Reporter’s Notebook: Iran’s foreign minister says country has ‘Ph.D in sanctions busting’

Digital Originals

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during a press conference in Turkey in April. (Photo by Adem ALTAN / AFP)

Recently, I was among a group of journalists invited to attend an informal question and answer session with Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif.

I’ve interviewed Iran’s top diplomat twice before, most recently 5 months ago. But so much has changed since then.

I was eager to hear what he had to say in light of the latest decision by the Trump Administration to end sanctions exemptions for countries that were still buying oil from Iran.

Zarif also made headlines the day before, by publicly saying he had the “authority” to negotiate a prisoner exchange with the United States.

In previous interviews, including the ones with me, he said the matter was in the hands of Iran’s judiciary.

Thursday’s meeting at the Iranian U.N. mission in New York took place at a large conference table.

Looking around, I saw a familiar faces from different networks.

Zarif had a number of Iranian officials with him, including Iran’s new Ambassador to the U.N., Majid Takht Ravanchi, who he introduced.

Ravanchi, along with Zarif, helped negotiate the 2015 Nuclear Deal with world powers in 2015.

Under the Trump Administration, the United States unilaterally withdrew from that agreement last year, and has since re-imposed economic sanctions on Iran as part of what it calls a “maximum pressure” campaign to change Iran’s “malign behavior”, end its “destabilizing” activities in the region and persuade Iran to act like a “normal country”.

Zarif took questions on a number of topics. For the most part, everything was on the record, but whenever he said “off the record”, which happened two or three times, we all stopped taking notes and just listened.

U.S. strategy, the nuclear deal and sanctions

Trump is pursuing two possible paths on Iran, either hoping “maximum pressure will bring Iran to its knees” or “regime change,” he said.

Zarif also said he doesn’t believe Trump and his National Security advisor John Bolton necessarily want the same thing.

He said Trump’s “B team” — Bolton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed — were shaping U.S. policy and added: “Foreign policy should not be based on others’ expectations.”

He also described Trump as a “bully” threatening other counties to not buy oil from Iran.

He said that it wasn’t cost effective to interfere in other country’s affairs and that no amount of money can fix “wrong choices.”

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — the 2015 agreement reached between Iran and China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. — has not produced the intended results, he added and said that prospects of foreign investment were “lukewarm at best.”

“We did not leave the negotiating table – the U.S. left the negotiating table,” Zarif said.

On what Zarif called “illegal sanctions”, he said Iran knows how to get around them.

“Iran has a Ph.D in sanctions busting,” he said.

He also said that the U.S. was trying to force Iranian oil exports to zero and said that Iran would continue to sell oil.

He added that China and Turkey have already condemned the U.S. move to suspend sanction waivers.

On whether Iran would cut off the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf as a response, Zarif said Iran will ensure freedom of navigation — as long as Iran can sell its oil.

If U.S. disrupts that, then it would be changing the entire balance, and Iran will not accept that pressure, he said.

“Our red line is being able to provide for our people,” Zarif said.

On the detention of dual nationals in Iran

Zarif said he proposed a prisoner exchange to the Trump administration 6 months ago but nothing came of it.

Iran remains open to negotiating an exchange of detainees held in both countries, he said, raising the issue of Iranians detained in jails in the U.S., Germany, and Australia.

I asked him about his statement the day before that he has the authority to pursue a prisoner exchange, and he responded that he does have the power to negotiate if it leads to release of Iranians detained outside the country, but he rejected the notion of “unilateral actions”.

On relations with other countries

Relations with Russia, Turkey, Pakistan, and Iraq “have never been better,” Zarif said.

I asked him at that point, “What about China?” and he responded “and China”.

On Syria, Zarif said Iran’s goal was to help Syria to fight terrorism and find a political solution.

It remains to be seen if countries like China and India – Iran’s biggest oil customers — will defy U.S. sanctions and continue to buy oil from Iran.

Zarif spoke to journalists for nearly 90 minutes.

It seems despite the Trump Administration’s efforts to crank up the pressure and isolate Tehran – Zarif did not close the door to negotiations with Washington.

And with so much at stake, the big question is, can the two countries stop their war of words from escalating into something more ominous.

Asieh Namdar is a CGTN anchor.