Last Updated Feb 26, 2019 4:31 PM EST
"Face the Nation" moderator Margaret Brennan sat down with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in New York. Some of this interview.
A full transcript of the top Iranian diplomat's wide-ranging conversation with Brennan is below. In it, Zarif discusses, a with the United States, and if the Trump administration pulls out of the nuclear agreement.
Click here to check your local listings.
BRENNAN: Minister, how will Iran respond if President Trump pulls out of the nuclear deal next month?
ZARIF: Well as you know, over the past 14 months, 15 months since President Trump has been in office, he has not actually lived up to the deal. He has taken and his administration have taken every measure in order to make sure that Iran does not benefit economically from the deal. So if, if the decision comes from President Trump to officially withdraw from the deal then Iran will take decisions that have been provided for under the JCPOA and outside JCPOA--
BRENNAN: That's the nuclear deal.
ZARIF: --as the United States has a habit of saying all options are on the table.
BRENNAN: So all options are on the table for Iran too. You said that if the U.S. pulls out the outcome will be "unpleasant". What did you mean by that?
ZARIF: Well, first of all it will lead to U.S. isolation in the international community. The reason that President Trump has not withdrawn from the deal over the past 15 months in spite of the fact that he did not like the deal has been the fact that everybody has advised the administration that this is not a bilateral agreement between Iran and the United States and withdrawing from it would be seen by the international community as a- an indication that the United States is not a reliable partner in the international community. So from the perspective of the U.S. presence in the international community it would not be pleasant for the United States--the reaction of the international community, and as I said Iran has many options and those options are not pleasant.
BRENNAN: Not pleasant but when-- if the U.S. pulls out of the nuclear deal will Iran continue to abide by its terms? Because as you say there are other signatories to this: Russia, China, the European powers.
ZARIF: Well, as I said Iran has many options. But if the benefits of the deal for Iran start to diminish then there is no reason for Iran to remain in the deal. Because it's not acceptable for us to have a one sided agreement.
BRENNAN: If the U.S. and its allies come to their own agreement on the sidelines to address some of the things that President Trump is concerned about. Will you accept that?
ZARIF: No. Because what is important is for the Europeans to bring the United States into compliance because Iran has been in compliance with the deal. It's been the United States that has failed to comply, particularly--
BRENNAN: Because you think the sanctions are still impacting Iran?
ZARIF: Well, note President Trump has made it very clear that it is trying to dissuade our economic partners from engaging with Iran and that's a clear violation of the deal. So I think if, if European members of, of the nuclear agreement, the E3, want to make the work, they have to make the deal sustainable and in order to make it sustainable it's not to address the additional demands of the United States but bring the United States in compliance with its obligations already undertaken under the deal.
BRENNAN: Well President Trump says he wants to, to fix the deal. Next week you've got the President of France coming, soon after the leader of Germany to try to persuade the President that they can do the things he's concerned about. They can resolve that. Do you think there's a chance of saving this international agreement?
ZARIF: But saving this international agreement is through the United States complying. Otherwise it would indicate to the international community that you cannot reach an agreement with the United States and accept it-- expect it to be observed.
BRENNAN: You believe that, as you've said, the President in your view is unpredictable and unreliable. Are you saying no power, North Korea or anyone else, will come to an agreement with America if they break this?
ZARIF: Well, countries will make their own decisions. But obviously this would be a very bad precedent if the United States sends this message to the international community that the length or the duration of any agreement would depend on the duration of the presidency. That would mean people will at least think twice before they start negotiating with the United States.
BRENNAN: But it sounds like--
ZARIF: Because negotiations involve give and take. And people will not be prepared to give if the take is only temporary.
BRENNAN: It sounds like you're saying it's, it's President Trump's move on this. You're going to see what he does on May 12th if he puts sanctions back on Iran and then you'll decide what the consequences will be.
ZARIF: No, we have put a number of options for ourselves and those options are ready, including options that would involve resuming at a much greater speed our nuclear activities. And those are all envisaged within the deal. And those options are ready to be implemented and we would make the necessary decision when we see fit.
BRENNAN: You're ready to restart your nuclear program if President Trump puts sanctions back on Iran, even if the rest of the world says don't do this?
ZARIF: Obviously the rest of the world cannot ask us to unilaterally and one sidedly implement a deal that has already been broken.
BRENNAN: President Trump offered to meet with your president, President Rouhani, at the United Nations. And Iran said no.
ZARIF: He made a-- very negative and insulting speech before the General Assembly and while he was making that speech they approached us. And we believe that the first requirement for any bilateral meeting is mutual respect and if the president is not prepared to provide that exercise, that mutual respect, then a meeting would not produce any positive results.
BRENNAN: Would you be open to a meeting between the two leaders now? I mean, they've got to hash out these disagreements about the nuclear deal.
ZARIF: Well, we have possibilities within the nuclear agreement for our officials to meet and they are meeting. We have to see whether they produce the necessary positive outcome.
BRENNAN: What does President Rouhani think of President Trump?
ZARIF: You've got to ask him.
BRENNAN: Does he think he can trust him?
ZARIF: Well, I think the international community has seen that the United States and I do not want to personalize this that (UNINTEL) the United States under this administration has not been in a mood to fulfill its obligations. So that makes the United States not very trustworthy.
BRENNAN: You're talking about the Trump administration. Well CIA Director Mike Pompeo was a very harsh critic of this deal when he was in Congress. He is very close to the President. Now he's the nominee to become Secretary of State. Do you real--read his nomination as a sign this deal is done?
ZARIF: Well, every indication that the United States sending: appointments, statements indicate to us and the international community that the United States is not serious about its international obligations.
BRENNAN: Mike Pompeo if he gets confirmed as Secretary of State would be America's top diplomat, he would be your peer. Would you be able to work with him?
ZARIF: Well as I said, the requirement for any international engagement is mutual respect. We would have to wait and see.
BRENNAN: You'd have to wait and see. You haven't met Mike Pompeo before, have you?
ZARIF: No I haven't. No.
BRENNAN: Do you think he can be the kind of diplomat that you could negotiate with? You had a relationship with the prior Secretary of State and were able to come to this kind of agreement. Do you see anything possible with the Trump administration?
ZARIF: Well as I said the indications that we have seen up until now--not been very encouraging. We will have to wait to make a judgment on the new Secretary of State.
BRENNAN: Pompeo has spoken in the past about striking Iran. John Bolton, the president's new national security advisor has said the goal should be regime change in your country. Do you think that as national security advisors they're going to be honest brokers with the president presenting him with these diplomatic options?
ZARIF: Is that a diplomatic option? I think that has been--
BRENNAN: Well that's what I'm saying though, are they-- does this--their appointments make military confrontation more likely or do you still see the possibility to negotiate?
ZARIF: Well, I think the United States has never abandoned the idea of regime change in Iran. Now they are more explicit about stating it. But- but the point is they're used to dictators in our region who rely on them. As President Trump said, we cannot live without U.S. support for two weeks. That's the type of regime that they're used to and that is why they so readily talk about regime change. They have not been able to impact the decision of the Iranian people over the last 40 years even at times when the Iranian revolution was very new, that I mean a war was imposed on Iran for eight years the entire international community--
BRENNAN: The Iran-Iraq war.
ZARIF: -- supported Saddam Hussein. People should not forget history. Saddam Hussein who became the biggest monster in the world for-- from a Western perspective used to be the ally of the west for eight years when he used chemical weapons against Iran. So they went to- to the length to the extreme of trying to force out this government to, to try to-- I mean they impose all sorts of sanctions against Iran for 40 years. So that's an illusion. Now it will be unfortunate if somebody in the White House would consider that illusion a possibility. That would be I think dangerous for the United States and that would be a waste of time and resources for the United States. But since we depend on our people, since the Iranians have been the major source of our stability, of our strength then, we should not be worried about this. As I said they have mistaken Iran with their allies. Both former allies in Iran as well as their allies in the region --
BRENNAN: Well, they would--
ZARIF: --according to President Trump will not last without U.S. support for two weeks.
BRENNAN: Well they would say they look at the protests that recently happened in Iran some of the economic and financial difficulties that you've gestured to and say Iran is not in a position to dictate terms and they should be accepting what we are arguing for here in terms of making further commitments to freeze the nuclear program well after the 10 year sunset of the existing nuclear deal. Why not agree to something --
ZARIF: First of all, you have protests in the United States. Most democracies, most countries with a political process have protests. Nobody considers those protests as an end of the government unless you want to entertain illusions. And so-- and we're not dictating. We're just living up to an agreement that was reached. It is the United States which wants to dictate. And if you look at U.S. track record, it's not a bright track record in our region. So it's, I mean, better for the United States to take another look at our region, see the mistakes it has made in the past and try not to repeat them.
BRENNAN: Under the existing deal. Iran has promised to stay more than one year away from a so-called break out period--
ZARIF: And that's a U.S. calculation, it's not any promise that we have made because we never wanted to produce a bomb. And now Mr. Pompeo obviously has said that in his testimony, in Congress that Iran was never racing towards a bomb and it will not be racing towards a bomb. It's a late admission but better late than never. So for us, breakout was not an issue because we were not planning to breakout but that was the basis for U.S. calculations not - nothing in the deal itself gives that idea of a breakout any credibility within the deal.
BRENNAN: He did say that, Mike Pompeo did say that, that Iran was not racing towards building a bomb, but -
ZARIF: So they, they put sanctions on Iran at that time because we were not racing for a bomb and now they want to reimpose sanctions on Iran because we are not racing for a bomb, it's interesting.
BRENNAN: But to the point though, if it is such a settled issue why not make another pledge saying sure -
ZARIF: Why should we?
BRENNAN: After the end of this deal. We still won't want to build a bomb.
ZARIF: Why should we? Why should we? There was- there was a negotiation. In fact there were 20-- 12 years of negotiations.
BRENNAN: I remember.
ZARIF: And there was an agreement that was reached after hours upon hours of negotiations. That agreement included give and take for the United States to come after the agreement. Obviously the United States, as President Obama said, did not want the Iranian nuclear program to remain intact, he said that I will not allow and not-- would not have allowed the (INAUDIBLE) in the Iranian nuclear program had I been able to, but in the negotiations, a negotiation by definition is a process of give and take. And the United States had to accept certain conditions. We had to accept certain limitations.
BRENNAN: But you won't say -
ZARIF: We cannot -
BRENNAN: - in the future we don't intend to build a bomb and we will sign something saying that?
ZARIF: That's - that's very clear. It is in the - in the nuclear agreement.
BRENNAN: It's not clear to President Trump, though. (CROSSTALK) This is one of the things he's most concerned about, the sunset clause specifically.
ZARIF: Three lines down the preface to the agreement is Iran commits itself never to develop a nuclear weapon. I mean you don't - you don't need even to read the entire 150 pages of the- of the deal, just read the first three lines and it's there, there is no sunset to the fact that Iran will never seek nuclear weapons.
BRENNAN: So I want to ask you about some of the prisoners in this country and in - in your country. There are about five Americans being held in Tehran including a scholar from Princeton, an 81 year old man who we've talked about Baquer Namazi, who is of failing health. What are their conditions right now?
ZARIF: Well, as you, as you pointed out there are many Iranian prisoners both in the United States as well as people who-- including a lady who had to give birth in an Australian prison because of a U.S. extradition request. Our judiciary is an independent organ. Just what you would say about your courts and we cannot have an impact on the decisions of our judiciary. But we have been trying to use our influence from a humanitarian perspective. First of all in order to make sure that their health- their health requirements are taken care of as well as to see whether a humanitarian agreement can be reached.
BRENNAN: But would you agree to sit down with the Trump administration to talk about these prisoners?
ZARIF: Well it is- it is important as I said for the administration to show the ability to engage in a respectful discourse.
BRENNAN: Well they've said they've made an offer to Iran. We want to sit down and talk to you about these consular visits and these prisoners.
ZARIF: It's not an offer, it's a demand. But before - before you make demands the United States needs to learn how to treat other sovereign nations, particularly sovereign nations who do not depend on the United States for continued existence and who can live without U.S. support not only for two weeks, but for 40 years.
BRENNAN: So you don't want to sit down and negotiate about this -
ZARIF: No I didn't say that.
BRENNAN: - but is there something that you'd want to see?
ZARIF: I said the United States needs to approach this from a position of dealing with another sovereign government. And if that approach led to change then the United States would see a difference.
BRENNAN: What does that mean? What do you want to see?
ZARIF: Disrespect. You do not engage in negotiations by exercising disrespect for a country, for its people. For its government by openly making claims including this illusion about regime change. Then you do not leave much room for a genuine dialogue.
BRENNAN: So a prisoner swap in the future like you had with the Obama administration you don't see that happening again?
ZARIF: Well it is- it is a possibility certainly from a humanitarian perspective, but, but it requires a change of attitude.
BRENNAN: And a change of language from the President?
ZARIF: And a change of language.
BRENNAN: Is that what you're looking for? Well speaking of the President, in his speech, before bombing Syria, President Trump said "to Iran and to Russia I ask what kind of a nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of innocent men, women, and children?" Has Iran asked Bashar al-Assad to stop using chemical weapons in Syria?
ZARIF: Let me first tell the President what kind of a nation wants to provide the airplanes that are bombing Yemeni children to smithereens, Yemeni cities and towns? The United States is not only providing the weapons, but according to Secretary of Defense, even engaged actively in what amounts to war crimes. As far as chemical weapons are concerned, Iran has been a victim of chemical weapons. So we - others talk about red lines, but we know they don't have red lines. These are just political. We were victims of chemical weapons and now --
BRENNAN: During the Iran-Iraq war.
ZARIF: --during the Iran-Iraq war.
BRENNAN: Iran suffered.
ZARIF: --and now the record is out that the United States not only stayed quiet but even provided support.
BRENNAN: But will Iran stay quiet now about Syria--
ZARIF: No, we don't-
BRENNAN: -using chemical weapons?
ZARIF: --we don't, we won't, hold on. So we won't stay quiet but the United States cannot say that they have a red line. We have rejected the use of chemical weapons regardless of the victims or culprits, regardless of the victims or perpetrators. But we have said that there has to be an international, onsite investigation. Who used the chemical weapons? How they were used. Whether they were used. And then there should be an international reaction.
We have a body of documents called international law. And we have a Security Council. We have means when the Security Council is prevented from taking action by a veto, to go to the General Assembly. So there are possibilities. People should not take the law into their own hands, particularly when it serves their political interests.
It is interesting when the United States claims to be defending international law against the use of chemical weapons and at other times supporting violations of other humanitarian law principles. So what is important is to have a one standard, a single standard and that is what we say. We condemned the use of chemical weapons. We want an international onsite investigation, and based on that, we want an international response--not unilateral action by countries taking law into their own hands.
BRENNAN: The weapons inspectors can't get to the site right now. Will Iran which has boots on the ground let those inspectors into those sites, will you help facilitate what you're talking about?
ZARIF: Well I don't know what you mean by boots on the ground, we have advisers in Syria -
BRENNAN: The Iranian fighters and advisers.
ZARIF: - we do encourage as we have in the past, Syria to cooperate with onsite impartial investigation.
BRENNAN: Has Iran talked to Bashar al-Assad about using chemical weapons and saying don't do this?
ZARIF: Opposition - opposition on the use of chemical weapons is crystal clear for everybody. For everybody.
BRENNAN: So you have - for Assad as well?
ZARIF: For everybody. And we - we have not made any conditions on our rejection of the use of chemical weapons.
BRENNAN: It must make you uncomfortable to see the use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons in Syria-
ZARIF: It makes--
BRENNAN: - by the regime.
ZARIF: It makes us uncomfortable to see the continuation of bloodshed in our region because there are some rather young and ambitious leaders who believe that they can have military victory in Yemen. They believe that they could have military victory in Yemen in two weeks. They believe that they could unseat Bashar al-Assad.
BRENNAN: You're talking about Saudi Arabia.
ZARIF: And-and company, who believed that they could unseat Bashar al-Assad in-in-in three weeks. And now we are in the close to the end of the seventh year of conflict in Syria, into the fourth year of conflict in-in Yemen.
I believe these illusions need to be abandoned. There are no military solutions to the crises in our region. People have to admit and accept that people of the country of Syria, of Yemen need to sit together. And reach a political solution. Iran has been calling for that.
We have supported that in Syria in the Astana process, in the Sochi process and we will continue to do that. Others are trying to impede, prevent, and destroy that process. And I believe it's now time for them to come to their senses and accept a political outcome -
BRENNAN: President -
ZARIF: - they should abandon the fact that they can use the United States in order to change the political realities on the ground.
BRENNAN: President Trump says he wants to bring U.S. troops in Syria back home, draw them down. What do you think about that?
ZARIF: I think the President of the United States' troops in Syria has been illegal to begin with. Against every principle of international law, no grounds for it. And they have been destabilizing. The U.S. policy in Syria particularly over the last few months has been shortsighted, further exacerbates ethnic tensions in Syria, has led to regional reactions that are dangerous. And I believe the sooner they bring them to an end, the better it is for the region and for the United States.
BRENNAN: There is concern that if the U.S. withdraws Iran will commit more advisers, more fighters to Syria.
ZARIF: Iran has committed advisers in order to fight extremism and terrorism. We did that in Syria. We did that in Iraq. We did that in Iraqi Kurdistan. This has been a consistent policy that Iran has followed in the region. Our policy has been very consistent. I think the United States is simply trying to find excuses to prevent an end to this nightmare.
BRENNAN: Israel is very concerned about the Iranian presence in Syria and has bombed an Iranian base there. They've vowed to continue to push back on Iran's presence near their borders. Do you see what you're describing as us headed towards a regional war?
ZARIF: I do not believe that we are headed towards regional war but I do believe that unfortunately, Israel has continued its violations with international law, hoping to be able to do it with impunity because of the U.S. support and trying to find smokescreens to hide behind. And I do not believe that the smokescreens work anymore.
BRENNAN: You don't think this escalates tensions (UNINTEL) Iranian bases?
ZARIF: They have - they have in fact escalated tension by violating Syrian airspace, by violating Syrian territory--
BRENNAN: The Russian weren't able to shoot them down, didn't even try.
ZARIF: --on a routine basis. Actually Syrians were able to, to shoot one of their planes down, putting--
BRENNAN: The drone.
ZARIF: No-no-no. I - I don't know whether it was an F-16 or a fighter jet. And putting - they put an end to (UNINTEL) invincibility myth in our region. So they, they should expect that if they continue to violate territorial integrity of other states, there'll be consequences. The easiest answer would be to stop - to stop these acts of aggression, to stop these incursions.
BRENNAN: There are a number of flashpoints in the next month. Do you see a way out for the U.S. and Iran to de-escalate?
ZARIF: I think what the U.S. has followed in the region including one of the flashpoints which will be the opening of the embassy in Jerusalem is an affront to the entire Muslim world, is it is an affront to international law. And I believe the United States would be much better served if they followed a more, a wiser, more prudent policy outreach.
BRENNAN: Minister Zarif, thank you for your time.
ZARIF: Good to be with you again.