Iran FM: New sanctions would kill Geneva deal

Javad Zarif warns Congress that Tehran ‘does not negotiate under duress,’ says no obstacles stand in way of final-status deal

Yifa Yaakov is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, center, attends talks in Geneva on Iran's nuclear program, November 22, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Fabrice Coffrini)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, center, attends talks in Geneva on Iran's nuclear program, November 22, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Fabrice Coffrini)

New US-led sanctions on Tehran would render the recently signed nuclear deal with six world powers void, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in an interview published Monday.

Speaking to Time magazine, Zarif said that if Congress chooses to impose new sanctions on his country, “the entire deal is dead,” even if said sanctions don’t take effect for six months.

“We do not like to negotiate under duress,” Zarif told the magazine.

Last month, Iran and six world powers — the US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany — reached an interim accord that will roll back some sanctions in exchange for curbs on nuclear enrichment and more intrusive inspections on facilities.

Though criticized by Israel, the deal was hailed as a major breakthrough in finding a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff. On Monday, the sides met again in Geneva for a low-level meeting on implementing the deal.

While the White House, which has long supported financial penalties on Iran, has pushed Congress to cancel plans to pass new sanctions, several lawmakers have indicated they will work for pressure on Iran to be maintained through new sanctions, as requested by Jerusalem.

However, Zarif said new sanctions would show “lack of seriousness and lack of a desire to achieve a resolution on the part of the United States.”

The Iranian foreign minister said that, while he was aware of the “domestic complications and various issues inside the United States,” for him, it was “no justification” for any action that would jeopardize the progress made between Iran and the West in Geneva.

“I have a parliament. My parliament can also adopt various legislation that can go into effect if negotiations fail. But if we start doing that, I don’t think that we will be getting anywhere,” he said.

Insisting that there were no obstacles to an agreement, Zarif said that the two major “elements” to be decided in negotiations for a final-status deal between Tehran and Western powers were sanctions, “both UN Security Council sanctions as well as national and multilateral sanctions outside the UN,” in addition to “the issue of Iran having an enrichment program.”

On Saturday, US President Barack Obama endorsed Iran maintaining some enrichment capability under a long-term agreement to be signed at the end of the six-month deal.

Zarif said that a heavy water reactor at the Arak nuclear facility, which Western leaders have called to be shut down, was nearly operational, and that it was “too late in the game” for Western powers to raise “concerns that cannot be addressed.”

“It is our intention that it will remain exclusively peaceful, but how we give them the necessary assurances that it will remain peaceful… that may be one of the more difficult areas,” he said.

A text of the nuclear deal released after it was signed on November 24 calls for Arak to be shuttered, but Zarif said — shortly after the signing — that construction on it would continue apace.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others have said the site’s plutonium reactor is only useful to a military nuclear program, but Zarif dismissed the claim, saying Tehran required the reactor “to produce radio isotopes for medical purposes.

“Some people believe that we chose this technology because it provided other options. They’re badly mistaken,” he said. “You see, you have to look at Iran’s nuclear program from the perspective of denial, the fact that Iran was denied access to technology. And we used, or we tried to get access to, whatever was available to us and this technology was available to us. Other technologies were not.”

He urged the international community to find a scientific solution, which would provide sufficient reassurances as to the nature of the reactor.

“We are going to accept measures that would ensure that our program will remain exclusively peaceful, but the rest will have to be decided in the negotiations in good faith. We have no intention of producing weapons or fissile material programs,” continued Zarif.

“We do not consider that to be in our interests, or within our security doctrine.”

He said the deal faced opposition at home, stemming from a lack of trust in the West, and particularly in the United States’ intentions towards Iran and its willingness to reach an agreement.

“We do not have a past on which we can build,” he said, urging Washington to remain committed to its Geneva commitments. “It’s a psychological barrier to interaction that we need to overcome… They believe that they will try to use the mechanism of negotiations in order to derail the process, in order to find new excuses.”

While pessimistic that the deal would lead to a wider detente with the US, Zarif admitted that secret back-channel talks between the two countries had produced “some positive outcome,” such as last month’s agreement.

“The US is probably the most important player” in the negotiations, Zarif said, “because it has the largest amount of sanctions against Iran, most of them — or all of them — illegal in our view…. It had a lot to do in the creation of the trouble, so it has a lot to do in the resolution of the trouble. So that requires Iran and the US to have a lot of discussions on the sides.”

Tackling Syria

On the Syrian issue, Zarif said that if Iran were invited to talks in Geneva “without preconditions,” it would take part.

“I think people will decide to invite Iran if they are interested in having a helpful hand in finding a resolution to the Syrian tragedy, and they will decide not to invite Iran to their own detriment,” he said.

“Iran believes that what is happening in Syria can have a huge impact on the future of our region and the future beyond the region. Because we believe that if the sectarian divide, which some people are trying to fan in Syria, becomes a major issue, it will not recognize any boundaries. It will go beyond the boundaries of Syria. It will go beyond the boundaries of this region. You will find implications of this on the streets of Europe and America.”

He stressed that Tehran had “every interest” in assisting Syria in finding a peaceful solution to the civil war. He warned, however, that if Western powers “want to avoid extremism in this region, if you want to prevent Syria from becoming a breeding ground for extremists who will use Syria basically as a staging ground to attack other countries,” they would have to discard the idea of a military solution.

Zarif did not disclose whether Tehran would stick by Syrian President Bashar Assad, saying only that the question of Syria’s leadership should be left to “the Syrian people to decide.”

Concerning the reports of strained relations with the Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia, who voiced concern about the Geneva deal, Zarif said he was “well received” during a recent trip to the Persian Gulf, and that a planned trip to Saudi Arabia was postponed to “a time that was more convenient.”

He likened the disagreements between Tehran and Riyadh to “differences of views” within the same family.

“It wasn’t that they were not prepared to see me,” he said.

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