On July 16th, BBC HARDtalk’s Zeinab Badawi visited to New York to interview Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif who was attending high level talks at the UN. Hostilities between Iran and the US are at a historic high; after the recent shooting down of the US drone, President Trump said he was “ten minutes away from war with Tehran.”
Asked by Zeinab Badawi whether he accepts that America doesn’t actually want war, Javad Zarif replied:
“I accept that President Trump doesn’t want war, but I know that there are people in his administration who are crazy for war. Who thirst for war.” [from 10:10 mins]
With regards to how he assesses the likelihood of war, Zarif says:
“You see it’s called Persian Gulf for a reason. It’s next to our coast. We have almost 1,500 miles of coast with Persian Gulf. It’s not the Gulf of Mexico. We are there protecting our territorial waters and if this drone had been shot in international waters – over international airspace – why did we get to pick up the pieces?” [from 10:30 mins]
The pretext for war with Iran is a familiar one – Iran is constructing weapons of mass destruction. In fact, for decades hawks in the West have echoed the claims made by Netanyahu that Iran is on the brink of building the bomb. This month we even heard Foreign Secretary and Tory leadership hopeful Jeremy Hunt state without evidence that Iran is just a year away from developing a nuclear bomb.
In response to claims that Iran is a year away from making a nuclear bomb, Javad Zarif says:
“If Iran wanted to build a bomb, we would have built a bomb a long time ago. We could have built a bomb a long time ago. We do not want to build a bomb because we believe that a nuclear bomb will not augment our security. But if the Europeans are serious about a nuclear weapons free Middle East, there is somewhere else that they need to be looking and that is Israel where they have at least 200 warheads.” [from 9:20 mins]
Zeinab Badawi then poses the questions another way, suggesting that Iran might “stumble into a war”, to which Zarif replies:
“Well again, it’s the Persian Gulf because it’s next to our borders. It’s a body of water that Iran has protected, Iran has maintained the security and freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz for millennia, and we will continue to do that. We are the major power in that region… Those who have brought their naval vessels to Persian Gulf are not helping to secure this body of water. […]
“Of course there is a possibility of accidents, but we cannot leave our own neighbourhood. Those who have come from outside have to decide why are they in that neighbourhood? And whether their presence in that neighbourhood is helping stability and security in that neighbourhood? […]
As President Trump has said we were ten minutes away from war, because had they taken measures against Iran, President Trump had been told that Iran would be taking measures in self-defence.”
[from 11:55 mins]
“The united States is right now engaged in economic war against Iran. There are countries that are providing the United States with logistical support, with reconnaissance; that means they are participating in the war… If there is a war then I do not think anybody will be safe in our region, but let us all try to avoid one. We don’t need a war; we’ve gone through eight years of war; a war that was imposed on us with the help of everybody.” [from 13:30 mins]
Javad Zarif is also highly critical of Europe and the easy way it has capitulated to US sanctions:
“If the Europeans, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Russians, all of them try not to allow the united States to bully them into abiding by its decision, would the United States be able to destroy the global economy and put sanctions on all of them?” [from 4:10 mins]
“So you want to accept US dominance in global economy even to your own detriment? Unfortunately, this is what they’re saying and I don’t think this way they can resolve this crisis or any crisis. The Europeans and the rest of the global community are strong enough to withstand this… People are dying from cancer. Kids are dying from EB. People are dying from MS. Just because there are a very limited [range] of pharmaceuticals that we cannot produce in Iran and the United States says that they are exempt from sanctions but financial transactions in order to purchase them are not exempt.” [from 5:10 mins]
Asked why Iran has begun to enrich uranium to higher grades than those sanctioned under the JCPOA ‘Iran deal’, Javad Zarif says:
“We implemented the agreement fully. IAEA made 15 reports from the beginning: 5 of them after the US withdrawal; and all of them indicated thatIran was fulfilling its commitments fully. Unfortunately, the Europeans could not take advantage of this and just dragged their feet. It won’t happen again. You know Iran is a country with an old civilisation. For us the dignity of our people is extremely important. [from 7:25 mins]
Pressed by Zeinab Badawi who asks “so why enrich the uranium… partial compliance is not acceptable”, Zarif responds:
“The Europeans cannot say whether partial or full compliance is acceptable or not. It’s the deal itself. Paragraph 36 of the deal says that Iran or the other side – if we are not satisfied with the implementation of the deal by the other side, we can take some measures within the deal. That is in order to keep the deal surviving: to keep it from going totally dead. […]
“This deal was written based on total mistrust. Neither side trusted the other side. That is why we put everything in black and white. Very clearly stated that if we don’t comply, what they can take. If we are the initial breakers of the deal, they can take measures. If they are the initial breakers of the deal, they can also take measures.” [from 8:15 mins]
And later in the interview:
“Look we did not leave the negotiation table. It was the United States that left the negotiating table… You see this deal was the subject of twelve years of negotiations, two years of which were intense negotiations. I spent days, months, negotiating this. We spent a lot of time with the United States negotiating this deal. It’s about give and take… if you allow a bully to bully you into accepting one thing, you’ll encourage him to bully you into accepting other things. We negotiated this deal. We did what we were supposed to do; the US did not do what it is supposed to do. The United States is working on the policy line that what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is negotiable.” [from 16:50 mins]
In response to broader Western accusations that Iran’s meddling has destabilised the region, Zarif says:
“Did we support Saddam Hussein when he attacked Iran? Did we support ISIS? I mean President Trump himself said Iran is fighting ISIS. Are we bombing the Yemenis? Did we invade Yemen? Was it Iran that basically arrested the Prime Minister of Lebanon and kept him in prison for three weeks? If the United States is looking for those responsible for malign behaviour in the region the United States needs to look at its own allies. […]
“President Trump has said that I am not engaged in military war against Iran that I am engaged in economic war against Iran. What does it mean to be engaged in economic war? Economic war targets civilians, military war targets military personnel, civilians are sometimes collateral damage. But an economic war targets civilians. The United States Secretary Pompeo has said that we want the Iranian people to change their government. So putting these two together, that means the United States is terrorising Iranian people in order to achieve political objectives. That’s the classical definition of terrorism. […]
“Mike Pompeo’s allies in our region, Saudi Arabia, spend 67 billion dollars a year on military equipment. They are bombing the Yemenis. Are we doing that? We only spent 16 billion dollars last year on the entire military budget.”
[from 19:00 mins]
Finally, regarding the seizure of the oil tanker Grace 1 off the coast of Gibraltar by British Royal Marines who boarded the ship on July 4th, Zarif says bluntly:
“It’s piracy plain and simple. First of all there are EU sanctions against buying Syrian oil, not against selling Syria oil… but we announced from the very beginning that that ship was not destined for Syria. […]
“The Tanker is not Iranian. It was carrying Iranian oil, which we had sold, and it was going to a place in the Mediterranean other than Syria. We made it clear. You know that we are under sanctions from the United States [and] their objective is to bring our oil sales to zero. That is why we will do whatever we can to avoid the United States knowing what we are doing.
“One more thing. The United Kingdom, by taking our ship – by confiscating our ship – is helping the United States imposing its illegal oil sanctions against Iran. This is not about EU sanctions against Syria, this is about Iran. That is why John Bolton thanked Great Britain for giving them the best Fourth of July present possible.
“If the UK wants to serve US interests they should not be talking about trying to preserve the JCPOA.”
[from 14:30 mins]
All transcriptions above are my own.
Click here to watch this interview uploaded on BBC iplayer, which is available for 11 months.