Iran's Foreign Minister: U.S. 'Not Serious' About Defeating Islamic State : The Two-Way In an interview with NPR, Mohammad Javad Zarif says the U.S. has been hesitant and contradictory in its approach to defeating the Islamist insurgency.
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Iran's Foreign Minister: U.S. 'Not Serious' About Defeating Islamic State

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Iran's Foreign Minister: U.S. 'Not Serious' About Defeating Islamic State

Iran's Foreign Minister: U.S. 'Not Serious' About Defeating Islamic State

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Let's get a view of the Middle East as it looks to one of the senior officials of Iran. Mohammad Javad Zarif is Iran's foreign minister.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

He's in New York for nuclear talks, and he spoke with us in a room overlooking the United Nations.

CORNISH: Last night on MORNING EDITION, we'd heard his view of a nuclear deal - possible, he says, if the US will take it.

INSKEEP: Then there's the question of ISIS, or ISIL, as it's sometimes called. That extremist group has taken over huge swaths of Iraq and Syria - two nations where Iran has huge influence. The United States and allies like Saudi Arabia have been meeting to counter this threat. Zarif is dismissive of them all.

MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF: These are the people who armed ISIL, who financed ISIL. Now they want, all of the 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 Basharal-Assad, but by the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

INSKEEP: Zarif has been a diplomat for decades. He is now the representative of what is considered a moderate elected Iranian government. And his flawless English grows out of years spent living in the United States, but he maintains a deeply skeptical view of the United States role in the world.

ZARIF: Usually, when you have a lot of money, you have the illusion that that money can buy you everything - so when you have a lot of power. The United States has a lot of military power and believes that it's coercing power can win it a lot of things. And it has failed time and again to achieve that.

INSKEEP: In a half-hour conversation with Iran's foreign minister, we probed the complexities of Iran's place in the Middle East. Iran thrives on opposition to the United States. Yet, Iran has in some ways worked alongside the United States when it comes to fighting ISIS. Iran, like the United States, pushed for a new prime minister in Iraq. Yet, Iran, unlike the U.S., is supporting this same leader as always in Syria. Resistance to the brutal regime of President Bushar al-Assad is what actually gave ISIS room to thrive. Now both the U.S. and Iran are trying to train forces to push back against ISIS.

I want to ask you question about what's happening on the ground in Iraq, Foreign Minister, because, as you know, the United States has sent advisors and is sending more. Iran also has troops or forces...

ZARIF: We don't have troops. We also have military advisers in Iraq.

INSKEEP: Military advisers.

ZARIF: And we provide military assistance to Iraq.

INSKEEP: Including the head of the Iran Revolutionary Guard.

ZARIF: As advisers. We also provide military assistance. This is under the request of the Iraqi government. We were the first, as Barzani said in his first joint press conference with me...

INSKEEP: The Kurdish leader.

ZARIF: The Kurdish leader. When the Iraqi Kurdistan came under the threat of ISIL, Iran was the first to send advisors and equipment.

INSKEEP: So...

ZARIF: Everybody else came long, long after.

INSKEEP: 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?

ZARIF: We are there to help the Iraqis. The Iraqis coordinate with whoever they want. And they're a sovereign government, and we trust their choice. We help the Iraqi government. We help the Iraqi people in whatever way we can. Whatever Iraqis want to do with other countries is their choice.

INSKEEP: 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?

ZARIF: 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.

INSKEEP: Was the difference between Iran's approach and the U.S.?

ZARIF: 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. 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 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 helped all various groups in Iraq in defending their territory against these terrorists.

INSKEEP: Do you see the United States and Iran - whatever the policy differences - having the same basic interest when it comes to ISIS or ISIL?

ZARIF: I know the Iranian interest. 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.

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. But 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.

INSKEEP: Are you saying the United States is not being forceful enough in this situation?

ZARIF: 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. If the United States can determine for itself how it wants to deal with terrorists, then we have a very different situation.

INSKEEP: So you think President Obama ought to reach an accommodation with President Assad of Syria?

ZARIF: No. I think President Obama needs to reach an accommodation with reality. That's what we need. I mean, we don't - 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 and Syria different way than Iraq.

INSKEEP: Foreign Minister Zarif, thank you very much.

ZARIF: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Iran's foreign minister Javad Zarif. Last night on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we heard his views of nuclear negotiations, and elsewhere this morning, we ask about a detained American journalist. The full interview is at NPR.org.

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