ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
And I'm Ari Shapiro with some breaking news tonight. After days of Iran promising revenge for the death of General Qassem Soleimani, tonight, Iran has launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles at Iraqi military bases hosting U.S. military forces. We are continuing to follow this story, and we'll bring you more details as they come in.
Few western journalists are in Iran. Our co-host Mary Louise Kelly is there. Earlier today, she was granted an interview with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. They sat down on the sidelines of a major foreign policy conference in Tehran. As you'll hear, their discussion includes questions of when and how Iran plans to retaliate; questions that we may be getting answers to as this news unfolds tonight.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Foreign Minister, thank you. Our time is short, so I will be direct. Does Iran consider the U.S. killing of Qassem Soleimani an act of war?
JAVAD ZARIF: It's an act of terrorism and an act of war.
KELLY: It is both, terrorism and war - you believe - on behalf of the U.S.?
ZARIF: Yes. But it has three, basically, characteristics. One, against Iraq - it violated territorial integrity and sovereignty of Iraq, and it also violated the agreement that they had with the Iraqis. And that is why the Iraqis decided to kick them out. It hurt the feeling of many people across Iran and the rest of the world. And the reaction to that would be to make it almost impossible for the U.S. to continue to stay in this region. That is why I say the days of the United States in our region are numbered.
Third is they attacked a citizen and a senior official of Iran. We're responsible, under international law, for protection of our citizens. This was an act of aggression, an armed attack - albeit a cowardly armed attack - against an Iranian official in foreign territory. It amounts to war, and we will respond according to our own timing and choice.
KELLY: But we were on the streets in Tehran yesterday. We saw flags, banners with revenge written across them.
KELLY: What does that look like?
ZARIF: Well, that looks like the United States has committed a grave error - a grave error. And it will pay for that grave error.
KELLY: Can you be specific?
ZARIF: Well, I was very specific. The Parliament of Iraq asked them to leave. The people of the region are asking them to leave. And the people of Iran are asking their government to do what it takes for the United States to pay for its crime. The crimes against...
KELLY: But what will Iran's response look like?
ZARIF: Well, we will decide. We will decide. The United States - you see...
KELLY: There's nothing on or off the table.
ZARIF: Well, you see, in exercising our right to self-defense, we are only bound by international law - unlike the United States, which is not bound by international law.
KELLY: The U.S. would differ, but go on.
ZARIF: The U.S. would differ. Well, tell them to explain how they want to attack cultural sites. That's a war crime. How they want to - I mean, these are not off the record. These are statements made by the president of the United States - disproportionate...
KELLY: The defense secretary, as you will know, Mark Esper, has said in the United States, the U.S. will not be attacking cultural sites.
ZARIF: Well, I've heard that the president in the United States is the commander in chief. And as you say, the buck stops here. So unless President Trump changes his own threats, I don't think the defense secretary works on behalf of the president, not as a - as an independent entity. But the point is the united - secretary of state, of all people, has said if Iran wants its people to eat, it has to listen to the United States. That's a crime against humanity. Starvation is a crime against humanity, creating individual responsibility before the International Criminal Court.
These are the statements that are being made. I'm not making them up. I mean, they're Newsweek headlines. They're - I mean, they're headlines in the United States. So...
KELLY: You were supposed to have...
ZARIF: They can differ with me, but I don't think they have any grounds to differ with me.
KELLY: You were supposed to be able to make this case in New York at the United Nations this week. You were set to address the United Nations Security Council.
ZARIF: Not this case - actually, the president of the Security Council invited me over 20 days ago - the current president.
KELLY: Will you be able to go?
ZARIF: No, unfortunately, because Mike Pompeo decided that I was too dangerous for the United States.
KELLY: How did - has he communicated that directly to you? How did you find out?
ZARIF: Not to us, to the secretary general. He has said, we didn't have enough time to issue a visa. I don't know how terrible bureaucracy the State Department has that in 25 days, they couldn't issue a visa for a foreign minister. I'm not an unknown entity.
KELLY: But you are - this is final; this is definite? - because...
ZARIF: From this (ph) point of view, it is.
KELLY: ...I know there has been confusion in past about visas.
ZARIF: And I'm not that crazy about going to the United States anyway.
KELLY: You're just as happy to skip this trip.
ZARIF: Well, I'm not happy to skip this trip because that was part of my obligation as the foreign minister of Iran - to go to that session of the Security Council and talk about the need to respect international law because that's the title - the need to respect the principles of the U.N. Charter.
KELLY: Secretary Pompeo - in past, when this has been an issue with Iranian diplomats such as yourself coming to the United Nations in New York and visa issues have been difficult - has said, a nation that has killed U.S. citizens, that has knowingly killed hundreds of Americans - why should they be allowed to come to the U.S.? Why should a nation that knowingly supports international terrorist groups, why should they be allowed to come address the United Nations?
ZARIF: Well, now - I mean, these allegations are easy to make. But we see who is killing and who is maiming and who has killed a thousand Iraqi scientists. Who...
KELLY: Iran has sent weapons that have killed hundreds of Americans in Iraq. You know this.
ZARIF: Who killed 290 Iranians - civilians in a civil airliner? The record is clear. The record of the United States in this region is clear. They have killed a lot of Iraqis. They've killed a lot of Afghanis. They've killed a lot of people elsewhere in this region. They are killing a lot of people in Yemen. The weapons that the United States provides to Saudi Arabia is killing and maiming people.
KELLY: Many sides are killing a lot of people in Yemen, unfortunately...
ZARIF: Unfortunately, it's a war that the United (ph)...
KELLY: ...Including the Houthis, who Iran backs.
ZARIF: The Houthis have always asked - they didn't start a war. They're defending themselves. You cannot equate somebody who's defending themselves but - with somebody who's attacking them.
KELLY: May I turn you to the nuclear deal? We have heard from Iran that Iran will suspend compliance with the remaining limits in the nuclear deal. Is this the end of the deal?
ZARIF: No, we didn't say we will suspend complying with the remaining limits. We said that we have taken four steps. Our fifth step would be to suspend compliance with the limit on the number of centrifuges. That means effectively that all limits on our centrifuge program are now suspended.
KELLY: Why do this now?
ZARIF: Because it's at the 12 - two-month period that we have said before that if the Europeans do not comply with their own obligations, we will take measures. You see, JCPOA was negotiated not in an...
KELLY: You're using the formal name for the nuclear deal. Go on.
ZARIF: Yeah - not in an atmosphere of trust but in an atmosphere of mistrust. That is why we put in place the mechanisms for dealing with violations. And that mechanism was triggered by Iran after U.S. withdrawal. And in November of 2018, we informed them that we have exhausted that mechanism, and we have no other choice but to start reducing our level of compliance. But we made it very clear that we are ready to go back to full compliance the minute they start complying with their own. This doesn't mean that the United States should comply. It means that Europe should comply.
KELLY: Still, it's not good news for the nuclear deal, which you personally negotiated.
ZARIF: Well, it's not good news - certainly not. we're not happy about this, but it's a remedy. When you execute somebody or you imprison somebody for committing an offense, you certainly are not happy for depriving somebody of their life or of their liberty. But you have to do it because it's a remedy that the law has provided in order to prevent lawlessness. This is a remedy provided in the deal.
KELLY: So this is not...
KELLY: ...Iran racing to build a nuclear bomb.
ZARIF: No. If we wanted to build a nuclear bomb, we would have done it a long time ago. Iran does not want a nuclear bomb, does not believe that nuclear bombs create security for anybody. And we believe it's time for everybody to disarm rather than to arm.
KELLY: Last question - there's something like five U.S. citizens still being detained in Iran, including the aging Baquer Namazi, who is in ill health.
ZARIF: He's not detained.
KELLY: He's here.
ZARIF: He's here.
KELLY: He would probably prefer not to be.
ZARIF: Well, he's an Iranian citizen.
KELLY: Is there hope for future exchanges?
ZARIF: I don't think that this action by the United States helped. We had proposed a universal exchange of all prisoners, and we were doing that in good faith. We released an American citizen for an Iranian citizen. That could have continued. But now...
KELLY: You're talking about the recent exchange of a Princeton graduate student who was an American held here.
ZARIF: And an Iranian professor...
ZARIF: ...Who had been held without...
KELLY: And those channels are still open?
ZARIF: I don't think at this time, we can discuss those issues. We have to deal with the present issue at hand, unfortunately.
KELLY: If I'm hearing you correctly, you're saying there will not be future exchanges while the situation is so tense between Washington...
ZARIF: Well, I think those talks are certainly suspended.
KELLY: Foreign Minister Zarif, thank you for your time.
ZARIF: Thank you for being here.
SHAPIRO: That's our co-host Mary Louise Kelly talking with Javad Zarif today. And we should note that after recording this interview, President Trump did back off his threat to target Iran's cultural sites. Our team is in Tehran all week reporting on the fallout from Soleimani's death and the state of U.S.-Iran relations. And we will continue to bring you news on the Iranian attack on U.S. personnel in Iraq throughout the program.
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