The US is trying desperately to isolate Iran, but on Sunday Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif seized the stage of the world's premier security conference.
He held the audience of power-brokers rapt for nearly 40 minutes as he thrashed the Trump administration and fired a pointed demand at Europe to do more to protect their nuclear deal.
It was a striking performance, conducted in fluent and colloquial English, that quickly became the most talked-about presentation at the annual Munich Security Conference — for its bluntness, its audacity, and its timeliness. Zarif capitalized on tensions in transatlantic relations, exploited President Donald Trump's unpredictable and erratic foreign policy decisions, and generally played on the jangled nerves of policymakers unsure how to handle an array of new threats.
He also braided all of the main threads together in issuing a blunt demand that EU powers do more to preserve the nuclear deal, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), following Trump's withdrawal and reimposition of economic sanctions. "Europe needs to be willing to get wet if it wants to swim against the dangerous tide of US unilateralism,” Zarif declared, demonstrating not only his comfort conversing in English, but also an ability to turn its idioms to his advantage.
His forthright presentation, and willingness to spar with the moderator — BBC chief international correspondent Lyse Doucet, who repeatedly challenged him — delighted organizers of the annual conference, who had been hoping for just such a vivid confrontation.
He opened with a frontal assault on US policy toward Iran.
Zarif's performance came three days after senior Trump administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, convened a global conference about the Middle East in Warsaw, where they had sought to rally international sentiment against Tehran.
But Zarif's speech in Munich and his aggressive replies in the question-and-answer session showed the Tehran government utterly unbowed.
"We have never been forgiven by the United States for having exercised our right to self-determination," he said. "As a result, we have long been the target of an unhealthy fixation, let's say an obsession, which continues to this very day. The demonization of my country has been a convenient cross for seven consecutive American presidents to bear, and an even more convenient smokescreen for America's regional clients to hide behind."
Then, Zarif launched into his complaints about the JCPOA, capping them with a mocking line about the Warsaw event.
"These guys have had the illusion that Iran would evaporate for 40 years. But we are still here.”
"In the past two years, the US has taken its animus toward Iran to a new extreme," he said.
"At a recent meeting of, let me just call it the unwilling and the openly coerced, in Warsaw, the US vice president and the secretary of state both blasted Europe on European soil for even attempting — albeit without much success — to abide by its obligations under the JCPOA."
Pence indeed demanded in Warsaw that the European guarantors of the JCPOA — France, Germany, the UK and the EU — abandon it, and he repeated that demand again in a speech at the Munich conference. Pence's demand, which American officials said was issued at the request of Trump — was quickly and flatly rejected by the Europeans, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
In his speech, Zarif accused Washington of trying to topple the Iranian government, and of sending its military 10,000 kilometers from home to destabilize the Middle East. He pointed to US actions in Iraq and Syria and also Trump's support of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“I think the US administration is not doing anything but regime change," he said of Washington's policy toward Iran. "These guys have had the illusion that Iran would evaporate for 40 years. But we are still here.”
Citing what he described as a pervasive threat from the US, Zarif made an impassioned case for Iran to have the right to defend itself, while chiding the Americans for arming Iran's rivals in the Middle East and also railing against both the US and Europe for taking issue with Iran's ballistic missile program. Going back in history, he recalled Europe had armed Iraq when it was at war with Iran in the 1980s.
"We believe it is in our interest but we believe it is at the same time in the interest of Europe to stay in the deal."
"I ask you a question: Does Iran have the right to defend itself?" he said. "And if we have the right to defend ourselves, do we do it with swords? Do we do it with, whatever, guns? Or do we need sophisticated means of defense?
"The most sophisticated means of warfare are being sold to our region and President Trump conveniently calls them beautiful military equipment," he said. "Now we are not getting any of those beautiful military equipment. The beautiful military equipment, the Yemenis are getting. They are being killed with it. I don't think they call it beautiful."
At another point, he asked: “Does Iran have to simply lie dead because some people don’t want us to be able to defend ourselves?”
For the EU, some of his most crucial remarks were on the nuclear deal. Preserving it, as the Europeans hope, requires Iran maintaining compliance. And Zarif complained that the so-called special purpose vehicle set up by the EU to allow European countries to keep trading with Iran despite US sanctions falls short of what Europeans had promised — to normalize economic relations.
Asked how long the deal could survive, he replied, "I am not a fortune-teller so I don't know."
But he also said Iran's patience is limited and suggested public support was fragile.
"Now the polls are at about 51 percent," he said. "We are just at the brink — 51 percent of the people believe that we still should be in JCPOA while 80 percent of the people believe that we didn't get anything from it." He added, "We believe it is in our interest but we believe it is at the same time in the interest of Europe to stay in the deal."
Pushing back on US pressure, the Europeans have said that other issues, including Iran's missile program and two alleged assassination attempts on European soil, should be addressed separately from the JCPOA, and they formed a new group called the E4, including Italy, to discuss those matters.
Zarif called on the Europeans to stand up to Trump — and he even showed an ability to make up an English word in the process.
Earlier this month, the Council of the EU issued written conclusions, formally expressing concern about Tehran's role in Syria, its missile program and the alleged assassination attempts.
The Dutch government alleges that Iran organized two assassinations of Dutch-Iranian activists in 2015 and 2017. France suspects Iran was behind a failed attack on a rally of an Iranian dissident [terrorist] group near Paris in 2018. Iran denies any involvement in the plots.
Zarif said EU sanctions imposed on two Iranian individuals and an organization over the incidents were “sanctions based on allegations, not based on fact.”
He noted that an arrest in one case took place the same day that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani arrived on a visit to Europe last year "after many months of preparation."
“Do you think we're really crazy? That we do this on that day? At least we’d do it a day before, a day after, 10 days after. Wouldn't I? We do it on the day our president comes here? Give us some credit,” he said.
“It could be a false flag operation. It could have been an entrapment. It could have been a rogue operation, but it is certainly not the work of a government that you should call crazy if it did it. And you don't gain the influence that we have by being simply crazy."
At one point, when pressed about the arrests of dual nationals in Iran, Zarif insisted that the Iranian government could not exert any authority over its judiciary.
Perhaps most pointed, in trying to capitalize on transatlantic tensions, Zarif called on the Europeans to stand up to Trump — and he even showed an ability to make up an English word in the process.
"This is an outrageous demand," he said of the insistence that Europe abandon the nuclear deal. "If the United States were to come in the course of their fight with China and told Europe stop dealing with China. What would you do? Whatever you want to do then, do now, in order to prevent that eventuality. Because a bully will get bully-er if you succumb."