STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
There are a lot of motorcades, a lot of security, on the streets here in Manhattan - even some security people with automatic weapons - because just down the street from our studios here, world leaders are gathering this week for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly. Some diplomats in New York are asking what to do about Iran and its confrontation with the United States.
Increasingly violent incidents have followed the U.S. withdrawal from a nuclear deal. The most recent was the attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities which disrupted the global oil supply. The U.S. has cast suspicion on Iran. Iran has denied any involvement. So that was the start of our talk with Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, among the diplomats here in Manhattan.
Who do you believe is responsible?
JAVAD ZARIF: Well, the Yemenis have taken responsibility for that.
INSKEEP: Zarif is referring to the Houthi faction in Yemen. They've been involved in a war with Saudi Arabia. They are allied with Iran. And even as the U.S. blamed Iran for attacking the Saudis, the Houthis took responsibility themselves. And Zarif says he understands why.
ZARIF: Because for the past four and a half years, they've been subjected to the worst type of attacks on their children, their houses, their hospitals.
INSKEEP: If I could just interrupt for a moment, though, Foreign Minister, the United States has cast doubt on the Yemenis' capability. I can see why you would question U.S. intelligence. But France, which has tried to work with Iran, has also said the Houthis claim of responsibility lacks credibility.
ZARIF: Well, they believed that the Houthis could lose the war in four weeks. Four and a half years, they're still there. They don't consider the human factor. They don't consider the desperate people who have their backs against the wall invent, innovate, find ways of doing it.
INSKEEP: You have said in previous comments that you have good relations with top people in the Revolutionary Guard Corps, for example, in Iran, but you're not part of the military chain of command. If someone in Iran were to order and conduct an attack like this, would you know?
ZARIF: I should.
INSKEEP: You should. But would you?
ZARIF: I should.
INSKEEP: You resigned once because you weren't being told vital...
ZARIF: That's why I resigned. But this time, it was clear. They reported it to us after it took place because we had nothing to do with it.
INSKEEP: So you believe your government's denial, and you have sufficient information to be confident that Iran had nothing to do with this whatsoever?
ZARIF: I know that Iran didn't have anything to do with it. Who did it, I just take the Yemeni claim at face value. If you want to go to conspiracy theory and ask who had an interest in doing that, there'd be a lot of people in the list of interested participants, not least of which the United States and Israel.
INSKEEP: But wouldn't Iran be on that list of countries that would have an interest in striking Saudi Arabia?
ZARIF: Let me ask you a question. Five days before our president comes to New York, would we do it so that instead of pushing our own agenda here on U.S. violations of JCPOA, we should be talking about Yemen?
INSKEEP: Do you support France's call for an international investigation of this? The French have gained access to Saudi Arabia. Perhaps they would like information from you.
ZARIF: Well, we would support an impartial international investigation.
INSKEEP: Would Iran provide information or access if that were part of the investigation?
ZARIF: If we were part of the investigation.
INSKEEP: If you were part of the investigation. Let's suppose that circumstances continue as they have, with the United States continuing to impose sanctions - another set of sanctions were imposed on Friday, as you know very well - and Iran's economy continuing to suffer. How high a price is your country willing or able to pay to prevail in this competition?
ZARIF: Well, it's not a competition. We are resisting an unprovoked aggression by the United States. I can assure you that the United States will not be able to bring us to our knees through pressure. United States can have a much better deal with Iran if they started talking to us based on respect, based on mutual respect, and based on moving forward. Next Wednesday, there is going to be a meeting in which four of the five permanent members plus Germany will be seated around the table along with me and the high representative of the European Union. There is an empty chair there for the United States, but there is a ticket for that chair, and that is to be law abiding.
INSKEEP: You seem to suggest that you're ready to talk. Is Iran ready to talk, given that Iran's supreme leader has said there's no point in talking with the United States?
ZARIF: Well, our experience has shown us that the United States is not a trustworthy partner. But we have a table. That table has been there, and we are sitting around that table.
INSKEEP: With the other parties to the nuclear...
ZARIF: With the other parties to the nuclear deal. The United States decided to leave that table. Now it knows how to get back, and the leader has said that if they come back to JCPOA - that is, if they lift the sanctions - then they can join.
INSKEEP: Foreign Minister, I know that you have, from time to time, spent some of your time dealing with the issue of American citizens who were held in Iranian prisons. I want to ask about one of them in particular. I spoke with his wife the other day. He's a Chinese American. His name is Xiyue Wang. He is a scholar from Princeton University. He was doing a doctoral dissertation which caused him to go into Iranian archives. He was interrogated, arrested, imprisoned, is now serving a 10-year sentence. I spoke with his wife the other day. I said, I'm going to see Foreign Minister Zarif. Is there anything you'd like to say to him?
INSKEEP: And may I tell you what she said? She said, my husband is innocent. He's not a spy. He's just a student. We just want to plead for their clemency to let him go.
ZARIF: I would love to see him go back to his family. And I have made proposals last September - it is a year ago - that would enable him to go back. But let me also tell you about a professor who is in a U.S. prison for the last nine months without charge - without charge. He was given a visa to come to the United States. His visa was revoked while he was flying to the United States. He has not committed any crime. What should I say to the wife of this professor?
INSKEEP: Let's acknowledge that there are a lot of immigration cases in the United...
ZARIF: This is not an immigration case.
INSKEEP: It's someone who traveled on a visa. The visa was revoked.
ZARIF: This is not an immigration case. This is a trap - for an Iranian professor to be charged here for nothing.
INSKEEP: Should the Chinese American, the United States citizen that we're discussing, be held hostage because of that case in the United States?
ZARIF: Should the Iranian citizen be held hostage in the United States?
INSKEEP: I don't know that that involves the Chinese American, but you're...
ZARIF: I don't know.
INSKEEP: ...You're connecting them.
ZARIF: No, no, no, no. No, no, no. What I'm saying is that the Chinese American in Iran is in jail on a charge, on a court case. And I have offered to exchange them. Because as foreign minister, I cannot go to our court and simply tell them, release this man. I can go to the court and tell them, I can exchange this man for an Iranian and then have a standing, have a legal standing in the court. Otherwise, I don't have a legal standing. There is a case. Like it or not, this man was convicted.
INSKEEP: He was made to confess.
ZARIF: I mean, a lot - our man is being asked to sign a plea bargain if he wants to get released. So where should we be? Should we continue to discuss this till the end of the day, or should we exchange them?
INSKEEP: Do you feel you see the way out of this confrontation?
ZARIF: Abandon - abandon the illusion that Iran can be defeated by pressure.
INSKEEP: Thank you for taking the time, Foreign Minister.
INSKEEP: Javad Zarif, the foreign minister of Iran. He's here in New York, where violence in the Persian Gulf is among the subjects of discussion as world leaders meet for the U.N. General Assembly.
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