News ID: 255858
Published: 0513 GMT July 16, 2019

Zarif: Door 'wide open' to negotiation if Trump lifts sanctions

Zarif: Door 'wide open' to negotiation if Trump lifts sanctions

International Desk

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the door is "wide open" to diplomacy if Trump removes the array of sanctions he has imposed since 2018 that have slashed the country’s oil exports and damaged its economy.

Zarif made the comment in a wide-ranging interview that aired on NBC News on Monday in which he blamed the US bringing the Middle East to the brink of "explosion" by selling arms to allies there.

"Once those sanctions are lifted, then ... the room for negotiation is wide open," Zarif said.

Zarif, who is in New York for a visit to the United Nations,  said it was the United States, not Iran, that undermined diplomacy by walking away from the nuclear agreement.

He said Iran does not want a war with the US but said Trump must lift harsh economic sanctions on Tehran to clear the way for negotiations.

"It is the United States that left the bargaining table. And they're always welcome to return," Zarif said.

The minister said he did not think the two countries were on the verge of war, saying neither his government nor Trump was seeking armed conflict.

"I do not believe that President Trump wants war. But I believe that people are around him who wouldn't mind," Zarif said.

In the year since the US exited the nuclear deal – a move opposed by the pact's remaining signatories – Washington has tightened sanctions on Iran, including on its oil and banking sectors.

In May, Washington also sent warships, bombers and thousands of additional troops to the Persian Gulf, citing unspecified threats from Iran. Tensions have since soared, with the US calling off air raids against Iran at the last minute after Tehran downed a US spy plane that it said encroached on its airspace in June, a claim Washington denies.


'Talks on missiles subject to halting arms sale to Mideast'

Zarif for the first time suggested Iran’s ballistic missile program could be on the table for negotiations with the US — if America stops selling arms to its Persian Gulf allies.

"If you want to discuss ballistic missiles, then we need to discuss the amount of weapons sold to our region," he said.

He said it was the US and its allies – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – who were to blame for turmoil in the Middle East. 

"Last year Iran spent $16bn altogether on its military, we have an 82 million population. UAE, with a million population, spent $22bn. Saudi Arabia – with less than half of [Iran's] population - spent $67bn, most of them are American [arms].

"These are American weaponry that is going into our region, making our region ready to explode. So if they want to talk about our missiles, they need first to stop selling all these weapons including missiles to our region."

Iran long has maintained its ballistic missile program is for defensive purposes only. The 2015 nuclear deal that Tehran struck with world powers did not include its missile program. Iran long has criticized US arms sales in the region.

When NBC journalist Lester Holt further pressed Zarif on the issue, referring to Iran's support for armed groups in the region, the minister brought up the Saudi-led interventions in Yemen and Bahrain.

"Let me ask you - who's bombing Yemen? Who's invading Bahrain? Who kept the prime minister of another country a prisoner?" Zarif asked.

"Are we involved at all in North Africa? ... Why do you have chaos in Libya? Is Iran involved in Libya? ... in Sudan? ... in Algeria? Why do we have all this turmoil? I believe if you want to look at the right place for those who have malign activity in our region, the US needs to look at its own allies, not at Iran."

When asked if Trump's decision to halt air raids amounted to a diplomatic overture, Zarif said: "It’s not an overture if you decide not to commit another act of aggression against a country that is capable of defending itself."

Vowing to continue resisting "aggression", Zarif said Iranians will "find a way to circumvent the pressure through relying on their own resources, on their own capabilities, and on their own talent."

The Islamic Republic, which has been under a variety of sanctions since its founding in 1979, invested in its own ballistic missiles and nuclear programs because of those sanctions, he added. But he warned: "Of course when there is tension, there is tension for everybody. Nobody is immune in a tense environment."

The new US sanctions have plunged the Iranian economy into crisis, and caused a shortage in critical medicines, Zarif said, a move he said has put Iranian people under "huge humanitarian pressure".

"They are terrorizing our people. They are targeting ordinary Iranian civilians. That's worse than war," he added.


‘Playing with fire’

Zarif warned that the United States is "playing with fire," echoing remarks by US President Donald Trump as the two sides are locked in a standoff over Iran’ nuclear program.

"I think the United States is playing with fire," Zarif said.

Iran announced last week that it had enriched uranium past the 3.67 percent limit set by the nuclear deal, and has also surpassed the 300-kilogram cap on enriched uranium reserves.

But "it can be reversed within hours," Zarif told the channel, adding: "We are not about to develop nuclear weapons. Had we wanted to develop nuclear weapons, we would have been able to do it (a) long time ago."

Zarif's comments came as the United States imposed unusually harsh restrictions on his movements during his visit to the United Nations.

Weeks after the United States threatened sanctions against Zarif, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Washington issued him a visa but forbade him from moving beyond six blocks of Iran's UN mission in Midtown Manhattan.

"US diplomats don't roam around Tehran, so we don't see any reason for Iranian diplomats to roam freely around New York City, either," Pompeo told The Washington Post.

No US diplomats are based in Iran as the two countries broke off relations in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the Western-backed shah.

The United States, as host of the United Nations, has an agreement to issue visas promptly to foreign diplomats on UN business and only rarely declines.

Zarif is scheduled to speak Wednesday at the UN Economic and Social Council, which is holding a high-level meeting on sustainable development.

Despite the restrictions, the decision to admit Zarif is the latest sign that Trump's administration appears to be retreating from its vow to place sanctions on him as part of its "maximum pressure" campaign on Iran.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on June 24 that sanctions against Zarif would come later that week.

Critics questioned the legal rationale for targeting Zarif and noted that sanctions would all but end the possibility of dialogue – which Trump has said is his goal.

Zarif said in an interview with The New York Times he would not be affected by sanctions as he owns no assets outside of Iran.

Al Jazeera, AFP and AP also contributed to this story.






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