2004 Interview with Ambassador Javad Zarif

As part of our AIC Through the Ages campaignthe American Iranian Council is reproducing an interview conducted with then-Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations Javad Zarif. Dr. Zarif now serves as Iran's Foreign Minister and is a key figure in the nuclear negotiations taking place in Switzerland. In order to understand what Dr. Zarif thoughts were over a decade ago on issues such as the nuclear issue, terrorism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the Iraq War, please see our interview below. We have included high-resolution scanned copies of the printed interview in the right column (click to expand) and a transcription in the left column.

No. 1, March 2004 AIC Insight 5 
Interview with Ambassador Javad Zarif

DR. AMIRAHMADI: Today is January 3, 2004, in the residence of the Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations, Ambassador Javad Zarif. We are here for an interview with the Ambassador. Mr. Ambassador, thank you for agreeing to give this interview.


DR. AMIRAHMADI: AIC Insight is a new publication of the American Iranian Council, and it is published as part of a 2004 project on US-Iran relations. We hope to use this publication to fill the informational gap that exists between the two countries, as well as to make the policy positions on both sides more transparent than they are. We believe that these are two significant problems for a better  understanding between the two governments. This is the first interview for AIC Insight, and you are the first to speak, and thank you for that. We will focus on US-Iran relations. Let me ask you the first question. Please tell us what you think is the state of US-Iran relations. Where do we stand now? And where do you think we are going?

AMBASSADOR ZARIF: Let me begin by saying that I very much appreciate the objective of your publication. I share with you the concern over the lack of objective information about the policies, behaviors, and expectations of the two sides. There is a great deal of misperception, and I believe if an objective attempt is made to bridge this very serious gap of knowledge and understanding, it would be serving the interests of both countries. The state of affairs between Iran and the US right now is a state of compounded misperceptions on both sides. We have had, both Iran and the US, a number of experiments with one another, and none of these experiments turned out to be positive, because they were not capable of addressing the root causes of the difficulties between Iran and the US, which emanated from these misperceptions. And it has led to the state of affairs that we are in now.

DR. AMIRAHMADI: The state that we are in. What is it?

AMBASSADOR ZARIF: It is a state of very serious mistrust. None of the steps that are taken by one side are seen exactly in the same light and with the proper understanding of the objectives behind those steps. And my analysis is that we have been unable to move forward because we have not articulated exactly what we expect from the other side and what it is that would satisfy our expectations, and what are the measures that we are ready to take ourselves. So we have been basically shooting in the dark.

DR. AMIRAHMADI: We will come back to this issue of both sides' inability to articulate their demands, perhaps. But where are we going from here? Where will we be in six months? In a year?

AMBASSADOR ZARIF: Well, it all depends on how the United States is prepared to address our concerns. We feel that there is a very serious misperception among certain players in Washington, about the longevity of the Iranian government. They believe, or they hope, a new situation is in the offing, and the US should wait to deal with that new situation. That has prevented the United States from adopting a more realistic approach. Of course, there are indications of greater realism on the part of the  US.
But to move beyond this situation, I think, we should start from one premise; that is, we should each understand that the policies adopted by the other side are motivated by national interests. We need to first of all appreciate that no country will be prepared to allow its national interests to be undermined. Iran should understand that for the United States, there are a number of issues that would pertain to its national interests, and the United States should also respect Iran's national interests and national security consideration. I see some signs of that emerging, and that is why I am less pessimistic today about the possibilities for movement forward.

DR. AMIRAHMADI: You talked about demand articulation. You said that one problem you see in the relations between Iran and the US is that they have failed to articulate their demands. Well,  the Americans have. Basically they say that they have four problems: The problem with the weapons of mass destruction, particularly the nuclear issue; the terrorism issue; the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians; and finally the human rights and democracy issues. Do you think that these are bogus demands? Are they real? Do you think that the Americans have a right to be concerned with any of those issues?

AMBASSADOR ZARIF: I think they're not bogus demands but they're not real either. These are public demands that have achieved more of a cliché status rather than an operational status. We have the same types of demands, and we have articulated those, but those are also demands that can fall within the realm of general policy statements rather than practical demands for steps that the other side can take in order to move forward. Now, on those four issues that you mentioned, it is important to have criteria and to understand what are the yardsticks that either side would use to measure movement in these areas. And the same is true of Iranian demands. Iran demands that the US stop its hostility toward Iran. Iran demands that the US recognize Iranian national interests. We demand that the US stop interfering in our internal affairs, or stop preventing Iran from normalizing its economy. These are our demands, but how do we want to operationalize these demands in terms of more clear expectations from the other side about what needs to be done? I think that is very much missing in the interactions between the two countries. So if we agree that there is a very serious mutual mistrust between the two countries, and if we agree that in the atmosphere of serious mutual mistrust, even with the best of intentions, once your objective of a move is missed by the other side, then instead of removing the mistrust it can compound the mistrust. Thus, it is necessary for the two sides to articulate more clearly what they expect and what they are prepared to do.

DR. AMIRAHMADI: Has the nature of the US concerns toward Iran changed at all over time? That is, do we have the same problem in terms of intensity, concerning the weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, the peace process, and human rights? Do you see a movement toward mitigation of the concerns?

AMBASSADOR ZARIF: It's very difficult, again, in the absence of clearly defined criteria, to understand exactly what the concerns are. Whether they are simply political, general concerns caused by the fact that a regime is not fully or even partially associated with the US government, or whether there is objective concern about such behavior. Let me use the nuclear case, the weapons of mass destruction. It is unclear, from the statements which come from Washington, whether Washington would be content with Iran having nuclear power under any circumstances The US is raising the argument today that Iran does not need nuclear energy, whereas in 1978, the State Department itself is on the record saying that Iran needs to diversify its sources of energy, including in the nuclear field. So it is clear that from an objective perspective, the US is making a political statement rather than a statement of concern about Iran's nuclear program. And that is why it is necessary for the US to clearly articulate what is it about Iran's access to nuclear technology that is so harmful, that it has tried so vehemently to prevent, which has in itself led to this vicious circle of concealment by Iran. Pressure, leading to concealment; because of US pressure, Iran had no other alternative but to conceal. The fact that Iran has agreed, through the European initiative and not through US pressure, to sign the additional protocol and to accept more intrusive inspections by the IAEA, should remove some of the concerns on the US side. But whether it does or not would be an indication of whether the US concerns about Iran's nuclear program were rooted in the nuclear program or were rooted in the political relations between Iran and the US.

DR. AMIRAHMADI: If I were a US official talking to you, I would say the reason I changed my mind about Iran's nuclear energy issue between the 70s and now is because Iran's intention changed.

AMBASSADOR ZARIF: Okay, so say it. Say it very clearly, that you changed your intention. You see, what has led to mistrust is that the same government, the same State Department that was saying that Iran needs nuclear energy for energy purposes, is today saying that a country sitting on top of so much gas and oil doesn't need nuclear energy. It can be very honest and realistic and say, the government of the Shah was a friendly government, so it could have had access to nuclear technology. This government is not a friendly government, so it cannot have access. If it wants to maintain some credibility and trust internationally, and foster some confidence in the Iranian polity, then it has to articulate its positions with some objectivity and with some honesty. So what you said is very correct. It's the intentions that hurt. It's not energy that is in question, and this is what we want the US to come out and say. They should come out and say that Iranian intention for nuclear technology is suspicious, and that is why we need to address this intention. If you are concerned about our intention for nuclear technology, then we can find avenues of addressing the intention. But if you simply deny the fact that Iran needs nuclear energy, and in fact contradict your own view, then basically you are asking Iran to dismantle its nuclear program for you to be happy. That is why I said there is a very serious difference between cliché statements of policy and articulation of real objectives. For example, if the real objective of the US is simply the dismantlement of the Iranian nuclear industry, then it won't get it. If the objective of the US is to make sure that Iran does not develop weapons of mass destruction, now or any time in the future, then Iran is prepared with the same vehemence to participate in a process to insure that it will never move in the weapons direction. It is our considered view that possession of weapons of mass destruction or even the perception that Iran possesses weapons of mass destruction or is seeking weapons of mass destruction undermines our security. So we are prepared to address that issue, so that there is no doubt that we are not possessing or pursuing weapons of mass destruction. But we are not prepared to address the other possible objectives, that is, to dismantle our nuclear program.

DR. AMIRAHMADI: So what you are basically saying is that if the US were to work with you on the energy side, on the bomb side the situation is really final. That is, the decisions that the Iranian government has taken over the last few months are completely final, and reflect its strategic direction, and that there is absolutely no intention on the Iran side to go nuclear.

AMBASSADOR ZARIF: I can make that statement in the most unequivocal terms, that Iran does not want to develop a bomb. I speak for the entire Iranian government.

DR. AMIRAHMADI: The government, you mean the...

AMBASSADOR ZARIF: I'm talking about the entire Iranian government, from the Leader, to the President, to the Parliament. Now, Iran is a diverse society, a society where freedom of expression is exercised in a manner that is less than complete, less than satisfactory, but nonetheless it exists. And that is why you see a wide variety of views being expressed on the nuclear issue by various Iranian individuals, intellectuals, and even public figures. But one issue is to discuss various options; the other issue is what is the government policy and government strategic thinking and particularly defense doctrine, and what I said is in line with defense doctrine. However, the problem of articulation on the part of the US is that it has not been able to articulate clearly which of the
two policies it wants to adopt: To deprive Iran of nuclear technology, or to prevent Iran from having access to nuclear weapons. If it's the former, Iran is not willing to participate in the promotion of that policy. If it's the latter, we have a national security interest in cooperating with that policy.

DR. AMIRAHMADI: All right, now, what is it that Iran is prepared to do to convince the US government that it should come to the Iran side on nuclear energy and work with it, so it can see close up.

AMBASSADOR ZARIF: This would be entering into negotiations before the United States even takes a position of articulating its demands. It is necessary for each side, as I said, to get to the position of putting in very clear terms what it is that they expect. I think that in process of articulation, I hope, we will find that what divides us is much less than what can become areas of cooperation between Iran and the US. I think while we stick to the generalities of cliché statements, we will see two countries that are moving in opposite directions. Once we start articulating the exact conditions that would be conducive to each side's national security, even in these contested areas, then we are entering the possibility of saying more clearly where commonalities of interest can exist, even in these contested areas. I'm not talking about areas where we have already seen mutuality of interest, like Persian Gulf security Afghanistan, and Iraq.

DR. AMIRAHMADI: I recall the spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Minister at one point saying that the American technology firms are welcome to participate in Iran's nuclear industry. Does that offer still stand?

AMBASSADOR ZARIF: Yes. In 1978, the State Department's memo, in which it welcomed Iran's diversification, also welcomed the possibility for American nuclear industry to come to Iran. And Iran is prepared to welcome them today as well. And this is not just a cliché statement. The fact that the US is invited, and has been invited, to come and participate in Iran's nuclear industry, from our point of view, is an indication of our intention not to build a nuclear bomb. Otherwise, we wouldn't invite the US industry to come and do it for us. US participation would ensure exclusive peaceful use, and from the US point of view, it should offer the best guarantee. And I think it is the best confidence building measure that Iran can provide, whether it has been understood as such or not, and this is where I said we are shooting in the dark.

DR. AMIRAHMADI: So, the conclusion I derive from your discussion, which is quite illuminating, is that the nuclear issue is ready for the negotiation table, and that, basically, everything is set to get resolved about this concern. In other words, if the two countries were to sit at a negotiation table and discuss this matter, there is very little that is left to create problems.

AMBASSADOR ZARIF: I can say that the US did lose a big opportunity prior to the November meeting of the IAEA. Based on the agreement that we had with the Europeans in October in Tehran, we went with a number of steps that if fully implemented will satisfy the Europeans and hopefully will satisfy the US. But the opportunities are still there for joint cooperation in these areas.

DR. AMIRAHMADI: What were such opportunities? And are you ready to discuss these bilaterally with the US?

AMBASSADOR ZARIF: Bilateral discussions with the United States require moving beyond the current state of simply throwing at each other the general demands which have become clichés, and moving into areas that you are prepared to deal with, into each of these issues of mutual concern — and Iran certainly has its own — in an operational, results oriented fashion, and not in simply accusatory, prosecutorial fashion — which could be the case on both sides. We would, therefore, need to first addressed this very serious question of how you can start a dialogue that can be in fact conducive and successful.

DR. AMIRAHMADI: So if there was to be a negotiation, then the nuclear issue could be on the table and it could be negotiated. And it seems to me that a lot of the issues that concern the US here can be easily addressed.


DR. AMIRAHMADI: Next, on terrorism. Again, I am going through the American list of demands and I will come to the Iranian demands at some point. On terrorism, how have things changed? The US has gone and fought Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and Iran stayed on its side in that fight, and the US went to Iraq to fight Saddam Hussein and his dictatorship there, and Iran stayed on its side again. But there are problems still, the llamas, the Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda, and the Islamic Jihad. Particularly these days, the issue of the Al-Qaeda people in Iran.

AMBASSADOR ZARIF: Let's deal with Al-Qaeda and then we will deal with the Middle East in a separate fashion, because these are two separate, different issues.

DR. AMIRAHMADI: First, broadly, has anything changed here, on the terrorism issue?

AMBASSADOR ZARIF: Let me tell you. What Al-Qaeda represents is a very serious threat to Iranian national security. It was a threat against us before it became a threat against the United States. And that is why Iran considered Al-Qaeda as its major enemy. So the fight against Al-Qaeda, and against what everybody agrees to be international terrorism, is a good yardstick. Now what is important to understand is that Iran has taken more drastic steps against Al-Qaeda than any other country, and for that reason we face a very serious threat from Al-Qaeda. At the same time that the United States expects Iran to fight Al-Qaeda, it has failed, on the same terrorism front, to deal with MEK, an organization that the US itself considers a terrorist organization. Why? Because some in the US believe that at some point, MEK can prove useful for undermining Iran's security. And this equation makes it very difficult. It's not a matter of quid pro quo. Iran is not trying to strike a bargain. Iran simply wants to see the intentions. Whether the fight against terrorism is a fight to enhance everybody's national security, or whether it is simply an attempt to undermine Iran's security by various players like Al-Qaeda and MEK and the US itself.

DR. AMIRAHMADI: This is a very serious charge, Mr. Ambassador. Basically you are saying that the US views Al-Qaeda as a possible force that could be used against Iran's security?

AMBASSADOR ZARIF: No. I'm saying that Al-Qaeda is a force that is threatening Iran's security.

DR. AMIRAHMADI: But you are also saying that the US is also thinking in the direction of possibly using it for that purpose?

AMBASSADOR ZARIF: No. I'm saying that the US expects Iran to deal even further with Al-Qaeda, while at the same time the US is not prepared to deal with Iran's national security and it is preserving for itself the option of using MEK against Iranian security And this is not a conspiracy theory perspective. This is clearly stated by a good number of influential people within the current administration, that they need to maintain contact and maintain the viability of this organization for future use against Iran. And this is why Iran is concerned about the US approach to terrorism, and that is why, again, using the cliché statement of "fighting against terrorism" without operationalizing it in terms of national security considerations of all countries has become the problem in dealing with the issues between Iran and the US.

DR. AMIRAHMADI: Al-Qaeda was not an issue in US-Iran relations until recently. How did it become an issue?

AMBASSADOR ZARIF: It's a question which must be addressed to the United States.

DR. AMIRAHMADI: But they say, because Al-Qaeda got into Iranian territory and they are now being held and protected in Iran and so on. How did they get into Iran, by the way?

AMBASSADOR ZARIF: How did they get into the US, by the way? Iran is a vast country. We control our borders, but some were able to somehow violate our borders and enter our territory, as they are able to violate the US borders and enter the US territory. The people who carried out the September 11 tragedy did not come from the sky; they were living in various US cities. Infiltration of terrorist elements into various territories is unfortunately a fact of life. The fact that Iran has captured those who have infiltrated its territory, expelled some of them to where they had come from, extradited some of them to their countries of origin, and continues to detain a number of them in Iranian jails, is an indication that we are serious about fighting this menace.

DR. AMIRAHMADI: Do you have in Iran any major Al-Qaeda figures?

AMBASSADOR ZARIF: We have in Iran a number of elements that are associated with Al-Qaeda. They are in Iranian jails.

DR. AMIRAHMADI: Why not send them out?

AMBASSADOR ZARIF: As I said, they have committed crimes against Iranian national security and they should be punished in Iran for the crimes that they have committed against our security. And at the same time, we cannot neglect the threat against our own security that comes from Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is a threat against us because we have engaged them with full force.

DR. AMIRAHMADI: How do you improve your security by keeping them in an Iranian prison?

AMBASSADOR ZARIF: They have committed crimes against Iranian national security and they should be tried and punished for the crimes — this is how you combat terrorism, by punishing those who have been conducting terrorist operations.

DR. AMIRAHMADI: But you are saying that these are people who have committed crimes. You're not talking about terrorism yet. Have they committed terrorism? Do you see them as terrorists?


DR. AMIRAHMADI: So you are going to try them as terrorists? Not like people who have gone and stolen a car or killed a person?

AMBASSADOR ZARIF: No. We are going to try them on the charges for which they have been arrested, and I cannot go into the details of the charges of every individual.

DR. AMIRAHMADI: But you do consider them terrorists.

AMBASSADOR ZARIF: We consider Al-Qaeda as a terrorist organization and those who are connected with Al-Qaeda as terrorists.

DR. AMIRAHMADI: And every member of Al-Qaeda that you hold is considered a terrorist.


DR. AMIRAHMADI: Now let us talk about Hamas, Hezbollah and the Islamic Jihad. Are they terrorist organizations?

AMBASSADOR ZARIF: The Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), of which Iran is a member, does not consider them terrorist organizations.

DR. AMIRAHMADI: Do you consider the act of exploding a school bus as an act of terrorism?

AMBASSADOR ZARIF: Nobody can condone an act in which innocent civilians are killed.

DR. AMIRAHMADI: Do you condemn them?

AMBASSADOR ZARIF: As I said, nobody can condone it. You need to address, again, the root causes if you want to prevent it. Condemning or condoning or rejecting or labeling something as terrorism will not resolve the problem. You can see that the policy of the current Israeli government, which has been using the fight against terrorism in order to apply pressure and increase repression of the Palestinians, has in fact backfired and led to more instances of violence. We want to be able, again, to operationalize the problem to solve it. I do not think that the problem will be resolved if you simply attack the symptom rather than the cause.

DR. AMIRAHMADI: Do you really support Hamas?

AMBASSADOR ZARIF: The entire Islamic world does.

DR. AMIRAHMADI: I'm talking about Iran.

AMBASSADOR ZARIF: I'm talking about the entire Islamic world because it is important to put this in the proper context. The entire Islamic world supports the struggle of the Palestinian people to fight occupation and to obtain a nation of their own.

DR. AMIRAHMADI: Does Iran support Hamas?

AMBASSADOR ZARIF: Yes, but within the same general framework of political support that the entire Islamic world is providing to the Palestinian people, and the humanitarian support that we all provide to the Palestinians, in order to deal with the miseries that are caused by Israeli occupation and Israeli repression. This is the general policy that everybody is following in Iran and throughout the Islamic world.

DR. AMIRAHMADI: All right, what you are saying is that your relationship with Hamas is defined within the broader Islamic world's policy.


DR. AMIRAHMADI: It has nothing specific about it.




Kayvon Afshari

Kayvon Afshari managed the campaign to elect Hooshang Amirahmadi as President of Iran. In this role, he directed the campaign’s event planning, publicity, online social media, web analytics, and delivered speeches. Mr. Afshari has also been working at the CBS News foreign desk for over five years. He has coordinated coverage of Iran’s 2009 post-election demonstrations, the Arab Spring, the earthquake in Haiti, and many other stories of international significance. He holds a Master in International Relations from New York University’s Department of Politics, and graduated with distinction from McGill University in 2007 with a double major in political science and Middle Eastern studies. At NYU, his research focused on quantitative analysis and the Middle East with an emphasis on US-Iran relations. In his 2012 Master’s thesis, he devised a formula to predict whether Israel would launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, concluding that an overt strike would not materialize.