Transcript: Javad Zarif on "Face the Nation"

MARGARET BRENNAN: Minister Zarif, you publicly floated this idea of a prisoner exchange with the U.S. What would that look like?

FOREIGN MINISTER JAVAD ZARIF: Well, we've done it before. We had a possibility of getting the release of some Iranians who were in U.S. jails or were under probation in the United States. We removed them from that circumstances and- and then some U.S.-Iranians who were in jail in Iran were released. I think we can do it again. We- the administration- the previous administration was trying to engage in that. The new administration initially showed interest. We made an offer in September that we are ready, and we are ready.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You made an offer to the Trump administration in September to begin negotiating--

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: We responded- we responded to the offer that they had actually made to engage and we are waiting for a reply.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Who are you asking to be released from US prisons?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Well there are a number of Iranians who are in U.S. jails for sanctions violations. There are a number of Iranians who are in jail all over the world. On pressure, on pressure--

MARGARET BRENNAN: But who would you want for the Americans?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: These are- are on pressure from the United States

either on extradition request or on sort of behind the scenes pressure and arm twisting.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So have you presented the U.S. with a list?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: They know.

MARGARET BRENNAN: They know?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: They know this is not- this is nothing new. This is a continuation of the previous exchange.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Why not, as a- a show of your seriousness here, release some of the at least five Americans who are currently imprisoned in Iran?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: We're not supposed to show seriousness because we have shown our seriousness by implementing the nuclear deal. It's the United States that needs to prove that it's serious.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Are you linking the two?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: No, we're not linking the two, it's just the experience. We've shown that when we say something, we abide by it. The United States has shown that when we say- it- they say something they will- they will then decide whether they want to abide by it or not.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So- but what about someone like Baquer Namazi? He's in his 80s--

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: He's not in jail.

MARGARET BRENNAN: --his health is failing--

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: He's not in jail.

MARGARET BRENNAN: --he is still- he still has to report to Evin Prison. He is still restricted from getting medical care outside of Iran. Why not allow him to leave to get that care?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Well, you see, I am responsible for foreign policy. I'm not responsible for interfering in court's decisions. I can intervene when there is an exchange, an offer of exchange. I cannot intervene as foreign minister. I can intervene as a private individual on humanitarian basis, and I do, I do. But as foreign minister, I do not have a standing in any Iranian court unless I can engage in an exchange with Iranians who are wrongfully, in our view,  detained either inside the United States or elsewhere. We have people, we have- we have ladies who were pregnant when they were detained who gave birth in prison, who were not even given a- released on bail to deliver outside prison. We have people with heart conditions. We have people with terminal cancer in there.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But Baquer Namazi's health is failing--

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: He--

MARGARET BRENNAN: --if he dies in Iranian custody in Iran, isn't that really damaging to all parts of policy?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Well, you see, that's not- that's not a decision that I can make. I make- I-I- I have--

MARGARET BRENNAN: It's not in your power to let him leave?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Yeah, I don't have a standing. I will find a standing when there is an exchange. That is why I- it is in my- in the purview of my responsibility to offer that possibility.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you would offer to swap the at least five Americans there for five Iranians?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: No, no, no. I mean it's all for us. We have to- we have to see. I mean human beings, we- we- we don't count them.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Because some would say, you know, skeptics would look at that and say this is a PR ploy, that you're just saying this.

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: No, it's not a PR ploy. We've done it before. Was this a PR ploy when we did it before?

MARGARET BRENNAN: In parallel with the nuclear deal, the nuclear negotiations.

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: No, no, no. It had nothing to do with the nuclear deal. It- I mean we did it because we were sitting together. We did a number of deeds, this was one of them, but it was just because we were willing to discuss this issue.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And you're offering to discuss this issue right now with who, the secretary of state?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: No, we- the- the US has a person responsible for this. We have a person responsible for this. If they are of the same rank they can- they can meet if they're not of the same rank, we will appoint somebody of the- of the rank of the person who's representing the United States.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So the letter you received from Ambassador O'Brien who handles hostage issues--

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: We didn't--

MARGARET BRENNAN: --you would allow him to sit and talk with your deputy?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: No, we won't allow somebody who handles hostage issue to- to deal with them because they're not hostages, they're prisoners.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So who is actually- who are you willing to talk to about this?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: We're willing to talk to anybody who's willing to respect Iran and deal with this issue. We- we don't have anything against Ambassador O'Brien, but we will not deal with the hostage negotiator unless they want us to appoint somebody as our hostage negotiator so that they discuss about Iranian hostages in U.S. jail. You see the United States cannot put itself in a different moral position. It's holding Iranians who are sick, who have done no crime in jail in Germany, in Australia, in--

MARGARET BRENNAN: But that is what the lawyers for Siamak Namazi, someone you knew,  Baquer Namazi, a- a Princeton scholar, Xiyue Wang, would all say these are people who haven't committed crimes--

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Yeah.

MARGARET BRENNAN: --who are Americans behind bars in Iran.

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Yeah, that- that's what I'm saying. People who are in- lingering in jails all over the world and in the U.S.A., their lawyers would say that they have not committed any crime that they're innocent. One of them was involved, at least was accused of, and they haven't been tried, they're just waiting for extradition. They're just there because of U.S. pressure. So, these are cases where we believe our prisoners are in prison on bogus charges. The United States believes that they are in prison in Iran on bogus charges.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So anyone who is in a--

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: So let's not- let's not debate that because that's not my responsibility. I have enough responsibility on my shoulders to prevent a war, to try to circumvent U.S. attempts to prevent Iran from engaging in what is legally ours, and that is normal economic relations. So, I do this as a part of my job, as foreign minister to exchange people without attribution of guilt. Simply to make it possible for people to go back home.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You mentioned that part of your job is to prevent war. There have been tensions rising between the U.S. and the- the Trump Administration and the Iranian government, tensions have been rising over the past few months. Are you actually saying that we're headed on a path towards conflict?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: We do not want conflict, we do not want confrontation, but we haven't survived 7000 years by escaping. We resist, but we are not seeking confrontation. We don't believe that President Trump wants confrontation. But, we know that there are people who are pushing for one.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You--

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: I don't think it will happen.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Military confrontation you don't think will happen--

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: I don't think military confrontation will happen. I think people have more prudence than allowing a military confrontation to happen. But, I think the U.S. administration is putting things in place for accidents to happen. And there has to be extreme vigilance, so that people who are planning this type of accident would not have their way.

MARGARET BRENNAN: What do you mean? What kind of accident are you talking about?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: I'm talking about people who have- who are designing confrontation, whose interest--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Who's doing that?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: My 'B' team. I call--

MARGARET BRENNAN: What do you mean 'B' team?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: I call the group 'B' team who have always tried to create tension, whose continued existence depends on tension. Ambassador Bolton, one 'B,' Bibi Netanyahu,  second 'B,' Bin Zayed, third 'B,' Bin Salman, fourth 'B.' And I'm not just making accusations. Netanyahu has said that he pressured the United States to put IRGC on- on the terror list. He has said--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Designate them as a foreign terrorist organization?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: He has said that he pushed the United States to get out of JCPOA. Ambassador Bolton has said that we need to use the Trump presidency in order to deal with Iran. Bin Zayed and Bin Salman have been the two people who President Trump said promised to replace Iranian Oil. These people want confrontation, and I believe it is important for the prudent people for the grown-ups to prevent confrontation.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Who are the- the grown-ups that you're talking about.? When- when you and I sat down and spoke, just a year or more ago, you said that your president refused to meet with President Trump here in New York. Do you regret that now?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: No we don't.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you think--

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: No we don't because--

MARGARET BRENNAN: --that the two leaders need to meet?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: --because we meet based on mutual respect. We cannot meet somebody who is not respectful, who has violated his country's international obligations, who has withdrawn from agreements. You see, you meet for what? You don't meet for a photo op. You meet in order to reach some sort of conclusion. But we have a conclusion. We have 100- I mean- I mean it's not a photo op and a two page document. We have hundred and fifty pages of carefully negotiated agreement- not a bilateral agreement between Iran and the United States--

MARGARET BRENNAN: The nuclear deal?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: --a multilateral agreement endorsed by the Security Council, where the United States is a permanent member. So if- if the United States does not respect that, what would it respect?

MARGARET BRENNAN: So there is no point in having President Trump and President Rouhani meet?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Well, there won't be any point in having them meet unless the United States is willing to show that it is a reliable partner and it has failed to do so. Not just to Iran. I mean it has- it has withdrawn from UNESCO. It has withdrawn from NAFTA. It has withdrawn from Trans-Pacific Partnership, TPP. It has withdrawn from the Human Rights Council. I mean it- it withdrew from- recently withdrew from INF. So it's not a matter of a presidential agreement, it has withdrawn from treaties, it has withdrawn from organizations.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So when you look at these summits between Kim Jong Un of North Korea and President Trump, at the leaders level, and you see that North Korea, which already actually has a nuclear program and ballistic missiles program, gets that kind of face to face time, possibility for a diplomatic deal, it- you don't look at that and say, maybe you made the wrong call? Maybe we do need to speak directly to President Trump?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Well, we did speak directly to the United States. Whether the United States is led by President Trump or President Obama is not our choice, is the choice of the American people. We- we did have probably the longest discussion with a man, who was to the best of my knowledge the Secretary of State of the United States confirmed by the U.S. Senate, appointed by a president elected by both popular, as well as, electoral vote. And this administration has decided to refuse the deal they made.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You're talking about John Kerry?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: I'm talking about Secretary John Kerry.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Secretary John Kerry. Do you still speak with him? President Trump says you're getting bad advice from him.

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: I'm not getting any advice from any foreigner. You see, President Trump--

MARGARET BRENNAN: But you are still speaking with him?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: President Trump needs to look at the history of Iran. We didn't survive 7,000 years by acting on the advice of foreigners.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But when President Trump says things, like he did on his Twitter account the other day, that you're speaking and getting bad advice from Secretary of State, the former Secretary of State John Kerry. He seems to be suggesting, this idea that, as some of the many Democratic candidates have said if they become president next, they could come back to the nuclear deal that you helped to negotiate--

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: We do- we do- not design our strategy based on expectations of what will happen in the United States two years down the road or four years down the road.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Would it be possible for the U.S. to rejoin this deal you're talking about?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Well it's a- it's a negotiating table that is still there. We did not leave that negotiating table. The United States was the party that left the negotiating table. The rest of the U- the JCPOA participants are still there. It's not automatic. I mean, the United States has harmed a lot of people.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Are you talking with other Democrats?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: I'm not specifically talking with anybody. I'm talking with anybody who wants to talk to me. We're- we're- talking to members of the media, we're talking to members of think tanks.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And former members of the administration. Are you speaking with anyone from the current administration?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: No.

MARGARET BRENNAN: There's no contact between U.S. and Iran at all right now?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: None that I- I know of. And I- I think I know pretty much everything that is happening between Iran and the U.S.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Will Iran continue to abide by the international agreement, the JCPOA that you helped to negotiate?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Well we have abided by JCPOA up until now.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right.

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: 14 IAEA reports indicate that we have. But we have a number of options, and our people are the final arbiter.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But when it- you know this deal, I mean you were one of the architects of it, you- you know the ins and outs of it.  

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Yeah.

MARGARET BRENNAN: October 2020, the fall of 2020 there is this U.N. arms embargo that gets lifted that would allow Iran to go and buy conventional weapons.

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Yeah.

MARGARET BRENNAN: What happens then? That's right on the cusp of a U.S. presidential election.

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Well--

MARGARET BRENNAN: There's a lot of tension at that moment.

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: --part of the deal. These- these dates--

MARGARET BRENNAN: So Iran intends to go ahead with those purchases?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: These dates were negotiated, were the subject of lengthy negotiations. It doesn't mean that in October 2020, we will be buying 67 billion dollars worth of weapons that Saudi Arabia is buying. We don't have that type of money. I mean last year we spent 16 billion dollars on our defense. Saudi Arabia only bought 67 billion dollars of weapons, United Arab Emirates, with an indigenous population of a million people, spent 22 billion dollars.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But you could- that U.N. Arms--

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: We could--

MARGARET BRENNAN: --embargo would lift--

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: --but we won't.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You won't.

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: We won't. I mean we--

MARGARET BRENNAN: You don't think the Trump administration, as some have speculated, is trying to dissrail- derail this deal before that window opens for you?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Well it- it's- it's trying. It's trying. Well, but that's not an important issue because we- you know, we went through an eight years of war. Nobody sold us weapons. That's why we- we developed our own missiles. Now they're complaining why we have missiles. We have missiles because you didn't give us any other means of defense. We could have bought weapons. We could have bought- bought fighter jets, but nobody gave it to- to us when we were attacked. So we developed our own and thankfully we don't need much of foreign weapons.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The Trump administration, as we mentioned, is ramping up pressure. This designation of the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization is going to squeeze Iran's already troubled economy even further. What is the impact going to be if this happens and as the U.S. says May 2nd's the deadline for the rest of the world to stop buying Iran's oil?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Well it will show to the Iranian people that the United States is not worthy of being a negotiating partner. That's what it will prove. It depends on whether Europe, as well as other members of the JCPOA, want to leave their destiny in the hands of an administration that does not respect its words. We will survive. We have survived tougher days. It's not something that we would invite. It's not something that we would welcome. We will take our measures in response, but we will survive.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Secretary Pompeo has talked about the squeeze this is going to put on the economy in Iran and that is going to make it essentially tougher and squeeze the Iranian government itself.

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Is it- is--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you see these kind of--

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Is- is the United--

MARGARET BRENNAN: --protests or social unrest as a threat?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Is the United States squeezing the Iranian government or the Iranian people?

MARGARET BRENNAN: What do you say?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: People. And the Iranian people, when pressured, do not respond with submission. They respond with resistance. And they want us to represent them with dignity, not with succumbing to pressure. That's how Iranian people have survived 7,000 years--

MARGARET BRENNAN: But the secretary--

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: --of ups and downs in history.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The secretary of state has said, look if you just look at the facts on the ground: six hundred and three American service people killed by Iran, he attributes this- and that IEDs have maimed American service people in the battlefields. He looks at that- he looks at what's happening in Syria and Yemen and says, look, we're just recognizing facts. That's his explanation for this designation.

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Well, he's wrong. He's wrong because they have aligned themselves with the wrong people in our region. And they cannot accept that they're suffering defeat because they simply chose the wrong side.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You're talking about--

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: They have--

MARGARET BRENNAN: --what's happening in Syria.

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: They- everywhere. They have spent far more money than anybody else. Seven trillion dollars, according to President Trump. Their allies, their clients, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have spent billions upon billions of dollars trying to create unrest, trying to support terrorist organizations, even in areas we are not present, like in North Africa. Look at what they're doing in North Africa. Look at the turmoil in North Africa. We're not even present in North Africa. So you need to look at the trouble where it actually is coming from. It's not coming from Iran. Who provided the ideology for ISIS? Who provided the ideology for al-Qaeda? Who provided the- who- whose ideology they're following? Are they following our ideology? Come on.

MARGARET BRENNAN: No, but there are Iranian forces and militias backed by Iran--

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Who are fighting terrorists.

MARGARET BRENNAN:  --in places like Syria--

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Who are fighting terrorists.

MARGARET BRENNAN: --and Iraq and elsewhere.

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Is the United- isn't the United States- I mean President Trump, in the presidential campaign in his debate with Secretary Clinton said publicly, and if you want I bring you the quote, said Iran is killing ISIS. So, are we killing the wrong side?

MARGARET BRENNAN: Are you seeing opportunities to work with the U.S. diplomatically elsewhere? I mean you're- you're talking about a situation where you don't see much--

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Yeah--

MARGARET BRENNAN: --shared interests with the U.S.

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: It depends on what the U.S. interest- how the U.S. defines its- its interests--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Afghanistan--

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: If the U.S.--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Where Iran--

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: If the U.S.--

MARGARET BRENNAN: --has been helpful in the past.

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Yeah, yeah. We have been helpful everywhere. We have fought terrorism in- in Syria. We have fought terrorism in Iraq, and the U.S. is saying that its objective is to fight Daesh- ISIS in- in Iraq. Yesterday, there was a commemoration in Iraq- a U.S. friend and ally- of 300 Iranians who died in Iraq fighting ISIS. Their families were invited. The president of Iraq sent a message to that gathering. The prime minister of Iraq sent a message to that gathering- all of these people are your friends. So everybody recognizes the role of Iran in bringing stability. I haven't seen them commemorating any martyrs from Saudi Arabia fighting ISIS, or UAE. But what you seem to- I mean your government seems to be exonerating them sort of. Who recognized the Taliban in Afghanistan as the government in 2001? Was it Iran? We were a party to the solution in Afghanistan. We were a part--

MARGARET BRENNAN: And that's why I'm asking, is Iran seeing a possibility to work with the U.S. anywhere? If it's Afghanistan, as Iran has been helpful in the past. Syria? Anywhere? Where you could actually find some kind of shared interest instead of what you're describing, as you've said, is a path towards the risk of conflict.

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Well, you see, we are operating in our own region. That's why it's called Persian Gulf. Not- not the Gulf of Mexico. We are operating in our own region. We are a force for stability in our region. History shows that. The United States is operating far from its shores, in our region. It has to make the correct recognition. Who's doing the work for stability. If Secretary Pompeo wants to make up these stories, then he can continue doing so, but that wouldn't resolve America's problems. That would lead to President Trump saying we spend seven trillion dollars in this region and brought nothing but misery to ourselves and to the people of the region.

MARGARET BRENNAN: When I spoke with President Trump in February, he said that he was going to keep U.S. troops in Iraq to watch Iran.

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Well and he--

MARGARET BRENNAN: What did you make of that?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: --immediately heard from the Iraqis that that is not how they see the presence of U.S. forces.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Did you hear that as a threat?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: You see, I went to Iraq. I stayed in Iraq for five days. I went to five cities. I went among the people of Iraq, and I was welcomed by them. I went to public places. President Trump flew to Iraq, to a military base and left from the same military base within hours in the dark of night. Our president went to Iraq, stayed there for three days, went to public meetings in three Iraqi cities. Now, you tell me who's welcome in Iraq and who's not.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Did you hear that as a threat from the president?

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: I think the Iraqis heard that as a threat from the president.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The secretary of state when he was testifying before Congress specifically said that there is absolutely no doubt that there are ties between Iran and al-Qaeda. Full stop. It brought up this question of whether the U.S. is going to try to use some kind of authorization for military force to strike Iran on the basis of past support for that kind of terrorism.

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Well last I remember, 15 of the 21 9/11 terrorists were Saudi citizens. None were Iranian.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You're not concerned that the US is looking--

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: I'm- I'm concerned about--

MARGARET BRENNAN: --for the possibility of how to strike Iran.

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: I'm- I'm concerned about hidden agendas that some people are following. I know that President Trump had ran on a campaign promise of not engaging in any more foolish wars. I know that some other people have different agendas.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Alright. Thank you, sir. Thank you, minister for your time.