STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The United States maintains it destroyed an Iranian drone yesterday. This happened over the water near the entrance to the Persian Gulf. First, word of it came from President Trump, who said the Iranian aircraft flew too near a U.S. warship.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This is the latest of many provocative and hostile actions by Iran against vessels operating in international waters.
INSKEEP: In response to this statement, Iran has effectively said, what drone? It says its unmanned aircraft returned safely yesterday. NPR's Jackie Northam is here to work us through this story.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Starting with the U.S. side, what details does the U.S. offer for its claim?
NORTHAM: Well, the U.S. says one of its amphibious assault ships, the USS Boxer, was moving into the Strait of Hormuz when an Iranian drone flew within about a thousand yards of it. The crew of the Boxer alerted the drone several times to stand down, and then it destroyed it.
There were no casualties, Steve. But you know, this incident has added to the escalating tension in the Gulf region. You know, this is a very heavily traveled waterway; about 20% of the world's oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz. And there have been a number of confrontations recently. If you recall, about a month ago, Iran shot down a U.S. drone. Trump ordered a military strike in retaliation, but then called it off at the last minute.
And Washington blames Iran for attacking several other tankers recently. Just last week - pardon me - the - there was a tense standoff between the British navy and some Iranian vessels. And you know, just hours before the Boxer destroyed the drone, Iran announced it had seized a small tanker it said was smuggling Iranian oil. So there's a lot going on.
INSKEEP: Yeah, absolutely a lot going on. But then there's this U.S. report of shooting down an Iranian drone. What is Iran's very different version of events?
NORTHAM: Well, Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, was at the United Nations in New York yesterday, and he said he had no information about losing a drone. Iran's top military spokesman said all of the country's drones had returned safely to base. Its deputy foreign minister tweeted that Iran had not lost a drone in the Strait of Hormuz or anywhere else and that it was worried the U.S. had shot down one of its own drones by mistake. The Revolutionary Guard says it'll provide images that will disprove the U.S. destroyed one of its drones. So basically, Steve, Iran denies the U.S. claims.
INSKEEP: Anybody trying to deescalate this situation? Somebody's shooting at something.
NORTHAM: No, not yet. There have been calls for a restraint, but there are real concerns that things could continue to escalate. The U.S. has increased its military presence in the region. And today, U.S. officials say they'll be briefing foreign diplomats about a plan for maritime security, providing protection for ships in the region. The administration wants other countries to join. But you know, those countries have been hesitant. And one analyst told me that many allies don't trust what the U.S. is doing. They think the decision to pull out of the nuclear deal with Iran was wrong.
INSKEEP: OK. NPR's Jackie Northam. Stay with us, please, because we're going to hear an Iranian view of the wider confrontation here.
We've been hearing it from Iran's foreign minister, who you mentioned. He is in New York. Mohammad Javad Zarif is his name. He dresses in the style of Iranian officials - dark blazer, no tie. And yesterday, he arranged to meet a group of journalists who have long covered Iran. He sat at the head of a conference table. And sitting there, he denounced the U.S. drive to block Iran's most vital export.
MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF: Now you say we cannot sell oil. Can a country whose economy depends on oil - unfortunately - not sell oil and feed its population? We need $14 billion a year to buy food and medicine for our population. The United States is trying to starve our people.
INSKEEP: Now, to be clear, U.S. sanctions on Iran do not cover food or medicine. But the sanctions are sweeping enough to sharply raise food prices and complicate every part of the Iranian economy.
The sanctions that came along with the U.S. departure from the nuclear deal were a personal blow to Foreign Minister Zarif. When he was visiting New York a few years ago, he was seen as a man who could make Iran's case for a deal - a man who had lived in and, therefore, understood the West. He frustrated critics of Iran who saw him as the urbane face of a harsh government.
This visit has been different. The U.S. imposed new visa restrictions limiting Zarif's movements to only the U.N. building and Iran's two diplomatic facilities. He nevertheless managed to arrange meetings like this one and offered journalists Iran's distinct view of recent history in which the United States, not Iran, is the aggressor.
ZARIF: You do things, and then we react. And then you complain.
INSKEEP: President Trump, like President Obama before him, blames Iran for backing one side in a civil war in Yemen. Zarif blames the United States and its allies for backing the other side.
ZARIF: You complain for things that you have done. You're supporting Saudi Arabia to bomb the hell out of the Yemenis. Why do you complain against us?
INSKEEP: And here's how he described Iran's support for Shia factions and dictators and terror groups throughout the region.
ZARIF: OK. We are involved in Lebanon, in Syria, in Iraq - always on the right side. But if you want to find a common denominator for malign activity, it's not Iran - your allies.
INSKEEP: After more than an hour, the foreign minister said goodbye to most of the journalists.
ZARIF: OK. Ladies, gentlemen, thank you very much for being here.
INSKEEP: And he and I sat by a window for a few more questions. The truth is Foreign Minister Zarif's options are limited. The periodic missile fire around the Strait of Hormuz is one sign of that. President Trump has said he would like to negotiate with Iran but has many demands. And Iran's supreme leader has indicated no interest in talking. Iran could wait for another U.S. president, but Zarif says he assumes Trump has a better than 50% chance of winning reelection.
Zarif did float one possible deal, although it falls far short of U.S. demands. Zarif said Iran could plausibly speed up its planned ratification of permanent nuclear inspections in Iran if the United States backs off some sanctions.
ZARIF: We can do it right now in order to make sure that people can be at ease that Iran will never develop nuclear weapons.
INSKEEP: Meaning permanent inspections ratified in exchange for a permanent agreement that is ratified by the U.S. Congress.
ZARIF: In exchange for a permanent lifting of sanctions ratified by U.S. Congress - exactly as envisaged for 2023, we can do it now.
INSKEEP: Has that been raised with U.S. officials in any way before today?
ZARIF: Well, we're not talking to U.S. officials.
INSKEEP: There was talk in New York that Kentucky Senator Rand Paul might serve as a U.S. intermediary to Iran. Zarif would not confirm if they were meeting and said nobody can really speak for Trump anyway.
It's well-known how the United States is working to pressure Iran at the moment, steadily reducing Iran's oil exports. What is Iran doing or planning to do to pressure the United States, if anything?
ZARIF: Well, what we can do is to resist U.S. sanctions. Right now our economy is suffering less than last year because the United States has continued, and we have gotten used to it. Our currency is stabilizing. The growth rate is improving. The jobless rate is improving.
INSKEEP: This is what official statistics are saying about Iran's economy. It's improved in the second quarter. But you're not on a sustainable path, are you? You can't do without oil revenues forever, can you?
ZARIF: Well, we certainly can do without oil revenues forever, and that is our goal. The United States is simply expediting it for us.
INSKEEP: Are you attempting to pressure the United States directly in some way?
ZARIF: Well, we're not attempting to pressure anybody because we simply do our job. It is clear that a country that has 1,500 miles of coastline on the Persian Gulf is instrumental for security in that region. We are the strongest country in that region. Without us, you won't have security in the region. But that's not doing something - simply omitting to do things that we have done.
INSKEEP: Have you lost some authority or credibility at home because you were so central to negotiating this nuclear agreement and it hasn't worked out - the United States pulled out?
ZARIF: Engagement has lost credibility at home. People don't look at engagement with the international community - the United States for one reason, for not keeping its word; the Europeans for another reason, for not being able to stand on their word. So yeah, engagement is losing credibility. And by extension, I'm losing credibility.
INSKEEP: I want to know how you see yourself at this moment. As you know, critics of Iran and the United States will describe you as a smooth-talking face for a radical regime. You were also criticized at home for being too pro-Western. How would you describe yourself?
ZARIF: That's good. I'm doing my job.
INSKEEP: Which is what? How do you see it now?
ZARIF: A diplomat is supposed to provide an alternative to war. And that's what I'm trying to do, both at home and here.
INSKEEP: How close have you been to war, do you believe?
ZARIF: President Trump said 10 minutes.
INSKEEP: Meaning that had the president retaliated for the shooting down of a drone some weeks ago, Iran would have not just fired back once; that would have been the beginning of a war.
ZARIF: It would have been. The United States can start a war, can't end it.
INSKEEP: What do you mean, can't end it?
ZARIF: Nobody who starts a war ends the war. That's the reality of history.
INSKEEP: I just want to understand that a little better. It is the consensus of U.S. military thinkers that invading Iran in some way would be disastrously expensive, extremely difficult. It's a very large country. And yet, Iran's military is not necessarily that strong. Were it to come to war, it would be immensely destructive for your country, would it not?
ZARIF: It would be. Wars are destructive for all participants and even bystanders. And it would be destructive. That's why we don't want to engage in war. But that doesn't mean that we will run away from war.
INSKEEP: Foreign minister, thank you so much.
ZARIF: Thank you, my friend.
INSKEEP: Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's foreign minister, speaking yesterday in New York City.
NPR's Jackie Northam is still with us. And Jackie, what do you make of the case that Zarif laid out for Iran there?
NORTHAM: Well, it struck me that Zarif makes it sound as though Iran is in a good place and can withstand the oil sanctions. But in fact, Steve, those sanctions are really hurting Iran's economy. Oil is the country's main export. And the U.S. has pressured countries around the world not to buy Iranian crude. And most countries have complied because they're afraid of facing their own U.S. sanctions, of getting knocked out of the U.S. financial system if they don't comply. Analysts I've talked with said China and Syria are the only two countries continuing to buy Iranian oil, but it's a fraction of what Iran was selling before the U.S. reimposed sanctions.
INSKEEP: Thanks for the perspective, Jackie - really appreciate it.
NORTHAM: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Jackie Northam.
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