Full transcript of Amanpour's interview with Iran's foreign minister

What follows is a full transcript of Christiane Amanpour's interview with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in Munich, on February 17, 2017.

(CNN)CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Foreign Minister, welcome to the program.

JAVAD ZARIF: Good to be with you.
AMANPOUR: What a change of atmosphere. This time last year, you were here, John Kerry was here -- Javad and John -- it was a much different atmosphere. This year there's a huge amount of tension now between Iran and the United States. How do you react to that?
ZARIF: Well, I think we live in a transitional era in international politics, and that's the nature of transition.
AMANPOUR: When the United States says that they put Iran 'on notice,' and as you heard President Trump saying that actually Iran has been very lucky -- Obama administration was very kind to you. What's your answer to that?
ZARIF: Well, first of all everybody over the past thirty-eight years has tested Iran. And they all know that Iran is hardly moved by threats. We do not respond well to threats. We respond very well to respect -- mutual respect -- and mutual interest. I believe President Obama and his administration tried every other option. They were the first who tried the crippling sanctions. They used international machinery, including the Security Council, to impose sanctions on Iran. We believe they were not justified, but they did impose sanctions. Economic hardship was a part of that sanction scenario. But look at the net result. The net result is, when they started the sanctions we had less than two hundred centrifuges spinning. When they came to the negotiating table we had twenty thousand centrifuges spinning. So the reason President Obama and Secretary Kerry came to the negotiating table, was that sanctions had not worked.
AMANPOUR: So when you hear President Trump saying 'this is the worst deal ever,' that we're going to do this, that or the other -- rip it up, renegotiate it, move the goalposts, add more pressures on Iran, for other behavior not just the nuclear parameters -- regional, hegemony, terrorism -- what do you say about that? Do you think it will happen?
ZARIF: First of all, I believe this was the best deal that was possible for all concerned -- not just for Iran, but for the United States too. I'm sure they would have tried, and they did try, to get a different deal. But this was what was possible. We had other preferences too. So we had to come to an agreement on a middle ground. And I believe a deal is a good deal when nobody is totally happy with it. So it has elements that would address the concerns of everybody. And I believe that makes it a sustainable deal. It's not a bilateral deal between Iran and the United States. On other issues, we did not -- we agreed not to deal with other issues. We agreed to focus on the nuclear issue, because the nuclear issue was first of all complicated enough, it had kept the two sides and many others in the international arena busy and seriously concerned for almost a decade, or even more. So we had to deal with that particular issue. We had said publicly, the Leader had said publicly, that if we see the United States respecting its side of bargain -- which unfortunately wasn't the case fully -- that we would engage in other areas. So we started with the nuclear deal, we kept our focus very clearly on that particular problem, which was of concern to the international community.
AMANPOUR: So again, what do you think sitting in Tehran, do you believe the Trump Administration will try somehow to change the deal? What have you heard from your interlocutors -- you say it's not a bilateral deal, so what have you heard from European ministers who've spoken to the Trump administration? What have you heard from Russia? Do they plan to keep the deal or do you feel it's going to be divide and rip it up? Divide and conquer?
ZARIF: I believe everybody, including experts in the United States, know that this is the best deal that was possible. Particularly in Europe -- Europe played an important role in getting to the deal, and we've heard every representative of European countries -- UK, France, Germany, European Union, others -- making the same statement that this deal is not open for renegotiation. We've heard Russia and China making the same statement. And I believe there is an international consensus that this was a good deal, is a good deal, and probably there can't be a better deal. And it's not possible to renegotiate a deal that took us more than two years to negotiate, and before the negotiations started, took us ten years of grandstanding, of threats and sanctions and all sorts of other means of coercion. It was a triumph of diplomacy over coercion, because coercion doesn't work anymore. We have passed the era of hegemonic tendencies. Both globally and regionally. So we need to find ways of getting to possible middle ground where everybody can live with an outcome.
AMANPOUR: So let me get to some of that hegemony and regional projection of power. As you very well know, certainly the US administration under President Trump, certainly certain Arab allies of the United States -- Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, certainly Israel, and many other countries -- are very worried about the projection of Iranian power. You recently gave a very impassioned speech about this ballistic missile test, in which you said it was defensive. But people are watching Syria, and they are seeing that without Iran, this murderous regime would not still be in power. And they are wondering, where was the defensive nature of your intervention on behalf of Bashar Assad in Syria?
ZARIF: Well, I think if they want to look at regional influence, they need to look at the wrong choices that they have made.
AMANPOUR: But specifically, I need to ask about this -- because I am not asking about them, I am asking about Iran -- why come in on the side of the Middle East Milosevic?
ZARIF: It's your impression, but my point --
AMANPOUR: No, Mr. Foreign Minister. There are five-hundred thousand people dead. There are twelve million refugees. here is torture, there is mass hanging. It's not my impression; those are the facts.
ZARIF: No, those are not the facts. Because, you had a group in Syria that was armed and equipped and financed by outside forces. Mistakes were made in the beginning. But the worst mistake of all was to arm a group of terrorists who are not only a threat to Syria, but a threat globally. Mistakes were made in Syria, as in the past mistakes have been made -- the same people who armed Daesh, armed the terrorist groups, were the same people who armed Saddam Hussein; were the same people who created and armed Al Qaeda. We should not continue to repeat history, and then blame people who were on the right side. Do not forget that this is a pattern of behavior that has existed for over thirty-eight years. That a group of countries, which the United States calls allies, plus the United States itself -- and here I am referring to President Trump himself during his campaign saying that Daesh is a creation -- ISIS -- is a creation of the United States government. What is a problem is wrong choices that have been made throughout history, in supporting Saddam Hussein -- for eight years, the United States, the rest of the world, and its Arab allies, supported Saddam Hussein. Look where he took them. They supported ISIS, they created ISIS, they armed ISIS, without their [inaudible] --
AMANPOUR: They were actually supporting the moderates, but let's get to that in a second --
ZARIF: No, no, they say they were supporting the moderates. But the fighting force on the ground in Syria and in Iraq are two very clear organizations: Daesh and Al Nusra.
AMANPOUR: But sir, you know --
ZARIF: Both of them are recognized by the Security Council -- not by me or any outside power -- but by the United Nations Security Council, in which the US is a permanent member, as terrorist organizations. These are the fighting forces on the ground. We need to deal with that. But let me --
AMANPOUR: But this is very important, actually, because it was a mostly popular uprising in 2011, which then -- there were moderates at the beginning, and without Iran's intervention in 2012, Bashar Assad would not have regained the territory that he did. You defend very passionately the way the world sat by and watched Saddam Hussein gas Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, with no accountability. And yet, you're supporting Bashar Assad, who has been gassing his own people -- with chemical weapons, with chlorine gas and barrel bombs. It's really hard to understand why you would take that position.
ZARIF: No, we never support the use of chemical weapons, because we were victims of chemical weapons --
AMANPOUR: Right, but they are using it and you're supporting them.
ZARIF: Hold on. We made a very clear stand against the use of chemical weapons. We were instrumental in getting the international agreement on the removal of chemical weapons from Syria. Unfortunately, that international agreement lacks a very serious element, and that is to remove chemical weapons from the stockpiles of ISIS and Al Nusra, who have now been confirmed, even by the United States, as having used chemical weapons against Syrians. So we are dealing with a very difficult situation. Unfortunately, we have found ourselves in a situation where the choice was to allow Daesh and Nusra to gain -- instead of being organizations, to be a state, or to be two states. We came to the assistance -- this in Iran's policy. We don't pick and choose. We came to the assistance of the Kurds when ISIS was just about to take over Erbil. If you want, Mr Barzani is here -- you can ask him, that immediately upon his request, that Erbil was under the threat of being taken over by ISIS. Iran rushed to his assistance. Nobody else came to assist him. When Baghdad was being targeted by Daesh, we came to their, we went to their assistance. When Syrian government was being targeted by Daesh, we went to their assistance. This is a consistent policy. People are making the wrong choices in supporting terrorism, believing mistakenly that they can have terrorists and their adversaries fight each other in a specific domain. They do not understand that in a globalized world, you cannot contain threats to one particular locality. You see that now Syria has become the training ground for terrorists, for suicide bombers, who are making, creating havoc in Paris, to New York, to Los Angeles, everywhere.
AMANPOUR: Let me pick that up then. Why then has your ally and Bashar Assad's ally, Russia, failed to attack ISIS? Every intelligence report, every military report confirms that the majority of their strikes have been against the opponents of Bashar Assad and not against ISIS. Why? Why is that?
ZARIF: You see, the operation in Palmyra was an operation against Daesh, although it was not a strategically sound operation, but nevertheless there was an operation against Daesh, took over the city. There were operations elsewhere against Daesh.
AMANPOUR: And they came storming back.
ZARIF: There are operations -- because it was not a strategically sound operation. But the point was --
AMANPOUR: Was Russia strategically going after ISIS? All intelligence in Europe, NATO and elsewhere says not.
ZARIF: Well unfortunately, Europe, NATO, and elsewhere have not done much of a job in fighting ISIS. Those who have prevented ISIS from taking territory in Iraq are not NATO and Europeans and the United States. It was Iran who came to the assistance of the Iraqi forces. It was the Iraqi forces who were able to defeat Daesh in Iraq, with assistance coming from Iran, not with assistance coming from elsewhere. And it will continue. We have a very serious policy. We believe that everybody should come together to fight these terrorist organizations, and we believe that is in the interests of everybody -- and I'm insisting everybody -- to come to fight them. Nobody should believe that they can gain -- even on a short term basis -- from supporting these terrorist organizations. Unfortunately, as I said, because of short-sighted calculations, they have come to aid groups or countries or states -- including Saddam Hussein -- who have at the end of the day turned against them. You cannot find a moment in history where Iran supported either Daesh, Taliban, Al Qaeda, or Al Nusra. We have always sided on the right side against terrorists, against those who want to confront the people.
AMANPOUR: So two questions out of that. You said you support anybody who wants to come to fight ISIS. There is word in the United States that President Trump may commit ground forces to Syria to fight ISIS -- and that is his mission, he wants to destroy ISIS. Would you support that?
ZARIF: We have to see what created ISIS. I believe what created ISIS -- in addition to very clear armaments and financial support that came from certain allies of the United States -- it was the fact of occupation. We need to look at this and not commit to solutions that are, instead of being solutions, are in fact part of the problem.
AMANPOUR: So no, you wouldn't support?
ZARIF: I believe the presence of foreign troops in an Arab territory, against the wish of the government and the people of those territories, is in and of itself a recipe for these demagogues, these extremists, to rally behind, and to gain new support and to recruit new fighters who are disenfranchised youth, who have been deprived of their dignity because of certain policies that have been followed. So we need to look at this from a comprehensive approach. We should not try to address one particular element and then augment the problem itself.
AMANPOUR: You know -- I mean, you know because you know the region -- that it was Bashar Assad who nurtured the Al Qaeda types who came from Iraq, back and forth, in and out, and you know, there was a lot of Bashar Assad's efforts which led to ISIS as well.
ZARIF: I said mistakes have been made, and I believe those who are supporting Al-Nusra and Daesh today will fall victim to the same organizations in the future, because these organizations do not recognize borders, these organizations do not, cannot be contained in one country, one locality, or one region. They are -- terrorism -- one of the fundamental aspects of globalized terrorism today is that it can become globalized, and it has become globalized. So we need to address it from that perspective, not from very short-sighted angle of trying to defeat your enemy with somebody else. I mean, the enemy of your enemy is no longer your friend. This is a concept that we need to recognize in a globalized world.
AMANPOUR: Can I move on to why people in the region are worried about Iran today. Hezbollah, which Iran supports, also came into Syria and has now had a unique experience -- a foreign war where it has shown great fighting ability. And of course that worries Israel. Combined with the fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu standing next to President Trump said that, yes, Iran says its missiles are defensive, but on them are written, 'We must destroy Israel.' I mean, they're right to be worried, right? Of Hezbollah and Iranian intentions?
ZARIF: Hezbollah is a part of Lebanese government, a part of Lebanese society --
AMANPOUR: But it's a fighting force.
ZARIF: It is a fighting force that has defended its territory. It has never committed an act of aggression against others.
AMANPOUR: It's come into Syria.
ZARIF: It came into Syria on the request of the Syrian government to prevent these extremist forces from infiltrating into Lebanon, which would be a threat against all of us. Why don't we understand that if Lebanon were to be infiltrated by these terrorist extremist groups, it would be a threat against everybody? And on the second part of your question, we have made the announcement publicly -- including the general presiding over the testing of the missile -- has made an announcement, that these missiles are for defense only. We will never use them except in self-defense. I challenge --
AMANPOUR: But they say your policy is to destroy Israel.
ZARIF: I challenge anybody who is making accusations against Iran, who is complaining against Iran, simply to make a simple statement. This is not anything outlandish. The fact is that we have a UN charter, which calls for nobody threatening to use force against others. Simply make that statement, that we will never use our weapons except in self-defense. We will make that statement at every level. We have never used our weapons except in self-defense. For two-hundred-and-fifty years we have never invaded any country. But anybody who dared to invade us, even when the international community, the entire world was behind them, just like Saddam Hussein, we showed them they cannot defeat the resistance of our people. We will resist aggression. We need means to defend ourselves. We spend a fraction of everybody in the region on defense. Our defense expenditures are a fraction of the defense expenditures of countries who are a fraction of our size or population or our territory. But nevertheless, we spend less than them on defense, and we believe we are entitled -- particularly with the very disastrous history of the international community coming to the aid of the aggressor rather than the victims of the aggressor -- that we have the means of defending ourselves. But we've made it clear, we make it clear again, we will never use these weapons except in self-defense. Not against anybody.
AMANPOUR: Why do they have 'Destroy Israel' on them when they get fired off?
ZARIF: They make statements every day that they want to destroy Iran. They make statements. You've heard the statement, I'm sure you've heard the statement, that all options are on the table. You know what that means? All options are on the table means that they are threatening on a daily basis to use force against Iran. We've never made that threat at any level of government or Iranian system against anybody.
AMANPOUR: President Rouhani was in Kuwait and Oman recently, and he's just said that he's calling and urging a ceasefire in Yemen. C an you give us some information about that and to tamp down tensions with Saudi Arabia?
ZARIF: Actually, we started asking for a ceasefire in Yemen almost the day the Yemeni crisis started, even before it started, we -- I sent a message to the late foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, that we are prepared to work with you in order to prevent a crisis in Yemen. We still are prepared to work with everybody in our region to stop the fighting in Yemen, as we did for past two years. Iran put out a plan to end the fighting in Syria. You know that our plan, our four-point plan to end the fighting in Syria became the basis -- the plan that I presented in 2013, including here in Munich -- became the basis of Security Council Resolution 2254, but after two years of bloodshed in Syria. We made a similar plan, a similar proposal, to end bloodshed in Yemen, almost immediately after the fighting escalated in Yemen. We continue to believe that all countries in the region, Iran and Saudi Arabia included, have a stake in making sure that these conflicts come to an end, because in Yemen -- as in Syria, as in Bahrain, as in elsewhere -- there's only one solution, and that's a political solution. An inclusive political solution that brings everybody to the governance, so that all the people can govern themselves, rather than continue to fight. We are prepared to work with anybody in the region who is prepared to work with us in order to put an end to the fighting. And we will use whatever influence, as we have in the past. You see that now, with the work of Iran, Russia and Turkey, we have a ceasefire that is standing in Syria. That has been the longest ceasefire on the ground in Syria. Of course there are violations on both sides. Of course --
AMANPOUR: I mean they just bombed Daraa while I was near the border.
ZARIF: Well the fighting has escalated in Daraa, unfortunately, and the groups are fighting each other, particularly in Daraa. There is a lot of fighting unfortunately between the armed groups since the Astana ceasefire. So we will continue to try. We believe that we have a successful outcome in Syria. I believe with the necessary approach, we can have a successful outcome in Yemen.
AMANPOUR: I don't think the opposition is coming to Astana, are they?
ZARIF: They were in Astana.
AMANPOUR: And is it leading to Geneva talks?
ZARIF: Well I believe what is important is to make sure that the ceasefire is there, is consolidated, and hopefully expanded, and then to make sure that roads are opened for humanitarian assistance and for the Syrian people to be able to go back and forth, as we agreed in the first meeting in Moscow between Iran, Turkey and Russia, to allow the Syrian people to see some benefits of this cessation of hostilities. Now it is important for the United Nations to be able to continue its work, and we have always supported the work of the United Nations, and we'll continue to support the work of the United Nations.
AMANPOUR: And last question: In response to a lot of what's coming from the Trump administration, the Supreme Leader said, 'We want to thank Trump for finally showing the true face of the United States.' And it seems like tensions inside Iran -- the Death to America chants, all those things that seemed to be easing off after the nuclear deal -- have come to the fore. How would you describe the mood inside the country? Where do you think this is this going to lead?
ZARIF: Well the U.S. policy, at least the declared policy, was that they respected the Iranian people and had differences with the Iranian government. Now the current administration unfortunately decided to insult the entire Iranian nation, who compose a large segment of -- I mean, Iranian migrants, people of Iranian origin, people who are studying in the United States --
AMANPOUR: You're talking about the ban, of course.
ZARIF: The ban. And that was an affront to the entire nation, who has not committed one single act of terror. You cannot find an Iranian who has committed a single act of terror against Americans, in any of these atrocities that have taken place. Iran has always condemned every single terrorist incident in the United States since 9/11. And for the current administration to come and pick Iranians of all people, who are a very successful group in the United States, the most educated -- according to statistics -- the most educated, the most successful in business, in the Silicon Valley, elsewhere in the United States, are Iranian migrants. And to insult them was in fact to show that that policy -- or stated policy -- of differentiating was not accurate. That statement was false. And that created the reaction of the Iranian people. And you saw that reaction. As I said, Iran does not respond well to threats. Threats and insults unify the Iranian people, bring them out in support of their country. And we saw that on Revolution Day. The numbers, as CNN and others reported, are unprecedented in the past several years. That shows how the Iranians react to insult. But the same people react very well to respect.
AMANPOUR: Foreign Minister, thank you very much indeed for joining me.
ZARIF: Good to be with you.