Zarif: The Netanyahu regime ‘should be annihilated’

Dodging some questions, finessing others in extensive TV interview, Iranian foreign minister says Iran has saved Jews three times in its history and threatens nobody

Mohammad Javad Zarif in an NBC interview on March 4, 2015 (NBC screenshot)
Mohammad Javad Zarif in an NBC interview on March 4, 2015 (NBC screenshot)

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif acknowledged that his country seeks the annihilation of the “Netanyahu regime” but denied that it seeks to wipe out Israel.

In an NBC interview on Wednesday, Zarif finessed a series of questions raised by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his speech to Congress Tuesday, including over Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s tweet last year urging the annihilation of Israel, and about his own laying of a wreath at the grave of Imad Mughniyeh, the arch-Hezbollah terrorist responsible for the killings of hundreds of Americans.

Zarif said Netanyahu had been fanning “hysteria” since 1992 with the claim that Iran was two years from the bomb. “Once this fear mongering is out, then we can have a deal,” he said. Zarif also denied stalling the IAEA’s efforts to probe alleged nuclear weapons work. He spent much of the extensive interview castigating Israel for a series of alleged vicious crimes, while insisting on Iran’s tolerant and peaceful nature.

Responding to Netanyahu’s charge that Iran was “gobbling up” nations in the region, Zarif claimed Iran had come to the aid of Iraq, the Kurds, Syria and Afghanistan; by contrast, he claimed Israel and Netanyahu personally support al-Nusra Front terrorists in Syria.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks about Iran during a joint meeting of the United States Congress in the House chamber at the US Capitol on March 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. (photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks about Iran during a joint meeting of the United States Congress in the House chamber at the US Capitol on March 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. (photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP)

Asked about the prime minister’s charge that Iran seeks to destroy Israel, Zarif responded that Iran “has saved Jews three times in its history: Once during that time of a prime minister who was trying to kill the Jews, and the king saved the Jews (in the story of Esther); again during the time of Cyrus the Great, where he saved the Jews from Babylon; and during the Second World War, where Iran saved the Jews. Iran has a bright record of tolerance to other religions.”

When the NBC interviewer quoted the text of Khamenei’s tweet last year — “This barbaric wolf-like and infanticidal regime of Israel which spares no crime, has no cure but to be annihilated” — and asked Zarif whether he understood why Jews and others “would take umbrage at that kind of language,” the foreign minister said no, “Because this is a regime — we’re talking about Mr. Netanyahu — who has butchered innocent children in Gaza. We are not talking about annihilation of Jews. We never have, we never will. Because if we wanted to annihilate Jews, we have a large number of Jewish population in Iran who not only live in the country in peace, but, in fact, have a representative in Iranian parliament allocated to them.”

Pressed repeatedly, Zarif then insisted, “We don’t want to annihilate. We don’t want to annihilate anybody.” But then he said that the Khamenei tweet referred to the Netanyahu regime, and that the supreme leader was saying “it should be annihilated. That this regime is a threat, is a threat. A regime that engages in the killing of innocent children, a regime that engages in acts of aggression.” Still, he went on, “we are not invading, we are not threatening anybody.”

As for laying a wreath at Mughniyeh’s grave, Zarif first dodged the question, and then answered that Hezbollah is “a resistance to Israeli occupation, which was pushed out of Lebanon by a resistance movement. We’re not talking about a group that came from all over the world to Syria or to Iraq to wreak havoc. We’re talking about people defending their country, defending their territory against occupation.”

In a second interview, with CNN on Thursday, Zarif accused Netanyahu of “seeing peace as an existential threat.”

Speaking to Christiane Amanpour, Zarif said of the negotiations with the P5+1 that they were meant “to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program will always remain peaceful and to remove all the restrictions that have been imposed on Iran, in our view unjustifiably.”

Zarif said Iran believes “that we can in fact reach an agreement, if there is the necessary political will to make the tough choices, and everybody has to make tough choices.”

The CNN interview came after three days of high-level talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Switzerland were wrapped up.

“We’ve made some progress from where we were and important choices need to be made,” Kerry told reporters after the talks, with a senior State Department official adding that “tough challenges” had yet to be resolved.

Zarif told Amanpour that “people have been predicting for the past 20 years Iran was a year away from making a bomb and that prediction has been proven wrong, time and again, but unfortunately that is the reality, that this hysteria that has been fanned continues to be fanned.”

In a hint of criticism against the P5+1, Zarif said that “the other side needs to exercise the same political will, the same resolve, make the same tough choices that sanctions and an agreement don’t go together. You can either have sanctions and continue to seek the path of confrontation or try to resolve this issue through negotiations and through an agreement.”

Zarif said he believed the sides are “very close” to such an agreement, but that if the international powers decide to uphold restrictions, they’ll be making “a wrong decision.”

Zarif said Netanyahu’s speech had “no effect on the negotiating table.” Zarif said he saw that Netanyahu “is trying, and some people who associate with him try to create an atmosphere of hysteria, an atmosphere of fear mongering, based on lies and deception that try to prevent a deal from taking shape.”

In his address to Congress, Netanyahu harshly criticized the emerging nuclear deal with Iran and said it would pave the way to an Iranian nuclear arsenal.

Zarif charged back that “some people consider peace and stability as an existential threat, because a deal cannot be threatening to anybody unless you want conflict and tension and mistrust and crisis.”

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