NPR's Steve Inskeep interviewed Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Wednesday about negotiations over Iran's nuclear weapons program, the U.S. approach to combating extremist groups in Iraq and Syria, and Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post reporter currently in custody in Iran. A full transcript of the interview follows:
STEVE INSKEEP: Let me begin with the nuclear negotiations. Obviously there are many tactical details to work out, but I'd like to get your sense of the attitude. Do you believe, after all the years that you've worked on this issue, that you've arrived in a moment when both countries — the United States and Iran — are ready to make a deal?
MOHAMMED JAVAD ZARIF: Well, I thought everybody was ready to make a deal. And the primary reason that I thought that was the case was that we had all tried all the wrong options. And as Churchill said after having trying all the wrong options, I'd hoped that we would use the right option. And I still believe that's a possibility. The only problem is how this could be presented to some domestic constituencies — primarily in the United States, but even in places in Europe — that could please them, or some may say could appease them because some of them are not interested in any deal.
You're talking about people in the United States who feel that a deal with Iran is a bad idea.
Yeah. So if they think any deal with Iran is a bad idea, there's no amount of — I don't want to call it concession — no amount of assurance that is inherent in any deal that could satisfy them, because they're not interested in a deal, period. And they'll try to use excuses to kill a deal. But I think if you compare any deal with a no deal, it's clear that a deal is much preferable. We have had almost 10 years of trying to help one another in the nuclear area, and the net result has been nothing to be proud of. If the United States believes that sanctions have been so effective, then it should answer the question, those who are pushing for continued sanctions and more sanctions, to see what these sanctions have achieved. Have they achieved any of the policy goals that they intended to achieve? That is — the two policy goals that they wanted to achieve were, the obvious one, the stated one, was to push Iran into abandoning its nuclear program. It was never a nuclear weapons program. It was a peaceful program and Iran did not abandon it. If at the time of the imposition of sanctions, we had less than a couple of hundred centrifuges, now we have about 20,000. So that's the net outcome. If the hidden intention of these sanctions was to create a wedge between the government and the populous, than that proved to be erroneous, too, because last year in the presidential elections 73 percent of the population participated in the presidential election, putting their trust in the government.
And voted for a man who said he wanted better relations with the West.
And voted for a man who said he wanted better relations with the West because he believed the previous president mismanaged this thing. He never said he that "I'm going to abandon the nuclear program." He said that the approach that the previous government had to this was not an approach that was commensurate with the problem and that is why it had to be changed.
Foreign Minister, you mention that there are people in both countries who are reluctant to make a deal — you said primarily in the United States. But many people have noted that Iran's supreme leader, Khamenei, has made a number of statements voicing skepticism about these negotiations. Shortly before this conversation began, there was a message on his Twitter feed saying that negotiations have been damaging. What are we in the United States to make of that?
Well, the fact is that the United States government has shown such an, for the lack of a better word, infatuation with sanctions that it has continued imposing sanctions even though it had promised in the Geneva Plan of Action, which we adopted last November, not to impose new sanctions. Now of course Americans are very good in finding technicalities and fine print so that they could justify that these are not new sanctions, but the fact of the matter is that the Iranian people believe that the United States has been less than honest in dealing with this issue, has imposed new sanctions, however they frame it. And that is why the supreme leader has said — the Iranian public in general is skeptical about the United States, and let me give you one example. Last week, an Iranian patient who must have been an admirer of the United States sent a blood sample to the United States for a second opinion. Of course, we have our laboratories.
This was — he had a medical issue, you're saying.
Yeah, he had a medical issue. He took a blood test, tested it in Iranian laboratories, which are quite good, but he wanted a second opinion, and he sent the sample to the United States. And the laboratory refused to test that blood sample because Iran was under sanctions. This is the message that the United —- this is the net income of the United States from these sanctions. That somebody and his family who must have been admirers of the United States, otherwise they wouldn't have sent their blood sample to the United States, are now resentful, if not hateful, of the United States because of what has been done. So if you see people and their leaders skeptical of the way the United States deals with issues, it's because the United States is so wedded to its coercion. Whether it's military coercion, or whether it's economic coercion, that it even blinds the United States to finding a solution that addresses U.S. interests.
Should we believe that Iran's governing structure is ready to make an agreement?
If Iran's governing structure was not ready to make an agreement, we would not have had several reports of the [International Atomic Energy Agency) IAEA, one after another, saying that Iran has lived up to all its commitment. There is no international mechanism to measure how the United States has lived up to its commitment, if there were, I'm sure the United States would have gotten a failing score.
So are you ready?
We are ready. We are ready to stick to the negations. We are ready to stay with the negotiations until the very last minute. We are ready for a good deal, and we believe a good deal is in hand. We only need two sides to be able to have a deal — two willing sides.
Without getting into too many complexities, one issue is how long Iran might suspend its nuclear enrichment program. You have been quoted saying that you might be willing to put on the table a suspension of three to seven years. U.S. officials have talked about a longer period, something like a decade or more, which is a difference, but to an outsider does not seem like an insurmountable difference. Do you believe the two sides are close?
We are not talking about suspension. We're talking about limiting Iran's nuclear program. Now, again, it's a problem of perception. Iran has the capability to produce centrifuges. It's not like a country that imports its technology. We have developed—thanks to the United States sanctions and pressures — we have developed our own indigenous technology. So we are capable of producing — talking about numbers and years is, in my view, an extraneous issue. What we need to do is to put in place mechanisms to ensure that Iran would never produce nuclear weapons. We are prepared to put those mechanisms in place. If you say that Iran should abandon its enrichment program, you cannot abandon science. You cannot abandon technology. We have learned this. So the best way is to make sure that this technology is used in a transparent fashion for a peaceful program.
You have eloquently stated Iran's basic position throughout these negotiations that it needs to be about transparency, but that Iran insists upon its rights. Nevertheless, you are in a situation of working out an agreement detail by detail about exactly what Iran will do. Do you believe that in those technical details the two sides are close?
I don't think we're close, but I think we can be. The fact that we're not close means that the United States and some of its Western allies are pushing for arbitrary limitations which have no bearing whatsoever on whether Iran can produce a nuclear weapon or not. What we are prepared to offer and what we have offered are actual scientific methods of ensuring that Iran will never produce a nuclear bomb. We've said that we don't want a nuclear bomb. We've made it clear that in our nuclear doctrine — in our defense doctrine — nuclear weapons not only do not augment our security, but in fact are detrimental to our security. We make that very clear. And there is a very sound, strategic argument. And let me tell you something, and tell your listeners who are sophisticated, that it is not conducive to tell governments in the developing world that by having nuclear weapons you increase your power. It's theoretically wrong, and even if it was theoretically not wrong, for powers who are interested in non-proliferation, you should continue to say that nuclear weapons do not augment anybody's security. They create a panacea sort of — that with nuclear weapons you resolve all your problems. You gain domestic security. You gain external security. And this is just a panacea. Is Israel secure — in a secure situation because of its nuclear weapons? Did nuclear weapons secure the United States from 9/11? So let's be realistic. We are in a region that nuclear weapons would only reduce and diminish our security. And that's a very calculated, strategic doctrine which some people fail to understand here.
Foreign minister, let me ask about the fight against ISIS. As you know very well, the threat posed by that group was considered so grave that the government changed in Iraq.
No. No. No, let me correct you there. The government did not change. You had an election in Iraq. The people of Iraq had elected members of the Parliament.
And they changed the prime minister.
They changed the prime minister. They might have changed the prime minister even without this threat because that's the procedure. The previous prime minister was in office for two consecutive terms. Now somebody from his own party is now prime minister. It's not someone else from an opposition party. Somebody from his own party through the Iraqi political process was chosen as prime minster. So I do not want anybody, particularly not the terrorists, to believe that the Iraqi government or the international community rewarded the terrorists by changing the Iraqi prime minister.
Nevertheless it was concluded that it was time for new leadership in order to more effectively unify Iraq and face this threat from ISIS. Why would it not be a good idea also to change leadership in Syria to more effectively unify Syria against that threat?
Well, I believe it is important for people to look at the realities on the ground. Let the Iraqi people decide about their government, and let the Syrian people decide about their government. If people from outside... We are the country with the greatest influence in Iraq, and we said from the very beginning that we will not intervene in the Iraqi people's decision on electing their government. And we insisted on this, and we remained with this until the last day. We helped the Iraqis. We engaged in consultations with the Iraqis. We helped coordinate with various Iraqi groups. I went to Iraq myself. I went to Sunni quarters. I went to Shia quarters. I even went to Kurdistan. We spoke to everybody. But we did not impose anything on the Iraqi people. I believe the same should be the case with the Syrians. The Syrian people should determine who will govern them. I believe people have entrenched themselves, particularly in the West, in arbitrary positions that have made Syrian people pay with their blood. Why didn't they allow the Syrians to decide for themselves. It's because the United States is not confident that if there were a free and fair election even monitored by the United Nations and the international community, anybody other than the current president would have won the votes of the Syrian people. That's why they want to be judged the outcome of the democratic process. I believe what they should insist — and that is why Iran six months ago proposed a four-point plan which would call for cease-fire, would call for a national unity government, it called for revising the constitution so that you would disperse power rather than centralize it in one person, and then to have an election monitored, supervised by the international community. Why didn't they accept that? Why did they even dis-invite Iran from Geneva too because of the fact that we did not accept a precondition for the Syrian government to leave.
Let's avoid that word: impose. You said you don't want to impose a solution on other countries. Nevertheless you acknowledge that you have influence. Would you not use your influence to encourage Syria to push forward new leadership that might unify the country?
Eh, I do not believe that's our job to do. It's the job of the Syrian people to do. We were prepared and we continued to be —
But you use your influence a lot.
No. No, we do use our influence, and we did use our influence. Otherwise, the four-point plan that we proposed about six months ago required us to spend a lot of political capital in Syria, had the west and particularly the neighbors accepted that proposal. Unfortunately they insisted on a precondition, a precondition that at the end of the day has caused the death of so many people in Syria. Because without that precondition, without the precondition that one of the sides...
That Assad must go.
That Assad must go. Without that precondition we could have had a deal long time ago. But people entrench themselves in a situation that precluded even the possibility of listening to alternates.
You've met with Bashar al-Assad. You're very familiar with the situation. Has he been a good leader of Syria?
Well, it's for the Syrian people to decide.
But what do you think?
... people outside Syria. If you want to put yourself in his position, he would tell you that, "I knew these people all along. I knew who I was being, who I was facing. I knew ISIL."
"I knew their true colors. It's you who are now repenting."
Didn't he let some of these people out of Syrian jails?
I use, I use the Paris conference as the coalition of repenters. These are the people who armed ISIL, who financed ISIL, now they want, all of a sudden, to fight ISIL. They're the ones who have to explain why they chose the wrong policy for the last three years. Actually for some of them for the last 11 years, because, as you know, ISIL was created not by Bashar al-Assad, but by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. If you remember Zarqawi, who is the founder of this very heinous movement, he was the product of American invasion, not of Bashar al-Assad.
I would like Americans to better understand how you view the world and Iran's situation in it. Americans commonly see Iran as expansive, as aggressive, as reaching out into countries like Iraq and Syria and Lebanon. But help us understand how you see it. Do you see Iran at this moment as a country that is surrounded by threats?
Well, we live in a dangerous neighborhood. But we have been a very responsible regional power. We have helped countries in the region. We have not used coercion. We have never expanded for the last 300 years, almost three centuries. Iran has not waged a war against anybody. We have defended ourselves, but we have never waged a war against no country. We are the largest, most powerful country in our immediate neighborhood. We go out of our way to convince our neighbors that we want to have good neighborly relations. Now, unfortunately there has been an environment of suspicion, partially fed by the conception that you can buy security from outside. That's a perception, and that's an illusion. You cannot buy security.
Who has that perception?
Some people with a lot of money.
Saudi Arabia for example?
Usually, usually when you have a lot or money you have the illusion that that money can buy everything. So when you have a lot of power — the United States has a lot of military power and believes its coercive power can win it a lot of things, and it has failed time and again to achieve that. So we see this and we see the possibility that Iran can play a positive role in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon as a force, as an influence that works with the people of these regions. That's why I'm saying that we cannot impose a government on Iraq, we cannot impose a government on Syria, we cannot impose a government on Lebanon. It's the work of the Lebanese, Syrian and Iraqi people as it is the work of the people of Afghanistan to elect their government. We have influence in all these countries, but we've never tried to tell them that this man should be your prime minister or your president or your leader.
But if you look at, say, Saudi Arabia, do you see — and this, I'm hearing this in some of the remarks that you've made — do you see the Saudis supporting ISIS in some way on one side of you, supporting certain groups in Pakistan on another side of you, effectively trying to surround you?
Well, there are certainly indications, if not evidence, that they have. But I'm looking to the future, not to the past. And I'm hoping that now that everybody sees this as a common threat, as a common challenge, that Iran and Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region can work together in order to deal with this challenge. And dealing with this challenge does not mean aerial bombardment. Dealing with this challenge means to stop creating the type of atmosphere of hatred and resentment that creates this type of monstrosity in our region.
I want to ask a question about what's happening on the ground in Iraq, foreign minister, because, as you know, the United States has sent advisers and is sending more. Iran also has troops or forces —-
We don't have troops. We also have military advisers in Iraq ...
... and we provide military assistance to Iraq ...
Including the head of the Iran revolutionary guard.
As advisers. We also provide military assistance. This is on the request of the Iraqi government. We were the first as Barzani said in his joint press conference with me...
The Kurdish leader.
The Kurdish leader. When the Iraqi Kurdistan came under the threat of ISIL, Iran was the first to send advisers and equipment. Everybody else came long, long after.
So we have Iran and the United States both advising Iraqi forces. Have you worked out some way to work together or at least make sure that you communicate — don't trip over each other, have some accidental confrontation?
We are there to help the Iraqis. The Iraqis coordinate with whoever they want. They are a sovereign government, and we trust their choice. We help the Iraqi government, we help the Iraqi people, in whatever way we can. Whatever the Iraqis want to do with other countries is their choice.
Could there be a situation where in some military headquarters in Iraq there's an American advisor standing there and an Iranian advisor standing five feet away?
I don't think so because I do not believe that the type of activity that the United States is interested in engaging in is similar to helping Iraqis defend their territory.
What is the difference between Iran's approach and the U.S.?
We work with the people. We work with the government. We don't tell them what to do. We don't instruct them what to do. We help. We help in whatever way we can. And that makes us quite different from the United States.
The United States is a major military power, probably the greatest military power on the face of the earth. That has created an illusion in the United States that it can coerce, that it can order people around, that it can instruct people on how to deal with their problems. That's not how we see ourselves. We see ourselves as a friend of the Iraqis, a friend of Iraqi Shias, a friend of Iraqi Sunnis and a friend of Iraqi Kurds. And we have helped all various groups in Iraq in defending their territory against these terrorists.
Do you see the United States and Iran, whatever the policy differences, having the same basic interests when it comes to ISIS or ISIL?
Well, I know the Iranian interest. It's for the United States to articulate its own interests. Our interest is to have a region free from extremism and terrorism. If that is how the United States defines its interests, then there may be a commonality. We have not seen that unfortunately, because we continue to see United States hesitation in dealing with this terrorist group when it comes to Syria. If this is a dangerous terrorist group which engages in these types of heinous crimes against people of their own country, of the west, of the United States, of everywhere, then they should not have double standards about them. We have not witnessed that. We see that the United States hesitates in dealing with this group when it comes to Syria. So, whether there is commonality of interest, or whether there is, on our side, we are in the region, we don't have a choice. We need to live with this threat, or deal with this threat. For the United States, it may see this, in my view, erroneously, as an option. The United States is dealing with this as an option. The option in Iraq. The option in Syria. There are no options here. This is a challenge that you need to deal with it squarely and seriously and not based on double standards.
Are you saying the United States is not being forceful enough in this situation?
The United States is not being serious, because you cannot deal with a terrorist group whose bases are in Syria based on this illusion that you can have, as you say, your cake and eat it, too. That you can have this pressure on the Syrian government which has been the only force that has resisted. Had it been for the United States policy, had the United States been able to conduct its policy, today we would have had [ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi] Mr. Baghdadi not sitting in Mosul but sitting in Damascus. But thanks to people who recognized this threat from early on, now we do not have him sitting in Damascus. If the United States can determine for itself how it wants to deal with terrorists, then we have a very different situation.
So you think President Obama ought to reach an accommodation with President Assad of Syria?
No, I think President Obama needs to reach an accommodation with reality. That's what we need. We don't want to impose people on anybody. We need to deal with realities, and we believe that the interest of the United States, the interest of peace and security in the world is not served by a double-edged policy where you deal with ISIL in one way in Syria and a different way in Iraq.
A couple of other matters, foreign minister, and I'll let you go. Jason Rezaian, an American correspondent for the Washington Post, was taken into custody in some form in Iran over the summer, hasn't been heard from in a couple of months, what information if any can you give us about him?
Well, Jason Rezaian is also an Iranian citizen.
Dual citizenship. And if you look at your own passport, it says in your passport that if you have dual citizenship and you go to the country of your origin, then you are subjected to the laws of that country. Whatever he has done, and I'm not in a position, nor do I have information to share with you about what his charges are, but whatever he has done, he has done as an Iranian citizen, not as an American citizen. And he is facing interrogation in Iran for what he has done as an Iranian citizen.
Now, I hope that all detainees will be released. I believe that it is in the interest of everybody to work for a more positive atmosphere. And that's what I've done in the past several months. But I believe that people have to face justice, if they committed crimes. Of course if he didn't commit any crimes as an Iranian citizen, then it is our obligation as the government of Iran to seek his release.
I understood you to say that he is being interrogated on suspicion of some crime and you say you don't know what the crime is?
I don't know, because if he is arrested — which he is — and the Tehran Judiciary has — which is an independent branch of government from the executive — has said that he is under arrest, under interrogation, then he must be charged at a certain point with a crime.
Just to be clear, with all of its flaws, the United States justice system in most instances requires that if someone is to be held, there must be a charge before very many days have passed. You must find out why it is that the authorities are holding a person. We have a situation here where the government of Iran, using its own rules, has held a man without any explanation for months.
No, we have no obligation — the judiciary has no obligation to explain to the United States why it is detaining one of its citizens. His lawyers know. He knows his charge. I'm not supposed to know, but he knows his charge. Now let me tell you that there are Iranian citizens who have committed no crime, and they are being held in countries in East Asia on pressure from the United States. One of them died in prison a couple of month ago, for a crime that he didn't commit. It's not a crime to violate U.S. sanctions in Malaysia or in Philippines or in Thailand. It's not a crime. U.S. sanctions are only applicable on U.S. territory. If somebody tries to buy night vision goggles, for instance, in Malaysia, they have not violated... they've not committed any crimes. One of them died in a jail in Philippines under pressure from the United States for extradition. Now, do I have a better case than people who are asking us why we held an Iranian prison, an Iranian citizen in an Iranian court? These are two different issues. So let's, let's deal with realities. I, for one, I know Jason personally. As a reporter, he has worked with me, and I know him. And I know him to be a fair reporter. So I had hoped all along that his detention would be short, and I continued to try to make it shorter, than longer. But the point that needs to be made is that an Iranian citizen is being held by Iranian authorities on suspicions dealing with Iranian law.
And nobody's water boarding him.
Should other Iranian Americans who are accustomed to the U.S. justice system be concerned about traveling back to Iran, as many do, and disappearing?
If they've not committed any crimes, no. If, if they've not committed any crimes that are punishable in Iranian judicial system, no they shouldn't.
But here we have a man who hasn't even been accused of a crime that we know of.
Well, you don't know of him being accused of a crime. It doesn't mean that he wasn't accused of a crime in the proper procedures of the Iranian judicial system.
One other thing, foreign minister, you, personally, have made quite effective use of Twitter, sending messages about Jews, sending messages about a variety of things. You've gotten quite a lot of attention for that. When do you think the moment will arrive when the people of Iran, more broadly, will be able to make freer use of that platform or other social media than they're allowed to do now?
Well, that's an issue — you, you know where I come from. So I can try to explain for you, and for your listeners, the social atmosphere within which that decision-making should take place. In Iran, a large segment of Iranian population who are very traditional believe that it is the job of the government, the responsibility of the government to create social conditions that are safe. That the children, when they go on the Internet, do not face profanity, do not face prostitution, do not face pornography, so that it is the job of the government to create a barrier for them, to create that social security net for them. And the debate in Iran on how this can be done is an ongoing debate. It's far from being settled. It's clear where I stand on that debate, but I do not, nor does the government, determine the outcome of a domestic, social debate. It's a social debate that needs to be addressed. Even when we introduced high-speed mobile internet, there were a lot of objections from more traditional center in Iran. So that's an ongoing process and I hope at the end of the day, from my perspective as an Iranian citizen, not necessarily as an Iranian official, that one day these platforms will be free. It doesn't mean the Iranian people don't have access to platforms such as these. But I hope that as we go along we can reach that social consensus.
You mentioned concern for children, there's that same concern in the United States, foreign minister. In Iran, isn't this really about the concern that the government has — that there will be criticism of the government on these platforms?
Not really, because if you look at criticism of the government, just open any newspaper in Iran and it's filled with criticism of the government. So of one group in the government of another tendency in the government, so it depends on which newspaper you pick. You pick a newspaper close to the government, you will see criticism of our opposition. You pick up a newspaper from the opposition, you'll see very, the harshest possible... even allegations, even, eh.....
They're sometimes jailed, though. People from opposition papers.
Eh, well, not in this government. Certainly this government does not believe in jailing anybody for expressing their views. If people commit a crime, and there should be a proper procedure for investigating a crime for reaching a conclusion, based on the rule of law, then they should face punishment. Not saying that our legal system is perfect. I mean, you've gone through, after 200 years, or over 200 years of established legal procedures here in the United States. You went through water boarding. You went through situations that were less than adequate protection under the law. Now we have the same situation. We're only 35 years into this new system where we respect the rights of the people. Now we have deficiencies, a whole range of deficiencies. We can improve, and we should improve, and hopefully we will improve. But it doesn't mean that anybody for expressing their views is jailed in Iran. That's far from reality. That's a caricature that people ... If somebody wants to say Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo are reflections of the American justice system, nobody in the United States would buy that. So what people are saying here is not a reflection, maybe an aberration. But the fact is that the same people, 73 percent of them, went to the vote and voted for a president. That means that they trust their government, and people should come to live with that, should accept that as a reality. That's something, that's a phenomenon that is unprecedented in our region. For the past 35 years, every president in Iran has presided over the election of his opposition to office. For the past 35 years. In four consecutive presidential elections after two terms, every president has elected his opposition to office. So that tells you that there are accepted rules and norms in Iran and we need to come to terms with that.
I've kept you far too long. I want to ask one final, brief question if I may. Forgive me. I want people to know that you've lived in the United States, that you lived in San Francisco, that you lived in Colorado, that you have children in the United States.
I don't have children in the United States. I have children who were born in the United States. My children live in Iran.
You're children born in the United States. We could talk all day about the differences between the two countries. Is there one similarity between the two countries that you've noticed that people might not realize?
I think there are a lot of similarities. We are both proud people, interested in the future of our children, interested in having peace, security, interested in being respected. I think there are a lot of similarities. I think in the entire world, what joins us together is far greater than what divides us. Of course there are differences between governments. That doesn't mean the Iranian people are different from the American people. More similar than people want to believe.
Foreign Minister Zarif, thank you very much.