Exclusive: Iran’s Foreign Minister Says Sanctions Would Kill Nuclear Deal

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Newsha Tavakolian / Polaris for TIME

Foreign Minister Zarif at his office in Tehran.

In a wide-ranging interview with TIME in Tehran on Dec. 7, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif spoke to writer and Iran expert Robin Wright about how the Geneva nuclear deal came together, how the government has to appeal to Iran’s own parliament not to undermine the interim pact, and how any new sanctions passed by the United  States Congress would kill the deal. The agreement, reached between Iran and six world powers in November, calls for a freeze on parts of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for an easing of sanctions. It is meant to pave the way for a final settlement between Iran and the international community on Iran’s nuclear program. Iran says the program is for civilian purposes only; world powers fear that it has a military component. Speaking in the ornate Foreign Ministry building, Zarif also indicated that Iran might not be wedded to Syria’s President Bashar Assad, a long-time ally, and he said that Iran hoped for a “duly monitored” democratic election in Syria. Iran’s most high-profile cabinet official warned that the deepening sectarianism playing out in Syria does not recognize borders and has implications “on the streets of Europe and America.”

Q: What are biggest differences between Iran and the six major powers in making a permanent agreement? The biggest issues and obstacles?

There are a number of issues. One is the removal of all sanctions – both U.N. Security Council sanctions as well as national and multilateral sanctions outside the U.N. – and second is the issue of Iran having an enrichment program.

These are the two elements of the final deal that are going to be there. How we shape the final deal to include all these elements will be a matter for discussion. The two other members, Russia and China, may also have concerns but they are more confident about the peaceful nature of our nuclear program.

Q: But what are the obstacles then?

A: I don’t see any obstacles. I believe it’s rather straightforward. We can reach an agreement but there are some areas which are more difficult than others. One of those areas may be how we make sure that [Iran’s heavy water production plant at] Arak will remain peaceful. It is our intention that it will remain exclusively peaceful but how we give them the necessary assurances that it will remain peaceful that may be one of the more difficult areas.

Q: Why do you even need Arak?

A: Why do we even need Arak? Because we need to produce radio isotopes for medical purposes and even Arak alone is not enough for us. This was the technology that was available to us. Some people believe that we chose this technology because it provided other options. They’re badly mistaken.

You see you have to look at Iran’s nuclear program from the perspective of denial, the fact that Iran was denied access to technology. And we used or we tried to get access to whatever was available to us and this technology was available to us. Other technologies were not. And we made a lot investment both in terms of human capital as well as in terms of material resources and we have reached almost the end game of getting this research reactor into actual operation. So it’s too late in the game for somebody to come and tell us that we have concerns that cannot be addressed. We have to find solutions. We believe there are scientific solutions for this and we are open to discussing them but that will be one of the more difficult issues.

Q: Are you willing to accept a level of enrichment that is only for facilities that Iran has constructed?

A:.We are going to accept measures that would ensure that our program will remain exclusively peaceful but the rest will have to be decided in the negotiations in good faith. We have no intention of producing weapons or fissile material programs. We do not consider that to be in our interests or within our security doctrine.

Q: What are the prospects that Iran will be part of the Geneva talks on Syria?

A: If Iran is invited without preconditions Iran will be a part of the talks. I think people will decide to invite Iran if they are interested in having a helpful hand in finding a resolution to the Syrian tragedy and they will decide not to invite Iran to their own detriment. Iran believes that what is happening in Syria can have a huge impact on the future of our region and the future beyond the region. Because we believe that if the sectarian divide that some people are trying to fan in Syria becomes a major issue it will not recognize any boundaries. It will go beyond the boundaries of Syria. It will go beyond the boundaries of this region. You will find implications of this on the streets of Europe and America.

Q: Did you or any other Iranian diplomats discuss Iran’s position on Syria with American diplomats?

A: No, we didn’t except for a very, very brief sort of reference en passé in my first meeting with John Kerry.

Q: Do you think it’s possible that the many different sides of the Syrian conflict and the outside parties to that conflict can find common ground?

A: It’s up to the Syrians to decide; we can only help. We can only facilitate. And I think Iran will not be an impediment to a political settlement in Syria. We have every interest in helping the process in a peaceful direction. We are satisfied, totally satisfied, convinced that there is no military solution in Syria and that there is a need to find a political solution in Syria. If you want to prevent a void, the types of consequences that we are talking about, I mean if you want to avoid extremism in this region, if you want to prevent a Syria becoming a breeding ground for extremists who will use Syria basically as a staging ground to attack other countries – be it Lebanon, be it Iraq, be it Jordan,  Saudi Arabia, even Turkey – these countries are going to be susceptible to a wave of extremism that will find its origins in Syria and the continuation of this tragedy in Syria can only provide the best breeding ground for extremists who use this basically as a justification, as a recruiting climate in order to wage the same type of activity in other parts of this region.

Q: Is Iran going to stick at the side of Bashar Assad?

A: We will stick to the side of stability and resolution to Syria. But at the end of the day, we are not going to decide who will rule Syria. It should be the Syrian people to decide. We’re proposing that we should not give ourselves the role that the Syrian people should play.

Q: We’re hearing that you’re still facing tough opposition in the Gulf and that Saudi Arabia doesn’t even want to see you yet.

A: I was well received by every country in the Persian Gulf that I visited [on a recent trip]. I had extremely positive discussions both on regional issues, the fact that all of them welcomed the  Geneva agreement, the fact that all of them considered that as a positive development for security and cooperation in our region, the fact that everyone expected a new chapter in relations between Iran and countries on the southern shore of the Persian Gulf. And that was very encouraging for me.

As for Saudi Arabia, I indicated to them that I was prepared to go to Saudi Arabia. Meetings were arranged. But there was a problem with the meetings. We could not arrange all of the meetings that should have been arranged. We decided to go at a time that was more convenient. It doesn’t mean a political problem between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Now we have differences. In every family you have differences of views, even between brothers and sisters. And we all have our differences. There are issues on which we have different opinions, different approaches, different strategies, different tactics. It wasn’t that they were not prepared to see me.                 

Q: But you did mention the deepening sectarian gap in the region personified by the differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

A: We both have members of both sects among our population and it’s in our interest to avoid this, to have a cordial and brotherly relations between various Islamic sects. So for Iran and Saudi Arabia, it is important and very significant to reach a common understanding on how to avoid this and not to personify such a sectarian difference.

Q: What opposition are you facing at home to the Geneva deal? And what are you doing about it?

A: The most opposition here emanates from the lack of trust because we do not have a past on which we can build. It’s a psychological barrier to interaction that we need to overcome. The fundamental reason for opposition: they believe the West and particularly the United States are not sincere, are not interested about reaching an agreement. They believe that they will try to use the mechanism of negotiations in order to derail the process, in order to find new excuses. And some of the statements out of Washington give them every reason to be concerned. Now we know that Washington is catering to various constituencies and is trying to address these various constituencies. We read their statements in the light of their domestic constituency process. But not everybody in Iran does that. We believe that the U.S. government should stick to its words, should remain committed to what it stated in Geneva, both on the paper as well as in the discussions leading to the plan of action.

Q: After all these negotiations, do you see the prospect for working together with the United States on other subjects, including Afghanistan.

A: We have to wait and see whether the behavior that will be exhibited in the course of negotiations and implementation of our agreements on the nuclear issue creates the necessary confidence for us to move to other areas.

Q: Is there anything different now between Iran and the United States after the talks in Geneva after the process that’s been launched?

A: In terms of using these talks to foster confidence, I don’t think we have been very successful in that process. Because the talks have been followed by public statements that have not differed that significantly from statements that used to be made before the talks.  Basically in this day and age, you don’t have secret negotiations, everything is done is out in the open. You cannot pick and choose your audience. And that is one of the beauties of globalization and one of the hazards of globalization whichever way you want to say it. When Secretary Kerry talks to the U.S. Congress, the most conservative constituencies in Iran also hear him andinterpret his remarks. So it’s important for everyone to be careful what they say to their constituencies because others are listening and others are drawing their own conclusions.

Q: What happens if Congress imposes new sanctions, even if they don’t go into effect for six months?

A: The entire deal is dead. We do not like to negotiate under duress. And if Congress adopts sanctions, it shows lack of seriousness and lack of a desire to achieve a resolution on the part of the United States. I know the domestic complications and various issues inside the United States, but for me that is no justification. I have a parliament. My parliament can also adopt various legislation that can go into effect if negotiations fail. But if we start doing that, I don’t think that we will be getting anywhere. Now we have tried to ask our members of parliament to avoid that. We may not succeed. The U.S. government may not succeed. If we don’t try, then we can’t expect the other side to accept that we are serious about the process. 

Q: What can you tell us about the back channel that began last March?

A: I can tell you that we started discussing this issue on the sidelines of the P5+1 with various countries but with all the countries that were involved we have normal diplomatic relations. It may become more interesting when it involves the United States. That started a long time ago – probably three years ago. Our nuclear negotiator at that time, Dr. [Saeed] Jalili, met with [Undersecretary of State] Bill Burns on the sidelines of Geneva. And since then, there have been back and forth discussions between Iran and the U.S. inside and on the sidelines of P5+1. So that has taken place and I think with some positive outcome.

Q: Did it make possible, did it facilitate Geneva?

A: I think had it not been for bilateral discussions between Iran and various members of P5+1 we would not have had a positive outcome. Formal meetings of Iran plus six countries and [Senior E.U. foreign policy official] Cathy Ashton usually remain very formal. If you want to reach agreement you need to talk to all of these individually as well as collectively. So we did talk to all members of the P5+1 individually. But as it was not a big deal for us to talk to France or Russia or even the U.K. For the U.S., it was a different issue. And our discussions with the U.S. on the sidelines of P5+1 became a story in themselves.

Q: How alive is that channel now?

A:When my colleagues go to Vienna, probably they’ll have side discussions with the U.S. and that’s a very important channel. The U.S. is probably the most important player because it has the largest amount of sanctions against Iran, most of them or all of them illegal in our view. But nevertheless it has a lot of sanctions. It imposes a lot of sanctions on various countries that do business with Iran and that is why it has to do the most. In the resolution, it had a lot to do in the creation of the trouble so it has a lot to do in the resolution of the trouble. So that requires Iran and the U.S. to have a lot of discussions on the sides.

Q: Would you have had Geneva without that back channel with the United States?

A: Well, hypothetical questions: we would not have been able to reach an agreement without having discussed all various issues on the sidelines of P5+1 with various members, particularly the United States.

84 comments
BruceStrong
BruceStrong

That's great news, I see no downside...

AjaxLessome
AjaxLessome

On this point there is broad agreement that heavy economic sanctions have driven the Iranians to the bargaining table and fueled deep domestic pressure on its leadership to improve its international standing. So with all of the leverage on the side of the US and West, we extract an agreement that delivers nothing. No dismantling in centrifuges, no destruction of enriched uranium fuel, no condemnation of nuclear weapons, no liberalization of human rights abuses, no release of political prisoners as a gesture of goodwill, no lifting of media and internet blackouts, no halt in foreign interventions. Nothing.

v

Zaaeem Wepas
Zaaeem Wepas

Tt would have been more honorable from you not to put General El Sisi from the first place in Timemagazine poll as long as you have no real democracy nor the courage to announce the results. .l know for a fact that the White House is annoyed by the result as much as it was upset that El Sisi destroyed the American dirty plans for the New middle east But it was very stupid of you not to expect that result and your reaction is despicable and you have our sincere contempt .

dougk1929
dougk1929

I cant believe how stupid americans are and I am one when I would even  believe a rogue nation like Iran to tell the truth and not want atomic bombs to threaten their neighbors.  Who are we kiddding, give the Iranians an inch of room a nd they will abbrogate any agreement they sign.  Put more sanctions on them and bring them to their knees... Problem is China and Russia will go behnd the scenes and supply them anyway as did india.     But in the mean time.. apply more pressure.  One way is to deny landing rights in the states  to any airline that services Iran either by landing there or taking off from there. Isolate them, collapse their rial, and maybe they will think harder.  But for now dont trust and verify and validate any agreement if there is one.

Doublefrost
Doublefrost

I can't even begin to believe how stupid Americans are, and I happen to be one. Like it's a surprise that negotiations would be derailed by trying to punish a country for attempting to negotiate with you. What do people expect, really? Iran is going to want isotopes for nuclear medicine, not just power plants.

Weapons? Don't make me laugh. Lots of countries have nuclear weapons, and no one's actually using them. No one wants to use them, either. The Islamic Republic of Pakistan has more than an estimated 100 nuke stockpile. Don't see them nuking anyone. They're even *gasp* a Muslim country. They're still not nuking anyone.

Why does everyone think it will be so different in Iran? Going to judge them for trash talking in domestic politics, talking about bombing other countries into submission? That's a daily occurrence in the US, too.

whkirk77
whkirk77

This is the perfunctory mission of Islam:   take over the world.  There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it.  Period.  If the US has adopted a "we do not negotiate with terrorists" policy, then the suggestion to remove sanctions for fear of "jeopardizing negotiations" with Iran is utterly ludicrous.

Do not be deceived.  Iran will do what Iran wants to do.  The sanctions remain until we see EVIDENCE.  It's their choice.  Nukes or food & money.  Ball game.

Manal El Masry
Manal El Masry

It would have been more honorable from you not to put General El Sisi from the first place in Timemagazine poll as long as you have no real democracy nor the courage to announce the results. .l know for a fact that the White House is annoyed by the result as much as it was upset that El Sisi destroyed the American dirty plans for the New middle east But it was very stupid of you not to expect that result and your reaction is despicable and you have our sincere contempt .

Neven Mubarak
Neven Mubarak

The wife of "President Morsi": I own between my fingers the safe of the "White House" secrets and "Mrs Clinton" fears my bad temper! ************************************************ In an interview with the "Anatolia News Agency", the first lady, the wife of the Egyptian President "Mohamed Morsi" made important statements, and asked that we call her out to her eldest son's name "Um Ahmad". ********** You have a family friendship with "Mrs Hillary Clinton", so is she still a friend of yours, after the "Military Coup" against your husband? "Um Ahmad": My husband was kidnapped months ago, and he will return from kidnapping, and will practice his legitimate tasks as the President of the country, very soon, and sooner than what you think, and the "coup leaders" will pay dearly for their treason. As regards "Mrs Clinton", we have had a family friendship with her, for long years, for we lived in the United States, and my sons have learned there, which have consolidated more, after my husband became the "legally elected" President of the country. ********** Did she drop her friendship for you over the past months? "Um Ahmad": On the contrary, our contacts were not interrupted, and all are recorded, and she uses "Muslim brothers and sisters", formally and informally, to assist her in the management of the crisis in the "Middle East", as well as some joint business, and she relies on us, for her success in the next presidential elections, as we have done twice with the US President "Barack Obama". *********** And what about your relationship with first lady "Michelle Obama"? "Um Ahmad": Our relations are fine, but not up to the degree of friendship. ********** "Houma Abedin", is she close to you?! "Um Ahmad": I refuse the exposure to specific names, but you know that our sons and daughters are inside the "White House", and some critical agencies in the United States, and more than 70 countries around the world, and I have between my fingers the safe of their secrets, that is why they fear my bad temper. ********** Is there a reason that prevents women from leading the "Mujahideen" men?! "Um Ahmad": On the contrary, I currently lead the "Mujahideen", with virtuous wives in the "Muslim Sisterhood", some are married to kidnapped men too. I tell them that their patience of their denial of their legitimate rights, will be generously rewarded and that if their husbands martyred, we will arrange their marriage after the end of supposed period, and that we will spend money on their children. The authorities of the "occupation", fear facing women as well. ********** So, is the budget of the "Brotherhood" that huge? "Um Ahmad": We are at war and Jihad, and our booty, according to "Sharia Law" of the "Almighty Allah", and we spend generously for the superiority of the "word of Allah" and the "banner of Islam". ********** Shall we see the "banner of Islam" fluttering in the Western States soon? "Um Ahmad": God willing. God willing. Once you apply "Sharia Law" on the disbelievers here. *********** Don't you worry about the fierce media campaign against the "Muslim Brotherhood", as terrorism, and attempt to distort their image in front of the world?! "Um Ahmad": Absolutely, no. Our people know exactly what to do, and they do not save any effort ,money or innovation, and I'm not afraid to announce that we are preparing for a "coup against the coup". We are at war and Jihad, and we are so familiar with all instruments of war, ancient and modern, and I keep details for myself, because war is a hoax and my mind will not rest till the suspension of all traitors in Gibbets. ***********

مدحت حيدر
مدحت حيدر

Is it true the TIME excluded General elSisi ,who took the highest votes,of the POY consensus??? wowww, tell me more about democracy!!?? lollllll

Keith A. West
Keith A. West

Take it off the table....they're obviously not worried about their own people still

Jeff Cook
Jeff Cook

Who said that TIME was a democracy? It's a publication owned by a corporation and run by an editor. They included Bashar al-Assad and Hassan Rouhani in the top 10 shortlisted, so you can hardly accuse them of ignoring the Middle East.

Ali Shahriari
Ali Shahriari

He’s totally right and I think it’s fair to say. Sanctions were about to suppress Iran’s nuclear program. So when we had a deal on nuclear talks and Iran limits its nuclear program as it was supposed to be, why would sanctions still go on?

Helena Wood
Helena Wood

was a time it had big troops. now they need weapons to highness.just peace bro! what I gonna say. he is minister.good luck

Nagwa Sef
Nagwa Sef

Is it true the TIME excluded General elSisi ,who took the highest votes,of the POY consensus??? wowww, tell me more about democracy!!?? lollllll

Ahmad Veto
Ahmad Veto

كسم مجبة تايم مجلة بنت مرة وسخة كلها اوساااااااااخ والسيسي رئيس عليك يا اوباما يا مرة

Geobra Geoff
Geobra Geoff

Propose handing Iran's North to Russia, they'll do it for free for the west. Like they did in eastern front in WWII.

Raffi Zaki
Raffi Zaki

Of course! its only logical to promote apartheid states who murder children but sanction a country who wants efficient energy for its people and defense systems. its just logic people, duh :D

Henny Hartan
Henny Hartan

Want Healthy cells and healthy financially the smart way? Mula2 gabung dan posting web ini di group2 Facebook dapat beberapa juta dan jadi sehat lalu meningkat jadi 20jt sebulan lalu menjadi $35,000 seminggu. Mau coba? Tada.. ini dia web nya buat kamu deh http://www.myvbuilder.com/770259006 Aku bahagia menasehatkan kesejahteraan buat bangsa Indonesia dan dunia. Kamu?

EarthView
EarthView

This interview was disappointing. I expected more from Robin Wright. I didn't learn anything that was really new. But, the key point is that the interview shows Mr. Zarif to be a straightforward and serious diplomat who makes logical and factual statements. In contrast, Mr. Kerry has already lied about the deal and the U.S. Congress is about to kill it.

sridhar.sid
sridhar.sid

It is sad that People ask Iran about the opposition in Saudi Arabia. Many people in the west do not know that Iran has the polulation of Germany, a diverse economy, a very skilled and educated population and a very old civilization. This cannot be said of Saudi Arabia, whose rise is entirely based on petrodollars and the legitimacy provided by the West. The Saudis are so fearful of the new opening to Iran that they will use every trick to stop this. The best tool they will use is the Shia-Sunni divide and fan the fires of hatred

JamesGordon1
JamesGordon1

What  a  great  learning  experience ,IF  there ever  is  another  republican  president , WE   know  exactly  what  to  do  to  him. Remember  that 
Politics  end at the  waters  edge " ?  That  was  just  B S   so  we  would  follow  bush into all  kinds  of  mess . THAT  will  never  happen again. Ohhhhh   let's  not  forget "Pray  for  the  President ".  My  what  a learning opportunity  this  has  been .

Yasin Mehrabi
Yasin Mehrabi

I am muslim and iranian. we love the people all of the world. we love you. my countrey have a rich & Good history with the best people. you can study my countery history in wikipedia.com . yes :)

Isyaku Ibrahim
Isyaku Ibrahim

Keep faith and press for the other parties to respect the terms and concessions made for the deal to still be binding. All the parties that participated had apparent desire to see the deal through. Only some Republicans in the US Congress and the Israelis that were not happy about it. But if the deal dies as Iran fears, Mr Obama and Rouhani have shown their genuine desire and commitment to solve the nuclear impasse. But who would not want peace in the volatile Middle East?

Claudia P. Blum
Claudia P. Blum

Max Millian I have read the Koran, I have some Muslim friends and I have visited mosks (without shoes and my hair covered, because religion/ any religion deserves respect) I think the money interests want a war and they are using Iran to get it by portraying a distorted picture. People would see this if they dug behind what the media let's us know and would do their own research.

Locutus Lopan Yin
Locutus Lopan Yin

does anyone ever wonder what kind of nukes isreal has?? they are def a bigger threat to the world and should be forced to join the nuclear treaty..... people forget this why make iran when they biggest enemy has them ... it would make them powerless

Doublefrost
Doublefrost

Ridiculous. The current situation is something known as a Mexican Standoff. There are two possible outcomes. Bullets start flying, or everyone puts the guns down. By willfully deterring a peaceful resolution, you are in fact pushing for war. So that your ego will feel better.

Openminded1
Openminded1

Try English Helena, nice rack by the way.

dougk1929
dougk1929

good  write in farsi and see how far it goes in an english newspaper..

Openminded1
Openminded1

Muslims suck, you are religious fanatics killing people all around the world. Iranians can not be trusted either they hate the USA. So you are both  a muslim and from Iran. I do not care what your history is Iran is not to be trusted now. history is just that history.

Openminded1
Openminded1

Obama the Muslim, just wants muslim control of the world, who you kidding Isyaku, another muslim and rouhani another f-ing muslim what bs.

Openminded1
Openminded1

You are naive, muslims are killers and religious fanatics. they kill all over the world including here. You are a moron, what you sleeping with a few of these muslim friends and you think they are nice. What a dummy.

VikingHeather
VikingHeather

Have the Israelis threatened to wipe anyone off the map recently?  Because I've noticed more hateful rhetoric from Tehran than from Tel Aviv.

boulderfinfan
boulderfinfan

@VikingHeather No they don't threaten they actually do it. Israel almost sent lebanon to the dark ages in 2006.

BTW Iran hasn't said wipe ISrael of the map. Get a new dictionary. Iran wants regime change in Israel and that's what they said. Israel calls for regime change in Iran daily.

lunawatson85
lunawatson85

@VikingHeather Absolutely. Iran is the one repeatedly saying Israel must be wiped off the map and that they are the "sinister, rabid dog of the region"