Christiane Amanpour spoke on Thursday with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif about nuclear negotiations and the war against ISIS. What follows is a full transcript of their conversation.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Dr Zarif, welcome back to the programme.
JAVAD ZARIF: Happy to be with you.
AMANPOUR: So let me ask you, is a deal imminent?
ZARIF: Well it can be, if there is the political will on all sides to make the decisions that need to be made. We have made some progress. There are issues left to be decided. So we will have to work very, very hard for the next few weeks.
AMANPOUR: Are the issues around sanctions, are the issues around the length of time? For instance, President Obama this week said that the deal would require a halt of a lot of the nuclear activity for about ten years at least.
ZARIF: Well I’m not going to negotiate on the air. There are a lot of details that need to be discussed. We have made some progress. The object of this exercise is to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program will always remain peaceful and to remove all the restrictions that have been imposed on Iran, in our view unjustifiably. That is why we believe that we can in fact reach an agreement, if there is the necessary political will to make the tough choices. And everybody has to make tough choices. We have made the choice to engage in negotiations, although we believe that this entire exercise was unnecessary, this was a manufactured crisis. As we have seen time and again, people have been predicting for the past 20 years that Iran was a year away from making a bomb, and that prediction has been proven wrong time and again. But unfortunately, that is the reality, that this hysteria that has been fanned continues to be fanned, and we try to resolve that problem. So we have come to the negotiating table, we have shown the political will to resolve this issue. I believe the other side needs to exercise the same political will, the same resolve, make the same tough choices, that sanctions and an agreement don’t go together. You can either have sanctions and continue to seek that path of confrontation, or try to resolve this issue through negotiations and through an agreement. I believe we are very close to the latter, but if people try to choose the former, that is their prerogative, but that’s the wrong decision that they’ll be making.
AMANPOUR: So let me pick up on several things. You believe you’re quite close to making a deal, that it could be possible. You are obviously referring to the speech by the Israeli Prime Minister in Congress. As he was trying to make sure that deal didn’t get signed or done, what was the effect on you all around the negotiating table?
ZARIF: Well there was no effect on the negotiating table, but I can see that he is trying – and some people who associate with him try – to create an atmosphere that, an atmosphere of hysteria, an atmosphere of fear mongering, based on lies and deception that try to prevent a deal from taking shape. And I do not see why, because the only reason, the only explanation that you can have here is that some people consider peace and stability as an existential threat, because a deal cannot be threatening to anybody unless you want conflict and tension and mistrust and crises.
AMANPOUR: You also refer to what was important, and that was the idea of lifting sanctions in exchange for making sure that your program remains entirely peaceful. Are you making progress, and is there a satisfactory answer to lifting sanctions?
ZARIF: Well not yet, but we have been making progress on a lot of issues, and we are dealing with those issues now. We cannot see this puzzle until we have finished it. I mean, the pieces of the puzzle are in place, but we cannot see whether we have the puzzle, the complete puzzle, until we have resolved all the issues, and that is why we have resolved bits and pieces of each issue, but we are still some time away from resolving all the issues so that we can have a, I believe a nice and acceptable picture that is in the interests of everybody – what we call a win-win situation for all.
AMANPOUR: You didn’t answer the question. You said you weren’t going to negotiate in public, but let me just put it to you blankly then. Is a ten year moratorium on nuclear activity acceptable to Iran?
ZARIF: Well it depends on how you define it. We have been talking about accepting, by Iran, voluntarily certain limitations. We have a huge peaceful nuclear programme, which we have built by our scientists, by our own people. And this is a programme that has been moving forward. We have accepted, and if we have an agreement, we will accept, certain limitations for a certain period of time, but I’m not prepared to negotiate on the air, as you said, the length of time or what are these limitations that we would be voluntarily accepting.
AMANPOUR: Can I move on to Iraq – a great focus right now on the town of Tikrit, where Iraqi forces, other militias, and crucially Iranian forces are engaged in trying to push ISIS back. I would like to play for you a little bit of a soundbite from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Congress, regarding Iran’s involvement. General Martin Dempsey says, quote: “This is the most overt conduct of Iranian support in the form of artillery and other things. Frankly, [it] will only be a problem if it results in sectarianism. If they perform in a credible way, rid the city of Tikrit and turn it back to its inhabitants, then in the main, it would have been a positive thing in terms of countering ISIL’s campaign.” How do you respond to what the General said, and how involved is, for instance, General Soleimani of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard?
ZARIF: Well we do not have forces on the ground in Iraq. We have always had advisors helping the Iraqi government and the Iraqi army. We were the first to come to the assistance of the Iraqis, both in Baghdad as well as in Irbil, when the ISIS started moving in in massive numbers last summer. So we’ve been there, we’ve been assisting the Iraqi people, everybody knows that without our assistance, things would have been different in Iraq. We are in Iraq in terms of advisors and other support, but without military personnel on the ground, fighting forces on the ground, as you say, boots on the ground, in order to help this very serious global fight against these extremist and terrorist groups. We hope that this could unite Iraqis, because – and all peoples of the region – because in spite of the short-sighted attempts in the past, now everybody has come to the conclusion that these extremist forces are a threat to everybody. They cannot be contained in Syria or in Iraq, or in only several countries in this region. This is a global threat. You see the implications in Europe, you see the fact that they are recruiting from Europe. So this is a global problem, it requires global cooperation and global work. We are there, we have been there, we have been on the right side. We recognised this threat from its initial inception. And we have been warning the international community about short-sighted policies, of playing politics with this very serious danger. And we continue to do that and we are on the side of the Iraqis. So we hope that this fight – which is not just a military fight, it’s a comprehensive fight, it should be a comprehensive fight against extremism – could be moved forward. It is very difficult to win this fight so early on in this process, but we hope that with international cooperation, with blocking financial assistance to these groups, with blocking recruitment of these groups, with blocking easy safe havens for these groups, with blocking access from the territory of various, of our neighbours, the variety of our neighbours from their territory to provide new recruits for these groups – all of these should come together in order to reach a useful and hopefully a positive and constructive conclusion in this very serious international fight.
AMANPOUR: Mr Zarif, you say you only have advisors. Obviously General Soleimani is one of the most effective active military commanders that your country has. Do you believe – and he is there on the frontlines, directing the Tikrit battle – do you believe that they are making progress and Tikrit will be liberated by ISIL – from ISIL?
ZARIF: Well this is a job that the Iraqis are doing, and they are doing with great sacrifice and great vigour. And I hope that they can succeed in this battle, as well as in the bigger war against ISIL and terrorism in Iraq and in Syria. But more than just winning one battle, it requires a concerted global campaign, a campaign that must be multi-faceted and must engage all participants and not just a few.
AMANPOUR: You mentioned Syria. Many people believe that if it wasn’t for Iran, for General Soleimani, for the Revolutionary Guard, Hezbollah, whoever you want, Bashar Assad would not remain in power. Things seem to be shifting, given the ISIS threat. Even the US Ambassador to Syria, the former US Ambassador, has now said it’s too late to help the moderate opposition. How do you see the Syrian political situation playing out, and is the survival of Bashar Assad fundamentally necessary for Iran?
ZARIF: Well it’s not Iranian interests, it’s the interests of the region that has to taken into consideration. We do not want to be the party to tell some of our friends and some outside our region that we told you so. Had it not been for those who recognised the realities in this region, you would have had ISIL rather than controlling Mosul, controlling Damascus and Baghdad. We’ve got to be thankful that this did not happen and we need to work together in order to make sure that we have a political process in Syria which is inclusive, involves everybody, because there is not going to be a military solution to this crisis. There has to be a multi-faceted effort at the international level with wholehearted understanding, not these half-hearted attempts to keep various points of extremist pressure on the ground, but a wholehearted understanding that ISIL and extremism will not help the interests of any player in our region. I think if that understanding emerges, and I see signs it is emerging in our region, I think it will be possible to move forward, not only with the military defeat of extremism, but also an inclusive political process that will result in peace and tranquillity hopefully coming back to this region, which needs that more than any other place in the world.
AMANPOUR: And finally, let me get back to the talks. Foreign Minister, President Rouhani has been tweeting about the talks, let me just read you one of them, quote: “The international community happy with progress of Iran talks, as it will result in more development, commerce, economic and cultural cooperation.” Obviously the President and yourself to an extent have staked the success of this government on these talks. Do you, how are you doing in trying to make sure this happens, and that any kind of deal is accepted by the hardliners in your own country and is acceptable to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei?
ZARIF: Well this is not about domestic politics. President Rouhani and I have never played domestic politics on this. Actually this is not about national politics. This is about resolving an issue through diplomatic means that has been preventing tranquillity and cooperation in our region for the past 15 years. We have much more serious issues that we need to deal with, both domestically as well as regionally and globally, and we believe this is a manufactured crisis. We have seen Prime Minister Netanyahu trying to continue to manufacture and to fan this crisis. This was a crisis which was manufactured from the very beginning and the sooner we put an end to it, the sooner we can get to issues that are serious challenges and serious opportunities, both for our country as well as for our region and for the world. That is why we will not play domestic politics with this. President Rouhani will not play domestic politics with this. We want to resolve this issue, and we will do our best, provided that our partners are prepared to walk this road with us.
AMANPOUR: Let me ask you about domestic politics, because in early January, President Rouhani gave quite a tough speech at a meeting of economic and business leaders. And he did lay down the gauntlet. I guess, how is it going? Is he going to be able to pursue the economic reforms, the taxations that he needs? Particularly as oil prices are plummeting.
ZARIF: Well we have shown that in spite of sanctions and in spite of external pressure, we have been able to move forward, we have brought the inflation down, we have increased the growth. We took office in very difficult circumstances and we’re moving forward. And we believe that we will build the necessary consensus. Iran is not a monolithic society, we have different voices, different views, different perceptions of what is happening inside Iran and in the world, and that is healthy. We welcome the possibility of engaging in a debate, domestic debate as well as regional and global debate, on what is the best future for our country and for the region.
AMANPOUR: Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, thank you very much for joining me from Geneva.
ZARIF: Thank you. It was good to be with you.