Iran on Tuesday denied that Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif signaled willingness to negotiate with the United States over its disputed ballistic missile program.
“Iran’s missiles and its missiles are absolutely and under no condition negotiable with anyone or any country, period,” the spokesman for Iran’s mission to the UN, Alireza Miryousefi, tweeted.
Zarif brought up the ballistic missile suggestion during an interview with NBC News that aired Monday night and was filmed as the Iranian foreign minister visited New York for meetings at the United Nations.
Zarif appeared to suggest a high price for such negotiations — the halt of American arms sales to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two key US allies in the Persian Gulf. He said the UAE spent $22 billion and Saudi Arabia spending $67 billion on weapons last year, many of them American-made, while Iran spent only $16 billion in comparison.
“These are American weaponry that is going into our region, making our region ready to explode,” Zarif said. “So if they want to talk about our missiles, they need first to stop selling all these weapons, including missiles, to our region.”
Some media outlets framed his remarks as indicating that Iran was willing to negotiate curbs to its ballistic missile program to defuse the sky-high tensions between Tehran and Washington.
But Miryousefi called Zarif’s suggestion “hypothetical,” and slammed media outlets for characterizing the remarks as Iran being open to scaling back its “defensive missile program at some point.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly raised Zarif’s remarks alongside US President Donald Trump during a Cabinet meeting Tuesday, according to a Reuters report.
At the meeting, Trump reportedly told his Cabinet that “a lot of progress” has been made in ending the standoff with the Islamic Republic.
Trump last year pulled the US out of an international deal aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program, hitting Tehran with crippling sanctions.
Tensions have soared in the Persian Gulf in recent months, with the US calling off air strikes against Iran at the last minute after Tehran downed an American drone, and Washington blaming the Islamic Republic for a series of attacks on tanker ships.
Iran, meanwhile, has stepped up the enrichment of its uranium stockpiles beyond the cap set by the nuclear deal. Last week, Iran announced that it enriched uranium past the 3.67 percent limit set by the 2015 pact, and had also surpassed the 300-kilogram cap on enriched uranium reserves.
Iran has faced a variety of economic sanctions by the West since its 1979 Islamic Revolution and the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran. That has cut into its ability to buy advanced weaponry abroad. While Gulf Arab nations have purchased advanced fighter jets, Iran still relies on pre-1979 US fighter jets, as well as aging Soviet MiGs and other planes.
Facing that shortfall, Iran instead invested heavily into its ballistic missile program, which remains under the control of the Iranian paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, which answers only to its Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Khamenei reportedly has restricted the range of ballistic missiles manufactured in Iran to 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles). While that keeps Europe out of range, it means the Iranian missiles can hit much of the Middle East, including Israel and American military bases in the region. The Islamic Republic frequently threatens to annihilate Israel.
In pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, Trump in part blamed the accord for not addressing Iran’s ballistic missile program. The US fears Iran could use its missile technology and space program to build nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles, something Tehran denies it wants to do.
Agencies contributed to this report.