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In U.S.-Iran conflict, Iranian foreign minister asks ‘who’s being provocative’

U.S.-Iran tensions have again escalated, amid reports Iran seized at least one tanker in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, while a U.S. ship apparently shot down an Iranian drone. Judy Woodruff sits down with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to discuss which country is “being provocative,” how to end the war in Yemen and what Zarif wants the American people to know about the Iranian government.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to the confrontation between the U.S. and Iran.

    Earlier, we reported that Iran seized at least one ship in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, roiling the already turbulent waters of the Persian Gulf.

    As he left the White House this afternoon, the president again had tough words for Tehran.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Iran's in big trouble right now. Their economy is crashing. It's coming to a crash. They're trying to bring soldiers back home because they can't pay them. A lot of bad things are happening to them, and it's very easy to straighten out, or it's very easy for us to make it a lot worse.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Before Mr. Trump spoke, and before news came of the ship's seizures, I sat down with Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif.

    He was one of the principal negotiators of the 2015 nuclear deal with the U.S. and other world powers, which President Trump pulled out of last year.

    Now Zarif is one of the public faces of the Islamic Republic's pushback against the United States and its so-called maximum pressure campaign of renewed and increased sanctions, aimed at forcing Iran back to the negotiating table.

    We spoke at the residence of Iran's ambassador to the U.N. in New York.

    Minister Zarif, thank you very much for talking with us.

  • Mohammad Javad Zarif:

    Good to be with you again.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's start with the downing yesterday by the United States of the Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz.

    President Trump says that this was just the latest in a series of provocative and hostile acts by Iran. Is that how you see it?

  • Mohammad Javad Zarif:

    Well, first of all, to the best of our information, we didn't lose any drones yesterday. So it doesn't look like that they shot one of our drones.

    Maybe they shot one of their drones. The report said they shot probably somebody else's drones.

    But provocative? Even if it were our drone, we are in our own neighborhood. The U.S. Naval vessel is about 6,000 miles away from its shores. So I would ask you who's being provocative.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Trump administration's official line is that the U.S. is not looking for war with Iran.

    Do you believe that?

  • Mohammad Javad Zarif:

    Well, we didn't come to the Gulf of Mexico. They came to the Persian Gulf. Now they have to watch that they shouldn't undermine our sovereignty, our territorial integrity, or our security. And then we won't have a war.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have been saying this week, Mr. Minister, that if the U.S., that if — that Iran may be prepared to change the course of your uranium enrichment.

  • Mohammad Javad Zarif:

    No, we're not. We're not.

    We have an agreement that we negotiated with the United States. It doesn't matter which government of the United States, because the outside world considers the government sitting in Washington representing the — as representing the United States.

    There is a provision in the current agreement that is, in 2023, we're supposed to ratify the additional protocol, which requires us to put all our facilities under U.N. inspections for life. That would be permanent.

    And it would also require the United States to lift its sanctions by Congress permanently. That is a provision that we already negotiated.

    He wants to do better? He can implement that provision right now, and rest assured that Iran would never produce nuclear weapons. If that is his objective, he can do it now — 2023. We are prepared to bring that forward. We need to go to our Parliament. Our Parliament needs to ratify it.

    We could bring it forward, so that President Trump could make history by making sure that the relations between the two countries would change forever.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So — but there's no indication right now that President Trump will do that.

  • Mohammad Javad Zarif:

    Because the motto is, what's mine is mine, what's yours is negotiable. That won't work.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But my point is, there's no indication right now that President Trump is inclined to do that, unless you have information that we don't have right now.

  • Mohammad Javad Zarif:

    Well, you see, I'm not interested in what he is inclined to do. I'm interested in what the United States must do, as a responsible player in the international scene.

    I'm sure President Trump wants to leave a legacy of a law-abiding country, not a country that breaks treaties.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mr. Minister, even Americans who believe, with you, that the Trump administration was wrong to withdraw from the 2015 agreement, ask, why is Iran enriching uranium beyond the cap?

    Why does Iran need to do this?

  • Mohammad Javad Zarif:

    We don't need to do that.

    We have a provision in the agreement that if one side doesn't fulfill its obligations, the other side may, within the agreement, reduce its commitments.

    If the United States and if the Europeans don't fulfill their obligations, then we have a right. That's the remedy, because, you know, the nuclear deal wasn't based on trust. The nuclear deal was based on total mistrust.

    We didn't trust the other side. The other side didn't trust us. Let's be fair.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But the American people look at Iran. They hear President Trump saying, this is the world's greatest threat right now, your country. They hear that you are enriching uranium, you're on the way to nuclear weapons.

    Why should they relax? Why should they not be worried?

  • Mohammad Javad Zarif:

    Had we wanted to build a nuclear weapon, we would have built it during the time that we paid for it.

    From 2005 to 2013, we actually paid many times in international isolation, in international pressure, in sanctions. But if he says we are the greatest threat to the United States and to international peace, just ask him, who is bombing Yemen? Who is imprisoning the prime minister of Lebanon?

    So, if you want to look for malign behavior, if you want to look for a threat, you look at Saudi Arabia.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You mentioned Yemen.

    Clearly, that terrible war has been going on for years. The Saudis are involved. The Houthi rebels have a connection, clearly, with Iran. We now know that the UAE, the United Arab Emirates, are withdrawing most of their forces.

    Could this be a moment for some sort of breakthrough there?

  • Mohammad Javad Zarif:

    Well, we have — we have had many moments to end the war in Yemen.

    Saudis, unfortunately, believe that they could win this war militarily within weeks. We can end it now. It just takes one cognitive transformation. This war cannot be won militarily.

    We have diplomatic relations with the UAE, so we're prepared to meet them. We're prepared to meet the Saudis. We can meet any time. It just requires an acceptance of the reality that we all need to provide our own security regionally, and not — we cannot purchase security from outside.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what does that mean practically?

  • Mohammad Javad Zarif:

    Practically means that we need to work together, rather than work against each other.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And could this be a moment for that to happen?

  • Mohammad Javad Zarif:

    It can. And I certainly pray for it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is there some tangible evidence that that's…

  • Mohammad Javad Zarif:

    Not yet. Not yet, not with Saudi Arabia.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you're saying, as of this moment, there is no movement, tangible movement, in that direction?

  • Mohammad Javad Zarif:

    Because, unfortunately, they see that the United States even supports them literally with murder.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You mentioned…

  • Mohammad Javad Zarif:

    They can get away with murder, and still get the support of the United States. And we all saw that, how it happened.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You just said that Iran is prepared to sign a nonaggression statement.

    At the same time, we know that Iran is still supporting working with a number of armed nonstate groups, militaries across the region. Why is this continuing? Why does Iran need to work with these groups that are creating violence in so many countries?

  • Mohammad Javad Zarif:

    Actually, we work with groups that are defending themselves.

    It's the United States' allies who are working with groups that promote violence. We work with people, support people, as everybody should, who are defending their territorial integrity, who are fighting occupation, who are fighting foreign aggression.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Two other things I want to ask you about. One is Syria.

    Why is Iran still supporting the Syrian regime, which has killed its own people, used chemical weapons on its own…

  • Mohammad Javad Zarif:

    We have said time and again that we are in Syria, cooperating against ISIS.

    The decision about who should rule Syria is not ours, is not yours. That decision is solely a decision that should be made by the people of Syria.

    The United States wanted to predetermine that Bashar will not be running in the election. But if you believe that he is such a butcher that is killing his people, then why do you mind if he runs in an election? He will be voted out by the people. You should only make sure that you have a free and fair election. And that's what we have been calling for.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you believe Mr. Assad will allow a democratic process to go forward, free and fair elections, in that country?

  • Mohammad Javad Zarif:

    I think he will. And I think we all should help.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You think the evidence of what he's done to his own people doesn't undermine that?

  • Mohammad Javad Zarif:

    His own people will decide. It's not for us to decide. It's for his own people to decide.

    And I believe always, at the end of the day, people are the best judge.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But won't he be choosing who participates in the process?

  • Mohammad Javad Zarif:

    We can make sure that the process is free and fair. That, we said from the beginning, and we continue to say that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Iran is now holding at least six Americans, detaining six Americans.

    Why is Iran holding them?

  • Mohammad Javad Zarif:

    The United States is detaining many Iranians who have not committed any crime. The United States is pushing other countries to detain Iranians who have only violated U.S. sanctions.

    I called for a comprehensive exchange. Unfortunately, the United States is not prepared to do that. Iran showed its good faith by releasing one. The United States has not reciprocated.

    So, I think the problem is in Washington, not in Tehran.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What will it take to win the release of those Americans?

  • Mohammad Javad Zarif:

    Exchange them. That's how I can get involved, because I cannot get involved if it's just a one-sided situation, because our judiciary is independent, and they will make their own decision.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How many…

  • Mohammad Javad Zarif:

    But if there is an exchange, then I can intervene.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally, if there's one simple message you want the American people to know from the government of Iran, what is it?

    The government of Iran doesn't want conflict. All we want is for nobody to intervene in our affairs.

    I think that's something that the American — that American people could easily understand. The Americans didn't want others to intervene in their affairs. That's why they had the American Revolution.

    We do not want others to intervene in our affairs. That's all.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, thank you very much.

  • Mohammad Javad Zarif:

    Thank you.

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