Iranian foreign minister on U.S. strategy on Islamic State, sanctions

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now to Iran and our interview with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

    He is in New York this week for the so called P5-plus-one talks on that country's nuclear program, as questions loom over whether a deal can be reached by a late November deadline and what will happen if there is no agreement.

    Earlier today, our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner, asked about that, the U.S. strategy in fighting the Islamic State militant group, and why Tehran has ruled out working with Washington to defeat the organization.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Minister Zarif, thank you for joining us.

  • MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF, Foreign Minister, Iran:

    Very good to be with you.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Today, France joined the U.S. in launching airstrikes in Iraq against the I.S., ISIS, militants. Do you think that's going to be an effective strategy to counter these militant forces?

  • MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF:

    Well, I believe the international community should come to realize that this is a common threat, a common challenge, and it requires a common response.

    In our view, the response should come from the region and supported by the international community, not the other way around. We have been cooperating with the government of Iraq and the government of — or the regional government of Kurdistan in order to defeat these terrorists, because we consider these terrorists a threat to all nations in the region and beyond because — because of all these foreign fighters that you have.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    So you and President Obama are really on the same page on this. That is that the international community can assist maybe from the air, training and equipping, but not getting involved on the ground?

  • MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF:

    Well, I believe the Iraqis themselves are quite capable of liberating their territory.

    What the international community needs to do is to prevent assistance to the terrorists, which has been coming, unfortunately, over the past three, four years from various quarters in the region and outside the region.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    So you're talking about Saudi Arabia, some of the other Gulf states that have helped with financing and training? You're talking about Turkey that's allowed foreign fighters to cross over into Iraq and Syria?

  • MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF:

    Well, I'm not in the business of naming names.

    We are willing to work with them, particularly with our friends in the region, in order to defeat this threat, but defeat it fundamentally, not simply by military action.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    But, by all accounts, President Rouhani's government has rebuffed overtures from President Obama's government to actually cooperate

  • MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF:

    Because we were not convinced that the United States government was serious.

    I'm sure that what happened yesterday in the House and the Senate, approving the request of President Obama for financing the Syrian opposition, doesn't correspond well with an attempt to fight terrorism. If you undermine the central government in Syria, that would enable the I.S. terrorists to gain even more territory.

    And we see this as basically contradiction in terms of trying to defeat ISIS, but at the same time funding those who are trying to undermine the very government that is withstanding ISIS terrorists. Those forces who are operating on the ground in Syria are, unfortunately, ISIS and people of the same color.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    All of them?

  • MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF:

    Almost a majority of them. At least a majority of those who control any territory in Syria are either ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra or other..

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Al-Qaida-linked groups.

  • MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF:

    … fringe al-Qaida groups.

    We do not believe that supporting these groups will help the process of democratization and respect for the will of the people in Syria.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    But you are a major patron. You are a major patron of the Syrian government. Can you not use your influence with the Syrian government to, in fact, encourage them, force them to make such an inclusive arrangement with their own opposition?

  • MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF:

    Actually, nobody can force anybody in our region. We have an influence in Iraq. We have influence in Syria. We have influence in the region. The reason we have influence is that we do not impose our will on the countries in the region.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Well, but many would point out that the Shiite-backed Hezbollah fighters have in fact moved up from Lebanon to assist President Assad.

    But let me move on to the other major item on your plate, one reason you're here early before UNGA week, which is the nuclear negotiations. You face a two-month deadline now to finish this second phase and really finish a deal. Do you think there's any prospect of getting there?

  • MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF:

    Well, I think there's every prospect of getting there, provided that people want to address the problem, not the constituencies.

    There are two ways of resolving this problem. One is to try to resolve this problem, and the other one is try to appease those who do not see any resolution, whatever the parameters of that resolution may be, in their interests.

    So if we abandon the second alternative and put our focus on the first alternative, then I believe that a solution is at hand. Iran doesn't want nuclear weapons. Iran doesn't need nuclear weapons. The only problem, if I may, is this basically infatuation, obsession with sanctions. Sanctions do not achieve any objective. Sanctions simply put pressure on the people.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    But those in the United States that don't trust Iran say, well, Iran has an obsession with building a gigantic nuclear infrastructure that they don't need for energy purposes, that will be nuclear weapons-ready.

    I mean, don't you have a problem of the hard-liners on both sides, when you're talking about constituencies?

  • MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF:

    Well, there may be lunatics everywhere.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF:

    But no serious person in Iran wants to build a nuclear weapon, because people have very serious strategic calculations.

    What we can suggest to people, there is a lot of mistrust to go around. I mean, Iranians don't trust the United States. We can change that. And it's important for all of us to try to — instead of living in the past, to try to write a new history. And writing a new history is to try to come to arrangements that would scientifically prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    So, if the Iranian government wants to persuade the rest of the world that, as you say, the intentions are purely peaceful, why not agree to the much lower level of centrifuges, number of centrifuges that the United States and the Western powers are insisting upon?

  • MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF:

    Because we're not here to accept arbitrary decisions. We're here to negotiate.

    But what we are suggesting is not that you have to take this or leave it. We are saying that let's consider together how best we can do this. We have agreed to limit, for a certain number of years, the number of centrifuges that will be spinning. And that is out of no necessity, simply in order to create confidence. But I'm not prepared to accept any arbitrary numbers.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    OK. Now, of course, Iran then wants all of these sanctions rolled back and lifted. Many of those would require, to be permanently lifted, U.S. congressional approval.

    As you well know, there's a lot of opposition to that. Would Iran accept something less, for instance, just having President Obama waive those?

  • MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF:

    Well, obviously, I — I do not engage in negotiations on the air, but we understand U.S. politics. We understand the constraints that President Obama is facing.

    As we don't accept them asking us to do the impossible, we will not ask them to do the impossible.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    So, if President Obama wanted to do something of an end-run around Congress, that would be enough assurance for you?

  • MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF:

    It's up to him.

    We deal with the government. Of course, we know the complexities, the domestic complexities involved. But as a sovereign state, we deal with the United States government as a sovereign state. We do not interfere in the internal domestic politics of the United States. If President Obama promises us to do something, we will accept and respect his promise.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    So is an extension beyond the November 24 deadline possible?

  • MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF:

    I don't think so. And I'm not prepared at this stage to entertain that idea.

    I'm not saying that November 24 is a doomsday. I'm saying that we should put all our energy into reaching an agreement by that time.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    So no brinksmanship?

  • MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF:

    I believe this issue requires statesmanship, not brinksmanship. And I'm prepared to exercise as much of that as I can possibly do.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Despite the political price that President Rouhani and you and your government are paying for this at home?

  • MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF:

    Well, leadership requires courage, and I hope that everybody is prepared to exercise that courage.

    I believe we are at the point in history that we can. In fact, what we do has an impact on the future of our region and the future of the perceptions of two nations towards one another. So we should seize this opportunity.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Mr. Minister, thank you very much.

  • MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF:

    Thank you for having me.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    On our Web site, you can see more of Margaret's interview with Foreign Minister Zarif, including his comments on Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, who has been jailed in Tehran for almost two months.

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