Interview with Iranian Foreign Minister 'We Will Have Differences with US No Matter What'
Mohammad Javad Zarif, 55, is relaxed and cheerful during an interview that takes place in his office in Tehran, telling jokes in perfect English. He studied political science in the United States before becoming Tehran's ambassador to the United Nations. Since 2013, he has served as foreign minister under President Hassan Rouhani. He recently negotiated the preliminary agreement in the country's nuclear dispute with the international community. He is well-liked by his Western negotiating partners and a star in his home country, where his autobiography is a best-seller. Some see a future president in the making, but he smiles and shrugs off the suggestion. "Domestic policy is not for me," he says.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Minister, you literally had people dancing in the streets when you announced on April 2 that a solution to the nuclear conflict was in sight. At the same time, neither side was able to agree on a joint fact sheet. Did people party prematurely?
Zarif: It is the right of the people to be happy and it is the responsibility of the government to make people happy. What happened in Lausanne was an important milestone, but it wasn't a deal. I believe that a deal is not only possible, but probable. We reached a conceptual understanding on a number of parameters for the resolution. We need to put that in writing in terms of an agreement, and that's exactly what my colleagues are doing now in Vienna.
SPIEGEL: The United States released its fact sheet of the key points of the negotiations in order to show that it didn't make major concessions. We assume you weren't thrilled about this, right?
Zarif: I do not believe that the practice of producing fact sheets is a very useful one. The world has gone through a significant change. You cannot pick and choose your audience anymore. In the past, you could present your version of reality, your narrative to your audience, and the other side could have presented their narrative to their audience. But today in the age of the Internet and social media, narratives become global -- and that's where the problem comes. So you need to be able to present the final, complete package.
SPIEGEL: What are the most difficult points at the moment?
Zarif: Basically everything, because you need to write down all the agreements in terms that are acceptable to at least eight parties sitting at the negotiating table: Iran, the P5 plus 1 -- the United States, China, Russia, France, Great Britain, Germany -- plus the European Union. So we have seven on one side and Iran on the other. But even the seven do not necessarily agree on everything. Most of our time is taken up by negotiations among the P5 plus 1, because they have to come up with a single position. On some issues they still do not have a common position.
SPIEGEL: There's very little in the US fact sheet about the process of lifting the sanctions. And you have left ambiguous how you will cut your nuclear program.
Zarif: No, actually we were very open about the number of centrifuges that we will have in Natanz and Fordo as well as what will happen to the heavy water reactor in Arak. It is very clear that all economic and financial sanctions that are imposed by the EU and by the United States will be gone.
SPIEGEL: One of the contested issues is the timeline …
Zarif: The procedure for lifting them will vary from one place to another. The EU has its own legal procedure as does the United States. As a foreign entity, when we deal with another foreign entity, we don't have to get involved or get bogged down in the domestic complications that each country has. You need to deal with the actual outcome, and that's rather clear.
SPIEGEL: A further stumbling block is that you are insisting that military sites cannot be inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Zarif: We have said that if we do reach an agreement, Iran will be prepared within its own domestic legal system to implement an additional protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Obviously, no country provides open access to its secret facilities. And all international treaties take care of how you deal with your state secrets. I do not believe Iran has any difficulty with accepting international transparency standards. Again, I believe there is an insistence on a certain narrative that some people want to put forward -- that gives rise to a reaction from our officials here in Tehran.
SPIEGEL: That includes the statements made by religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He says he is concerned about the result in Lausanne and warns that "the other side could stab us in the back." Have you not been able to dispel his concerns?
Zarif: We are all concerned about the sincerity and seriousness of our Western negotiating partners, particularly the United States. The level of distrust is huge, and it's mutual.
SPIEGEL: Do you worry that conservatives in Iran might hinder an agreement? Or are they perhaps useful to you, because you can always say something can't be done because the hardliners won't go along with it?
Zarif: I wish that it was something that was totally arranged, so I wouldn't have to go through the suffering, pain and agony of trying to convince our hardliners.
SPIEGEL: Anti-American sentiment is one of the pillars of the revolution. "Death to the USA" was the hardliners' most important slogan for 35 years. Would a nuclear deal also mean that Iran would have to reconsider its position toward the "Great Satan"?
Zarif: This deal is a litmus test of the degree to which the United States is willing to abandon the illusion of regime change in Iran, the illusion of animosity and antagonism towards the Iranian people and Iran's revolution.
SPIEGEL: Is Ayatollah Khamenei ready for a rapprochement?
Zarif: We're not talking about rapprochement. We will have differences with the United States no matter what. The United States and Iran have different world views. We will not abandon ours. It's a part of our identity, but that identity does not require conflict. We have a single issue that we are addressing with the United States, and that is the nuclear issue. If we can successfully address this, then that will provide a basis to consider whether we can deal with other issues.
SPIEGEL: The nuclear program is not the only issue dividing Iran and the US. Iran's role in the region is also creating conflicts. For example, you support the Shiite Houthi militias in Yemen whereas the US is on the side of the coalition led by Saudi Arabia.
Zarif: I don't know whether the United States wants to be backing the daily bombardment of innocent civilians in Yemen. We're not backing anyone particularly.
A huge explosion rocks military weapon depots controlled by the Houthis in an air strike conducted by the Saudi-led coalition in Sanaa, Yemen. "There have been a lot of lies," Zarif says. "What we've said is that problems in this region will not be resolved by the use of force."Foto: Yahya Arhab/ picture alliance / dpa
SPIEGEL: There is evidence that you are. Documents from Yemen show that the Revolutionary Guard is in the country.
Zarif: There have been a lot of lies. What we've said is that problems in this region will not be resolved by the use of force. We said from the very beginning that people tried to create a power vacuum in Yemen in order to provide for the use of force. That was wrong from the beginning and in the interest of nobody other than al-Qaida.
SPIEGEL: US Secretary of State John Kerry recently said: "There are obviously supplies that have been coming from Iran. There are a number of flights every single week that have been flying in." How do you respond to that statement?
Zarif: We're not bombarding anyone in Yemen. Our planes are not flying in Yemen. Our planes that had tried to deliver humanitarian assistance to Yemen have been intercepted and prevented from landing.
SPIEGEL: Kerry also warned that the Americans would not sit back and allow the region to be destabilized without taking action. He's referring to Iran when he speaks of such destabilization.
Zarif: The source of instability in this region is a short-sighted attempt to arm and finance extremist groups like Daesh (the "Islamic State"), the al-Nousra Front and al-Qaida. Everybody who has used extremists in our region has fallen victim to them. The West is a part of this problem, because something is happening in Western societies where you get a Western-born, Western-educated person beheading innocent human beings in Iraq or Syria or setting them on fire and burning them alive. Why is this happening in this region? Why are these people being recruited?
SPIEGEL: Iran and the United States could work together officially in terms of fighting the Islamic State.
Zarif: We have not seen a serious readiness on the part of the United States yet to deal with Daesh seriously. But this is a regional problem and a global problem and we are prepared to work with all countries in the region in order to fight this menace. We believe any serious global attempt to deal with this will have Iran as a significant partner.
SPIEGEL: Is that kind of cooperation already happening in Iraq with the United States?
Zarif: No, we cooperate with the Iraqi government against Daesh.
SPIEGEL: At the same time, you are supporting the regime of Bashar Assad with fighters, money and weapons. By doing so, you are prolonging the Syrian tragedy.
Zarif: We are supporting the legitimate government of Syria. If we had not provided that support, you would have had Daesh sitting in Damascus now. We've been saying that we need to find a political solution in Syria. But people insisted on preconditions …
SPIEGEL: Are you referring to Assad?
Zarif: … that a specific person was not a part of that election. Those who have actually put preconditions for an end to bloodshed have to respond to why they have prolonged this conflict.
SPIEGEL: In 2013, President Hassan Rouhani designated improving relations with Saudi Arabia as a priority. Since then, though, they have worsened. Rouhani has described the new Saudi leadership as being "inexperienced." Comments like that don't foster harmony.
Zarif: Unfortunately, there has been a barrage of insulting comments coming from Saudi Arabia to which I have refrained from reacting. And many in the Iranian government have exercised a huge deal of self-restraint in not reacting to those comments and actions -- both public as well as private comments that have come from our neighbors in Saudi Arabia. People have to stop panicking.
SPIEGEL: There are good reasons for this. Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan are all failed states, in which Iran's influence has greatly increased. What are you doing to assuage your neighbors' fears that your country is seeking dominance in the Middle East?
Zarif: Iran is a powerful country. Iran is a big country with a large population, natural resources, human resources. But we are a country that is content with its size, content with its geography. We have not engaged in any military adventures in the past 250 years. We don't see any of this as Iran trying to dominate this region. We see some people panicking in our region and we believe there is no need to panic. We are prepared to work with all our neighbors to ensure the security and prosperity of our region.
SPIEGEL: There's a further conflict between your country and the West: human rights in Iran. In an interview two weeks ago, you said: "We don't put people in jail for their opinions." But arrests were made at the same time. This cynicism sparked protests in social media, including some criticism from your own supporters. Can you understand this disappointment?
Zarif: Well, I can't because that sentence was quoted out of context. I am sorry that people misunderstood what I said. I regret it. But I think some people tried to in fact attribute something to me that was taken out of the context in which I made it.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (right): Relations with Saudi Arabia have worsened despite pledges to improve them.Foto: Abedin Taherkenareh/ picture alliance / dpa
SPIEGEL: The UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran said in March that human rights have worsened considerably under President Rouhani.
Zarif: I think the UN special rapporteur has been less than credible in dealing with Iran. You are dealing with a country that has been able to go through elections and a transition of power from one administration to another through elections with the participation of 73 percent of voters. If you make accusations that the situation has worsened under President Rouhani, it is as if you are trying to engage in political propaganda against this government rather than seriously trying to look into realities. Having said that, I think one of the priorities for this government is to improve the human rights situation. I cannot claim that Iran has a perfect human rights record.