we will go out there to have a picture, have a great stay in Iran and I hope you will enjoy your stay.