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Iran FM: Previous progress we made thrown out

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the key architect of the Iran nuclear deal, sits down with CNN's Nick Paton Walsh to give the first interview to Western media since some of the US sanctions against Iran were renewed.

Posted: Aug 23, 2018 4:56 PM
Updated: Aug 23, 2018 5:03 PM

The United States is addicted to applying sanctions on Iran, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Sunday in an exclusive interview from Tehran.

"I believe there is a disease in the United States and that is the addiction to sanctions," he told CNN, adding that, "Even during the Obama administration the United States put more emphasis on keeping the sanctions it had not lifted rather than implementing its obligation on the sanctions it lifted."

The interview is the first the key architect of the complex nuclear deal between Iran and the West has given to Western media since some of the US sanctions against Iran were renewed last week. The US-educated minister gave the interview in fluent English on the 65th anniversary of a US-backed coup that overthrew democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.

Zarif retained a clear belief during the hourlong interview in the foreign ministry that the nuclear deal could be revived regardless of the Trump administration denunciation of it. In May, Trump withdrew from the deal, known as the JCPOA and intended to limit Iran's nuclear ambitions in exchange for sanctions relief, calling it a "horrible one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made." The first wave of sanctions that were to "snap back" under the Trump move hit the import of car parts and precious metals on August 6.

Zarif expressed his dismay that the United States has not learned that sanctions are ineffective in changing the political climate in Iran.

"We felt that the United States had learned that at least as far as Iran is concerned, sanctions do produce economic hardship but do not produce the political outcomes that they intended them to produce, and I thought that the Americans had learned that lesson. Unfortunately I was wrong," Zarif said.

Earlier that day, he tweeted criticism of the US State Department last week establishing the "Iran Action Group" to coordinate the US and its allies pressure on Iran. He wrote: "Now an action group dreams of doing the same through pressure misinformation and demagoguery -- never again."

He told CNN that the same '50s thinking embodied the current US approach. "I think the US administration still believes that it is working with the government it installed in Iran after the 1953 coup," he said. "As they say, they have to wake up and smell the coffee."

For much of the interview, Zarif appeared to dismiss the possibility of future talks with the Trump administration, and maintain the hope the deal can be revived. He said pressure from the European allies could persuade Trump to change his mind and accused the United States of "bullying" the European signatories to the deal.

"We do not want to revisit that nuclear deal," he said. "We want the United States to implement that nuclear deal. Today the closest US allies are resisting those sanctions. The US basically arm-twisting -- its attempt to put pressure. I don't want to use the term bullying ... [but] that's what it amounts to."

Should Trump and Rouhani meet?

Asked whether Iranian President Hassan Rouhani could benefit from a one-on-one meeting with President Trump -- as Trump has preferred to tackle North Korea and Russia -- Zarif said the previous nuclear deal had to be respected first. "Not when the previous huge progress that we made was thrown out," he said of a one-on-one. "That [previous deal] was for us the litmus test of whether we can trust the United States or not."

Would a lasting pact ever be possible with the man who wrote about the "art of the deal"? "It depends on President Trump -- whether he wants to make us believe that he is a reliable partner," he said. "Now if we spend time with him and he signs another agreement. ... How long will it last? Until the end of his administration? Until he departs from the place where he put his signature on the agreement?"

Further sanctions are due to kick back in early November against the Iranian oil industry, which accounts for a fifth of Iran's GDP. Zarif said decades of pressure meant the Iranian people would be resistant to this pressure, yet it would have an impact.

"US sanctions have always hurt," he said. "What it's hurting, though, is people who want to buy medicine. People who want to buy food." The United States denies it is targeting money that affects health care or agriculture, and says internal mismanagement and corruption are also to blame for rising food prices.

Zarif said the recent economic problems, which have seen the local currency slide and fruit and vegetable prices sometimes double, were due to preparatory measures being taken. "The economic upheaval that you see right now in Iran is because of the measures that needed to be taken to be prepared for those days, so we are prepared for the worst case scenario," he said.

In Iran's complex politics, where moderates and conservatives often vie for power, Rouhani and Zarif's decision to pursue the nuclear deal risked tying their political futures to the idea of active diplomacy with the West.

"We spent a lot of time" he said, of the yearslong, intense and detailed negotiations that he and then-US Secretary of State John Kerry led. "It was not an easy political decision for the Iranian government and for me personally and for President Rouhani. It may be a credit for some foreign ministers to spend hours upon hours with the US secretary of state but it's certainly not a credit in Iran."

Yet he accepted: "That's what diplomats are for. Part of our salary is to take personal hits for following national interests -- that's what our job is."

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