Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif on Sunday told ABC’s This Week that an Iran without nuclear weapons is not only a goal of the United States, it is “first and foremost [Iran's] goal.”
The United States and Iran’s relationship — which has been frozen since diplomatic ties were cut in 1979 — has been focused for the last decade on Iran’s nuclear program. Revealed fully in the early 2000s, the international community remains concerned that Iran’s nuclear enrichment could be used to produce nuclear weapons. Iran insists that its program is for peaceful purposes only.
“We believe if the United States is ready to recognize Iran’s rights, respect Iran’s rights and move from that perspective, then we have a real chance,” Zarif told ABC’s George Stephanopolous on Sunday, confirming that President Hassan Rouhani is negotiating with the full authority of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As part of that, Zarif sat down with members of the P5+1 — Germany, France, China, Russia, the United Kingdom and United States — last week on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly to discuss Iran’s nuclear program. In doing so, Zarif interacted with Secretary of State John Kerry in the highest level face-to-face talks between the two sides since the Iranian Revolution.
“We know what we want to achieve,” he continued. “We know Iran is not seeking a nuclear weapon. In fact, what I told the Foreign Ministers and Secretary of State of the EU3+3 — or if you want to call it P5+1 — I told them that having an Iran that does not have nuclear weapons is not just your goal, it’s first and foremost our goal.”
Last Friday, President Barack Obama and recently sworn-in Iranian president Hassan Rouhani spoke on the phone in a surprise burst of diplomacy. Upon his return to Iran, however, Rouhani was met with protests from hardliners within the country. “Well, Iran and the United States are similar in many ways,” Zarif said. “And one is that we both have pluralistic societies where a difference of views exist and differences of views are heard. I think its very healthy.”
“Iran is prepared to start negotiating,” he said, when asked about the confidence building measures Kerry laid out in an interview with 60 Minutes due to air on Sunday evening. They include opening the Fordow nuclear facility to international monitoring and signing onto a protocol which would allow for surprise inspections. “I’m sure Secretary Kerry doesn’t want to dictate to us what we should or shouldn’t do.”
On the Iranian end, Zarif said the United States need to dismantle its sanctions against Iran, which he says are targeting ordinary Iranians now. “Despite all the claims to the contrary, it is impossible to open a letter of credit from a bank to buy medicine for Iranian patients because they have in fact been blind sanctions against banks dealing with Iran,” he told Stephanopolous.
“There has been a lot of arm twisting by the United States, but not the entire government, certain elements within the government that have tried to put pressure on ordinary Iranian people,” he said, referring to Congress’ continued increase in sanctions over the years. “And ordinary Iranian people in their last election show they put their trust in the ballot box, they put their trust in the government, they want the government to deal with the rest of the world from a position of strength through flexibility.”
Zarif demurred, however, on whether Iran would be willing to suspend enrichment on uranium up to 20 percent enrichment. Western governments worry that the technology used to produce that level of enrichment is extremely close to that required to enrich to 90 percent — weapons-grade. But Zarif insisted that Iran had no intentions of pursuing such a capability. “We do not need military grade uranium,” he said. “That is a certainty and we will not move in that direction.”
One person who remains highly skeptical of Iran’s intentions is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is on his way to the U.S. to first meet with Obama, where he will reportedly provide intelligence that Iran is developing a nuclear detonator and moving towards a bomb, then deliver remarks at the U.N. Israel’s reaction will be a key component in striking any deal and both Israel and Iran are wary of each other’s intentions as the United States tests Iran’s ability to follow through on its words. Zarif illustrated the divide by using part of his interview to condemn the alleged Israeli involvement in the death of Iranian nuclear scientists over the years.
He also pushed back on frequent Israeli claims that Iran is six months away from a nuclear weapon, a claim that has extended back to 1991 he said. “We’re not seeking nuclear weapons, so we’re not six months, six years, sixty years from nuclear weapons,” Zarif said. “We don’t want nuclear weapons, we think nuclear weapons are detrimental to our security. We think those who have the illusion that nuclear weapons provide them with security are badly mistaken.”
“There may have been technical problems, there may have been lack of transparency and we are prepared to address those problems,” Zarif said. The next time that Iran will be able to address those issues is in October, when he next meets with the P5+1 in Geneva.